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SXSW: Omar Apollo can do better, which is terrifying

Eric Pulsifer, Special to the American-Statesman
Omar Apollo will perform at the 2022 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which is scheduled to take place in April.

“I swear I can sing better,” Omar Apollo jokes one song into his South by Southwest 2019 set at Antone’s on Wednesday night. The problem? A sore throat. The solution? Shotgunning Chloraseptic and powering through. You could call Omar’s remark self-deprecating if it weren’t for the fact that he doesn’t seem particularly modest about his abilities. Nor should he be. Omar Apollo is one of those overly talented, hard-working young musicians who make you question your life’s decisions and what you've accomplished thus far. (“And he’s how old? Ahh, crap. ...”)

At 21 years of age and suffering a cold, Omar Apollo still owned the stage at Antone’s in a way that makes one feel he could be schooling musicians twice his age on Engaging Live Performance 101.

The toweringly tall frontman strolled onto the Antone’s stage in a leather Harley Davidson vest and a thin gold chain around his neck. With a three-piece band and projections of nature scenery behind him, Omar whipped a hand through his tousled dark hair, broke out slick slides of fancy footwork and occasionally donned a white Fender during a short but sweet set of bilingual psychedelic soul and R&B.

Loads of people would love to be described as Prince-like, but Omar Apollo warrants it. Eyes closed, mouth open, tongue out and spinning on his feet, his confident coolness and staccato falsetto definitely bring to mind the Purple One. He switched between romantic and risque — from good-boyfriend-material vibes on slower “baby, baby” ballads to mischievious romps with raunchy funk licks and gratuitous guitar solos (complete with the requisite guitar-solo face). On other, more introspective tracks, Omar pushed his battered but beautiful voice to impossible honey-sweet highs.

Through it all, the three-piece band at his back, his Revolution, pumped out silky smooth grooves and Hendrix guitars as the soulful foundation for Omar’s buttery voice. One song, introduced as “some new (expletive),” had a gripping “Billie Jean” bass riff so spot on people in the crowd momentarily assumed it was a cover.

Even if you want to dislike Omar for being so damn good, you’d be a monster to think it. His journey to this point is the type of heart-warming, family-centric story that’s more Hallmark movie than rock ’n’ roll cautionary tale. A first-generation Mexican-American from Indiana, young Omar asked for a guitar one Christmas. His parents, through Herculean effort, managed to acquire him an electric guitar, but Omar neglected to realize he’d also need to ask for an amp. And guitar lessons. Omar swapped his electric for an acoustic guitar at a pawn shop and then set out to learn by watching people play on YouTube. He kept at it through his teenage years despite plenty of dips and turns along the way, and finally dropped out of college after only two weeks to pursue music full time. Now, a successful musician on the rise, he supports his family with his newfound success. So yeah. Not only is Omar more talented than you or me, but he’s also probably a better person. Great. But I guess we can all use more role models these days.

If this was Omar Apollo at his worst, the world may not yet be ready for him at his best.

Omar Apollo plays two more shows on Friday: 6:45 p.m. at Fader Fort and 12:40 a.m. at Empire Control Room.