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50 Best Things We Saw at SXSW 2015

Fetty Wap’s one-song knockout, T-Pain’s triumphant comeback, Willie Nelson’s awesome tour bus and more

The Districts and Migos

The Districts and Migos

Kyle Dean Reinford; Theonepointeight

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.

Honeysuckle Rose tour bus

Willie Nelson's old tour bus "honeysuckle rose"

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Alternative to Uber: Willie Nelson’s Tour Bus

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.

Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett performs at the NPR showcase at Stubbs 3/18

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Living Up to the Hype: Courtney Barnett

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

Theonepointeight

Best Mentor-Protégé Tag-Team: Tink and Timbaland

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

Theonepointeight

Best SXSW Debut: Dej Loaf

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.

Best Coast

Best Coast perform on the Radio Day Stage at SxSW in Austin, TX

Jim Bennett

Best Interstate Love Song: Best Coast

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.

Rae Sremmurd

Rae Sremmurd's car is mobbed by fans as it leaves The Mohawk 3/18

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Escape: Rae Sremmurd

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.

Run The Jewels

Theonepointeight

Best Display of Perseverance: Run the Jewels

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.

Avocado Fries

Theonepointeight

Best Way to Eat an Avocado: As French Fries

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?

Tunde Adebimpe

Laura Barisonzi

Best Loop Duo: Tunde Adebimpe and Morgan Sorne

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.

The Zombies

Laura Barisonzi

Best Case for Nostalgia: The Zombies

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 Pop Group

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 21: Mark Stewart of The Pop Group performs at the Brooklyn Vegan party at Red 7 on March 21, 2015 in Austin, United States. (Photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns via Getty Images)

Lorne Thomson/Getty

Best Zombies (Non-Zombies Edition): The Pop Group

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?

QT

Theonepointeight

Best High Fructose Rave Syrup: The PC Music Showcase

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.

Raz Simone

Raz Simone performs on the street during a rain storm 3/20

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Multitasking: The Unicycling Rapper

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.

Action Bronson

Action Bronson serves food at his food truck while playing his new album via overhead speaker on 3/19

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Rap Snacks: Action Bronson

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.