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SXSW 2008: Duffy

"Mercy" singer Duffy played her first U.S. gigs at this year's SXSW festival.

Kurt Wolff

Every year at SXSW, you can hardly walk down Sixth Street without catching wind of some artist or another who's "the one" on the verge of a breakout. This year, though, one of the biggest buzz acts was definitely Duffy, a petite blond Welsh singer who's debut album, Rockferry, is currently No. 1 in the U.K. (it's scheduled to be released stateside in May). Because her first single, the hook-filled "Mercy," had just begun making the rounds, few in Austin had actually heard her music--but a lot had heard about her. Her showcase at Stubb's Saturday night was plenty full.

Duffy got an ear-catching 1960s pop-soul style that channels vintage singers such as Dusty Springfield, Jackie DeShannon, and Sammi Smith. Comparisons to Amy Winehouse (who made her U.S. debut at last year's SXSW) ran rampant, though truth is they're only vaguely justified: both artists have obvious love for a vintage '60s R&B sound, but Duffy's is big, wide, and lush--polished, even--while Winehouse keeps things funkier and more raw.

I was knocked out the first time I heard Duffy's recordings of both "Rockferry" and "Mercy," and live the two songs (which opened and closed her set) were right on target. Some of the material in-between, though, possessed a borderline MOR vibe and felt far less exciting. Still, to me, Duffy's got the right ideas in place, and certainly anyone that pays such clear homage to Dusty (Shelby Lynne, by the way, is another) gets my attention.

Watch for the album in the coming months, and in the meantime check out a free full-song stream of "Mercy" here on Download Music.

Kurt Wolff