The annual South by Southwest Music Festival continues to be an overwhelming experience for both attendees and bands, as each hustle from venue to venue either in in search of the next buzzy thing or their own big break. This year, however, SXSW felt slightly more subdued, perhaps because Austin’s major schools were still in session ahead of spring break. Even so, crowds were everywhere — filling clubs on Sixth Street, parking lots on South Congress and even boats on the Colorado River — eager to hear breaking acts from the Vandoliers to Black Pumas and vets like Edie Brickell and Mavis Staples. Here’s the 30 best sets we saw.
Tina Turner famously boasted about how she and Ike would never do anything nice and easy. Rising British country-soul queen Yola, however, does nice, easy, rough, gruff and pretty much everything in between — brilliantly, too, with a charmingly soft-spoken British accent as between-song bonus. Versatility aside, her voice has the most firepower when she bears down and gets gritty. “Faraway Look,” from Yola’s current Dan Auerbach-produced album Walk Through Fire, made for the perfect closing crescendo. When she leaned back, dug deep and wailed, pretty much every hair on the back of every neck was standing up. D.M.
Fort Worth’s Quaker City Night Hawks mix the boogie of ZZ Top with the dread of Black Sabbath on their latest album QCNH. Onstage, they’re even more ominous, with vocalists Sam Anderson and David Matsler’s howling augmented by the sludgy rhythm section of Aaron Haynes and Maxwell Smith. It’s intense Texas rock, and on the outdoor stage at the Yeti store, presented in part by Wrangler and its new Icons line, the band reveled in it, ripping through QCNH tracks like “Suit in the Back” and “Hunter’s Moon.” “We’ve become the hunted,” Anderson yelled in the latter, seemingly happy to be caught in the trap. J.H.
Sarah Potenza made sure to tell the crowd at her poolside Kitty Cohen’s show on Wednesday that this was her first time attending South by Southwest, much less performing at it, but she sure didn’t act like it. Loud and most definitely proud with her orange sequined shawl and Bride of Frankenstein bouffant, the Nashville singer was all excess in the best way, with a voice that ought to be too much for one person. Well, for most people. Howling and growling as she pleased over her band’s funky rhythms, Potenza was all bravado and vocal acrobatics, even on a slow-burner like “Diamond” from her recently released LP Road to Rome. J.G.
Waylon Payne was already playing “Jesus on a Greyhound” by the time most fans were filing into Palm Door on Wednesday, much to the chagrin of at least one whom unwittingly requested he play it a few songs later. But no matter: Payne, who stood with one cowboy-booted foot perched atop a milk crate, eyes clenched as he sang his spare, somber songs, had a brand new one to play that he dedicated to his late father, —Willie Nelson guitarist Jody Payne — who “taught [him] how to do a lot of things and then started dying.” Funny in a cutting way, it recalled “A Boy Named Sue” but like only Payne could tell it. J.G.
Deep into his Saturday set at the Continental Club, Ben Dickey, the Americana singer-songwriter exclaimed, “This band is baaad ass!” He’s not wrong. Dickey’s group enlivens his songs with a flair for drama and a strong sense of groove. At times, Dickey can sound like Bob Dylan at his funniest and funkiest, as engaged with the rhythm of the words as the roll of the music. Appropriate for an artist who received his big break playing cult hero Blaze Foley in Ethan Hawke’s 2018 directorial debut Blaze — Dickey’s debut album A Glimmer on the Outskirts is the first release from Hawke’s SexHawkeBlack Records — Dickey has a hint of cinematic sweep in his music, a quality that’s heightened onstage thanks to that remarkable band. Dickey came to play a rock & roll show filled with country songs, a combination that feels uniquely at home in Austin. S.T.E.
Initially, Lily & Madeleine Jurkiewicz almost seem like a party trick: They’re so young but their music sounds so fully, perfectly realized that looks and sounds don’t seem to match. Nevertheless, these highly precocious sisters from Indianapolis are for real. Focused on their new album Canterbury Girls, their set was quietly transporting in taking listeners to far-off sonic places (and it even got a rudely chattery crowd to shut up and listen). Lily & Madeleine play sophisticated folk-pop for grownups, with dreamy and perfectly matched vocal harmonies as the main draw. They also had a pretty great secret weapon in side-woman Shannon Hayden, who didn’t bother taking off her electric guitar to play cello and was stunning on both instruments. D.M.
