Probably nobody has ever said that music festivals are easy on the body, but for sure nobody’s ever said that about South by Southwest (SXSW), a week-long musical bonanza in Austin, TX. For one, SXSW isn’t in a concentrated area like Grant Park: the showcases are held in Austin’s bars and concert venues, which means a shit-ton of walking (or Uber-ing, if you’re willing to pay approximately 8.6 times the standard fare). Second, the official SXSW showcases start at 8 p.m. and run until 2 a.m., which means you’ll be sitting on a curb at the intersection of 10th and Red River at three in the morning for six nights in a row. Third, wristbands are $700, which is decidedly out of the price range of your average fringe-clad festival attendee. Since only a select population of music industry dickheads can afford wristbands, showcases usually aren’t, to borrow a phrase, lit.
To rectify this, Austin’s bars and venues throw free day parties booked by various magazines and labels. However, with more access to live music comes more problems: you’ve dragged your ass all around Austin for a good eight hours before you even step foot in a showcase, and there are so many parties that you’re saddled with constant FOMO. Bands play a ridiculous amount of shows, so cancellations are frequent, due to illness or poor organization. The best parties fill up quickly, resulting in massive lines, and some parties are kept under wraps until the last minute, creating weird circles of exclusivity (i.e. grime pioneers Skepta and Lethal Bizzle’s secret set, the location of which is still a mystery).
Knowing that, SXSW is best compared to playing the lottery, but one where the worst outcome is losing half a day hunting down wherever CHVRCHES is supposed to be playing. In that way, your worst enemy at SXSW is yourself: your expectations, your internal hype machine, and your mindset that day. It’s only when you get caught up in keeping up—whether it’s finding the secret Young Thug showcase or making it in for that fifth Anderson .Paak set of the week—that you end up really losing out.
Although immediately post-SXSW we wanted to fling our iPods in a ditch, we eventually came to our senses and realized that that was crazy. If anything, SXSW proved to us how many great artists, experiences, and people are out there: you just have to be willing to try something new.
The rest of this article chronicles some of our most memorable moments of SXSW; it’s in no way a comprehensive account of “what was good at SXSW.” But it’s the closest we can get to telling you what it feels like to absorb the “best” the 2016 music industry has to offer.
P.S. No, we didn’t see Drake. Sorry.
Best Example of SXSW Actually Helping Break an Artist: Stormzy
Grime is a permutation of British rap—MCs’ flows are faster because the grime gold standard is 140 beats per minute—and it’s been “about to break into the mainstream” for about 13 years now. But I got to see Stormzy’s very first show in the U.S., and grime has never had a Stormzy to rep the genre abroad. He’s young, he’s clever, he’s funny, his tracksuit game is on point, and he’s got a few hits to brag about (“Shut Up,” “Know Me From”). But most importantly for grime’s impending worldwide domination, Stormzy seems to accept that grime won’t take over the United States without a struggle. His showcase at SXSW was far from triumphant: he was 15 minutes late, and his DJ had to play Skepta’s “Shutdown” twice to keep the crowd interested. The crowd could barely be bothered to hum along to “Functions on the Low,” the instrumental for “Shut Up,” although Stormzy—who performed without a backing track—was dynamic live. Yet if Stormzy was frustrated, he didn’t let on. He powered through his set, and by the time he reached “Know Me From,” people (not just me) had started to jump around. Which is why Stormzy might just be the key to grime’s promised American breakthrough: he was willing to perform in front of an audience that didn’t care, and he fought all the way through to make them care. (Miriam)
Last Thing You Would’ve Expected at a TuneIn Concert: YACHT
Is it time to talk about dance-punk again? The genre has fallen in and out of favor among the arbiters of taste more times than are countable in the years since DFA, The Rapture, and James Murphy broke the “scene” to a national audience. Recently, though, it’s fallen into a comfortable (if sleepy) semi-popularity. So when DFA affiliates YACHT suddenly tore into a smirking set of attitude-driven angular synths and rhythmic flourishes at a low-key showcase for TuneIn, a mobile radio app, I couldn’t really believe it. Between lead singer Claire Evans’s Annie Lennox–esque flourishes, a skit involving a red phone that I couldn’t quite understand but really liked, and a mix that made every guitar riff sound like the apocalypse, I couldn’t tear myself away, even though I really needed to grab a cab. Who knows whether it will mean anything in the future; when I returned to YACHT’s recorded oeuvre, it was just as easy to turn it off. But it reminded me that declaring a genre dead, or even comatose, is almost always premature—you might just not be digging hard enough. (Austin)
Most Puzzlingly Perfect Set: DMA’s
Earnest yodelers are everywhere at SXSW: onstage, inside bars, and under the I-35 overpass playing guitar and stomping along to a Twenty One Pilots song. By day four, I started to feel bombarded by earnestness. I was skeptical of serious bands who just wanted to make beautiful music, man, and more into the hedonistic punk bands-cum-shitshows who were valiantly attempting to drink the dollar equivalent of a booking fee.
