Habana Calle 6 Annex, Thursday, March 15Forlorn bards and string quartets aren't necessarily meant to be heard in tents sandwiched between freeways and police-station parking lots, but at SXSW, you play ball with the venue you're dealt. Lambchop mainstay Kurt Wagner joined Austin's Tosca String Quartet for stripped-down versions of his ornately arranged baroque blues that managed to hold the front half of the tent rapt despite the surrounding chaos. Unlike the Nashville-based enterprise's cinematic, full-bodied recordings, this set featured just strings and two hollowbody electric guitars, which imbued songs like "Prepared (2)" with a mournful lonesome beauty. With a cigarette burning away like incense on his mic stand, Wagner's droll Mayo Thompson baritone occasionally gave way to emotive belting more akin to Tom Waits. Through it all, the Tosca strings shimmered and skittered their way about the melodies, lending texture and weight to Wagner's obtusely dark lyrical allusions. Although the delicately nuanced package might've had more resonance in a quieter setting, making it work at the corner of Sixth Street and I-35 might be just as great an accomplishment.
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