Southside Sessions is a raw, loose, seven-cut EP that places two of Austin's finest talents in collaboration. Charlie Sexton has been on the scene for decades as a songwriter, guitar hero, and producer. He spent three years with Bob Dylan's band on the Endless Tour before returning to Austin to be a family man and work on his own music. Shannon McNally is a talented singer/songwriter who has issued a couple of brilliant solo albums and who has been kicking around Austin for a while now, making a well-deserved name for herself as a performer as well as a singer/songwriter. Of the seven cuts here, Sexton wrote or co-wrote (the latter with enigmatic songwriter Tonio K.) four and McNally one, and there are also covers of Townes Van Zandt's "No Place to Fall" and Jesse Winchester's "Biloxi." Sexton produced the set, and his take on what this is supposed to be is spot-on. The relaxed feel of these performances is attributable at least in part to the fact that, other than the opening "Nothing Mysterious" and "Biloxi," there are no drums. The first cut, with its blend of acoustic guitars and muffled, shuffling drums, feels like an outtake from the Band's Music from Big Pink with Delaney & Bonnie on vocals. That doesn't mean it's derivative. Not at all. Instead, its impassioned, in-the-pocket singing, strolling along with the instruments and covering the beat with the right accents, is remarkable. McNally's "Old Cypress Tree" is a devastatingly beautiful desert country love song. There is passion, conviction, and acceptance in its verses and the revelation of truth as it slowly exposes itself to the singer and the listener. Sexton's spare backing vocals only serve to underscore the meaning in the words.
Likewise, Sexton and Tonio K.'s "When We Were Young" gives McNally a chance to express the lyrics -- sung over a percussively strummed acoustic guitar and hand percussion -- in boldface just hovering a notch above Sexton. It creates shivers for all its loose, good-time feel. The two covers here are back to back. Van Zandt's is pleasurable, but doesn't actually match the emotional truth in the original song. "Biloxi" gets to it; it's lean, and carried by a slightly out-of-tune upright piano. McNally carries the first verse as the acoustic slide guitars enter along with tom-tom drums, and then Sexton's vocal shimmering just behind hers. This is late-night music sung from a place that the daytime cannot address. There is no nostalgia here, just longing. The set closes with two Sexton originals, new versions of songs from his Cruel and Gentle Things album released in 2005. "Burn" is sung by both parties, but the grain in Sexton's voice reveals that he cannot get the muse who inspired the tune out of his system. It's intense, muddy, startling, and devastating in its desperation. "I'd Do the Same for You" is a whispering duet where the voices are accompanied only by a piano. It's a plea for reconciliation, and its gentleness belies the hurt in its lyric. But it expresses hope, particularly when sung by such expressive singers. Southside Sessions is a must for fans of either party. It's the low-key underdog record of 2006, and should be a model for anyone interested in D.I.Y. efforts. Delightful and recommended.