SXSW 2018: 30 Best Artists We Saw at the Austin Throwdown
Courtney Marie Andrews
March 17th, Cheer Up Charlies
Courtney Marie Andrews tends to lean into the melancholy undercurrents that run through her music, but the ethereal air that characterized both 2016’s Honest Life and the new May Your Kindness Remain lifts when she performs onstage. Her late-afternoon set at Cheer Up Charlies’ indoor stage on Saturday – her last of a hectic SXSW – found the singer combatting a chattering crowd. Yet that oddly provided an ideal counterpoint to her spooky, sad Americana, making her vocals seem even more high and lonesome. Backed by a band that runs lean and sinewy, Andrews sounds tougher in concert than she does on record, and that lends gravity to her sad songs: They no longer feel like dreams, they feel etched from experience. S.T.E.
… And You Know Us by the Trail of Dead
March 14th, Swan Dive Patio
This was an auspicious hometown gig in surprisingly tight circumstances for this drone-and-thunder institution, marking the 20th year since their explosive self-titled debut album. After a decade and change of being taken for granted – filed under relics of alternative rock’s major-label age – the current Trail of Dead are a thrilling resurrection story, with the co-founding core of singer-guitarist-drummers Conrad Keely and Jason Reece leading a quintet as fierce and elevating as any lineup I’ve seen at multiple SXSWs, going back to the beginning. The first 20 minutes of this show was a non-stop series of hairpin turns through oceanic jangle, spearing-guitar motifs and avalanche momentum. Keely, Reece and drummer-guitarist Jamie Miller swapped kits and axes, hammering the latter with percussive velocity; bassist Autry Fulbright II and third guitarist Zach Blair deepened and broadened the fury respectively. Alternative rock was already an endangered species when Trail of Dead first emerged in this city, whipping the poor dog into howling life. Two decades on, there is still roar and ascension to spare. D.F.
A Place to Bury Strangers
March 15th, The Blackheart
The stage was empty at Blackhearts on Thursday afternoon when A Place to Bury Strangers’ started their set: The Brooklyn trio had set up in the middle of the crowd, spending the opening handful of songs cranking away on a pair of mixers while fans circled around them with a mix of amusement and confusion. Then, without a word of explanation, they trudged up onto stage and delivered an unholy squall driven forward by the relentless drumming of Lia Simone Braswell, mostly obscured by the thick haze of the smoke machine. J.G.
March 17th, The Parish
Caleb Campbell, the Dallas native who performs as Ari Roar, made his first SXSW appearance as a signed artist, having announced last month that his debut LP will be released on Bella Union. Songs like new single “Calm Down” were soft-spoken vignettes, plodding along with a clumsy sweetness. But beyond that bashful exterior and Campbell’s giggling banter with his bandmates was a beguiling cross of twee and doo-wop sensibilities and a clear knack for a short, sharp hook. J.G.
March 17th, Victorian Room at the Driskill
The sons and daughters of music celebrities often work the halls and stages of SXSW. But Chuck Auerbach of Akron, Ohio was a rare sighting: a rock star’s dad. Perched on a stool and consulting a binder of lyric sheets as he sang through a long, gray field of beard, Auerbach – the father of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach – looked like the late Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler and led his five-piece band through rueful country ballads and earthy R&B in a grizzled voice that suggested Tom Waits with a dash of the singer from Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (the one without the eye patch). “Desperation” was a dark jewel lashed with throaty-treble guitar; the first two verses of “My Old Man” were a memory lane of plaintive growl and upright bass, before the light rain of bittersweet fiddle and electric piano rolled in. Chuck was performing songs from a new album, Remember Me, produced by Dan. It comes out, appropriately, on Father’s Day. D.F.
Blaze Foley Tribute
March 16th, Paramount Theatre
The Texas Gentlemen were never far from the nearest group jam session during SXSW, and often at the center of the action, but they took on a supporting role at the Blaze Foley tribute at Paramount Theatre on Thursday night. Held directly after the screening of Ethan Hawke’s new biopic on the Austin singer-songwriter, Blaze, the performance included artists who appear in the film, like Ben Dickey and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra. Joe Ely, Nikki Lane and Jonathan Tyler also showed up, but the highlight belonged to Foley’s old friend, Gurf Morlix, who sang “Cold Cold World” with the Gents and a heartbreakingly brittle “Music You Mighta Made,” a tribute Morlix wrote for his departed friend. J.G.
