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South By Southwest 2012 -- Day One

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AUSTIN, Texas -- One of my favorite things about South By Southwest is how serendipitous it can be. Yes, it's a big, crowded, confusing mess; and yet the darnedest happy accidents still happen. For example, Wednesday afternoon I wandered into the lobby of a downtown hotel, sat down at a table and discovered a compact disc someone had left behind -- and it just happened to be an advance copy of the upcoming album by young Oklahoma troubadour John Fullbright, one of the best new singer/songwriters in the country.

When the great beyond throws a suggestion like that your way, it's best to take heed and follow it. So I did, to Fullbright's Wednesday night set. I've rhapsodized about young Mr. Fullbright before in this space, but I'm here to tell you that he really is that good; getting better, too. His performance, in the sanctuary of a church, was exponentially better than the very impressive show I saw him play in Raleigh last year. He's starting to seem like a rough-edged Lyle Lovett or a smoother James McMurtry, crafting genius-level wordplay that he sings in a sandpaper yowl that grabs you by the throat. "Jericho" and "Me Wanting You" were frightfully powerful.

Demonstrating his range, Fullbright closed with three songs on piano, which I'd never seen him play before. That segment included a house-shaking gospelized version of the old Bessie Smith standard "Ain't Nobody's Business," and it was spectacular. I am also happy to report that Fullbright's album ("From the Ground Up," due out May 8) is likewise excellent.

Other nice finds on Wednesday included the Mastersons, a Brooklyn folk-rock duo who paired lovely high harmonies with nice jingle-jangle guitar catchiness; and Luluc, a folksy duo from Australia whose songs beautifully combine dusky vocals with dreamy guitar chimes. Otherwise, this was the first day and I didn't push too hard after the long travel day to get here. I'll be back with further reports -- including, I hope, a day-two audience with The Boss.

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About the blogger

David Menconi has been the News & Observer's music critic since 1991. Before that, he spent five years at the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo. He has a masters in journalism from the University of Texas and a B.A. in English from Southwestern University. You can find more of his writing here.