Last September, Adam Torres returned with a new album called Pearls To Swine. This was after around a decade of him existing as a cult figure on the fringes of the indie world, fiercely beloved by those who had discovered him during his college days in Ohio, but an unknown to most of us. That made Pearls To Swine something of a shocking revelation: here was this guy, seemingly out of nowhere, releasing a record of hauntingly beautiful, otherworldly folk music and singing with a spectral falsetto that hinted at ten years gone, at Torres’ new experiences in Ecuador and his new home in Texas. Ever since I heard the album I was curious about how this would sound live, whether Torres’ voice could possibly sound as inhuman in person, onstage in front of people. Monday night at SXSW is a little quieter than the rest of the week; it’s when things are still getting started. But Torres was on the bill for the AV Club’s showcase at the Mohawk—a chance to see him play a (more or less) hometown gig.
As the final strains of Har Mar Superstar’s set echoed from the outdoor stage, a handful of fans filed into the tinier indoor stage at the Mohawk to see Torres and his band. Live, Torres is accompanied by a bassist, a drummer, and a violinist—who he introduced as “Elizabeth Warren, not the senator,” which prompted an audience member to scream “SHE PERSISTED!” His drummer happens to be Thor Harris, known for his work in Swans and also for being a Nazi-punching expert. Collectively, they stuck to the same approach for each song: spare, rumbling bass notes anchoring the keening lilt of of Torres’ voice dancing around the violin, all of it above Torres’ gently cascading finger-picked guitar parts and Harris’ similarly gently tumbling drum patterns, the latter operating like a textural heartbeat in each song. (Harris mostly played with his hands through the set, and occasionally played dulcimer at the same time as he drummed.)
This was mesmerizing. Each song unfolded, threatened to burst like a storm on the horizon, then would slowly fade back into the ether. It was far from the uptempo set of a buzz-y young rock band or pop artist that often defines a night out at SXSW. It wasn’t a sweaty, effusive club show but a sweaty, meditative gig where the music seemed to simmer and crest as the room grew hotter over the course of the set. (Also, the band played their whole set under a bit of taxidermy of a lunging bear that Mohawk has hung over the side of the stage, which was kind of an amusing image.) It seemed to have a gravitational pull, as the room grew more and more crowded as the set went on.
The set was definitively of this era of Torres’ career, mostly revolving around highlights from Pearl To Swine like “Morning Rain” and “Juniper Arms”—the latter proving that, yes, Torres voice really is as ghostly and cripplingly beautiful when you see him perform, and, yes, it’s perhaps even stranger to literally see it emanate from a human’s body and not from your earbuds. They also worked in some songs from his new EP I Came To Sing The Song. The most powerful addition to the setlist, however, was “Dreamers In America,” a mournful song Torres contributed to the Our First 100 Days project (a project he introduced as being “a song for each God-forsaken day of this presidency.”) He dedicated the song to his ancestors, who came from Mexico several generations ago.
Torres’ recent recorded music has a way of pulling you in, like it’s shrouded in old mysteries you want to start sifting through. Though he was a very different artist back then, it’s easy to understand how people saw him around town in Athens, Ohio back in the day and immediately knew this guy was different, he had something else. It took ten years for him to return, and to start getting some amount of wider recognition. He’s proven himself to be a special and idiosyncratic talent. We can only hope it won’t be another ten years until we hear from him again.