March 15th, Beerland
The myth of South By Southwest is that it’s possible to stumble into any venue and discover a terrific new act. In practice, this doesn’t always happen, so when it does it provides a revitalizing jolt. Such was the case with Fox Face, a Milwaukee-based punk band who released their debut Spoil + Destroy last year. The quartet isn’t precious with their melodies, bludgeoning them with guitars that threaten to outpace the careening drums. Underneath that noise, there are well-composed songs, but the appeal of Fox Face is that they spit out hooks so rapidly that they seem almost careless. It’s affectless, unadorned punk, and its appeal is that does have an unassuming Midwestern charm: They’re not attempting to be the next big thing, they’re just making a racket, and that in itself is intoxicating. S.T.E.
Gang of Youths
March 14th, the Sidewinder Patio; March 15th, Empire Control Room
The first music I heard after landing in Austin was a cascade of metallic-guitar harmonics, cut into declarative power chords and shot over breakneck hard rock as if Mogwai had taken off at the speed of Blue Öyster Cult. Then singer-guitarist David Le’aupepe took the noise to a higher plane of debate with his earnest, preacher’s cry in “What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out,” an anthemic knockout from Go Farther in Lightness, Gang of Youths’ second album and an award-winner in their native Australia last year. The band was founded in 2012 in Sydney, where members were attending an evangelical church, and there was an air of the early, brazen U2 in “Atlas Drowned” and “Just Say Yes to Life” – but with more guitar-drums bedlam, razing feedback and sly classic-rock touches like guitarist Joji Milan’s Queen-like skids in the latter song. Gang of Youths played another, longer set the next evening, opening up their songbook and spreading the firepower. But there was a striking sense of hurry and mission to their four-song day-party blitz at Sidewinder, as if their lives and our spiritual fates depended on the connection. Le’aupepe introduced “Just Say Yes to Life,” with a reference to his father, who is ill with cancer. The singer spoke about the fear of impending loss and the inspirational lesson that has come with it. “He lived a life and said yes,” Le’aupepe declared. “So don’t fuck around. Just say yes.” The music followed with affirming force. D.F.
March 13th, Pearl St. Co-op
Held in the rec room of a student co-op near the University of Texas campus, this was only Georgia Flippo’s second show – ever: Her family even flew in from Australia to see her play. G-Flip’s first single, “About You,” in which she recorded all the parts for herself, was the clear draw of the set, but what most impressed was the ease with which she commanded the crowd. With killer pipes and an equally impressive drum solo (she and her band mates each rotated between instruments), her set had all the ingredients of a breakthrough. J.G.
March 15th, The Continental Club
Kansas City natives Hembree played to a room full of friends and family. There was certainly a loose, laid-back vibe to the show as the band members ribbed each other between songs, but there was a single-minded focus as their tore the swirl of guitars and keys on a song like set-closer “Holy Water,” which saw singer and guitarist Isaac Flynn finish standing triumphantly atop the kick drum. J.G.
Albert Hammond Jr.
March 17th, Stubb’s BBQ
The Strokes have rarely played in recent years. And while Julian Casablancas is crossing boundaries between world music, punk and metal in his ambitious band the Voidz, Albert Hammond Jr. is the best place to get your dose of jaggedly shimmering guitar fireworks and sharp melodies. “I don’t have much to say,” Hammond told the audience. “I don’t have much time.” Instead, he let the songs speak during a jubilant set that had him pogoing during “Far Away Truths,” from his new album Francis Trouble, and leading a huge sing-along to “In Transit” from his excellent 2006 debut, which all the hardcore fans in the crowd knew by heart. P.D.
