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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.

Tobias

Tobais Jesso Jr performs at the spotify house on 3/19

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Serenade: Tobias Jesso Jr.

Newcomer Tobias Jesso Jr. has gotten serious buzz on the heels of his debut, Goon, and the 29-year-old, extremely tall Canadian — who only learned how to play piano a couple of years ago — has been performing some of his first-ever live shows around the States. At the Spotify House on an excessively humid Thursday afternoon, clad in a dark long-sleeve shirt and white Nike trainers, Jesso began an intimate set full of mellow piano ballads from the new record. "Get ready for some piano faces," Jesso, who makes some serious piano faces, cracked before going into "Can We Still Be Friends." His style onstage was easy and conversational, and he's not ashamed to admit he's still getting proficient at piano: At one point after hitting a sour note, he joked, "Oops, first mistake. It was bound to happen!"

Mitski

Mitski poses on Red River street before her performace at the Ryan Hemsworth showcase on 3/20

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Case of Schizophrenia: Mitski

Twenty-four-year-old Mitski Miyawaki wrings magic out of contrasts: Her incredible vocal range hits crystalline, sonorous highs that often recall Mazzy Star, while the music she’s playing has a gritty, metallic brashness. Her 2014 LP, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, hits gut-punching lows of sadness and then face-melting rage-filled blackouts. During her set at Thursday's Brooklyn Vegan showcase, she demonstrated both sides of her sonic personality. With a hot-pink bass guitar and a shirt that read "She Shreds," Mitski and her two bandmates launched into songs like "Drunk Walk Home" — a song off the new record in which, naturally, she lilts in the intro then breaks into hardcore metal howls in the outro. Also of note? She managed to do it over and over again. When RS caught up with her on Friday, Mitski tried to explain how many shows she would be playing. "It's been crazy," she said. "I'm doing three shows tomorrow." She paused. "Wait, no — three today! Oh my fucking God!"

The Districts

The Districts, Fader Fort, SXSW, Austin, Texas 3.20.15

Kyle Dean Reinford

Best Youthful Aggression (Non-Migos Edition): The Districts

The Districts have been making raw, jittery rock since they were in high school — which actually wasn't that long ago, since most of the Philadelphia four-piece are 19 and 20 years old. But what they lack in years they make up for in ferocity — their 2 p.m. Friday set at the Fader Fort was all raw energy, as they played tracks off their recent debut full-length, A Flourish and a Spoil.

Machel Montano

Theonepointeight

Best Buzzer-Beater: Machel Montano

At stateside soca parties, even the genre's biggest names will often play no more than their three most popular hits, creating a frenzy and moving on to the next fête. At Friday's LargeUp "Sounds of the Caribbean" showcase, headliner Machel Montano performed for a full hour, jumping, waving and dancing so hard that even on a 57-degree night, you could see the steam rising off his body. The venue closed at 2:00 a.m., and the Trinidadian star was supposed to be offstage at 1:50, but at 1:48 he pleaded for one more song. He then delivered a 15-minute sprint that began with a medley of reggae hits, transitioned into Major Lazer's "Sound Bang," turned to his own massive "Ministry of Road" and closed with Destra's "This Is Carnival." Still, the crowd wanted more.

Alvvays

Amy E. Price/Getty

Best Public Display of Adorkable: Alvvays

"Hi, we're Alvvays!" said Alvvays lead singer Molly Rankin, whose every utterance seemed to come with an exclamation point. Her band was playing in front of a giant stone wall in the parking lot of Cheer Up Charlie's. "I feel like we're in the Flintstones movie!" They played a set that covered the distance from jangly to jaunty — but made up for their lack of range with melodies and charm to spare. Rankin even tried to get tall people to trade places with "tiny people" to improve the sightlines, exhorting, "It'll be great! Participate!"

Viet Cong

Viet Cong performs at The Fader Fort on 3/20

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Recovery From an Injury: Viet Cong

Though Viet Cong drummer Mike Wallace came onstage with one arm in a sling, he played a formidable set with just one hand. On Friday, the band brought in reinforcements to the Fader Fort in the form of Thor Harris, the drummer for Swans and Shearwater, who showed up with just an hour's notice. Standing to the side of Wallace, who was seated behind the kit, Harris beat the living hell out of the half of the drum kit that Wallace couldn't access, returning the band to its characteristic in-your-face insanity and then some.

