From the first note to the final drum solo, our team was all over South By Southwest Music — and they started before that, during Interactive and Film, which saw a fair share of music, too. Here are some of their highlights from what felt like a kinder, gentler SXSW.
Never mind the no-shows
Even during SXSW Interactive before the music fest started, the usual buzz about special guest appearances was in full swing. March 15’s Flaming Lips and Future Islands show for Spredfast at ACL Live became a rumor-factory for a supposed appearance by Miley Cyrus. Though Miley did turn up later in the week, she didn’t surface with the Lips. But cameo entertainment seems superfluous once singer Wayne Coyne climbs into his giant translucent plastic ball and takes a stroll over the outstretched arms of the crowd.
March 17, Asleep at the Wheel brought along Dale Watson, Cindy Cashdollar, Brennen Leigh and MilkDrive to their three-hour-plus time slot at the Saxon Pub. Given that the Wheel just released a star-studded Bob Wills tribute that featured Willie Nelson, George Strait, Lyle Lovett and many others, it seemed possible big names might turn up to sing along with Ray Benson and the band. That didn’t pan out, but could anyone really complain about getting to see Asleep at the Wheel in a venue as intimate as the Saxon?
In the end, the lack of rumored sit-ins by the likes of Kanye West and Snoop Dogg were addition by subtraction, allowing the focus to remain on the SXSW acts who are breaking new ground. As the Statesman’s Deborah Sengupta Stith noted on Saturday night after a big show at ACL Live, "J. Cole was amazing and that show featured a lot of up-and-comers. With the exception of Redman, it was all about the new sound. And as far as a vision of the future of hip-hop goes, it was very inspiring."
— Peter Blackstock
Music and film synergy
It’s hard enough for a music scribe to catch as many live performances as possible during SXSW without adding films to the mix, but this year’s lineup of music-related programming in the 24 Beats Per Second series was the most enticing since documentaries on Townes Van Zandt and Daniel Johnston premiered a decade ago. I made time to review three films, and caught the music of one act featured in an award-winning doc.
"All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records" was perhaps the most affecting, in terms of how deeply it resonated with anyone who grew up in an era when record stores were vital centrifuges for musical culture and obsession. Tower’s story was the story of all of us, in a way: Not all of the endeavors we pursue can last for the ages, but the simple love of a favorite song or a cherished album endures, always.
"Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove" packed an incredible amount of historical documentation into 80 minutes; often one quote from an interviewed source, or one fleeting image passing across the screen, easily could have sparked a half-hour detour discussion. First-time director Joe Nick Patoski’s film set the table for Saturday night’s illuminating tribute concert at the Paramount, with Patoski smartly noting that "you can talk about Doug, but hearing his music is where it counts."
"They Will Have to Kill Us First," about musicians in Mali persevering through a political ban of music in their country, was eye-opening in what it revealed about the importance of art and culture in African communities. It also provided a perfect introduction to Songhoy Blues, a band that traveled to SXSW and became one of the fest’s biggest international hits. "Their shows are one of the most exuberant celebrations of life I’ve ever witnessed," the Statesman’s Deborah Sengupta Stith noted in a live review.
I didn’t see "Landfill Harmonic," about a Paraguayan youth group that built instruments out of recycled items as a means of trying to rise above impoverished conditions, but when it won the 24 Beats Per Second Audience Award, I made a point of catching their Saturday evening showcase at the Driskill Hotel’s Victorian Room. Leader Favio Chavez talked about how the instruments were fashioned out of items such as roof gutters, food canisters and, in the case of one drumhead, an X-ray slide. He led the youth group through a set highlighted by a rendition of John Lennon’s "Imagine." (Read an interview and see a video about the group at austin360.com.)
— Peter Blackstock
3 unforgettable moments
Ibeyi at Central Presbyterian Church. The French Cuban twins wove futuristic electronics with primal ancestral energies to make musical magic. Calling Yoruban deities into a holy sanctuary, their gorgeous single "The River" felt like a religious revival.
Ghostface Killahand Badbadnotgood at the Fun Fun Fun Fest day party. Putting the Toronto indie jazz outfit behind the Wu-Tang rapper just might be the best combination ever. In addition to dropping excellent tracks from "Sour Soul," their new collab album, Ghost led covers of Nas and Michael Jackson and dug into his own back catalog. But the best moment was when he invited an audience member to stand in for his absent partners in rhyme on the Wu classic "Protect Ya Neck." The kid murdered Method Man’s verses then deftly handled ODB’s parts as well. The capacity crowd at the Mohawk went insane. Even Bill Murray, who was hanging out on the top deck, seemed to love it. Fun Fun Fun indeed.
Songhoy Blues at Buffalo Billiards. They have killer chops and played like rock stars, but it was the magnanimous joy lead singer Aliou Touré radiated while he sang and danced that reinforced every notion we have about the incredible life affirming power of music.
