The South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, is filled with excess: thousands of shows, thousands of music fans, an uncountable number of plates of BBQ. If something at SXSW is worth doing, it's worth overdoing — a premise breakout star Courtney Barnett lived out by doing eight sets before flying home to Australia. This year, the festival dialed down a bit on superstar appearances — possibly out of safety concerns after last year's tragic hit-and-run deaths — but there was still plenty of must-see action. Our team of writers and photographers fanned out across the city, finding the very best Austin had to offer. Here are 50 of our highlights, from a surprise appearance by T-Pain to avocado fries.
Is a party truly complete before Miley Cyrus shows up? Appearing at Mike Will Made It's Fader Fort showcase, she had the crowd in her palm from the moment she walked out and began rapping her verse from the producer's "23." She played her trump card next, sending the room into rowdy raptures with a performance of "We Can't Stop" that showed off her legit impressive vocal power. It also raised the question of whether enough time has passed for us to be nostalgic for the summer of 2013, that carefree season of red cups, sweaty bodies and barely disguised drug references in pop songs. Time waits for no one, but "We Can't Stop" is forever. Finally, she stayed onstage as Will's young protégés Rae Sremmurd sent us off with their irresistibly catchy "Throw Sum Mo."
One of the few giant names in hip-hop that actually showed up this year was J. Cole, and what a set he delivered. Crowds waited in line for hours to get a chance at a ticket, with even credential holders getting turned away at the door. When Cole finally took the stage after a few short sets from his Dreamville labelmates, he more than justified fans' efforts to see him. His conversations with the massive crowd felt like confessions, and even when amped-up audience members started crowdsurfing on the floor level, his set — which included songs from The Warm Up all the way through to 2014 Forest Hills Drive — had the personal vibe of a show in a much smaller room.
The Fader Fort's Friday lineup featured two unnamed guest sets directly following Migos, so everyone was shocked when Big Sean came out before Migos ever took the stage. The change-up, likely due to a last-minute scheduling issue, ended up making Big Sean's appearance an actual surprise. He opened with "Paradise" and went through hits like "All Your Fault" and "GangBang" (sadly, no appearance by Wiz Khalifa) and "I Don't Fuck With You" (awesomely, with an appearance by E-40) before telling the crowd to "make some noise if you're a dreamer."
"Whatever you do, get on your grind. It's motherfuckin' time to get it," he said, adding, "Make your family proud, take care of your family and be happy," before going right into "Blessings." It was apparently a good pep talk: The crowd went nuts.
With fun. announcing that they're on hiatus while its members pursue solo projects, there's a hole in the musical ecosystem for a high-energy, candy-colored pop-rock band. Who better to fill it, then, than Jack Antonoff, fun.'s lead guitarist? His side project Bleachers released their debut Strange Desire last year — and judging by a string of SXSW gigs, Antonoff is now ready to take the band to the next level.
We caught them at the tiny Uproxx House, where they powered through seven of their own songs plus a cover of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It." Although their bassist stood out by seemingly taking fashion cues from tennis star Bjorn Borg (neatly trimmed beard, headband), and Antonoff was jumping all over the place and trading riffs with his saxophonist, the star of the show was the songwriting. Antonoff's compositions are carefully constructed like a microchip or a Holland-Dozier-Holland tune. By the time the band reached the final song, "I Wanna Get Better," it seemed clear that Bleachers make a big enough noise to fill arenas. Resistance is futile.
The second surprise guest at Friday night's Fader Fort was T-Pain, who played an astonishing 42 songs to close out the evening. "The reason I'm here is to remind you motherfuckers who I am," he said. "We'll start off easy, but I'm gonna put some pressure on that ass." The set was nonstop energy, with constant dancing and lightning-fast medleys of his considerable hits. He didn't stop for the entire set, which ended up running long after his supposed curfew. One highlight — and there were many — was a breakneck mash-up of parts of Wiz Khalifa's "Black and Yellow" with aspects of the T-Pain-featured Rick Ross joint "The Boss."