Mickey Guyton

Theonepointeight

Best First Impression: Mickey Guyton

When Mickey Guyton took the stage at YouTube's Thursday afternoon showcase, few in the crowd seemed to know much about her. No matter: The rising country singer won them over with an endearing combination of vocal excellence, sturdy songwriting and sassy shots at an ex-boyfriend. A late-set bluegrass track slowed things down, but it also proved that she can mix it up. "Cool Ya," the one she introduced as her "sexy song," lived up to its billing, highlighting a set that people will remember even after returning to their colder hometowns — convenient because this summer she'll be visiting many of them while touring with Brad Paisley.

Torres

Torres poses backstage at Heartbreaker banquet on Willie Nelso's ranch in Luck, Tx on 3/19

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Rainy-Day Rock: Torres

Wet weather put a damper on much of Friday (especially the outdoor shows), but singer-guitarist Torres drove away any rainy-day blahs with a cathartic set at a Dr. Martens-sponsored showcase at Bar 96. Ranging from a throaty whisper to a full howl over grungy distortion, she turned songs like 2013's "Honey," 2014's "New Skin" and this year's "Strange Hellos" into emotional sledgehammers. It was a short but powerful performance that solidified her upcoming LP, Sprinter, as one of the year's most anticipated indie-rock releases.

Nikki Lane

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Dressed: Nikki Lane

Rowdy Nashville songwriter Nikki Lane has become almost as well-known for her impeccable style as she has for her debaucherous, tongue-in-cheek country jams. The outfit she wore during her set on Thursday was one for the record books: a long, translucent white lace dress with very visible white briefs underneath and a giant white cowboy hat to match. "Who feels extremely lucky to be up here on Willie Nelson's ranch instead of down in little old Austin?" she asked the crowd before launching into "700,000 Rednecks," adding, "You all look fucking good doin' it, too."

Alex G

Theonepointeight

Best Imaginary Special Guests: Alex G

"Are you guys excited for the surprise guests?" Alex G asked the crowd at his late-afternoon Fader Fort set on Saturday. "If you like Space Jam, you'll like the special guest," he said. "If you like basketball and the Chicago Bulls, you'll like the special guest." Of course, the special guest didn't actually end up being Michael Jordan, but it didn't stop Alex G, the 22-year-old songwriting virtuoso, and his band from having a little fun in the meantime. For good measure, he later added that the special guest's "initials are M.M. and he was a detective on the last season of True Detective." (The special guest was not Matthew McConaughey either.)

Screaming Females

Screaming Females perform at Red 7 during Brooklyn Vegan's Day Party on 3/21

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Shredding: Screaming Females

Singer-guitarist Marissa Paternoster punctuated the New Jersey trio's Sabbath-style thunder with lightning-quick solos that Eddie Van Halen wouldn't be mad at.

Strobe and Smoke

Gavin Edwards

Best Warning Sign (Visual Edition): The Hype Hotel

Spotted at the Hype Hotel during a set by singer-songwriter Ryn Weaver: "STROBE AND SMOKE EFFECTS WILL BE USED DURING THIS PERFORMANCE AND IT WILL BE SICK AS FUCK."

"We play very loud"

Simon Vozick-Levinson

Best Warning Sign (Audio Edition): Wand

The sound guy at Hotel Vegas peered intently at a tip sheet provided by eardrum-blasting L.A. rockers Wand: "WE PLAY VERY LOUD, AND WILL NOT PLAY ANY OTHER WAY. PLEASE DO NOT TELL US TO TURN DOWN."

Mac McCaughan

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 20: Musician Mac McCaughan performs onstage at 'I Wrote That Song' during the 2015 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Austin Convention Center on March 20, 2015 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Robert A Tobiansky/Getty Images for SXSW)

Robert A Tobiansky/Getty

Best Confession: Mac McCaughan

At the hugely entertaining "I Wrote That Song" panel discussion, Superchunk leader Mac McCaughan had a confession about the band's most enduring song, the 1989 post-punk quit-your-job anthem "Slack Motherfucker": "I have the demo for 'Slack Motherfucker,' and it sounds like a Tom Petty song." He was making a point about how a band inevitably puts its own stamp on any composition, but given how Petty recently snagged a slice of Sam Smith's "Stay with Me," it seemed like a dangerous admission. "Bring it on, Tom!" McCaughan said with a shrug. 