— Deborah Sengupta Stith
Hip-hop and you don’t stop
Hip-hop was bigger than ever, and it was clear in the streets and in the clubs that SXSW has become a major destination fest for the genre. Rae Sremmurd, Earl Sweatshirt, Migos and excellent Brooklyn emcee Joey Bada$$ drew huge crowds all weekend. Houston heavies like Bun B and Trae the Truth were treated like local heroes, and up-and-coming Seattle rhymeslinger Raz Simone filmed a video in the middle of Sixth Street. The Weird City Hip-hop Festival day party at Empire felt like a family reunion and a movement in the making. Here are a few standout performances from artists who are pushing the genre in new directions:
J. Cole. Megastars didn’t show up, and Cole, who’s become a radio regular with his intelligent fusion of R&B and rap, became the most anticipated urban artist at the fest. Fans lined up for hours to see him, and no one was disappointed. Cole is a riveting performer. He launched into his set with "Wet Dreamz," a coming-of-age tale that flips the script on standard hip-hop bravado, and delivered a captivating set drawn primarily from his excellent 2014 album "Forest Hills Drive." He made the showcase sweeter by using it as a platform to introduce Omen, Cozz and Bas, three promising young artists signed to Cole’s new label.
Chance the Rapper. After blowing up in 2013 on the strength of his mixtape "Acid Rap," Chance spent most of 2014 keeping a low profile and working with his band the Social Experiment. The group’s Fader Fort set on Wednesday was a high energy takedown, and when he showed up at the mtvU Woodies to cameo with Action Bronson on the sing-song rap track "Baby Blue," it was straight up sweetness.
Little Simz. I caught the young London emcee at a day stage performance at the Convention Center, and she worked the audience of fellow artists and industry cynics like a champ. She shamed us to our feet while she pummeled us with her wicked spitfire flow on grooves that shifted smoothly from smooth R&B hooks to skittering electro beats. Grime 2.0 is in good hands.
— Deborah Sengupta Stith
The showcases that didn’t happen
Several high-profile artists with new projects didn’t show. Drake, who dropped his mixtape "If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late" in mid-February, seemed like a sure shot to make his debut fest appearance, and the rumors raged until after-hours spot the Illmore shut down on Saturday. Likewise, when Kendrick Lamar’s epic new joint "To Pimp a Butterfly" hit the Internet early and on the eve of SXSW Music’s first day, many assumed the timing couldn’t be coincidental. Turns out it was. Even Kanye West, who’s rocked it with us for the last several years, decided to sit this one out. But the two most surprising non-showcases came from artists who were part of the conference.
Big Sean. When his critically acclaimed album "Dark Sky Paradise" dropped in late February, Big Sean, who was scheduled to play at the MTVu Woodie Awards during SXSW, suddenly became one of the most anticipated hip-hop artists at the fest. Oddly, the G.O.O.D. Music rapper appeared on a panel at the conference and played a few surprise parties but did not have an official SXSW showcase.
Snoop Dogg. The late-announced keynote speaker and superstar rapper has played the fest several times in the past, but not this year. After his low-key and casual but highly entertaining conversation with his manager, the only other place the genial former gangsta was spotted was at a private HBO party, dancing around the sword-lined seat from "Game of Thrones."
— Deborah Sengupta Stith
Bands that lived up to the hype
Macaco: With a strong, global fanbase and a career that spans more than a decade, the Spanish artist didn’t disappoint with his multicultural pop music fusion and charismatic stage presence. He delivered an engaging and upbeat performance during his Sounds from Spain day party performance, which put him in a position to be an early favorite. For his full show Friday night, he had the crowd happily dancing in the rain.
Chancha Via Circuito: I wasn’t familiar with the Argentine DJ, who is a trailblazer in the South American digital cumbia scene, but when I heard his musical mashups including electro-Andean beats months before the fest, my expectations were high. His spacey, ambient beats are inimitable and turned the dance floor into a sea of swaying fans.
Danay Suárez: After profiing the Cuban songstress in our preview coverage, I couldn’t wait to catch her live. Suárez exceeded my expectations. She’s often compared to female artists like Erykah Badu and Lauren Hill, and although there were times during her set where I felt that, too, Suárez holds her own with a unique spiritual style that encompasses songs with influences of reggae, hip-hop, soul and R&B.
Irene Diaz: I was on a mission to finally catch the rising singer/songwriter after having to miss her previous two performances in Austin. She was worth the wait. Diaz has the power to center your spirit with her soulful, moving songs that seem to stop time.
— Nancy Flores
We want to hear more
We can’t be everywhere at once during SXSW (although we sure do try). I caught only bits and pieces of the following performances, but it was just enough to make me want to hear more and catch a complete set in the future.
Ibeyi: The mesmerizing French-Cuban sisters played a short, acoustic set at the packed Bungalow on Rainey Street. Although their unplugged set was enchanting, the full version of the show must be amazing.