At age 50, Judd is incredibly famous, but suffers from some of the cheesy sheen that remains on many mainstream country stars of the Eighties and Nineties. She provided the antidote at her show at the intimate Bethel Hall in St. David's Church on Friday, playing with a stripped-down three-piece band of stone Nashville pros and telling stories about her own life. The audience, a mix of superfans and skeptics, watched Judd reinvent herself. Without overblown production, the emphasis was on her big, bluesy voice — she said that at an early age, she wanted to be known as "Shelvis," and her Presley roots came through.
Full Report: Wynonna Judd Reinvents Herself on Small SXSW Stage
We know Snoop Dogg as a rapper, singer, movie star and football coach. There were also those times that he appeared at WrestleMania. Now, at the behest of his fans, the 43-year-old has taken up art. "They were like, 'Man, you should paint,'" Snoop said at his overflowing Friday-morning keynote. "I was like, 'For real?'" He made his first piece while staying at Australia's Versace Hotel and knew it was finished when he sprinkled weed ashes onto the canvas. Such work has since become a cathartic experience. "I'm in a whole 'nother galaxy," he rhapsodized. "I'm smiling, I'm laughing, I'm crying. I'm everywhere."
New Jersey rapper Fetty Wap currently has the 10th-biggest song in the country with his ride-or-die love song "Trap Queen." So when he showed up as a highly touted guest at Fool's Gold's party on Friday night, that's what he performed: "Trap Queen"…and only "Trap Queen." Fetty bounced immediately after doing his one hit, like a mirage in the night. But, hey, at least he gave us that much!
Chance's band, the Social Experiment, arrived to the Fader Fort stage on time; the rapper, on the other hand, didn't appear until minutes after he was scheduled to leave, leading fickle festivalgoers to yell lines like "You suck!" and "You're not Kanye!" His giddy, colorful, easy-going set proved that they were at least right about the latter: Buoyed by life-affirming organ lines and the kind of trumpets Yeezy hasn't used since "Touch the Sky," Chance leaped, danced and spit through some of the best tracks from 2013's Acid Rap. By the time he reached "Favorite Song," he had practically turned into a soca artist, engaging the crowd in some call-and-response and ordering everyone to jump in unison.
Sam Hunt will be touring with Lady Antebellum this summer, but on Wednesday afternoon he closed down winter by taking on the cool kids at Fader Fort. After Houston chopped-and-screwed disciple OG Ron C warmed the crowd with tracks like "Coco" and Lil Wayne's "O Let's Do It" remix, the Georgia-via-Nashville sweetie (dressed in Drizzy-esque all-black) proved himself with a professional, exuberant half-hour set of rowdy pop-country and snippets of tunes like "Jesus Walks" and "Bump N' Grind." Those unfamiliar with his work — all but a few scattered fans, identified by their screams — might have wondered if he were pandering. He wasn't.
Swedish pop star Tove Lo recovered from her recent throat surgery in time to headline the Rolling Stone party on Tuesday (held in Lance Armstrong's bicycle shop, with his yellow jerseys still on the wall). She led her band (one keyboardist, two drummers) through irresistible singles such as "Habits (Stay High)" and "Talking Body," and worked the crowd into a sweaty froth. Before playing "Heroes," she told the audience, "It's really fucking hot up here. I'm not wearing a bra, so if I get a nip slip, you have to tell me." Then, delivering on her foreshadowing, she flashed a nipple to the crowd. She also convinced some of the audience to take off their own shirts: "That would make me feel a lot better." Over lunch with RS earlier that day, Tove Lo discussed drunken behavior with her band and tour staff (whom she collectively calls "my five husbands"). While her tour manager is fond of throwing food when he gets inebriated, attempting to toss almonds and gummy bears into people's mouths, she prefers to get up on a table and flash her butt to whoever's around. Then, she said with a smile, her tour manager "has to grab me and pull my pants up."
