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48 Best Things We Saw at SXSW 2014

From crystal-encrusted tour vans to nutbar protests to big stars on tiny stages

With countless bands playing countless showcases, countless restaurants and food trucks serving a countless amount of meals, and an estimated 300,000 people there to take it all in, South by Southwest is filled with superlatives. Here, we count out 48 of our own, a list that covers all the best things we saw, heard, ate and experienced — everything from daytime showcases to late-night afterparties, from over-stuffed donuts to a tour bus covered with New Age crystals that were originally intended for Michael Jackson. 

By Steve Appleford, Gavin Edwards, Will Hermes, Christian Hoard, Nick Murray and Chad Swiatecki

Will Hermes

BEST EXTREME BICYCLE: Austin Bike Zoo’s Rattlesnake, Various Times and Locations

Austin is a serious biking city, as anyone trying to dodge drunk cyclists on a Saturday night knows. But the scariest bike we saw during SXSW is the Rattlesnake, an 80-foot, 34-wheel contraption that seats six riders in its belly and looks kinda like a Chinese New Year's dragon might if you chewed on one mushroom too many. It's one of the fantasies made by the Austin Bike Zoo, a crew of puppeteers, bike builders and theater types whose intent is mainly to blow minds, which in fact they do quite well.

Amanda Hatfield

BEST REASON TO STAY OUT PAST 3 A.M.: Perfect Pussy on the South Lamar Pedestrian Bridge

For a 100 or so indie rock fans, the search for The True Meaning of SXSW ended in the wee hours of Friday morning, on a bridge over the Colorado River, where a gas generator powered short sets by Perfect Pussy, Nothing and Ex-Cults. Here there was no line, bouncer or sponsors — and, thanks to a slight bend in the bridge that kept the crowd mostly out of view, no cops, either. Perfect Pussy unleashed a burst of vocals and guitar noise that climaxed when Greg Ambler put a novel spin on rock’s time-honored tradition of set-closing instrument destruction by tossing his bass — and its case — straight into the river. 

Crackerfarm

BEST NEW COUNTRY BADASS: Sturgill Simpson at St. David’s Sanctuary

You gotta love a dude who gets up on a church altar with a bunch of straight-faced honky-tonkers and begins a song, "I been spendin' all my money on weed and pills/Tryin' to write a song that'll pay the bills/But it ain't came yet so I might have to rob a bank." This, however, is no genre joke — Sturgill plays serious hard-boiled country in the Bakersfield vein of Haggard and Owens, with a double shot of bluegrass-style hot-shit picking and a 21st century attitude. After a 14-hour drive to town, his band killed, seemingly without breaking a sweat. He and his roots-minded crew seemed right at home in Austin, though they're based near Nashville. "We try not to go there too much," he deadpanned between songs, referring to ground zero of the country music industrial complex. "And we never play there."

Nicole Fara Silver

BEST SNACK FOR PEOPLE WHO THINK PULLED PORK IS TOO HEALTHY: Donuts from Gourdough’s

We tried three of these Texas-sized desserts: First, the Fat Elvis, which topped the traditional, delicious-in-itself donut with bacon, banana, peanut butter frosting and maple syrup; then the Baby Rattler, an Oreo-on-chocolate sugar rush that added a few gummy worms for good measure; and finally the Miss Shortcake, the cream cheese–frosted donut whose chopped strawberries made it the healthy option. Gourdough’s is a bit of a hike from SXSW central, but after eating even one of these Frankensteins, a hike is exactly what you need.

Rick Kern/Getty Images for Samsung

BEST THRONE-WATCHING: Jay Z and Kanye West

Rarely do you get a chance to see Jay Z and Kanye West perform together in anything smaller than an arena, but that's exactly what fans got when the pair played the 3,000-capacity Austin Music Hall. The stage for the Samsung-sponsored concert featured a 12-foot-tall video cube and a similarly sized setup toward the middle of the concert hall, with the two MCs rising from the interiors of each station. Seeing both solo and in tandem – they were off the platforms and on a traditional stage for most of the night – offered a sort of living Venn Diagram of each man's talents and lyrical strong points, with Jay confidently displaying his up-from-the-bootstraps-and-into-the-penthouse persona and West charismatically airing a miles-long list of perceived slights. And that was before they each dusted off classics like Jay's "Big Pimpin'," and "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and West's "Stronger" and "Gold Digger." After another trip up on the video cubes for some solo cuts, the pair ended with three consecutive spins through the volcanic hit "Niggas in Paris." It was a move caked in excess, but one that seemed right for a night designed to deliver complete sensory overload.

