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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

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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