SXSW 2017: Four Acts Balance Humor and Heart at Parish Showcase

American Songwriter’s 2017 SXSW coverage is sponsored by D’addario.

Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore of The Mastersons. Photo by Lynne Margolis

For those who live in South By Southwest’s host city, the action actually starts far sooner then it does for out-of-towners. Which means by the time the music portion gets going full blast, some locals are ready for an energy-conserving (or alternate multitasking) day of SXSW lite. Such was the case Wednesday, March 15, when the vast array of options wound up being narrowed to four acts at the Parish, on Austin’s spring-breaker-clogged Sixth Street.

Sponsored by New Frontier Touring, the night included sets by the Mastersons, Fastball, Paul Thorn and his band, and the Band of Heathens. While any of those acts might have attracted large audiences on non-SXSW nights, the venue felt roomier than it should have been, considering the caliber of the artists onstage. Local heroes Fastball drew the biggest crowd of the four, for a set mixing nuggets and tracks from their new album, Step into Light, releasing May 19.

Their melodic pop hooks and harmonies sound every bit as fine as they did when they filled late-90s airwaves with the single that would become their forever-after encore: “The Way.”

Sometimes, a good pop hook is all you need, but vocalist/guitarist Miles Zuniga and vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Tony Scalzo know their way around a lyric, too. And with drummer/percussionist Joey Shuffield (the original trio) accompanied by bassist Bobby Daniel, they also know how to command an audience. On “The Way,” Scalzo conducted a lively sing-along, complete with jazzy organ riffs and pauses so it could “get dramatic.”

Hits including “Fire Engine,” You’re an Ocean” and “Out of my Head” pumped up fans, but new songs such as “I Will Never Let You Down,” “Love Comes in Waves” and “Just Another Dream” were also well-received.

Just before their set, the Mastersons — the husband-wife Americana duo of Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore — charmed listeners with crystalline harmonies and the kind of he said-she said songs that capture both the tension and joy of sharing life with your best friend and sparring partner. Their new album, Transient Lullaby, which also will be released May 19, actually references that aspect of coupledom with “Fight,” which contains the lyric, “I don’t wanna fight with anyone else but you.”

But “Don’t Tell Me To Smile” is about an experience Whitmore had while performing onstage as a member of Steve Earle’s Dukes and Duchesses (she and her husband are both in Earle’s band and frequently open his shows). She was playing fiddle one night when a woman in the audience kept indicating she should smile — not something one is inclined to do while concentrating on playing the instrument tucked under the chin. Finally, she’d had enough, and told the woman so. Then she wrote a song about it.

They also delivered “Anywhere But Here” and the title track from 2014’s Good Luck Charm, which turned into a sing-along.

Tupelo, Mississippi’s other favorite son, the ever-gracious and ageless Paul Thorn, upped the energy with a set of bluesy rockers stretching back nearly to his first album, Hammer & Nail. he’s celebrating its 20th anniversary by playing the entire album in order on some tour dates, though curiously, he didn’t play songs from it Wednesday night. He and his band did deliver some of the favorites contained on his November issue, The Best of Paul Thorn, including “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand,” “This is a Real Goodbye” and “Pimps & Preachers” (the semi-true story of Thorn’s Pentacostal preacher father and his pimpin’ uncle). He also did a downright slithery cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Snake Farm,” with leftie guitarist Bill Hinds providing sinewy Les Paul slide work.

Another Austin-based band, The Band of Heathens, offered several tracks from their January release, Duende. Original members Ed Jurdi (guitars, keyboards, vocals) and Gordy Quist (guitars, vocals) are rocking harder than they have in the past, backed by Trevor Nealon (keyboards, vocals), Richard Millsap (drums, vocals) and Scott Davis (bass, vocals). But the bands elegant, multi-part harmonies are still in place, and their passion (a definition of the Spanish album title) seems stronger than ever.

Highlights of their set included “Sugar Queen,” “Carry Your Love” (vinyl only) and a great cover of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” They also proudly announced that their new video, for the song “The Green Grass of California,” had just debuted the day before on the High Times magazine website — going live at 4:20 p.m., of course. After hearty applause, Jurdi said, “Thank-you so much. Our parents are so proud of us.”

Just like the rest of the night, they hit just the right balance of wit and heart.