 

Heather Kennedy/Getty Images for SXSW

BEST DAY/NIGHT TRANSITION: Kelela

Playing a day party at Mohawk, rising singer-songwriter Kelela Mizanekristos was bright and joyous, hopping across the Mohawk stage and joking with the audience, asking if anybody had ever accidentally prolonged a cold by smoking weed just before they were fully healed. (Based on the smell, the answer was yes.) That night, however, Kelela’s show was completely transformed: Backlit on a smoky stage, she was visible only as silhouette, DJ Total Freedom unfolding stuttering, dynamic, low-end beats while the singer threw her braids over her head and into the dark.

Tee Murphy

BEST CARNIVAL HOLDOVER: Bunji Garlin

Carnival — the pre-Lenten blowout held around the world — came to an end nearly two weeks ago, but crossover star Bunji Garlin used his two SXSW appearances to bring the music and energy of Trinidad up to Austin, twice leading fans old and new through a shout-alongs of his triumphant 2013 hit "Differentology." "I'm honored to be one of the first two Soca artists to perform at this festival," he told the crowd at Rice and Peas' Wednesday day party. The other? His wife, Fay-Ann Lyons, who followed Bunji's performance with a few songs of her own, whipping the small crowd into such a frenzy that the speakers began to wobble and the stability of the Empire Auto back patio seemed in question.

Brigitte Engl/Redferns via Getty Images

BEST MAKESHIFT VENUE (HOUSE OF GOD EDITION): Wanda Jackson at St. David’s Episcopal Church

The SXSW festival puts on music just about anyplace in Austin that has four walls and a roof (and many places that don’t — part of the reason it’s hard to find parking is that so many parking lots have been repurposed into temporary venues). But rockabilly pioneer Wanda Jackson was visibly surprised to be playing a set in the sanctuary of St. David’s, an active Episcopal church. As she told the crowd, "Not too many towns in Texas let you rock & roll in your church."

The Joelsons

BEST MAKESHIFT VENUE (WHISKEY RIVER EDITION): The Heartbreaker Banquet at Willie Nelson’s Ranch

In the mid-Eighties, a fake old-West town went up on Willie Nelson’s ranch outside Austin, to be used as the set for the film Red Headed Stranger. The town was called Luck, Texas, and it came complete with a jailhouse, chapel, bank, dance hall, a water tower and saloon. The film crew moved on, but Willie kept Luck, Texas standing. (He likes to plays poker at Luck World Headquarters.) Starting two years ago, it became the site of the Heartbreaker Banquet, a day-long festival. This year’s Banquet featured free moonshine cocktails, two stages (one inside the chapel), several food trucks, and sets from bands like the Felice Brothers, J. Roddy Walston and the Business, Shovels & Rope, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, and Brooklyn indie-pop band Lucius, who didn’t fit the rootsy vibe but killed anyway. And, making the least surprising "surprise" appearance of SXSW, Willie came out from his house to romp through "Whiskey River," "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," "Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and other assorted classics. The vibe was so down-home friendly we practically expected Willie to end his set with a "Y’all come back now, ya hear?"

Chad Wadsworth

BEST REASON TO SUFFER THE CROWDS ON 6TH STREET: Carpark Records Showcase

It was a rough scene outside the Parish Underground on Thursday night, thanks to the crowds – by midnight, some of the drunkest of the festival – as well as the toughest bouncer downtown, a six-foot-five Texan who went as far as to snap iPhone photos of anyone he thought was attempting to sneak in. You couldn’t blame people for trying, though: The seven bands playing the D.C record label’s showcase spent the evening attempting to make the venue feel like a suburban basement. Cloud Nothings, loud as ever, closed the show, and so around 1:30 a handful of kids up front, perhaps unsatisfied returning to the Airbnb with only ear damage, threw themselves into a genuine mosh pit. Against all odds, it had turned more chaotic inside than out.

