Stef Chura is the kind of artist that always feels underrated. Although the Detroit rocker’s 2017 debut album Messes won her some critical attention and got her signed to Saddle Creek, who rereleased it a year later, it still seemed to fly under the radar of many. That’s a shame. Messes was a great old-school indie rock record, teasing out the emotional messes of its title with tangles of fuzzed-out guitar and shards of evocative imagery cutting their way through Chura’s distinctively scratchy moan.
In June, Chura is finally releasing the follow-up to Messes, Midnight. She recorded the album with Car Seat Headrest mastermind Will Toledo, an early admirer who invited her out on tour before her first album even came out. And yesterday, a day after Car Seat Headrest’s own definitive level-up of a performance at Stubb’s, Chura brought it to SXSW, opening up the second day of AdHoc’s Free For All showcase with a set consisting mainly of songs from the new record.
Her set kicked off the same way the new album does, with the shaggily anthemic indie rock epic “All I Do Is Lie,” before launching into early single “Method Man,” another frustrated portrait of a one-sided relationship. Chura’s voice has a tendency to quaver and stretch, elongating and eliding certain syllables. She sounded by turns fragile and defiant while her tight three-piece backing band capably blasted the inside room at Cheer Up Charlies with the kind of classic alt-rock rave-ups that made the Car Seat Headrest link clear, sticking largely to the heavier side of her sound.
It’s gotta be hard to play the first set of the day at a SXSW show. The crowd is smaller as people continue to wander in late. Everyone that is there on time is probably tired and hungover, possibly even you. But Chura made the most of it, at one point teasingly encouraging the audience to push in closer — and if anything, the low-key vibe only added to her underdog status. Chura’s equally low-key, no-frills approach to her music is part of her charm, and only a minimum of stage banter (including a joke about the Midwestern “ope“) interrupted the rocking out.
By the end of her set, the room was, if not as crowded as it was for Barrie’s graceful, mannered indie-pop later in the afternoon, at least full. With songs this good, people have to pay attention, and with any luck, people will pay attention to Midnight. (Certainly, a little extra buzz from a connection to a much-hyped act with a star on the rise like Car Seat Headrest can’t hurt.) “Maybe you would like me if you’d never met me,” Chura sings on “All I Do Is Lie.” She’s selling herself short.