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The Awe In Austin

Stuart Bailie | 14:10 UK time, Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Rachel Austin is the artist-in-residence at the year's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast. Regulars to the radio show will appreciate that she hails from Virginia, she's got a voice that defies gravity and description and her songs are increasingly unfettered by standard form. A recent recording trip to Austin, Texas seems to have given her extra assurance to embrace the new. Therefore on Sunday night we gathered at Ollie's in the basement of the Merchant Hotel to witness another brave idea.
The plan was to record the event and also to improvise plenty. Barry Cullen, occasionally referred to as "Satan", provided a commentary of electronic bleeps and distortions. There was a stand-up bass, some trumpet and drums. The crimson décor and the selective lighting made it feel like some jazz-noir antechamber, scene of a half forgotten Twin Peaks experience.
Rachel loved it of course. She strummed on a black Fender Jaguar (a Kurt Cobain fave) and on occasions, sampled her own voice on a loop station, so that a cacophony of Austin effects asserted the art. Pig-snorting rhythms and all. Therefore it was edgy, rich with surprise and when she took an Appalachian departure into 'I'll Fly Away', that was excellent also.
She takes her leave with a song about hemlock and its fatal effects. Which is amazingly rare in popular culture, I'll guess. I can only think of Ronnie Lane, and he was writing in jest. But Rachel's version is closer to Socrates than the pop charts. We can sense the creeping morbidity as the song starts to lull and falter. Wow.


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