March 16th, Cheer Up Charlies
Hop Along segued out of a noisy soundcheck with ease – the music just seemed to materialize. The band also appeared to come into sharp focus during their early evening set at Cheer Up Charlies. Nominally a Nineties revival band, Hop Along doesn’t sound like any specific band from that decade, cutting their spiky guitar-pop with the occasional dreamy melodies from lead singer/songwriter Frances Quinlan. Onstage, the music is given considerable muscle by drummer Mark Quinlan, the rare drummer in indie-rock who knows how to swing. Having these dexterous rhythms as their anchor gives Hop Along a kinetic kick that might not otherwise be heard in their delicate, nimble songs, and while that’s enough to separate the band from their peers, the group is also fun to watch because there’s a genuine warmth to their banter. In a week that can be as grueling for artists, such humor goes a long way. S.T.E.
March 14th, Lustre Pearl
Japandroids hadn’t played a single show in 2018 prior to SXSW, and even then they only showed up once. Things didn’t seem to bode well from the moment Brian King started singing, as his voice – a painful-sounding croak – was blown out. As though to make up for King’s hoarseness, he and David Prowse seemed to play with even more ear-splitting fury than usual. When the singer asked for some help from his fans, they duly obliged, screaming along the choruses with particular fervor. “Perfect,” King said of the effort. J.G.
Durand Jones & the Indications
March 15th, Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden
Cranking out a set split between gritty southern soul and its smoother northern counterpart – the former sung by frontman Jones, the latter by drummer Aaron Frazer – the Indications proudly carry on a number of R&B traditions, but when they’re on stage they are a far cry from mere revivalists. Their grooves are funky, their interplay crackles and Jones is a singer who understands how to raise tension with dramatic pauses and pleas. S.T.E.
March 17th, Volcom Garden
“This is about my 400th show of the week,” the D.C. R&B singer said on Saturday evening, explaining that she was there to make sure people knew who she was. Her long-awaited debut, Take Me Apart, dropped last fall, and its moody, stuttering beats provided the show’s slinking backbone. Kelela anticipated the music’s every move, bobbing and weaving like a boxer, with her voice rising to a chilling howl on the album’s stunning title track.
March 16th, The Mohawk
Sleek on the surface yet steely underneath, Kitten knows the difference between facade and heart. Singer Chloe Chaidez illustrated this divide within the first moments of the band’s set at the Mohawk, entering the stage bedecked in a wig she ditches within the first song. Such theatricality is commonplace to Kitten. They play with space and silence, Chaidez seamlessly changing costume under cover of darkness. All these oversized gestures meant that their Mohawk set often felt like an arena show funneled into the confines of a club, a transition that made Chaidez appear even larger than she perhaps intended. Chaidez may command attention, but Kitten is a sharp band in its own right, playing with Eighties tropes in a fashion that dodges retro fetishism. Some of this may be due to how Kitten does indulge in unapologetic emotion, a sentiment underscored by a dramatic version of the Cranberries’ “Dream.” Epic yet intimate, the cover shows how underneath Kitten’s big sounds and grand gestures, there lies genuine vulnerability, a quality that keeps the group from being revivalists. S.T.E.
Low Cut Connie
March 14th, The Parish
This band from Philadelphia has always sounded like rock & roll purism with a future. With an imminent new album, Dirty Pictures (Part 2), Low Cut Connie – led by singer-pianist-songwriter Adam Weiner – are now an act on the verge. Their headlining set at the Parish was a typical whiplash of Fifties rock & roll dynamics and controlled-Replacements vigor. Weiner swept the ivories of his road-beaten keyboard in a short-sleeve gold lamé jacket over a Stanley Kowalski undershirt – budget-Elton John flair meets Jerry Lee Lewis menace. A cover of David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” – recently cut for a Bowie tribute project curated by Howard Stern – highlighted the Seventies glam that runs through Low Cut Connie’s electric-roadhouse guitars. But the first single from the next LP, “Beverly,” was next-level songwriting. Building on the solid hooks and charge of previous albums – set-list pillars like “Dirty Water” and “Shake It Little Tina” – Weiner has pushed the vintage-Philly soul in his choruses to a rousing elegance at the intersection of Todd Rundgren, Gamble and Huff and Sun Records. Low Cut Connie showed up tonight with their usual party-out-of-bounds. They also brought a bonafide hit, ready for crossover. D.F.
