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SXSW Tuesday dispatch: Gaby Moreno shines, Marnie Stern disappoints


SXSW just keeps finding ways to get bigger, be it the giant inflatable Doritos dispenser/stage, the now ubiquitous celebrity spotting, or the fact that Cirque de Soleil somehow now qualifies as a music showcase. But expanding the music portion a day earlier to Tuesday probably says more about the SXSW swell than any of that, with a full schedule of notable showcases tilling the ground for the days to follow. Here's what I caught this first day around town.

Gaby Moreno – Central Presbyterian Church, 11pm


It’s long been a goal of mine to catch a show at Central Presbyterian, with past sets by Fiona Apple and Grizzly Bear having made the spot somewhat legendary in my mind. And thank God (the Presbyterian one in this case) I was able to snag a pew near the front to catch Guatemala City-native Gaby Moreno (2006 winner of the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, both in the Latin and overall categories). I had only heard one of Gaby’s songs before (this one), but it was clear early on that my curiosity had paid off big. Hers is the kind of voice that you stage concerts in a church for: delicate and aching, but capable of rattling the stained glass when let loose. Looking positively debonair in her Jackie O getup, Moreno and her four-piece (including Austin’s David Sánchez on guitar) ran through a brief set that showed Gaby singing her guts out in bossa, blues, and folk styles. The kicker was her beautiful choice to close the show: "El sombrerón," a haunting original based on a Guatemalan ghost tale and made all the more poignant by her sanctified surroundings. For all my cynicism over the ever-escalating madness of SXSW (and trust me, there will be more to follow), this is the kind of show that reminds me why the Fest still matters.

Charlie XCX – The Belmont, 8:30pm

I don't know what it is about Europe that allows them to produce great pop stars (Jessie Ware, Robyn, etc.). It’s like they’ve managed to evolve our Katy Perrys and Taylor Swifts into something endlessly more entertaining. Charlie XCX (terrible name, I know, but bear with me) should be the next in this proud tradition of Euro-Pop divas, a singer who can belt it out while dancing her ass off, in five-inch platforms no less. Also, extra points for her look (picture a British Mila Kunis wearing Liv Tyler's getup from Empire Records, and you're about on the money).

K-Pop Showcase: The Elysium, 9:30pm

If K-Pop night at the Elysium is any solid indicator, then Gangnam Style will not be the last we hear from the Koreans on the pop charts. The wall-to-wall crowd at Elysium was not on some cultural tourism adventure (like I admittedly was); these people were out in force to catch the likes of No Brain, f(x) and Galaxy Express. Guckkasten was the one band on the bill I managed to catch, an act whose singer has convinced me that Ronnie James Dio never died, his soul just now inhabits the body of a small Korean man. Needless to say, things got epic in a hurry.

Marnie Stern – The Mohawk, 10:15

Marnie Stern is a bit of a badass. Be it in her hilariously no-bullshit interviews or her insanely technical guitar playing. So of course I wanted to roll in to catch the guitar hero light up the Mohawk, especially now with a new book of songs from her new awesomely titled album The Chronicles of Marnia (out March 19). Alas, Marnie was not on her game this night. The awkward stage banter with her band, her listless recitation of even her most energetic songs, and most egregiously, the prerecording and looping of some of her most impressive guitar parts while just strumming the chords live: added up, it made for a tough set. Hopefully Marnie and her band get back into a groove soon, especially considering she’s playing another half dozen shows in the next few days.

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