DMA’s, more than any other band I saw at SXSW, made a case for professionalism. They performed an impeccably rehearsed set that involved extraneous band members exiting the stage in the middle of a song and then coming back on cue, a feat that I don’t think any of the drunk punks I saw could’ve reliably executed. And, somewhat surprisingly, their best songs weren’t the ones with blasting guitars, Oasis circa Definitely, Maybe-style. The band’s set peaked when they let their latent earnestness float to the top: the highlights were “Delete,” which included the aforementioned band member choreography, and the truly lovely “So We Know,” done with just lead singer Tom O’Dell and Johnny Took on acoustic guitar (guitarist Matt Mason came back for the last few bars). Live, “So We Know” is a high-stakes game: without a full band, all ears are bent to O’Dell’s voice, but landing in the center of those pitches can be deceptively difficult (at least that’s the way it seems to me, someone who has often tried to sing along and always failed). O’Dell didn’t hit a bum note, and the song was so pure I walked away feeling cleansed. (Miriam)
Best Case For a Revolution: Downtown Boys
The sax could’ve gotten a little more in the mix, but no matter—being able to hear wasn’t really the point of the “bi bilingual political dance sax punk party” that was Downtown Boys’ live performance. Lead singer Victoria Ruiz led the proceedings, carving out a space for her (honestly pretty justified) anger at the various injustices of modernity. At one point, Ruiz pushed her way into the audience and screamed down the neck of one of the photographers. He backed away fearfully, but not before snapping a picture of the singer lost in the moment—it’s not every day you’re that close to someone with that much confidence in her voice and her ideology. (Austin)
Best Gimmick That Will Be Burned Onto My Brain Forever: The Parrots
Probably the most enduring image I have from SXSW is of Diego Garcia, lead singer of Madrid garage rock band The Parrots, launching himself over the railing and out the door of Hotel Vegas; he dragged his mic line behind him like a leash, hopped around like Gollum, and freaked the bejesus out of passersby. Things came full circle on my last day at SXSW: I was waiting in line to get into Hotel Vegas when out popped Garcia, blinking in the sudden sunlight. (Miriam)
Least Assuming Showstoppers: “Sunday Morning,” All Dogs
No matter how much mythology gets built around seeing live music, part of the show will always be the question: “Do they sound like they do on the album?” All Dogs did one better, complementing a pitch-perfect performance of their most rollicking song from 2015’s Kicking Every Day with a lackadaisical performance that showed not “how little they cared”—nobody would believe that, and also, it isn’t the ’90s anymore—but rather how essential their tunes and words were. It wasn’t a pop performance as much as the intonation of a stoner koan—and it made for great dancing, a bonus that is always appreciated. (Austin)
Best Local Band That Played to a 12-Person Audience in a Far-Flung Corner of Austin: Coaster
I got to see the less glamorous side of SXSW when I hunted down Coaster, an indie rock band from Chicago. Coaster didn’t play SXSW officially; they were just one of the hundreds of bands who flocked to Austin during SXSW and booked as many unofficial shows as they could find. This show in particular was at a bar by the UT campus, a good 20 blocks from where the main SXSW action was happening, and nobody checked my ID at the door. I dragged a stool over to the corner where Coaster was set up and got treated to full-throttle renditions of songs from their last LP, Slow Jams (which is available on their Bandcamp for free, meaning indie-rock-inclined Chicagoans have no excuse to not download it). My blisters from that hike threatened to swallow up my entire foot by the end of the festival, but hey: Chicago reppin’. (Miriam)
Biggest Victory Lap: Kevin Gates
It’s easy to think that New Orleans native Kevin Gates’s recent success—the ubiquity of *2 Phones*, his number-one debut album—was all predestined. He plays the role of the sneering, successful bully impeccably, using the stage not as a space to move around but rather a pedestal from which he can leer and glare at the audience. But to be that reductive erases the complicated, unassuming story of Gates’s unlikely rise, and a live set from the rapper makes it clear that he wasn’t going to let you pigeonhole him that easily.