March 15th, Beerland
Masked and manic, frantic and frenetic, the Mind Spiders gave no quarter in their mid-afternoon show at Beerland. A proudly unofficial venue – walking into the door, you’re greeted with signs that your badge means nothing there – Beerland provides a tonic to the parade of promotional parties and blaring brands that clutter downtown Austin during SXSW. It’s a refuge of noise and danger, elements that fuel the Mind Spiders. Splicing squalls of analog synths with furious garage-punk, the group twitches like an exposed nerve, and there’s a heady excitement in hearing them race to an undisclosed finish line. S.T.E.
March 16th, Yeti Flagship
The Seattle trio’s set was punctuated by their exuberant chants and peals of feedback. Guitarist Grant Mullen and bassist Gianni Aiello locked into a ramshackle battle, trading licks and bitten-off vocals as they thrashed about the stage in a sweaty tangle of long hair that was worthy of the chest-thumping rock stars they channeled. J.G.
March 14th at Willie Nelson’s Ranch and March 15th at Luck, Texas
Willie Nelson scared the music world when he canceled two rounds of dates this winter for health reasons. But he came back strong this week, playing two back-to-back shows right on his ranch 30 miles outside of Austin; the first being a fundraising dinner for Farm Aid, the charity he co-founded with Neil Young and John Mellencamp more than 30 years ago to help family farmers. After a dinner under Hill Country stars, the crowd of only 200 moved into a tiny tent to watch a fiery, fun set by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats. After they played, the lights of Nelson’s pickup truck could be seen snaking down the dirt road from his house. Nelson, business-casual in a sweatshirt and cowboy hat, picked up Trigger and banged and hammered out the chords of “Whiskey River,” his indelible tenor fully intact.
Nelson was in even better form the next night at Luck Reunion, where 3,000 fans and a handful of bands took over Luck, the Old West town Nelson built for his 1986 film Red Headed Stranger. The day was full of revelations like the rollicking glam-rock of Ezra Furman and the gorgeous, subtle folk of 20-year-old Jade Bird (who would prove she can also rock with a full-band elsewhere at SXSW). The Luck Reunion – produced by Nelson’s great-niece Ellee Fletcher, his wife Annie and filmmaker Matt Bizer – maintains the loose, familial atmosphere of Nelson’s legendary Fourth of July picnics. Lukas Nelson invited out surprise guest Margo Price to howl along to great new songs like “Find Yourself,” while Kurt Vile joined him for a surprising, soulful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Roll on John.” Micah Nelson, meanwhile, boldly brought the psychedelia to the main stage with his project Particle Kid, channeling Kurt Cobain as he howled melodic cuts like “Dreamer” amid feedback fury.
Nelson closed out the day, playing playing for many young Americana hipsters who maybe hadn’t seen him before. It created an energy that was palpable during huge sing-alongs like “Good Hearted Woman.” He was joined by Lukas and Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, forming a guitar-slinging trio that let loose during Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Texas Flood.” Between licks, Nelson and Lukas bantered and laughed with one another. It’s never felt better to see Nelson back onstage, singing, “I can’t wait to be on the road again.” P.D.
Old Crow Medicine Show
March 15th, Fair Market
Sony Nashville’s Thursday night showcase at Fair Market was dominated by new talent and DJ’d by Dee Jay Silver, who spun out tacky mash-ups of classic rock, old-school rap and modern country. In other words, it seems precisely the wrong venue for Old Crow Medicine Show, the venerated old-timey string band who has been working steadily for 20 years. Nevertheless, Old Crow made the leap to Columbia Nashville last year and are ready to release the brand-new Dave Cobb-produced Volunteer next month, so they’re a Sony priority. The wondrous thing about their SXSW appearance is that they held the attention of a crowd who was more eager to hear millennial country-pop sensation Kane Brown. Chalk it up to those years spent on the road, experience that has made the group rougher and rowdier, a shift that was evident by their careening opener “Tell It to Me,” an old song that’s never sounded wilder. Old Crow didn’t maintain that velocity throughout their set but they kept a high level of energy, keeping the crowd at attention while also plugging Volunteer, whose nimble songs were a clear highlight of the set. When combined with the group’s cheerful vigor, those new songs suggest that Old Crow Medicine Show are starting to peak some two decades into their career. S.T.E.