Tamarra/WireImage

BEST AFRICAN GROOVES: Tinariwen and Imarhan Timbuktu

Two five-piece bands originating from the Sahara desert in Mali provided the festival's best one-two guitar punch on Friday night, stretching blues licks into rolling grooves that never seemed to end, just to sometimes reach new heights in flourishes of drumming or ululation. Where an American band would ask the crowd, "Are you having a good time?" their custom was to inquire, "Are you happy?" Yes, we were very happy.

Ray Tamarra/WireImage

MOST EXCITING RAP SET: Le1f

Coming off a terrific Letterman appearance, buzzed-over rapper Le1f provided an unmatched combination of beats, energy, dancing and technical ability that quickly transformed his SXSW crowd from intrigued to enraptured. By the time he finished with "Wut," a saxophone-anchored track, most of said crowd was singing along.

Kevin Mazur/WireImage

BEST BBQ-THEMED SET: Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga went for the full barbecue in her excessive-but-entertaining showcase: She entered trussed to a horizontal pole like a pig roasting on a spit. She spun the microphone around her head while sticking a sausage in her mouth. She had a neon sign reading "Lady Gaga's Haus of Swine BBQ." And the mechanical bull onstage proved to be a mechanical pig: pulled pork, anyone? Of course, what most people remembered about her show was Millie Brown vomiting all over Gaga (an effective, if gross, piece of performance art) — not a strong endorsement for the Haus of Swine.

Ian Witlen

BEST SYNTH-POP O.G.: Gary Numan

At Elysium on Saturday night, Numan embraced the industrial world he helped inspire more than three decades ago. In his second SXSW performance of the evening, the U.K. singer behind the still-totally-genius hit "Cars" leaned hard against his mic stand as he delivered futuristic songs from the Seventies and Eighties plus brooding tracks from last year's Splinter (Songs From a Broken Mind), his first album of new material in seven years. At Elysium (where the pool tables were turned into a display of the latest Moog gear), he was overcome with gloom and intense emotion, feeling every throb of his synths. The inevitable message: Love will tear us apart. It was terrifically dark and intense, but at the end Numan finally stepped into the white light to wave his goodbyes at wildly cheering fans.

Koury Angelo

BEST PLAYING TO THE CROWD: Future

Future has become pop’s reigning hookmaster over the past few years, robo-crooning for everyone from Miley to Bieber. His exuberant Saturday afternoon set suggested that he’d be fun to watch even if he was singing show tunes. Future was determined to do something special for the SXSW crowd, pulling out "Good Morning," a track that didn’t make the cut for his upcoming LP ("I'll probably never perform that song again," he said), driving the audience into a frenzy by performing just the hook to "Bugatti," and bringing out Texas rap hero Bun B for a cameo. (B.O.B. also made a guest appearance.) And that little dance he did, where put his arms out and shimmied backwards like a robot in reverse? That was just showing off.

Ryan Muir

BEST SECOND ACT: Jojo

Once a 14-year-old pop star who toured malls and scored a Number One hit with "Leave (Get Out)," Jojo is nowadays working toward a career reinvention à la Robyn or Miley. The singer, now 23, opened her SXSW set with "Leave," transitioned into a song sampling the hook of Toto’s "Africa" and later went as far to cover Phil Collins. If the set wasn't a commentary on how one generation’s kitsch becomes the next's cool, it was the rare chance to see the process happen right before your eyes.

Ryan Muir

BEST REPLACEMENTS FOR A CANCELED ACT: Erykah Badu and Bun B

For a moment, the mood at Saturday’s Fader Fort was grim: The line for the bathroom lasted 15 minutes, the line to get a burger lasted over an hour, the line outside lasted two or three and Migos’s 5:15 set had just been canceled. The show went on, however, with the staff quickly announcing Erykah Badu’s performance but keeping Bun B’s under wraps until the Texas legend arrive onstage, opening with "Get Throwed," leading the crowd through his and Pimp C’s verses on Jay Z’s "Big Pimpin'" before concluding with "Int’l Players Anthem." Badu, meanwhile, led her band through a short jam, playing favorites like "The Healer," "Danger" and "Didn’t Cha Know" in a 20-minute set that felt like it could have continued for another hour-and-a-half.