Migos played eight shows on Friday and Saturday (and a ninth on Thursday). In the three that we witnessed, the Atlanta trio casually appeared at the venue looking placid and stoned, then bum-rushed the stage with an energy unmatched by anyone else on the bill. From there, on to the next one.
Here's Willie Nelson — a contemporary of James Brown, a songwriter for Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison — not just playing South by Southwest but throwing a rival ranch party so fun that it draws people 35 miles west of town on a loaded Thursday night. Openers like Nikki Lane and Hurray for the Riff Raff were superb, but the host and headliner was untouchable, playing hits, leading sing-alongs and moving nimbly across the fretboard as he jumped into a handful of aggressive acoustic guitar solos. Both his hat and his bandana ended up in the crowd — a diverse bunch that cheered for Waylon but knew more of "Beer for My Horses" than "Good Hearted Woman" — and he closed the show by packing the stage with "friends, family and neighbors" who helped him through an upbeat "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" and a smirking "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die." Still, the entire trip — the trip to Texas, even — was worth it just to hear the way the 81-year-old's voice lilts into the title line of "Always on My Mind."
Sure, the show was great fun — but for a few lucky guests, the 45-minute ride out of Austin was a highlight, too. Nelson's famed Me and Paul tour bus — recently renovated, complete with Marshall headphones and amps — took a handful of revelers for a ride out into Hill Country. Between the leather ceilings and the crushed red velvet seats, it definitely beat taking a cab.
Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett's excellent debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, has made her one of 2015's official Next Big Things, and SXSW definitely got the memo. She drew a jam-packed crowd to Stubb's for an NPR showcase on Wednesday night — "Nobody told me how many of you there would be," she said at one point. "There’s a fuckload!" She and her band fully earned the buzz with a riotous performance featuring plenty of her mean guitar and sardonic wit. Naturally, Barnett is as deadpan onstage as she is in her songs: After a rousing run of a song about a swimming-pool crush, she exclaimed, "That was 'Aqua Profunda.' What a stupid song!"
Tink came to Austin with one of the world's best hypemen. Timbaland, who also happens to be one of the world's best producers, warmed the crowd by shouting over past hits like "Big Pimpin'," then introduced the Chicago rapper and declared her the future. "I don't touch none of my sister's records," Tim said as Tink spit over a beat that sampled Aaliyah's "One in a Million." "But she spoke to me in my sleep and said she is the one." Even so, some of the set's best moments came when the younger artist, rocking a Williams-sisters visor-and-braids combo, playfully pushed her elder out of the way and claimed the stage as her own.
Dej Loaf's Sell Soul mixtape was one of the strongest of 2014, but many still know the rapper only for "Try Me," the shadowy hit that introduced her to fans outside Detroit. Playing a full week of shows, Dej continually convinced the people in the back of the room that the people in the front were onto something. And as a little reminder, she and her hypeman — who was twice her size — ended gigs by tossing copies of Sell Soul into the crowd. It might have been the only physical CD that festivalgoers were actually excited to receive.
Turns out Texas evenings and California Nights go together splendidly — as Best Coast proved when they previewed their upcoming album of that name (due out in May) with a set at the Hype Hotel. Singer Bethany Cosentino’s lyrical themes have long fallen into three main categories: the virtues of California, the pleasures of getting stoned, and romance and its travails. On the new LP's title track, she combined those themes into one mega-psychedelic package.
After an insane set at House of Vans on Wednesday afternoon, Tupelo, Mississippi duo Rae Sremmurd attempted to exit the venue by meeting their SUV on the street outside. The only problem? Hundreds of fans were already waiting on the sidewalks and streets that surrounded the venue. By the time the brothers Sremmurd were in the car, dozens of young die-hards had piled up around the doors, trying to take iPhone pictures and touch them through the windows. Finally, security got the crowd to dissipate enough to get the car rolling.
