An annual tradition since 2013, South by Southwest’s Grulke Prize honors the event’s late creative director, Brent Grulke, and is awarded to three acts each year. The 2019 winners are Pink Sweats, Angie McMahon and the Chills, SXSW announced Saturday afternoon.
Pink Sweat$, a red-hot R&B/soul act from Philadelphia, won the Grulke Prize for Developing U.S. Act. American-Statesman/Austin360 writer Deborah Sengupta Stith caught his set at the Twitter house on Monday and observed: "The sparse musical accompaniment spotlights his skills as a songwriter. He wrings complex emotions out of simple turns of phrase. It also gives him space to explore the power formidable vocal range."
McMahon is the second indie-rocker from Melbourne, Australia, to win the Grulke Prize for Developing Non-U.S. Act in recent years, following Courtney Barnett in 2015. Austin360 freelancer Kayleigh Hughes caught her set Monday at the Patreon House and wrote that McMahon "balanced deep, melancholy vocals and fiercely confessional lyrics. … McMahon’s mesmerizing 40-minute performance left the crowd certain she was poised to become a big star."
New Zealand band the Chills, winner of the Grulke Prize for Career Act, seemed a frontrunner from the outset. The group band's nearly four-decade history influenced many contemporary acts with its proto-indie-pop sound. Leader Martin Phillips was also the focus of a documentary that screened at the SXSW Film Festival. There's two more chances to catch them as SXSW winds down this weekend: 1 a.m. Saturday at Beerland, and 8 p.m. Sunday at Palm Door on Sixth as part of SXSW's official closing party.
Big-picture perspectives about SXSW Music this year have partly been about the absence of huge names such as Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Garth Brooks who have grabbed headlines in recent years. The flip side is that the fest seems more focused on its original mission of music discovery, and the sizable list of worthy contenders for this year's Grulke Prizes underlines that.
A strong U.S. Developing Act contender was J.S. Ondara, who mesmerized crowds with solo acoustic sest of material from his new Verve Forecast release "Tales of America." (It's possible he got votes as both U.S. and Non-U.S. Act, as he's a native Kenyan who now lives in Minneapolis.) And as deserving as McMahon was for the Non-U.S. Award, it could also easily have gone to Britain country-soul singer Yola, whose impressive SXSW sweep included a side-stage lineup at Thursday's Luck Reunion that also included McMahon.
And while the Chills' much-anticipated, super-busy SXSW run made them seemed destined for the Career Act award, it's hard not to recognize the re-energized Edie Brickell & New Bohemians in this category. While band leader Phillips is the lone member who's been in the band all along, what's remarkable about New Bohemians' story is that all five members who got together as teenagers in Dallas in the 1980s are still there in this 2019 lineup.
Per a previous statement from SXSW, the jurors who vote for the Grulke Prize “include music critics, industry professionals, and SXSW staff, many of whom knew and worked with Brent over the years.” (Full disclosure: I am one of the voters.)