SXSW Live Shot: Agnes Obel

Classical Berlin spellbinder packs Central Presbyterian

Agnes Obel’s Tuesday night showcase proved that music made by women can be both fiercely feminine and deeply powerful. Every song by the Berlin-based singer sounded like a period piece, evoking the opening credits to Downton Abbey, dangerous men lurking in misty moors, and a heartbroken starlet lost on the labyrinthine streets of Paris.

by Todd V. Wolfson

Within those worlds lurks a sinister beauty lying in wait. Perhaps it’s in the form of arsenic in the perfect cup of tea, or an icepick in the ear while admiring patterns of frost on the window. It’s there, though, yielding every beautiful note fraught with tension.

In an amber-glass voice accompanied by her contemporary classical piano, Obel delivered a slightly abbreviated set, delayed by technical difficulties. Elegantly spinning ethereal songs like “Aventine” and “Dorian,” both from last year’s Aventine, she steeped them in heavy atmosphere with no small amount of drama. “On Powdered Ground,” from 2010’s Philharmonics, started out unassuming enough, before building to a frankly terrifying, thunderous crescendo that made the pews in the sanctuary vibrate again and again.

Obel and her companions on cello and violin closed out the set with “The Curse,” a bewitching, wintry tale of punishment from below. The musicians ended the song mid-phrase, breaking the spell they’d just cast on a packed Central Presbyterian Church.

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