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SXSW 2019: 30 Best Artists We Saw in Austin

From Amyl and the Sniffers and the Vandoliers to Hayes Carll and Yola

Amyl and the Sniffers perform at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

Amyl and the Sniffers perform at SXSW in Austin, Texas.

A.F. Cortes

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.

SXSW in Austin, TX, USA on March 2019.

Koury Angelo for Rolling Stone

Brandy Zdan

“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.

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 15:  (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been converted to black and white.) Robert Ellis performs onstage at New West Records during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Mowhawk on March 15, 2019 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW

Robert Ellis

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.

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 15:  (L-R) Jonathan Pearce, Elizabeth Stokes, and Benjamin Sinclair of The Beths perform onstage at Rolling Stone during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Native Hostel on March 15, 2019 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Steve Rogers Photography/Getty Images for SXSW)

Steve Rogers Photography/Getty Images for SXSW

The Beths

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.

SXSW in Austin, TX, USA on March 2019.

Koury Angelo for Rolling Stone

Sam Morrow

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.

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 15:  AJ Haynes of Seratones performs onstage at New West Records during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Mowhawk on March 15, 2019 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW

Seratones

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 luck reunion

Brittany No FOMO

Mavis Staples

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.

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 12: Katie Pruitt performs at Ray Benson's Birthday Party at GSD

Per Ole Hagen/Getty Images

Katie Pruitt

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.

SXSW in Austin, TX, USA on March 2019.

Koury Angelo for Rolling Stone

Broken Social Scene

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

Jordan O'Donnell for Rolling Stone Country

Joshua Ray Walker

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.