Koury Angelo

BEST WAY TO LOSE WHAT’S LEFT OF YOUR HEARING: Skrillex/OWSLA Showcase

Opener Kill the Noise may have been more punishing, pushing through a set of heavy dubstep and trap that gestured toward camp ("Who Let the Dogs Out?") and club (KW Griff’s recently re-released "Bring in the Katz") without ever slowing down. But the crowd at Saturday night's OWSLA label showcase had come for Skrillex, and Skrillex, as usual, didn’t disappoint. Mostly playing his own tracks, the DJ found his lane and stayed in it, concluding the festival with a set that was less about pushing his fans in a new direction than rewarding them for making it through the week. After an hour and ten minutes of ear-damaging bass, the final reward turned out to be, oddly, Toto’s "Africa," an un-remixed sing-along before the bar closed and the crowd went home.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

BEST NINETIES REVIVAL: Soundgarden

Things got super-heavy on night three of the inaugural iTunes Festival at SXSW in Austin, as Soundgarden dove back into the thundering grooves of 1994's Superunknown, performing the career-defining album in full for the first time. It was a lesson in grunge at its prime, delivered with swagger and Chris Cornell's perfectly unhinged wail, still as piercing and musical as ever. There weren't a lot of onstage acrobatics from band members, choosing heaviosity over flash, from a rumbling "Spoonman" frayed at the edges to the oppressive grind of "4th of July." The band's punk roots came forth on "Kickstand," Cornell and Thayil slashing on guitars, Cameron and Shepherd pushing the rhythm ever faster, quick and to the pointless. The only thing missing was a Cornell stage dive as an exclamation point.

Courtesy @EmpireATX

BEST PLACE TO DANCE: Empire Control Room and Garage

No matter what you wanted to dance to, the Empire was the place to do it. In our handful of trips to the Garage, we moved to everything from Lunice’s hip-hop–inflected beats to Nicky Da B relentless New Orleans bounce and even Cajmere's "Brighter Days," a Chicago house classic that predates many of the people who were dancing to it. When that got stale – or more likely, when it got too crowded – the Control Room, a connected venue, made for a nice reprieve, and there we saw everything from Nadastrom's dancehall and Latin-influenced techno to DJ Spinn and Rashad's breakneck Chicago footwork during the three days of IHeartComix, Biz 3, Heard and Embrace-curated shows.

Jessica Lehrman

BEST USE OF LIMITED SPACE: Schoolboy Q

The second stage at Stubb's on Friday afternoon may have been big enough to fit Temples earlier and Against Me! later on, but with Schoolboy Q’s DJ occupying the main part of it, the L.A. rapper was pushed to a small catwalk near the crowd, eventually requiring his bodyguard to stand below him in case he slipped. The crowd never left the palm of his hand, even if Schoolboy was at times unsatisfied with their performance. "Why am I the only one sweating?" he at one point asked, bringing everyone in close for a rowdy performance of "Hands on the Wheel" that undoubtedly made the question unnecessary to repeat.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

BEST LET’S SHOW THE YOUNG PUNKS HOW IT’S DONE: Off!

Led with snarls and streetwise humor by SoCal punk originator Keith Morris (Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Flag), Off! delivered 40 minutes of hardcore punk at Frank, an airy hot dog and beer bar in downtown Austin. With guitarist Dimitri Coats' crushing riffs pushing against the rhythms of drummer Mario Rubalcaba and bassist Steven McDonald, the band raged in short, sharp bursts through crowd faves "Wiped Out" and "Jeffrey Lee Pierce," plus songs from the band's upcoming album Wasted Years. Never mind that this was a daytime set bathed in window light — things were rolling at peak intensity, as band and screaming fans both looked ready to smash up the place (but didn’t).

Victor Chavez/WireImage

BEST ATMOSPHERE: 3BallMTY

On Friday night, the courtyard at the Mexican-American Cultural Center felt more like a block party than a music festival, featuring a crowd – toddlers on their dads' shoulders, grannies on benches, and everyone in between up front dancing – that suggested a much fuller meaning of the phrase "all ages." With support from two female singers and four male dancers who entered in light-up Día de los Muertos costumes, Latino pop DJ trio 3BallMTY played the perfect set for the occasion, mixing their youth-oriented EDM with cumbia rhythms and an occasional throwback touch – a sped up Willie Colón horn sample here, the hook from Elvis Crespo's "Suavemente" there – to keep the older participants involved.

