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SXSW 2017: Thursday night ups and downs at the British Music Embassy, Elysium and St. David’s Bethell Hall – 16th March 2017

By on Thursday, 13th April 2017 at 2:00 pm

I’ve often said that you can’t go wrong in Austin during SXSW, because there’s good music going on literally everywhere you turn. On the Thursday night of SXSW 2017, however, my general enthusiasm was dampened ever so slightly. I saw some amazing performances that night, mind you, but I also saw, for the first time in my SXSW experience, some performances that fell below my expectations.

Happily, the first performance of the evening wasn’t one of those. I started off at Latitude 30, where Holly Macve played the British Music Embassy stage with a full band in attendance and a subtle air of self-assurance about her. Like Northern Irish act Silences, who I covered earlier in the week, Macve’s previous experience at SXSW 2016 was clearly a valuable one for her in terms of confidence and exposure. (If you missed out on our earlier coverage of Holly Macve, you can catch up right back here.) She had clearly built a reputation that preceded her, as her set at Latitude 30 drew a full crowd on the Thursday night, and the lovelorn songs from her excellent debut LP ‘Golden Eagle’ made a strong impact, especially the uptempo ‘Heartbreak Blues’.

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You might recall from our earlier review that Macve’s album was released on indie label Bella Union, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Label boss Simon Raymonde was in attendance at Macve’s show on Thursday evening, but it’s his commentary at Friday afternoon’s panel session Bella Union at 20 that comes back to my mind as I write this review. In choosing acts to sign to his label, Raymonde’s guiding motto has been, in his own words, “Don’t be a dick.” In other words, there’s no need to go out of your way to harshly criticise or publicly disparage music you don’t like; just politely decline and move on.

How does Raymonde’s comment relate to my Thursday evening review, you ask? Well, several of the acts I saw later in the evening were . . . less than stellar, in my opinion. While I don’t necessarily feel the need to insult these artists by writing scathing recaps of their performances, I will give my honest opinions, as gently and genuinely as I can.

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Leaving the British Music Embassy, I headed to Elysium, which was hosting the Anti- Records showcase. In sharp contrast to the full-capacity Wednesday night crowd, Elysium was nearly empty at 9 PM on Thursday. This was unfortunate for Brooklyn folk singer Christopher Paul Stelling. He’s a songwriter I’ve enjoyed on record in the past, and I was eager to see him play live. However, his demeanour on stage was an immediate indication that this might not be his best night. I honestly think he might have been drunk, which I realise wouldn’t be unusual at SXSW. But if he was, it didn’t seem to enhance his performance. His comments to the small audience were a bit snide, and he apparently had some kind of disagreement with his bass player. It must be said here, though, that the bassist and the violinist accompanying Stelling provided some lovely tone color behind Stelling’s aggressive guitar playing and intensely passionate vocals. Expect to hear more of that savage sound on Stelling’s forthcoming LP ‘Itinerant Arias’, which is due for release on the 5th of May. Check out the video for the latest album track ‘The Cost of Doing Business’ just below.


The crowd at Elysium grew exponentially between sets in anticipation of New Jersey native and guitar virtuoso Delicate Steve. We featured his delightful album ‘This is Steve’ just before SXSW, and I was very happy indeed that his live show leaned heavily on songs from that LP. However, Delicate Steve did have a fair number of dedicated, longtime fans in the audience that night, and they were equally pleased when he threw in a couple of older favourites. His set was a visual and sonic spectacle, truly a joy to behold, and though I’m not always much of an instrumental music fan, I left Elysium with a grin on my face after seeing Delicate Steve play.

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I debated about leaving Elysium, as Australian songwriter Cameron Avery was next on the bill. But I made the fateful decision to take a chance instead on a handful of Los Angeles area songwriters, in an effort to follow up the preview of L.A. artists I’d written just before SXSW.

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One of the songwriters mentioned in that very brief preview was Mark Eitzel. I walked into St. David’s Bethell Hall as Eitzel was preparing to play, and it quickly became clear that he didn’t particularly want to be there. In fact, he flatly said as much at one point during the set. His continued grousing during the set was off-putting, and I found it rather hard to believe his defensive statement “I’m usually very funny”. However, his songs did have a certain wit about them. Their lyrics were actually quite charming, in a French art song kind of way: elegant and romantic, understated and delicate, plainly sentimental. If you’re on the fence about giving Eitzel a listen, I’d still recommend him, in spite of his rough showing here. His new album ‘Hey Mr Ferryman” is out now on Merge Records (U.S.) / Decor records (UK/EU), and he’s just wrapping up a tour in North America.

