Unsentimental Kevin Gordon Testifies At SXSW

Nashville singer/songwriter documents life spent searching for pleasure amidst pain; Canadian Ron Sexsmith plays efficient set.

AUSTIN, Texas — We're not quite sure why it seemed perfectly fitting that Nashville's Kevin Gordon would appear at 1 a.m. Friday, at perhaps the single smallest venue of the South by Southwest music festival — the appropriately named Hideout, whose back room accommodates maybe a hundred.

Then again, when and where else would one expect a well-kept secret to manifest itself at a sprawling event like this?

Rail thin and bleary-eyed, with his shirttail hanging out of his pants and his Fender Telecaster slung down near his knees, Gordon looked like he stepped right out of John Fogerty's "Lodi," and he played like it, too. Song after song — the wistful "Oil City Girl," the blistering "Water or Gasoline," the banging-your-head-against-the-wall "Down to the Well" — all documenting a life spent searching for seconds of pleasure amidst hours of pain. Lyrics that you feel more than hear: "Got a feeling stingin' like a new tattoo" ... "On the promise road, you can't read the signs/ There's no destination, no arrival times."

Still, there's no self-pity, or sentimentality, in any of it; just a whole lot of testifying, to make of it what you will. "Ronnie Hawkins is recording this song," Gordon noted at one point, referring to the old rockabilly rebel who early on gave The Band music and life lessons back in their scuffling days. "One of these days, maybe someone under 50'll record one of my songs," he said with a laugh. Let's hope so.

The same goes for Ron Sexsmith, who previewed a batch of terrific new compositions during a characteristically efficient little set at the Rainbow Cattle Company on Friday. Like the title of one of his best tunes, "Thinking Out Loud," the music of the baby-faced tunesmith from the Great White North sneaks up on you from behind, with uncommonly good turns of phrases — would you think of titling a tale of heartbreak "Foolproof"? — and soft melodies that bend but don't break, as on the (again) ingeniously titled "How Can This Song Survive." We only had time to catch less than half an hour of Sexsmith's show, but he was already on his ninth song when we left. As we said: efficient.