Women bring the soul to SXSW

U.K. singer Duffy tops impressive fleet

Duffy, the soul-singing U.K. chart-topper whose Island Def Jam album won’t hit retail in the U.S. until mid-May, was impressive in her Stateside performing debut, once again declaring that U.S. soul music has created an impressive breeding ground in the U.K. As female thrush imports go, however, she was part of a string of strong sets Friday as Brighton’s Kate Walsh, Stockholm’s Lykke Li and Eversley Reading’s Laura Marling proffered distinct twists on what it means to be a young singer-songwriter.

The single monikered Duffy is the most commercial musician of the lot and she arrived at SXSW with her single “Mercy” sitting at No. 1 in the U.K. for five weeks. Tune closed her solid five-song set late in the day at the Levi’s/Fader party, one of the venues where Amy Winehouse made an impressive splash last year and stirred the pot for U.K. soul hopefuls. But these two operate from two sides of a Memphis coin: Winehouse works the sounds of the very late 1960s, while Duffy operates in a decidedly early ’70s vein, drawing inspiration from Dusty Springfield’s sessions in the west Tennessee city and the Staples Singers’ secular recordings of the era.

The Welsh singer sports a ’60s glamour look and shimmies to each tune, her hands reaching skyward and as she twirls the microphone twirled, a kittenish visual enhancement to the sultry purr in her vocals. “Mercy” is certainly the hit, but she has an even sharper tune in “Warwick Avenue” which might well get U.S. auds to buy into her as more than a Winehouse follow-up.

Marling, the 18-year-old troubadour whose “Alas I Cannot Swim” has received raves in the U.K., is a wordy wordsmith who shows glimmers of brilliance on songs such as “Shine” and “You’re No God.” Remarkably mature in her perspective on the pitfalls of romance, Marling excels in crossing hopefulness off her list of life’s expectations; it seems this girl has been let down – a lot – and strong musical and lyrical vocabularies prevent any sense of repetition. She performs next week at L.A.’s Hotel Café before heading on a world tour.

Walsh, who topped the iTunes chart in the U.K. with her “Tim’s House,” gave two emotionally rich performances Friday. And like Marling, her compelling emotional story songs force the audience to immediately hush and focus. That both women hold on to that silence, which seems to be broken within minutes at so many showcases, is testimony to the clarity and power of their lyrics and less to showmanship. Walsh and Li share an engrossing upper range and both pivot off that with impressive vocal control; Li’s voice is child-like, Walsh’s angelic.

Li, though, has a band to play off and her candid bubbliness becomes sweetly infectious.

Equally infectious, but at the other end of the musical spectrum, is My Brightest Diamond, Shara Worden’s string quartet ensemble. It’s serious music with a light heart. Operatically trained Worden accompanies herself on guitar – the Brooklynite plays a pretty brash electric and a gentle acoustic – and her originals thrive on intimacy and lucidity. She wheels out the big guns for an absolutely riveting version of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” that, when performed after midnight in a church, sounded like the heavens opening up.

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