AUSTIN, Texas – Debauchery hung in the Austin air like a clouting miasma, so when we stepped into Central Presbyterian Church for the Bowerbirds performance, we felt an equal hand of guilt and relief. Taking our seat among the pews, we were awed by the church’s beauty: lofted ceilings, luminous stained-glass windows, a towering crucifix. Was this still South by Southwest?
The Bowerbirds took the stage bearing a classical guitar, a violin, an accordion and a bass drum. We listened in a reverent silence as they painted scenes of wooded landscapes, meticulously and sanctifiably described.
For the alternative folk scene, Bowerbirds are a welcomed breath of fresh air. They have a sound that is distinctly Appalachian, yet divorced from the traditional styles of old time and Americana of their North Carolina home. In fact, they incredibly make the accordion sound distinctly southern.
Before Bowerbirds formed, guitarist Phil Moore and violinist Mark Paulson were in a band called Ticonderoga. They had a lush, rock-based sound. The instrumentation, however, was cumbersome to reproduce live, so they decided to strip down their sound and form a new band, this one based around rhythmic finger-picking on nylon strings.
After their first show, Moore realized he needed another instrument to fill in the sound. In an interview with The Hatchet in a back room of the church they played in, accordionist Beth Tacular explained, “They were on their last tour, and while they were gone (their Ticonderoga bandmate) had an accordion, and I picked it up. It was sitting in our apartment and I just wanted to try it. I really liked it, and I started wanting my own accordion. (Moore) was writing (Bowerbirds) songs and he said, ‘You can play in the band.'” She learned how to play the instrument in two weeks.
For their first show of their tour, they supported the Mountain Goats at a sold-out show at the Black Cat in D.C. Moore said, “We get up there and it was like ‘Oh, this feels weird,’ squinting your eyes and looking at the mic to get through it.”
On the strength of their debut album, “Hymns for a Dark Horse,” which they released on their own last year, the band was nominated for the PLUG award (independent music’s people’s choice awards) Americana Album of the Year.
When asked about the bowerbird, the animal they name themselves after, they perked in enthusiasm. Moore described the bird’s beautifully sculpted nests, and Beth Tacular added, “They also do this little dance where they do this.” She raised her arms, hooked at the elbow, and hunched over, waves her forearms. “We learned about them and couldn’t believe the crazy things they make. It’s also the kind of animal where it’s kind of like, how do I not know about this animal that exists? … They’re also just awesome.”
Never has a band’s name reflected their music so perfectly.
Be sure to watch The Hatchet’s video interview from SXSW with the Bowerbirds on The Scene’s Backstage blog.