Rock clubs and their dimly lit stages are a respite for shadowy figures. Tonight, Darren Jessee's songs--projected in his perfectly trustworthy, half-confident lilt--are those shadowy figures, drifting from the stage of Friend's, a college bar in Austin. Jesse's Chapel Hill quintet Hotel Lights are one of six bands on a bill at this Sixth Street club, lined with banners for Bud Light and neon signs that betray its University of Texas proximity. The show is part of a showcase for Bar/None Records, the Hoboken, N.J. label that issued the band's debut two weeks ago.
Jessee has been here, at South by Southwest, before: Without a record label, Hotel Lights played here last year and, years ago, Jesse played here with his old band, Ben Folds Five. When Hotel Lights heads back to Chapel Hill Sunday, Jessee will note that this has been his favorite SXSW so far: Now that the band is on Bar/None, people are paying attention, but their eponymous debut has not been out long enough to turn the band's weekend in Texas into a flurry of short gigs and public relations activities.
People crowd into the bar, watching as Jesse and the rest of the Lights--keyboardist Chris Badger, bassist Roger Gupton, drummer Zeke Hutchins, guitarist Al Weatherhead--play 40 minutes of material from the debut, a sublime record of dreamy, wistful pop. Two girls near the front sing along, beaming as Jessee sings lyrics about Chapel Hill ("Like the waitress down at The Lantern") and making exits ("I've got it figured out/ I am a train/ I am a train leaving"). Those working with the band watch carefully. For some, including Bar/None president Glenn Morrow, this is their first chance to see the band. Morrow signed them, and two other bands on tonight's bill, sight unseen. From his New Jersey office a week later, he notes that this performance--from Jesse's unique but familiar vocals to Badger's tasteful, effusive keyboard work--makes him very happy.
Friday night in Austin is hedonistic, but this seems more like a solace. Jessee is revealing his most personal moments, and a packed room is paying attention. For a new band like Hotel Lights, though, SXSW most often means playing several shows in a few days. Almost every gig here in town is less than ideal, bands rushing to put gear onstage for fear of losing even a minute of crucial set time. But it's the auxiliary gigs--at corporate parties during the day or in record stores--that put young bands in the most awkward spots.
Hotel Lights' final show here is no exception: For the band's second appearance arranged by the label, they're scheduled for an 8 p.m. slot at Cheapo Discs, a massive record store four blocks north of SXSW's Sixth Street epicenter. Jessee and his songs are baking under the fluorescent lights. The stage is tucked into a back corner, behind the used vinyl and in front of a huge mural of Texas iconography. Jessee's head juts up in front of a cowboy and horse during a red Texas sunset, and Gupton is framed by a black painting of the state.
Jessee's songs are intimate and personal, carefully penned confessionals that seem a bit too striking in the harsh fluorescent light of the store. The songs are textured, too, sketched by Jessee's guitar but painted in the chromatic keys and guitar work of Badger and Weatherhead. Hutchins and Gupton provide the backbone and, together, it all taxes the store's PA, two speakers mounted on high racks and flanking the stages. Hotel Lights isn't a loud band, but it's the kind of elegant pop that requires finessed mixing and a good set of cones. That's not exactly part of the Cheapo's set-up, but the 40 people standing in the aisles and in front of the stage enjoy what they hear.
At SXSW, that's more than half of the battle.
For more on the band, see www.hotellights.net.