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British ex-pat Karen Elson, who now calls Nashville home, was next on at Bethell Hall, and I was intrigued straightaway when her stage setup included a harp alongside the acoustic and electric guitars. She played stripped back versions of songs from her new album ‘Double Roses’, including recent single ‘Call My Name’, and for my money, the gentle sound of the harp was just the right accompaniment for her delicate singing voice. It was a bit unfortunate that Elson played for such a small gathering here, but the audience did include her friend and fellow songstress Allison Pierce, whom I’d covered at Lambert’s the night before. (Small world.) ICYMI, Elson very graciously answered TGTF’s Quickfire Questions in the days leading up to the festival; you can read her responses right here.

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Even from the vantage point of 4 weeks’ distance, I’m still not sure what to make of the final performer I saw on Thursday night, chamber pop songwriter Alex Izenberg. Though he is based in Los Angeles, the songs Izenberg played from his 2016 album ‘Harlequin’ were very 1970s’ New York-sounding to me: jazzy, sophisticated, vaguely cinematic. The potential was evident in tracks like ‘To Move On’, but Izenberg’s performance on the night fell completely flat. Like Eitzel, he wasn’t very personable, barely looking up from the keyboard to make a connection with his audience, and his between-songs banter was mumbled and perfunctory. Technically the performance was a bit stilted, possibly due to the stark solo keyboard arrangement of the songs, but Izenberg seemed almost like a child in a piano recital who has to pause between chords to remember where to put his hands. I’m sure this wasn’t the case — it couldn’t have been, right? — but it was impossible not to notice it. In his situation, I might have been tempted to improvise, to take advantage of Bethell Hall’s lovely grand piano for a virtuosic flourish or two, but Izenberg kept his head down and stuck to the figurative script. Then again, he was playing to a mostly empty room in the dreaded 1 AM time slot, which I’ve already mentioned many times as a difficult one.

I think we sometimes forget, as fans and listeners, and even as music journalists, that festivals like SXSW can be incredibly stressful for musicians. Rushing from gig to gig, handling press commitments, and the constant pressure to put on a good show despite less than ideal conditions is undoubtedly exhausting. A few of the musicians I saw on the Thursday night of SXSW might have been a little worse for the wear, and I hope their experience improved from that point forward. My lasting impressions of the night, though, were of brilliant performances from Holly Macve, Delicate Steve and Karen Elson, who definitively stood out among the evening’s offerings.


MP3 of the Day #802: Christopher Paul Stelling

By on Tuesday, 10th December 2013 at 10:00 am

Just in case you haven’t bought Christopher Paul Stelling‘s wonderful sophomore album ‘False Cities’ released earlier this year yet, the Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter is offering up a track from the album for free download. Listen to and grab the powerful ‘Free to Go’ for your very own below.

And in case you’re stuck on getting a unique Christmas present for that someone special, look no further: Stelling is handy with leathercraft and is selling limited edition leather wallets handmade by him. They’re US$20 plus shipping and can be bought from his official Web site.


Album Review: Christopher Paul Stelling – False Cities

By on Monday, 15th July 2013 at 12:00 pm

Christopher Paul Stelling False Cities coverBrooklyn-based indie folk songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling is currently touring America in conjunction with the release of his second album, ‘False Cities’. His first album ‘Songs of Praise and Scorn’ was absorbed in the indistinguishable morass of acoustic folk rock, but this new set of songs makes a more dramatic mark.

With ‘False Cities’, Stelling has expanded his sound beyond the sheer virtuosity of his guitar playing to include a wider array of musical influences, including African-American spirituals (‘How Long’) and Spanish flamenco (‘Who I Am’). The most notable difference from his previous album, though, is in Stelling’s singing. Here, he makes excellent expressive use of his voice, which changes in texture from light whisper to savage growl with apparent ease. Stelling’s vocal delivery takes center stage in the album’s opening track and first single, ‘Brick X Brick’ (video below). The song’s frenetic pace becomes more intense with each howling delivery of the lyric, “Brick by brick, I will tear this city down / And from the remnants I’ll build me a road”.


‘Every Last Extremist,’ is a more traditionally folk track, but its foot-stomping rhythm and virtuosic guitar line would be impressive in live performance. Up tempo tracks ‘Free to Go’ and ‘Writhing in Shambles’ also display both the newly discovered anguish in Stelling’s voice and his chops on the acoustic guitar. One of the most intriguing tracks on the album is ‘The Waiting Swamp’. Stelling captures the visceral, almost religious, feeling of darkness with minor key harmonies and rustling percussion behind the mysterious lyrics, “In the evening, I like best to just close my eyes and sway / Sing that hymn my sweet mama taught me / Alleluia anyway”.