Della Mae

Theonepointeight

Best Rolling Stones Cover: Della Mae

Della Mae, a five-woman country band, kicked off the Americana Music Association's showcase at Pandora's Discovery Den at the Gatsby with a set heavy on the bluegrass. The highlight came with a cover of the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations": slow, rootsy, sung with feeling by Celia Woodsmith, a quiet prayer for a closing door.

Hinds

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Garage Rock en Espanol: Hinds

Shows at 5 p.m. are the Bermuda Triangle of SXSW: too early for the looming insanity of the night, but a little too late for a happy-go-lucky day party. Hinds (a.k.a. Deers), the Madrid-based all-female four-piece, made the best of their time slot at Cheer Up Charlie's on Wednesday, combining the sweaty energy of a riot-grrrl happening with catchy, pretty Sixties girl group harmonies. The band did plenty of jumping around, and soon so did the crowd. Hinds are already big in Europe, and they feel poised for a U.S. breakthrough.

The HillBenders

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Bluegrass Who: The HillBenders

You haven't heard "Acid Queen" until you've seen it sung by a bearded man with a mandolin. Covering the Who's Tommy in its entirety as a "bluegrass opry" for an enthusiastic rain-soaked crowd in the backyard of Threadgill's on Saturday was a genius move (and a much better idea than having Ken Russell direct 1975's Tommy movie). They faithfully replicated the songs, even giving short synopses of the plot at key points, but embellished them with banjo, mandolin and dobro to give the music an extra moonshine kick. The HillBenders, a talented five-piece band from Missouri, proved to be the perfect group to execute this "Whograss" concept — although their absence of a fiddle player was felt on "Fiddle About.

The Austin Roller Rink

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Venue: Austin Roller Rink

For 200 costumed skaters, SXSW ended at the Austin Roller Rink, a suburban venue that became Saturday night's most fun after-hours spot. DJs and local bands with names like Wonderbitch (purveyors of a spot-on cover of Bowie's "Let's Dance") soundtracked some great moves and a few spectacular falls, playing from a makeshift stage built so as not to obstruct the all-important arcade games. In the back, children's party rooms were transformed by trippy visuals and experimental electronic music. Vendors offered homemade jewelry and Mexican crystals. Legs: more tired than ever; chakra: slightly less blocked.

Madisen Ward & The Mama-Bear

Theonepointeight

Best Mother-Son Act: Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

There are lots of family acts in music history, most often consisting of brothers, who frequently seem to be feuding. Relatively uncommon is the mother-and-son partnership, with a few one-off exceptions, such as Ben Harper with his mom Ellen, Blake Shelton with his mom Dorothy, and Barbra Streisand with her son, Jason Gould. But Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear are a happy exception: a genuine, tightly knit band playing acoustic blues together. Performing at the Pandora Discovery Den at the Gatsby, the duo made the crowd feel like they were gathered around the family kitchen table. Madisen took most of the lead vocals, while his mother, Ruth, laid down a steady guitar groove — they traded musical phrases with the confidence that comes from decades of playing together, creating something beautiful and homemade.

Ultimate Painting

Theonepointeight

Best Space Odyssey: Ultimate Painting

The two guitarists in London's Ultimate Painting spun their sun-kissed psychedelia far out into the stars, landing on an astral plane where Velvet-y drone met Kinks-y melody. Best of all was the swirling, feedback-warped solo that closed out their set.

Linda Ortega

19 Mar 2015, Texas, USA --- 2015, annual,celebrities, concert, country music, family guests, farm, festival, gulf coast states, heartbreaker,live event, luck, music, music festival, musical performance, North America, performance, prominent persons, ranch, SXSW, Texas,heartbreaker banquet, USA, Lindi Ortega --- Image by © Suzanne Cordeiro/Corbis

Suzanne Cordeiro/Corbis

Best Modern Country Murder Ballad: Lindi Ortega’s “Murder of Crows”

Country singer Lindi Ortega (from Toronto by way of Nashville) updated the old tradition of the murder ballad during a fine set at the Continental Club, singing without remorse about burying her man in the backyard: "Everyone's asking me all over town, if he ran away or if he drowned."

Dolly Parton

guy with dolly parton airbrushed jacket outside of The mowhawk 3/18

Nicole Fara Silver

Best Jacket: Airbrushed Dolly Parton

This tough guy was on point with his clothing decisions, rocking a jacket with Dolly Parton's airbrushed face on the back. Sure, it might have been a little balmy for outerwear on Wednesday night in Austin, but any chance to wear this masterwork is worth minor discomfort.

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