Selfishly, But Willingly

Well, it happened again.

Sarah Jaffe upstaged yet another touring act pulling through town. This time—just like the last time it had me scratching my head—it happened at The Cavern. And just as Jaffe had outshined Seattle's Sera Cahoone and Grand Archives then, in late June, she did the same to Austin's Brothers & Sisters last Thursday night.

Now, that isn't to say she outperformed them—although, really, any time Jaffe performs on an under card, her doing as much is likely—but, rather, that her star shined brighter on this night. Translation: After Jaffe's set ended, the place emptied out like an office building during a fire drill.

Maybe we should be used to this by now. After all, any time Jaffe plays at a venue where the tickets are cheap enough to justify not sticking around for the headliner, this is just what happens.

But even though Jaffe surely has seen this, too, the sight of the crowd spilling out of the place on Thursday seemed to even catch her off-guard.

"When Brothers & Sisters came on, and I saw that only half the crowd was still there, I was a little confused," she says. "But I guess it's flattering."

And a little unfair to Brothers & Sisters. The Austin sextet, on tour to support the band's newest release, Fortunately, features an incredibly accessible, heavily '70s folk-rock-influenced sound. And its performance on this night was a great one, even if only about 10 or so people caught the show. By the end of Brothers & Sisters' set—just after the band performed a spot-on "OK, that makes perfect sense!" cover of America's "Sister Golden Hair"—the band resorted to playing a request shouted out from the crowd.

Lead singer Will Courtney shrugged and smiled. "OK," he said. "There's only two people who like us here anyway."

The rest of the crowd protested, announcing their own fanship, too, but the point had been made. Brothers & Sisters knew that, even though it had been booked into the headlining spot on a bill that also featured Fort Worth's Cloud Cult-like collective Telegraph Canyon, the honor of top dog on this night belonged to Jaffe.

The girl deserves it. Her debut EP, Even Born Again, was released earlier this month—surprising considering that Jaffe's been playing around town for five years now—and it's a phenomenal start to what many around town already expect to be a long, storied career for the 22-year-old folk singer. (Y'know, no pressure.)

The obvious standout of the disc, the one that had the crowd at The Cavern whooping it up from its opening chords on Thursday night, is the title track. Sure, she twice uses the words "testament" and "God," repeatedly calls out the phrase "born again" and, in the most affecting line of the song, she sings about how she would "gladly die for you, selfishly but willingly," but Jaffe swears the song isn't a religious one. Yes, it's about devotion, but to another person, and within a new, uncertain situation. With the repeated crescendos of her guitar strumming, especially paired with the orchestral rise of the cello and electric guitar behind her, maybe the song just feels religious.

More than anything, that's likely the result of the song just feeling right. When you hear it, you can tell you're listening to something special—both in song and singer.

No doubt that's at least partially the reason why, on that same Thursday, Jaffe was surprised (right along with the rest of those in the local music fan set) to see "Even Born Again" posted as the song of the day on the front page of National Public Radio's Web site.

Jaffe says she's immediately reaped the fruits of that good fortune. Her MySpace page's player, which normally sees about 200 song plays a day, spiked to 700 plays that day.

Although wholeheartedly appreciative of the selection, Jaffe, ever the self-deprecator, still found fault: She was mortified by the goofy face-making picture that NPR had somehow acquired and used to represent her likeness.

"I hated it," she says with a nervous laugh.

But that reaction from Jaffe is fitting. To watch her perform live almost feels inappropriate, as though you shouldn't be allowed this kind of access—this performance is meant for an empty bedroom, and the lyrics are meant for a cherished, locked diary.

Because of that extreme putting-herself-out-there-for-all-to-see vulnerability, you can't tear your eyes away. Your gaze is fixed.

But here's the thing about Jaffe's live performance: Almost to a fault, her eyes remain shut onstage. And when they're not, her angular bangs fall over her rimmed glasses anyway. She's in her own world. She looks like she doesn't even know you're there.

Only, well, she does. And she thrives off the fact that it feels invasive.

"It's like someone's invading your personal space," she says. "But in a good way. When I first started playing Dallas, nobody gave a shit. They were all talking over my songs. It's cool to see these songs evolve and to see the way they're received change. It's such a good thing."

The next step, Jaffe says, is to take the show on the road and see if it can have the same effect elsewhere: "It's all I talk about," she says. "It's all I want to do."

But, because of the painfully slow-moving pace of the industry, Jaffe concedes that she'll just have to hurry up and wait.

"That's my motto," she laughs.

In the meantime, she'll have to settle for more opening slots. This week, she'll open for Jeremy Enigk at House of Blues (see Critic's Picks, page 63). Next month, she'll do a three-date Texas tour with Rhett Miller of the Old 97's.

And though the names and settings for those shows may prevent this from happening too soon from now, there's at least one more accolade Jaffe should earn in the near future: Headlining act.

Can't be too far off. She deserves it.

Really: If you're already the main draw on a bill to begin with, what's the difference

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Pete Freedman
Contact: Pete Freedman