Proudly reviving a Seventies punk they’re far too young to have experienced, Amyl & the Sniffers move at a breakneck speed. Pounding through tunes so quickly, it seems that they’re indifferent to hooks. But they’re not; rather, they’re just impatient to get to the next one. While the Sniffers seem on the verge of falling apart, Amyl prowls the stage, and her restlessness lends the band a coiled energy. At their best, Amyl & the Sniffers sound like Blondie deciding they’d be better off as a dirtbag bar band who dabbled in hardcore. It’s a combination that results in some glorious noise. S.T.E.
Cedric Burnside began his set up-front at the microphone with a guitar, which was great because he’s a wonderful player with charisma to spare. But it wasn’t until Burnside swapped instruments and got behind the drums that it really took off like a rocket, because watching him play drums feels like being pummeled — in a good way. Grandson of Mississippi blues legend R.L. Burnside, Cedric can put down a caveman stomp primeval enough to sound like it just arose from a deep black-water swamp. It wasn’t just raw power, though, because he worked in plenty of off-beat finesse. A virtuosic display from one of the best in the business. D.M.
Marcus King grew up immersed in blues and soul, playing as a sideman for his father Marvin before he was in high school. The experience gave King chops, but also a canny performing instinct. He tailored his late-night set at Austin’s legendary blues club Antone’s to connect with a crowd who were eager to party, emphasizing his band’s hard-hitting rhythms and his dexterous shredding in equal measure. King’s entire set showcased his fleet fingers. Occasionally, his raspy, weathered voice commands attention, illustrating how he’s as steeped in soul as he is in the blues, but nothing onstage sounded as gripping as his guitar. S.T.E.
During their late-Eighties spotlight moment with “What I Am,” Edie Brickell’s New Bohemians didn’t seem like an ensemble built for the long haul. And yet three-plus decades and many individual tangents later (including Brickell’s emergence as bluegrass chanteuse with Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers), the original quintet is still putting down solid body-rock grooves. Onstage in Austin, the seemingly ageless Brickell very much remained the mistress of copasetic vibes, introducing each of the boys in the band as “my friend.” Songs from their current album Rocket more than held their own with “What I Am.” But of course, that was the one that got big cheers from the big crowd. D.M.
Few performers at SXSW were as transfixing as Joshua Fleming, who spit out lyrics with all the swagger of a man backed up by a vicious gang. And, really, he was: the Vandoliers are deadly onstage, delivering their cowpunk/ska/Tex-Mex blend with abandon. Like many up-and-coming artists, they embarked on a wicked SX schedule, playing Twangfest on Thursday, the Bloodshot Records Yard Dog party on Friday and Mojo Nixon’s Mojo Mayhem at the Continental on Saturday. No matter though — that just meant more chances for fans to dance to jams like “Sixteen Years” and “Dollar Bottom Boy,” off the Texas group’s excellent new album Forever. J.H.
South by Southwest can be a cruel grind for hard-working performers when they take ill, and there’s nothing to do but suck it up and manage. Appearing on the evening program of Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion, wise-guy troubadour Hayes Carll was battling technical as well as sinus issues that he said left him half-deaf (hearing nothing at all from the left side). But Carll still acquitted himself well with a smart set of bar-band twang-rock, highlighted by the punchlines in his new current favorite “None’ Ya” — and of course, old favorite “KMAGYOYO,” a rollicking and surreal wartime epic that’s equal parts Warren Zevon and Bob Dylan. D.M.
Singer-songwriter Jamie Kent has been hosting and curating this set of three-hour cruises at SXSW for years now, but in 2019 he set sail under the “New Nashville” flag, a burgeoning initiative that highlights up-and-coming Nashville-based talent. But don’t think that means just country — rather, it’s the diversity of the artists that makes this boat seaworthy. Soul powerhouse Sarah Potenza, indie-R&B duo Ni/Co, Americana songwriter Szlachetka and acid-country purveyors Banditos all helped represent the vast talent that is Music City while cruising up and down the Colorado River. Horn-driven funksters Luthi emerged as the biggest surprise, kicking off the excursion on the top deck with big hooks and sunset vibes to make the case that they’re Nashville’s next great party band. J.H.
Few artists seemed to tap the collective unease of the national moment quite like Austin’s Black Pumas did last week. The hometown six-piece’s grooves were funky in a thick, viscous way, oozing out in ambitious jams that wandered into heady territory without meandering, and made even the cavernous Convention Center Day Stage feel intimate on Friday. The apocalyptic visions of tight, radio-friendly single “Black Moon Rising” felt quaint compared to its more ambitious counterparts, but never missing a beat was the tireless, charismatic energy of singer Eric Burton, who hopped off stage and took a lap through the crowd at the end of the show. J.G.