Jessica Lehrman

BEST DISPLAY OF FANDOM: Tyler, the Creator Watching Pusha T

By the time Pusha T began his set at House of Vans at Mohawk on Wednesday, the line was so long and the venue was so full that a couple kids gave up waiting and attempted to climb the tree that overlooks the venue. The Odd Future crew (whose set at the same venue would be canceled due to a tragic car accident outside) found an easier solution, entering the top level of the venue, making themselves as visible as possible, and rapping every word to Push’s verse on Clipse's "Grindin’." The elder rapper, it seemed, appreciated the gesture, looking up at Tyler – the most visible of all, naturally – and performing with more energy than at any other point in his already lively set.

Will Hermes

BEST REDNECK-BAITING BEVERAGE CONTAINER: The Yellow Plastic Cup, Various Locations

We couldn't help but read this hilarious bit of shwag sloganeering in part as an answer to Toby Keith's annoyingly undeniable bro-country hit "Red Solo Cup" — the kind of Southern mainstream culture that SXSW and Austin proudly position themselves to the left of. Bring it to your next kegger and watch shit pop off.

Robert J. Takata

BEST HARMONIES: The Haden Triplets

Petra Haden has made a specialty out of excellent albums that are built around multitracking her own a cappella vocals, covering classic movie themes or the Who. But the greatest harmonizers are almost always blood relations who have been doing it since childhood, like the Everly Brothers. So Petra showed up with her sisters Tanya and Rachel (the triplets are daughters of jazz bassist Charlie Haden) and delivered a gorgeous set, finishing with a cover of the Everlys' "So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)."

Nicole Fara Silver

BEST NEW COUNTRY-ROCKER (PUNK DIVISION): Lydia Loveless

Shots were already being downed when Loveless and her Columbus, Ohio crew hit the stage for this early-afternoon show — and the crowd was drinking, too. In a black and gold brocade-print dress, leather jacket and bowler hat (which soon flew off), the 23-year-old tore through a handful of songs from her new Bloodshot LP Something Else, a name-making country-rock set with more snarl than twang. "I wanna love you like a father loves a son," she sang on "Verlaine Shot Rimbaud," the album’s riff on the homicidal love affair between the fabled French poets, with her eyes closed, her guitars-and-pedal-steel band howling, and her pale face tilted up to the fierce Texas sun. It ends, and she flashes a Mona Lisa smirk, rewarding herself with a gulp of tequila and a suck of lime.

Timothy Hiatt/Getty Images

BEST RAPPER EN ESPANOL: Ana Tijoux

Rapping in Spanish with precise enunciation, unerring rhythm, and tremendous flow, with a melodic sense that connects her rapping to her singing, the French/Chilean MC Ana Tijoux is nothing less than a Latin American Lauryn Hill. She got Anglo attention when her “1977” was used in an episode of Breaking Bad, and she even got a shout out from Thom Yorke. But tonight she rocked a packed house without any English-speaking concessions, and most of the crowd seemed to have no problem grasping her between-song banter. And when her band kicked in, pumping out latin dub, electro cumbias and low-rider disco-funk under her syllables, the language was universal.

Ian Witlen

BEST FREE GIG: Jon Langford at Yard Dog

Anyone wandering along South Congress Avenue on Saturday could have popped in to the Yard Dog Art Space and caught Langford’s set — no badge, wristband or guest-list required. A pretty good deal considering that Langford — a founding member of punk-rock O.G.'s the Mekons — is a master at mixing up raw drive, rootsy tunefulness and wry lyrics. Special shout-out to the middle-aged hippie-ish woman clearly having more fun than 99 percent of all SXSW fans, as she danced with her man and, later, spun around with middle fingers flying when Langford sang about the surveillance state in "Drone Operator."

Courtesy Ruptly

BEST COUNTER-PROTEST: The Topless Anti-Gun Lady

During a march of open-carry gun-rights advocates through downtown Austin on Wednesday, one woman stood alone, baring her breasts while holding a MORE BOOBS LESS GUNS sign. That it was an awfully chilly afternoon only added to her bravery.

sxsw 2014 speakeasy

Nicole Fara Silver

BEST SECRET BOWLING ALLEY: The Speakeasy

The Speakeasy has two separate venues in the same building. If you want to make the transition from French-Algerian blues on the big stage to Finnish sisters playing synth-pop in the lounge, your best route is through the upstairs bar, which has Austin’s most surprising nightclub amenity: a two-lane bowling alley, in full use while the music plays.

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