The most potent moments of Gates’s SXSW set weren’t any of his songs or freestyles, but the Kanye-esque monologues that accompanied them. In one, Gates drolly announced, “I’ve been coming to South by Southwest since 2011…right after I got out of prison,” with the same tone of a boss announcing a new Casual Fridays policy. But at one point, Gates took an unexpected turn, soberly muttering, “This goes out to anyone suffering from clinical depression.” He would go on to return the time-worn tropes of “those with brothers in prison,” but for one moment, a different rapper appeared, one with a dark side that rap—even with its newfound “sensitivity”—usually doesn’t address as head-on as Gates seemed willing to.
So yeah, he’s got two phones. One for the plug, and one for his…therapist? (Austin)
Best Opportunity to Accidentally Bump Into a Band Member: The Lemons
The Lemons, a lo-fi Chicago band, have a song called “Ice Cream Shop” that neatly captures their visual and musical aesthetic: pastels everywhere, simple song structure, and a childlike brand of happiness. A couple of repetitions through “Ice Cream Shop” (the recorded version of which is only 30 seconds long), guitarist James Swanberg declared, “We’re gonna play a cover by the Beatles!” Singer Kelly Nothing chimed in, “It’s from the White Album! It’s a deep cut! You might not know it!” The Lemons then did another round of “Ice Cream Shop.”
“Sorry, that was a dirty trick!” Swanberg said. “Here’s a Bob Dylan cover.” I braced myself for the now familiar “I take my baby to the ice cream shop,” only to hear “Heyyy, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,” which somehow morphed into “Naa naa naa na na na, heyyy Jude.” This was apparently the cue for some of the Lemons’ musician friends to lead a stage invasion, as members of the Parrots and the Shivas clambered onstage to howl some na nas. I let loose some na nas, too. (Miriam)
Most Mesmerizing Set: Milk & Bone
Two talented girls with drum pads and keyboards—that’s all it really takes nowadays. Coy synthpop at its best, Milk & Bone were contained, professional, practiced, and if those adjectives sound like insults or detriments, they aren’t. In a festival where passion, “breaking out,” and an often contrived commitment to spontaneity are emphasized, there was something singular about a duo making “chill,” near-easy-listening synth music, silencing the audience not with emotional bloodletting but with an implacable calm. A pond of water as musical inspiration—sleepy, maybe, but inviting. (Austin)
Best Use of a Vibraslap: Fade Up Fade Out Bye Bye
Go ahead, laugh at the name. Now think about the inherent absurdity of watching someone who looks like Mike Myers in Wayne’s World wildly bang a vibraslap against his knee, somehow expecting it be heard over his scraggly punk band. Then imagine said Wayne singing a song with the lyrics, “I’m fucking aliens tonight/ ’Cause I’m kinda horny!” You’re probably about halfway to forming an accurate idea of Fade Up Fade Out Bye Bye’s show at Hotel Vegas, 0 percent of which featured serious musicianship and 50 percent of which happened to (inexplicably) be in Franglish.