“I don’t think you can get more SXSW than seeing these guys at the Broken Spoke,” said one fan of the Waco Brothers’ wild performance at the venerable Austin dance hall. Appearing as part of the annual Twangfest — a free festival within a festival — the country-punk of the Wacos energized an early-afternoon crowd, with shout-alongs like “Building Our Own Prison” and a cover of “I Fought the Law” irresistible standouts. But it was “Plenty Tough, Union Made,” off 1995’s To the Last Dead Cowboy, that continues to be the show-stealer, with leader Jon Langford, a ubiquitous presence at SXSW, and the band raising defiant fists in unison as they celebrate the struggle of the workingman and woman. J.H.
In a sense, Martin Phillipps and the Chills dominated SXSW 2019. A documentary entitled The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps premiered here on March 12th, and the Chills supported the film with a series of shows, beginning with a concert the Tuesday prior to the start of the Music portion of SXSW and concluding on Sunday, when a good portion of the conference-goers headed home. The band’s mid-evening show on the patio at Hotel Vegas on Thursday caught the band halfway through the festival, neither functioning as headliners or the focus of attention. Much of the crowd at Hotel Vegas seemed largely indifferent to that evening’s entertainment — they were there for a good time, not a show — but that disconnect between the audience and the passion of the band only made the performance more powerful. The Chills seemed immovable, secure in their majestic jangle, powered by a combination of delicate melody and muscle that can still startle. S.T.E.
With SXSW raging outside, Midland headlined a block party for the Texas chapter of the Recording Academy at the Four Seasons. But the swanky digs didn’t diminish the trio’s scruffy charm or, backed by just their core band of guitarist Luke Cutcheon and drummer Robbie Crowell, their stripped-down twangy sound. Instead, Midland treated the gig as a high-society rehearsal, debuting new material like “Mr. Lonely,” a Brooks & Dunn-inspired dancer that finds vocalist Mark Wystrach playing the lothario. The denim-clad singer also celebrated life in a “21st century American honky-tonk band” in another new song, harmonizing with bassist Cameron Duddy and guitarist Jess Carson. The capper? A woozy version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” with Duddy on drums and Cutcheon setting the mood with that famously seductive intro. J.H.
There weren’t many instruments that Cautious Clay didn’t bring with him to the Convention Center on Friday, where he rotated between sax, guitar and — a bold move that inspired far too many Ron Burgundy comparisons — a flute. Not that there was anything ostentatious about what Clay was doing, besides a nervous maximalism that seemed ready to subvert his dense, underwater grooves, which hearkened to post-punk as much as funk. Moody, textured and atmospheric, the set luxuriated like a more experimental Frank Ocean while Clay’s soft, breathy vocals rippled through with an eerie steadiness that, yes, worked in strange harmony with his flute. J.G.
Trifle with Sarah Shook at your peril. This North Carolina honky-tonk punk strikes a defiant onstage posture with a voice that goes right for the throat, a feral switchblade snarl that sometimes eases and glides but never softens. Appearing with her group the Disarmers, Shook put in nine South by Southwest appearances (including a raw Friday-afternoon set at the Yeti store), coming across as Chrissie Hynde with a drawl. Eric Peterson’s lead guitar served as anchor, expertly going back and forth with Phil Sullivan’s pedal steel. But it was hard to pay attention to much besides Shook herself as she threw out nuggets like, “God never makes mistakes/He just makes fuck-ups” – a punchline any number of troubled-boy troubadours would kill to have written. D.M.
“I want your trouble/how does it feel?” Brandy Zdan asked more than once over SXSW, cranking through the blisteringly brief rocker off her latest album Secretear. The Nashville-based Zdan is a guitar hero of the highest order, commanding attention during a Friday showcase at the Yeti store on South Congress with power chords and attitude to burn. She’s an interesting figure onstage, all mystery behind her aviators and long locks. But her shielded countenance doesn’t mean she’s hiding something. Rather, Zdan bares all in her lyrics, whether in the combustible “I Want Your Trouble” or the dreamy “Run Away,” both Secretear standouts that could position her as today’s Joan Jett. J.H.
Robert Ellis began his career as a pretty conventional guitar-toting troubadour (and a good one at that). But he’s gone through one of the more memorable reinventions in recent memory with his stylish new album Texas Piano Man, which could be subtitled “Captain Fantastic and the White-Suit Cowboy.” Sporting an immaculate white tux and fedora, Ellis came onstage, sat down at the piano and began to croon: “I’m fuckin’ crazy…” He couldn’t seem to stay seated as the set progressed, standing up to play even though it meant bending down to the microphone on odes to everything from passive aggression to Topo Chico. It was fantastic Elton John-style showmanship. D.M.
