SXSW music: Torres brings the tension, Natalie Prass the refinement to Day 1

Promising Austin locals Sweet Spirit were all high-energy exuberance at SXSW

As a line of more than 200 so-called VIPs snaked around the side of a club Tuesday night in an attempt to see Austin-bred rock band Spoon, an already exasperated SXSW volunteer struggled to maintain control. “Please stay on the sidewalk,” she yelled. “We’d like to minimize deaths.”

Though South by Southwest began last week by welcoming the film and tech communities to Austin, as well as some celebrities like Ryan Gosling, by Monday night it was clear that the main attraction was moving into town.

Just a year removed from a tragic car accident that left four dead, SXSW remains an unwieldy beast of brands, bands, barbecue and hangers-on. By midafternoon Tuesday, when its music component was officially getting underway, much of downtown Austin had been closed to vehicle traffic and college kids in “Kiss me, I’m Irish” shirts waited to get into pubs hours before happy hour.

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In the days ahead, more than 2,000 acts will crowd Austin bars, pizza parlors, art galleries and essentially any venue with room for an impromptu stage. By nightfall Tuesday, this musical hydra had found its footing, and showcases had begun in earnest. Getting to them all this week will mean dodging pedicabs, street performers, police barricades and throngs of people who had one too many too many hours ago.

Not every artist will shine in a setting like SXSW. It takes a certain mix of confidence and perseverance to survive this week, and with 20 minutes or less to set up a stage, any sense of perfectionism is better left at home. Tuesday night’s highlight, Torres (real name: Mackenzie Scott), didn’t waste any time getting on stage five minutes early and then packing high drama into taut, guitar-driven songs.

Tired, stressed and “just 23,” as she sang on “New Skin,” Torres let her backing trio accentuate her emotional anxiety rather than go for broke. Rhythms went for a “Tell-Tale Heart”-esque pounding, keyboards lit a gasoline fuse that encircled the orchestrations and Torres’ own guitar scraped along the concrete while her deep, forceful voice punched holes into the ground.

There’s a sense with Torres' songs that a whole life has been lived within them. “Sprinter” views the world as a predatory one, and “Strange Hellos,” the lead single off her forthcoming sophomore album, simmers with tension-building guilt. Songs start out as ballads, and then become something louder, more brute, as Torres lets every chord change creak like a rusty door hinge.

At a club next door, Natalie Prass took a more refined route, though the setting wasn’t suited for it. This up-and-comer has already outgrown the tiny space she performed in, which meant getting a glimpse of the stage was mostly impossible. It wasn’t until Prass introduced her band that anyone except those in the first row had any idea that there were four people on stage.

Still, going by sound alone, Prass was in fine form. This is a compliment, but if Cinderella left the Disney films to start a band, it may sound something like Prass’ mix of pop classicism and lush, yet restrained arrangements. Hints of jazz and varying shades of warmth appear throughout as Prass' tales of love gone wrong unfold, leaving ample space for an orchestra within them.

More playful was the young Austin nine-piece Sweet Spirit. The musical embodiment of a pep rally, the promising band is all arms-in-the-air shout-alongs. Boy/girl vocals alternate, a tiny horn section adds just a dash of rhythm and blues, and nearly every song on Tuesday at some point floored the accelerator. “I got a broken heart, so take me to a party,” shouted main vocalist Sabrina Ellis. No need, the exuberant act brought its own.

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