Núria Graham at Central Presbyterian Church: A Divine Experience at SXSW 2023 Review+Photos: Núria Graham at Central Presbyterian Church during SXSW 3/15/23
AUSTIN, TX- Especially a festival as expansive and intractable as SXSW, where the sea of good talent is so vast that it becomes difficult for otherwise excellent artists to separate from the pack. Like accidental camouflage, over the course of an entire week, even really good bands can get lost against a backdrop of other really good bands. So there has to be that one artist, that one show, preferably early in the week, that allows you to go home feeling like all of it — the travel, the ticket, the overpriced street food — that all of it was worth the effort.
For my SXSW 2023, that show was Nuria Graham at the Central Presbyterian Church. First off, the church itself sets a tone like no other. Of the hundreds of venues at SXSW, the only thing that one could possibly compare to the Central Presbyterian Church would be another church. And I don’t think too many houses of worship were hosting shows. A plaque outside says the building is about 150 years old but you step inside, you walk past a table of volunteers promoting contraception and dildos (the CBC is an avowedly diverse, progressive, and inclusive congregation), and you step into a mid-century wonderland where vaulting slats of stained wood stretch skyward to frame elaborate and abstract stained glass. It’s visually stunning and the acoustics impeccable. For someone like me who treads water between atheism and agnosticism, this is how you sell God.
And this is where you host exquisite musicianship.
Every note from Nuria and her bandmates was crisp, clean, smooth, and beautiful. The blend of vocals, guitar, clarinet, bass clarinet (!?!), and piano was both contemporary and timeless. It felt like a scene stolen from a movie. Protagonists in a smoky bar locking eyes to the sounds of a chanteuse at the keyboard. Her sound so distinct and captivating that you forget how mediocre the movie is because the music is so damn good. The untraceable twinge of an accent in her singing voice adding mystery to melody. Making a language you understand feel ever so slightly alien. Familiar meeting foreign in a way that is ever so pleasant. It’s a feeling. It’s a mood. And when the mood is your feelings, it’s spot on.
The backing band dressed in upscale monochrome pajamas that looked borrowed from or inspired by Hare Krishnas. Cool and cultish. Cultishly cool? Maybe they are. Krishna’s that is. And aren’t we all a bit cultish in our adoration of music? If not always, sometimes. (Nota bene: I use the word “cult” loosely and throw no shade toward adherents to the movement.)
For the first half of the set, Nuria served as high priestess for our ad hoc fellowship of Graham believers, holding court at a concert piano that felt interwoven both visually and sonically into the architectural fabric of the church. Her later switch to bass (or was it guitar?) was a strong and democratizing flex, matched by Marcel·lí Bayer’s move to bass clarinet (or was it bassoon?). Mind you, some of these shifts get blurred in my mind. Details and chronologies are always approximations in a house of worship. All I can recall with absolute certainty is that I geek so hard for clarinet in contemporary music that I found myself to be in awe of whatever it was Bayer may have been doing. So sick.
And as if an echo of their quasi clerical attire, the music pulsed with meditative rhythms that circled back on themselves; an ecumenical invitation to dervish like ecstasy. Joy in repetition, a wise Prince once said. This was music for benevolent drugs, or dream-filled sleep, or stone sober lucid introspection.
What struck me most was the texture borne of collaboration. It was elevating. No doubt Nuria can hold a room on her own. She could have held the church in the palm of her hand. But her partners on wind and strings, they fed a synergy that was far greater than the sum of its parts. Powerful in its subtlety. Layers intersecting and overlapping. Not just sonic but emotive in a way that cannot be achieved by the solitary effort of a single thread Theirs was a fabric woven in communal effort. A blanket of sound that settled over the audience with the gentlest of weight. A weight that held without smothering. A weight that just … held.