The setting: A dive bar near the corner of Trinity and 6th streets in downtown Austin, Texas, that goes by the name The Jackalope. On the wall rests pictures of well-endowed topless women offering up various suggestive expressions that ultimately make the images appear more cartoonish than exploitive. In the back corner, a tiny stage rests in a dimly lit section of the establishment that makes 4:30 in the afternoon appear like 1:50 in the morning. The spot reserved for live performances would be generous for a duo, yet nearly impossible for a trio, and the atmosphere that surrounds the bar itself is suited perfectly for some type of street-punk showcase that would result in broken tables, pool cues, beer mugs and bones.
A seven-piece soft-rock outfit that includes two string players, an accordionist, and a singer who has a voice that could easily be mistaken for Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard? Not so much.
But that’s what happened Thursday afternoon as part of the South By Southwest music festival when the Seattle indie outfit Hey Marseilles took the stage at The Jackalope, two of its members reduced to spilling out into the crowd because of how tight the quarters were. And despite the awkwardness of the setting, the tattooed clientele, and the audible barroom conversation that at times drowned out the quiet rock coming from the stage, the septet still managed to succeed in earning and keeping the attention of the small crowd that gathered to check them out.
“This was kind of tough,” lead singer Matt Bishop told me with a smile after the group’s set. “But we’ll be on the road for a while, so hopefully you’ll come see us again.”
He had no real reason to worry. Leaning almost exclusively on their recent LP, Lines We Trace, Hey Marseilles proved why an organization such as National Public Radio has taken so kindly to them over the last few years – their sound is original enough to deem interesting, yet familiar enough to attract first-time listeners. Their latest record is no different. From the pulsating, expansive nature of their current single, “Bright Stars Burning”, to the orchestral, Beatles-esque “Dead Of Night”, Hey Marseilles exudes sophistication because of both Bishop’s astute voice and his players’ intelligent approach to songwriting.
That precise highfalutin element essentially carried these seven guys over the finish line Thursday, even as the drinkers continued to yell and the light beer continued to be poured. It was a type of maturity that didn’t once cross the line into pretention, a curious yet difficult feat of which each member in the band should be abundantly proud. It’s hard enough to set yourself apart during a week dedicated to finding needles in endless haystacks, but with their wit, charm, and talent, Hey Marseilles somehow pulled it off with strikingly professional ease.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been surprising, but it was. Not because I didn’t believe in them, per se; rather, it was because of how seamless the entire production felt. These are not the things that make a great band – these are the things that make a resilient band. Luckily for Hey Marseilles, they needn’t worry about competence. And after spending some time taking in a short set in the middle of the mayhem that is South By Southwest Thursday afternoon, it became abundantly clear that sustainability also shouldn’t be an issue for these guys any time soon.