When Run the Jewels performed "Banana Clipper" on Monday afternoon, a marauder crashed the stage and attacked the duo. "Last time we did this song it got interrupted," El-P told their the crowd at Stubb's, four days later. "It's not gonna get interrupted again." Killer Mike was even clearer: "If you interrupt this song, we're gonna beat the fuckin' shit out of you." No beatdowns were necessary then or later that night at their Cedar Street Courtyard gig, although the latter performance turned into one of the rowdiest of the festival. A handful of security guards were needed to reinforce the barricade that separated the pit from the rappers; the guards dodged an onslaught of bodies, drinks and keys. At one point, someone threw a gold watch onto the stage.
The avocado is a near-perfect food, held back only by the way that a slimy piece of one slips in your fingers if you try to eat the fruit by hand. The geniuses at the Tailgate Bistro food solve this problem by deep-frying each slice, then covering those slices in cheese, bacon, onion and cilantro. It's still healthy, right?
Three hours later, singer Tunde Adebimpe would lead his band TV on the Radio through a triumphant headlining slot at the NPR showcase at Stubb's. But at this moment, he was sitting on the stage (no chair or stool, on the actual stage) at the tiny 405 Club with his friend Morgan Sorne, experimenting with looping equipment. "Thank you for showing up," he told the crowd of about 80 people. "We're pretty much going to fuck around. You can do stuff."
The audience followed his lead and sat cross-legged on the club's wooden floor. They were then treated to Adebimpe and Sorne constructing songs in real time, hypnotically layering one sound on top of another into slow grooves, with Sorne's high-pitched keening contrasting with Adebimpe's rumbling voice. They patched together improvised percussion and snatches from their own songs, and when Adebimpe chanted a line like "there is life in it still," all ears were attuned to the nuances of repetition. By the end of the set, Adebimpe was reclining on one side: relaxed in posture, but at a high pitch of creativity.
Singer Colin Blunstone and organist Rod Argent, who started making music together well over 50 years ago, were in particularly fine form in an early-evening Thursday set at Stubb's, where they took care to include a generous helping of songs from 1968's Odessey and Oracle and the obscurity "I Want You Back Again," covered in recent years by Tom Petty. ("If it's good enough for Tom Petty, it's good enough for us," Blunstone declared.) One new song, "Maybe Tomorrow," made an explicit argument for the value of nostalgia, in a manner that felt both self-serving and charming. The song sounded like a lost B-side from 1966, and concluded, "We should forget about today/Just like the Beatles used to say/I believe in yesterday."
The post-punk pioneers recently released Citizen Zombie, their first new album in 35 years, and, at Red 7 on Saturday afternoon, their scabrous sarcasm and jagged funk were as charged as they were in the old days — arguably even crankier and noisier. Of note: Their bassist wore a T-shirt with the band's own name onstage, which could have been a party foul or an ironic masterstroke. Who's to say, really?
The U.K. dance label's super-packed Thursday night showcase at Empire Garage was more fun than binging on a gigantic bag of candy — all the dizzy sugar rush with no crash afterward. Each of the 11 artists on the bill staked out a unique piece of PC Music's hyperactive sound, from GFOTY's Spice-Girls-gone-punk tantrums to label architect A. G. Cook's sped-up house heaven ("Beautiful" was divine) to Hannah Diamond's teen heartbreak anthems to the blissed-out infomercial-core of QT's "Hey QT." The 1:30 a.m. closing spot went to Sophie (who isn't formally part of PC Music, but has worked closely with its artists). His relentless set featured the hardest rhythms of the night.
We ran into Raz Simone on Waller Street, riding through traffic on his one-wheeled scooter and rapping like a madman. It was a SXSW street performance, elevated on every level.
It was the "impromptu" South by Southwest moment that Big Home Bron's whole career has been building toward. After debuting his new album, Mr. Wonderful, on a private double-decker bus traveling through Austin ("There were a lot of low-hanging branches," noted one passenger), the former professional chef streamed the album for the public while serving empanadas from his own food truck. "Play it loud!" he ordered, winking at a girl who was taking his photo. A small crowd waited their turn, thinning slightly — maybe by two or three people — when an oblivious Riff Raff approached a nearby vendor looking for some lunch of his own.