Centavrvs: I caught a bit of the Mexican Latin alternative rock band at the International Day Stage before having to dash to an interview, but the group’s perfect blend of electro-corridos blew me away. Plus, female accordionists are always awesome.
World Hood: The husband-and-wife team mixes electronic beats with traditional world rhythms, which results in an introspective but danceable sound. I’m crossing my fingers that since the California duo isn’t too far away, they’ll return to Austin.
— Nancy Flores
Just As Good As We Imagined
Cloud Nothings: The sweet siren song of sweaty scuffles proved too powerful to ignore at Cloud Nothings’ Swan Dive set. The Cleveland noise punks and their friendly mosh pit left me so drenched in sweat that I looked like I had taken a few laps in Barton Springs Pool by 2 a.m. Only downside: My beloved Seattle Mariners hat got knocked off my head. I found it, but I had to soak it in baking soda to remove the sneaker prints.
James Vincent McMorrow: SXSW’s church showcases are known for their intimate beauty, and Irish singer McMorrow’s set at Central Presbyterian was no different. My eyes quivered in anticipation of tears thanks to his roaring falsetto.
Wynonna Judd: Speaking of churches, country music’s grand dame waxed spiritual, cracked wise and dished dirt as she held court at St. David’s. Topics of discussion: Jesus, Kanye West, Taco Bell and so very much more. Oh, and she sang like an angel, too, but not a wimpy cherub. One of those angels with a big, fiery sword.
Pity Sex: My last show of SXSW 2015 was also the one that best conjured fond memories of discovering new music during long teenage nights. Long live noisy emo kids.
Passion Pit: In a SXSW short on major star power, the Massachusetts indie pop princes truly felt like headliners, even if they weren’t on the official lineup. If you have the hits, you darn well better play them, and Michael Angelakos did at a Fader Fort preview party.
Speedy Ortiz: Sardonic and compellingly discordant, Sadie Dupuis’ gang of cool kids cracked wise in between songs that crawled into your nervous system like a spindly, deliberate spider. Upcoming album "Foil Deer" better be huge.
Title Fight: The first mosh pit I saw at SXSW 2015, the Pennsylvania band hit many of the same buttons as Pity Sex for me, and also proudly repped a genre — hardcore — with few standard bearers at the fest.
— Eric Webb
Hope To Catch Them Next Time
Joey Bada$$: The up-and-coming, refreshing M.C. earned rave reviews from my colleague Deborah Sengupta Stith, to zero surprise. Let’s hope he’ll come back around before he starts pulling stadium prices.
Run the Jewels: Missed them at Fun Fun Fun Fest, missed them at SXSW. You haven’t heard the last of me, Killer Mike and El-P.
Cruisr: The "All Over" indie-poppers fell victim to the third (and finally successful) try in my relentless pursuit of seeing Alvvays.
Laura Marling: Features editor Sharon Chapman told me I missed out on a standout set from the folk singer at St. David’s. She has no reason to lie to me.
— Eric Webb
We Won’t Be Surprised To Hear On the Radio Soon
Smallpools: The set I saw with the highest proportion of people younger than me in attendance — and I am, relatively, a child. Everyone clamored for the Los Angeles band’s song "Killer Whales" like it was "Call Me Maybe."
Alvvays: The Canadian college rockers seem to be a great unifier between young and old. I bet they’ve got a mainstream breakout hit in ’em.
Raury: Watching the 18-year-old spiritual son of Jimi, Andre and Mick command the mtvU Woodie Awards Festival stage will become a bitter memory only if his talent stays under the radar. A born entertainer.
Twin Shadow: Not that George Lewis Jr. needs to break out, per se, but recently dropped third album "Eclipse" is perhaps his most populist pop yet. A packed and rapt Tumblr IRL party audience would no doubt agree.
Ryn Weaver: She’s working too hard for the Billboard charts to not throw her a big bone, eventually.
— Eric Webb
Most Disappointing Sets
Angel Olsen: To be fair, she told us that she was going to put us to sleep at her 1 a.m. Mohawk showcase. Minutes crystallized, eyelids drooped and the talented singer-songwriter just didn’t seem to know how to fill the time.
Miley Cyrus: I, for one, was excited to see Miley materialize at Fader Fort on Thursday. I, for one and no doubt for others, was not excited that I could barely glimpse the "We Can’t Stop" provocateur through an impenetrable wall of Mike Will Made-It’s hype men.
— Eric Webb
Artist Most Likely Stalking Us
Bleachers: I went to Fader Fort on Thursday to follow the hot Hannah Montana tips, got there a little early and watched an unanticipated Jack Antonoff special. I went to the mtvU Woodie Awards, and Lena Dunham’s boyfriend was hosting the broadcast. Every time I checked my email, there were new pictures of Bleachers in my inbox. Antonoff got a cinnamon roll at the Driskill. I know this because NPR told me so. Am I actually a member of Bleachers and didn’t realize it?
— Eric Webb