“I heard this was usually a gothic club,” mused Minneapolis-via-Kenya songsmith J.S. Ondara in his charmingly accented English during KCRW’s Tuesday night showcase at Elysium. SXSW can make for odd stage ambience, but the influential L.A. public radio signal made the most of the Red River dungeon with a stacked lineup.
Ondara’s angelic vocals mesmerized the full house as he spun immigrant songs fresh off new debut Tales of America, opening with a 10-minute humming and trilling “American Dream.” Easing into his manic inaugural SXSW, the songwriter silenced the crowd with a mesmerizingly tender reach and soft banter. “Torch Song” impressed as the most polished, but the turn of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” into an emotional ballad landed new fans.
Toronto collective Broken Social Scene injected a fevered energy into the packed room, swelling 10 large onstage despite some of their instruments still in transit. Celebrating 20 years and an umpteenth lineup configuration, BSS bent more jammy without losing its distinctive pop hooks, Kevin Drew and Ariel Engle weaving vocals out front. Leaning on 2017’s Hug of Thunder with “Protest Song” and “Stay Happy,” the band was only just gathering steam with “Forced to Love” when they timed out.
Destined breakout Cautious Clay (aka Josh Karpeh) discarded set times altogether as his husky-voiced suave soul drove the night toward a perfect sultry close. The Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist delivered intoxicatingly chilled R&B, guitar and drum backing his bursts of sax, guitar, and flute. Closing with the heavy “Reasons” and standout “Cold War,” Clay will prove one of the week’s most compelling artists.
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