Josh T. Pearson
March 15th, Valhalla
Last year, this singer-guitarist from Denton, Texas presided over a reunion of his heavy-transcendence power trio Lift to Experience, celebrating the deluxe reissue of their only album, 2001’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, inside the holy echo of Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church. This time, Pearson came as a solo artist with a new album, The Straight Hits. He performed under more modest circumstances: a grungy bar on Red River Street with a band formed only four days earlier. And before playing a note, Pearson confessed with embarrassment that he “had been a little foolish” the previous night and paid with a few top notes in his voice. In fact, at Valhalla, he hit the high, vocal climax in the album’s garage-party opener “Straight to the Top!” with no error, and the band – which included Lift to Experience’s version of John Bonham, drummer Andy Young – was loose but robust in the great Texan tradition of the 13th Floor Elevators and the Sir Douglas Quintet. Pearson – who also drew from his 2011 album, Last of the Country Gentlemen, for the wracked “Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ” – has been a consistently compelling attraction in my SXSW life since Lift to Experience set their drum kit on fire at another Red River club nearly 20 years back. Tonight, he did not disappoint, regardless of how foolish he was the night before. D.F.
March 14th, The Parish
Back when she made her debut in 2015, Natalie Prass leaned toward the hazy sounds of Laurel Canyon. This year, as she preps the release of The Future and the Past – her second album and major label debut – she’s accentuated the soul that lurked at the edges of her music. What once seemed soft in Prass’ music – particularly her melodies and ballads – carry no small amount of grit, thanks in part to a nimble band who are as comfortable digging into funky grooves as they are laying back and playing supple soul. This hard foundation – graced at times by gnarly squalls of guitar from Alan Parker – provides a welcome contrast to Prass’ airy vocals, but she also sounds tougher now than she did a few years ago. At times, her music can still shimmer like a Californian sunset, but the older numbers sound broken in and the new tunes feel etched from experience, thanks to Prass’ increased confidence in her craft. The sound of a musician hitting her stride. S.T.E.
March 15th, Luck, Texas
One curious listing on the Luck Reunion bill was a “surprise guest set” taking place in the chapel, the tiniest venue on Willie Nelson’s property (capacity: 49). Margo Price emerged in full Nashville regalia, sat down at the piano and sang a solo version of “All American Made,” a wrenching document of the country’s current ugliness. Then she was joined by Austin rockers Band of Heathens, for a set of songs by Bob Dylan (“One More Cup of Coffee,” a swaggering “Most Likely You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine”) and Tom Petty (“Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “Honey Bee”). “Honey Bee” was the highlight, with Price constantly on the move, ducking as the band tackled the monster riff, embarking into the audience to stand on a chair and further rile the crowd up. It was a reminder that Price had a professional career as a singer in a soul band before embracing country – and that she just now may be hitting the peak of her powers as a performer. P.D.
March 16th, B.D. Riley’s
This four-piece band from Gdansk, Poland had a hellish 24-hour commute to SXSW – via Amsterdam and Minneapolis. They arrived with sense of humor intact. Singer-guitarist Grzegorz Kwiatowski pointed out that their hometown was both “a city of Solidarity” – referring to the revolutionary Polish-labor union – and where “the Second World War started,” a contrast that explains the seesaw between bleak-Radiohead turmoil and spacious Sigur Rós-like moments on Trupa Trupa’s two albums, 2015’s Headache and 2016’s Jolly New Songs. This venue – an Irish bar with its windows open to the alcoholic midnight din on East 6th Street – did not bode well for a live taste. But Trupa Trupa beat the odds with the throb-and-hammer of the perversely titled “Jolly New Songs” and the staccato surge of “To Me,” the latter laced with molten-fuzz guitar played by Rafal Wojczal on a custom instrument made from a petrol can. “Good days are gone,” Kwiatowski sang with bitter conviction at the end of the set, in the art-rock comet “Good Days.” For the few of us in this pub, it sounded like the start of a rewarding friendship. D.F.