I knew the show was going to be atypical when the first words out of lead singer Kyle Newacheck’s/Wayne’s mouth were “1-2-3-4 here we go/No we don’t/Here we go!”, a gag that would’ve made the Slits proud. Hell, I was proud—this band had made it all the way to Austin as a joke band, which, by that point at SXSW, I decided I vastly preferred. (Miriam)
Best Middle Finger to The Hegemony: “How Deep Is Your Love,” Mitski (Calvin Harris and Disciples cover)
Rising icon Mitski’s appeal, far beyond simple riot grrrl revivalism, is tied to her understanding and throttling awareness of identity. So despite an abundance of original material at her intimate set for She Shreds, her most sublime moment was grabbing hold of Calvin Harris’s “How Deep Is Your Love,” peeling away the layers from the deep house psychodrama until the dark eroticism turned sour and exhausted. Agency, not submission, was the name of the game here, and she couldn’t have picked a better song to make her own; the singer of the original, Ina Wroldsen, remains uncredited for the multinational hit she spawned, while all-male producers Harris and Disciples see their names broadcast across the planet. Mitski took the song’s undeniably powerful fatalistic yearning and framed it as honestly that, rather than as a stranded vocal, subject to the whims of the dance floor and her dancing partners. So, to be clear, when Mitski asked, “How deep is your love?”, that wasn’t really the question—she knew exactly how deep hers was, and wanted to make sure people could keep up. (Austin)
Best Band That I Will Love Forever!!: Twin Peaks
I saw Twin Peaks, a Chicago-based garage rock band, twice. The first show, at Sidewinder, was full of young people and got appropriately wild—a mosh pit burst into being with “Making Breakfast,” from their second record *Wild Onion*, and re-ignited every time Twin Peaks came through with one of their immensely sing-able choruses (“Flavor your heart and your soul,” “I found a new way”).
The second time I saw them was at Spotify House, a boozy backlot in East Austin, and the adult-ish audience was too day-drunk to do much more than bob their heads. Twin Peaks promptly slipped into laid-back surf-rock mode, despite performing the same set list they did at Sidewinder. Keyboardist Colin Croom lit a joint onstage, and the band members handed it off to each other one by one, like a spliff relay. Croom passed the joint to Cadien Lake James, who abandoned playing guitar to dangle it tauntingly in front of drummer Connor Brodner; Brodner had no logistical way of getting to the joint and looked at it longingly. Bassist Jack Dolan managed to get a quick puff in before Croom snatched it back, and the joint remained in Croom’s possession until it reached the roach. Twin Peaks couldn’t have planned that, and I can’t make that shit up. Being a writer doesn’t feel like work when bands don’t treat their shows like work; Twin Peaks managed to look like they were on vacation. (Miriam)
Most Sublime Moment of Pure Industry: Dua Lipa
Let’s be honest—SXSW is an industry creation, through and through. The showcases, the day parties, all of it—it’s all pure consumption for those who think they’re too “in the biz” for the radio, those guys who are so inculcated in the music world that they can’t stand the hits. So maybe that’s why it took a complete industry plant to shake me out of my Thursday stupor, to make me perk up when no amount of experimental footwork, jazz-punk or whatever the hell could. Dua Lipa arrived—as many future pop star hopefuls do nowadays—seemingly fully formed, complete with official font and single artwork. Days into the release of Tumblr-pop synth nugget “Be The One,” her most successful song so far, many were already calling her a future star. Of course, that means nothing—the bottom of the music industry is littered with countless “future stars.” But as Hype Hotel packed itself to the brim with people escaping the pouring rain outside, there was something sublime, whether constructed or otherwise, about one woman transgressing the upturned noses of hundreds of hipsters, if only for her 30-minute set. Whether she’s a future star or not, I couldn’t really care less. What matters most is that for those 30 minutes, as a singer and as a performer, she felt personally powerful—life-affirming, even, to anyone who was really listening close. (Austin)