Current single ‘You Can Make It’ (stream below) reveals the softer side of ‘False Cities’. With its simple, sweetly melodic chorus and dulcet backing vocals feels, it remarkably like the “exhausted lullaby” mentioned in its lyrics. Similarly gentle, ‘Homesick Tributaries’ is a rumination on the father-son relationship reminiscent of Harry Chapin’s ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’. The song’s light acoustic texture and straightforward poetic structure set the focus squarely on Stelling’s pensive lyrics, “If I ever have a son here of my own / I pray he’ll have his mother’s eyes / They’ll both see that Daddy tries / If I ever have a son here of my own”. The album closes on another delicate ballad, the yearning and melancholy ‘Go Your Way, Dear’.

Despite the obvious comparisons to more mainstream folk artists, the musical range of ‘False Cities’, especially Stelling’s powerful vocal delivery, makes a unique impression. His fire-and-brimstone lyrics are by turns concretely narrative and vaguely evocative, depending on the tone and focus of the song. As a songwriter, Stelling handles his subject matter quite deftly. And while his studio performance on the album is effective, I have a feeling his impact would be greater in a live performance setting.


‘False Cities’, the latest album from Christopher Paul Stelling, is out now on Mecca Lecca Recordings. Stream the entire album below.


MP3 of the Day #495: Christopher Paul Stelling

By on Thursday, 23rd February 2012 at 10:00 am

Christopher Paul Stelling‘s new album ‘Songs of Praise and Scorn’ is out now on Mecca Lecca Recording Co., and the singer/songwriter is giving away the track ‘Solar Flares’ for free. Listen to and download the track below.

Ben reviewed the album; you can read his thoughts on it here. The review also includes a live performance video of this very song.


Album Review: Christopher Paul Stelling – Songs of Praise and Scorn

By on Thursday, 2nd February 2012 at 12:00 pm

Neo-folk has always been a bit of a curiosity: contradictory at times and, from a purely objective point of view, you would guess that by now anyone foolish enough to wander back in to that ramshackle boathouse would find that the (combustion engine-fearing) ship had sailed. But, there is evidently a perception of a demographic with an unquenchable thirst for a technophobic troubadour, and here he is. Christopher Paul Stelling, just a man, with a guitar, again…

To give ‘Songs of Praise and Scorn’ its due, it is a definite break from the UK folk revival (Mumford and Sons, Laura Marling, etc.) and his technique on the acoustic is largely unparalleled (think John Fahey, Newton Faulkner, Jose Gonzales, even back to Skip James). From the off, ‘Mourning Train to Memphis’ drives through an agile arpeggio where Stelling becomes just a narrator to the sound of a road story; ‘Flawless Executioner’ is tinged with Deliverance as the pace builds to a ‘Duelling Banjo’-like tempo. There is an organic bond between man and guitar that correlates so seamlessly, you wonder whether the only jack lead involved in this production went directly in to his spinal column. The tracks ‘Never Been There’, ‘Solar Flares’ (live performance below) and ‘Little Broken Birds’ seem to pulsate with a unified dynamism that powered the critically acclaimed live performances that bought him to this point.


All the ingredients are there: a howling vocal, an expressive guitar and, intermittently, a muted fiddle and the potential for a vocal harmony to really be bought to the fore. It panders to the idea of the swooning preteen being serenaded by a camp fire by a man who should probably be on some sort of register. It is this insistence on creating a paperback romance that leads to the rest of the instrumentation, beyond a lonely bass drum, being largely overlooked. There are points, such as on ‘King is Dead’ and ‘Ghost Ship’, when the harmonic vocals are mixed so timidly that you would think Simon had had another domestic with Garfunkel and taken a tambourine to the face. Its situational appeal means something will always be lost in recording, but it is only on ‘True Leviathan’, with its clipped coxswain’s rhythm and eerie vocal layers, that the production actually adds something to the final package.

Some may lock themselves away for 6 months with only this album for sustenance; others may think ‘Songs of Praise and Scorn’ is just a tough shot of hobo ramblin’ and a decent chorus away from something special. Either way, what is undeniable is that, in true road man style, his eventual recording has probably not added to the story that precedes him and, unfortunately, in trying to splice an old idea on to a new market, what has been created may be frequently listened to but rarely understood. If you are online (if?) then check out some of his live performances on YouTube. If he goes on tour this year then it will be almost unmissable. But, if you’re searching for a seminal modern folk album then I’m afraid this is treading water, however vigorously, with the rest of them.


Christopher Paul Stelling’s debut album, ‘Songs of Praise and Scorn’ will be released on 21st of February through Mecca Lecca Recording Company. His debut single ‘Mourning Train to Memphis’ can be streamed and downloaded for free below. Those pre-ordering the album from his Bandcamp will receive an instant download prior to the actual physical release date.


About Us

There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

All MP3s are posted with the permission of the artists or their representatives and are for sampling only. Like the music? Buy it.

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