March 15th, Hotel Vegas Annex
For spectacle alone, Uni – a New York trio descended from the Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Charlotte Kemp Muhl’s psychedelic enterprise with Sean Lennon – scored points: Muhl’s silver-plated Hofner bass and matching lipstick; guitarist David Strange’s Mahavishnu-style double-necked Gibson; singer Nico Fuzz’s homemade-pyro effect during “Mushroom Cloud.” But there was invention as well as posture in the music, an earnest, retrospective immersion in Seventies prog-rock exaggeration served with glitter-rock bang. If Procol Harum and Spooky Tooth had chosen to make records like the Sweet, they might have sounded like Uni. But they wouldn’t have looked this good. D.F.
The Weather Station
March 15th, The Barracuda
Tamara Lindeman and her band’s acoustically driven set walked a fine line between moody rumination and rollicking, serpentine jams. Lindeman channeled Joni Mitchell in her rolling diction and effortless wordplay, with all of those carefully assembled pieces coming together with beautiful clarity in set-closer “Thirty,” which rose to a haunting but energetic climax. J.G.
March 15th, White Denim’s East Austin Studio
White Denim popped up all over their hometown through SXSW, but none of their sets – even the backyard party at Where is the Hideout? – were as intimate as their Thursday night set in East Austin. That’s because they held the show on the newly completed stage behind the band’s recording studio. The only problem: the stage wasn’t actually finished. As they wound through a funky set that included a handful of spiraling new cuts, the band gradually found themselves playing in the dark, as the stage lights hadn’t yet been hung. But the party barely missed a beat, as the tightly packed crowd dutifully held up their phones to light the way. J.G.
March 17th, Clive Bar
As White Reaper roll forward, they’re slowly abandoning their garage roots as they become preoccupied with the idea of playing arena rock. The group’s Saturday night SXSW set at the Clive Bar was pitched between these two extremes, with the group playing AOR with the coiled energy of punk. Occasionally, this combo is absurd, and it’s not always clear if it’s intentionally so: The blend of gilded synths and anonymous chugging riffs exists on the precipice of parody, but White Reaper plays with sincerity. Even if there’s an element of archness to the band – it’s hard not to feel that way when the guitars riff with bawdiness of Joe Walsh yet sound as sleek as Loverboy – it’s also difficult to deny that they generate the kind of kinetic good times ideal for the waning hours of SXSW. S.T.E.
March 17th, The Parish
There are plenty of bands at SXSW; they come in varying degrees of competency and commitment. But Xylouris White – George Xylouris, a lute player from Anogeia on the Greek island of Crete, descended from an acclaimed line of folk musicians there; and drummer Jim White, formerly of the Australian, instrumental avant-rock trio the Dirty Three – are master musicians bonded by enduring friendship. They have known each other and worked together in various settings since the early 1990s, formalizing their partnership with the 2014 debut album, Goats. The audience at this woefully attended showcase – my third live exposure to the duo in five months after dazzling gigs in Iceland and Brooklyn – was barely in the dozens. Still, the dancing broke out right away as Xylouris and White locked into a rolling, modal thunder that I have already compared to the Middle Eastern psychedelia of the American late-Sixties band Kaleidoscope but which also evokes the empathy and elevation of saxophonist John Coltrane’s iconic 1967 duets with drummer Rashied Ali, released in 1974 as Interstellar Space. The difference here: There was plenty of room for audience participation. Xylouris’ brisk, circular riffing and White’s punk-like pulse in “Only Love,” from their third and latest album, Mother, inspired a breakout of hand-clapping to an odd but fitting Greek-Bo Diddley rhythm. There was still plenty of music to go around in the final Saturday hours of SXSW – but nothing like this. D.F.