Hailing from Auckland, New Zealand, the Beths are heirs to that country’s rich tradition of sharp, skewed guitar-pop. The quartet is charmingly out of phase with the times: like Courtney Barnett, they seem stuck in the middle of the Nineties, preferring barbed melodies and countering their riffs with resignation, but they’re also not one for apathy. Onstage on Thursday, the band was tightly wound, pushing through their set with twitchy determination — so much so that their dreamy moments come as a relief. That sense of kinetic energy cancels out whatever retro inclinations they have: like the best rock & roll, they gain power from living in the moment. S.T.E.
Too often, modern-day Southern rockers seem to cherish a pose over music: beards, denim and vests, the scraggly uniform that was patented in the 1970s. Sam Morrow and crew sport this outfit too — all but the drummer have facial hair — but they abandon convention in crucial ways. Morrow can growl like Gregg Allman in his prime, but his original songs are sinewy and streamlined, demonstrating a debt to Tom Petty. The quartet can rev up a Bakersfield beat so it’s as propulsive as a train, but they’re better when they get funky: “Quick Fix” is swampy in a way that is reminiscent of prime Little Feat. When the group really gets cooking, they’re swinging and strong, achieving a vigorous blend of greasy groove and song. Turning ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man” into a slow, grinding jam is a master stroke, illustrating how Morrow isn’t just part of tradition, he’s imaginative enough to play with the past too. S.T.E.
Being fierce sounded fun when the Seratones hit the outdoor stage at Mohawk on Friday night, thanks in large part to the full-bodied attitude of singer and guitarist A.J. Haynes. Playacting with coos and shrieks as she dipped and dived around stage (and even climbed over the side of it), Haynes got a mischievous thrill from telling off the “Sad Boys” and just plain had fun with her band’s throttling mix of punk and Louisiana soul, letting out yips of joy between her often-roaring vocals. When the whirl of noise came to a pause, she even improvised an a cappella cover of Nina Simone. J.G.
Mavis Staples got to headline her own stage at the out-of-town Luck Reunion on Willie Nelson’s ranch Thursday night, which was only fitting for someone who’s walked the walk for over a half century. She reminded everyone of it too, recalling with spine-tingling fury how she’d walked in the Selma marches before setting into a gravelly, hard-earned “Freedom Highway.” But best of all was Staples bringing out rest of the day’s performers from her all-female “Stronger” Stage for a joyous finale of “The Weight,” a moving reminder that she’s lost none of her power to lead and unite. J.G.
Georgia native Katie Pruitt was liable to offer up a pretty different set depending on when you saw her. Wielding her electric guitar at Palm Door on Wednesday, the arrangements were built around jazzy, fluid dynamics, her intently detailed lyrical vignettes giving way to the tumultuous release of an instrumental break that seemed to unleash all the emotions left unsaid by the narrator. The twang in Pruitt’s voice became more of a grounding device when she switched to her acoustic at Thursday’s Luck Reunion, where she appeared as the winning “Artist on the Rise,” and sounded more like she’d taken the country ballad form and turned it inside out. J.G.
Not that a nine-piece band is going to sneak up on you, but Broken Social Scene have an onstage demeanor that seems like the epitome of nonchalant right up until the moment they flatten you. Looking as if they’d all just met a half-hour before showtime, the Canadian collective ambled onstage at the Convention Center on Friday and made magic pretty much from the very first note — intricate arrangements that were equal parts dreamy and driving, as well as amusingly self-deprecating. “This song is called ‘Can’t Find My Life,’ and your haircut is saving my life right now,” frontman Kevin Drew quipped at one point as he squinted into the crowd. It was the coolest pop-up show you ever did see. D.M.
Joshua Ray Walker knew how to keep you guessing during his set at Rustic Tap on Saturday, rolling along to the rhythm of an 18-wheeler one minute and shifting into neutral for a loping bedroom ballad the next. The constant throughout for this country-tinged songwriter was his inexorable sense of storytelling, singing parables of self-reflection — and, oftentimes, evisceration — that were tortured by what his narrators could write in song but couldn’t say in person. Punctuating his haunting arrangements with even eerier high-pitched yelps, Walker finished things off, alone and seated in a chair, with the bold imagery of “Canyon.” J.G.