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Phoebe Bridgers brings a so-iconic MUNA, a Greg Casar speech and a punk orchestra to SXSW

Eric Webb
Austin 360

When is a Phoebe Bridgers show not a Phoebe Bridgers show? When it's the Saddest Factory Records Corporate Retreat at South by Southwest Music Festival.

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Bridgers has skyrocketed to fame in a short amount of time since her 2017 single "Motion Sickness" earned her the kind of indie fame that can define an entire youth culture (or up-through-the-30-somethings culture). She's scored four Grammy nominations, collaborated with all your faves and even started her own label, Saddest Factory Records.

Which brings us to a breezy night on March 16 at the Mohawk in Austin's Red River Cultural District. Bridgers, recently in town for a much-ballyhooed run of performances tied to Austin City Limits Music Festival, came not to play her own songs, but to play the part of suited-up executive.

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Acting as emcee along with comedian Caleb Hearon, she presented four of her label's artists: singer-songwriter Charlie Hickey, art-rockers Sloppy Jane, fellow ACL Fest 2021 alum Claud and, for a post-midnight grand finale in the moonlight, the titans of queer pop-rock MUNA.

But fret not. I suspect Bridgers knew she couldn't just do on-mic banter. The "Kyoto" singer joined each of her signees for a number throughout the night.

Hickey's brand of introspective emotional exorcism dipped into the kind of soft-jam excellence that brings to mind neon signs and abandoned shopping malls. Songs like "Seeing Things" and "Nervous at Night" immediately click as simpatico additions to the Bridgersverse: "But I can't tell if you're really here/ Yesterday, I said your name three times in the mirror/ And nothing happened," Hickey sang on the former song.

Hickey's music goes down smooth and is not aurally dissimilar to Bridgers' own: diaristic verses and notes held long and high on the super-sad choruses. That makes sense. When Bridgers joined Hickey for "No Good at Lying," they told the crowd that they used to play Chinese restaurants together for an audience of their family members.

After some banter between Bridgers and Hearon — the singer ate Torchy's Tacos in town, FYI — they introduced Sloppy Jane, and there aren't words in the English language to describe the performance art piece/chamber-rock band.

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I texted a couple friends: "It's like if Kate Bush was in charge of Florence + The Machine." And I still don't think that's entirely accurate. The set started with an orchestra crammed into one corner of the stage and blue-caped Dahl conducting them with the athletic prowess of Gumby. Her feet stomped, her spine writhed, and she turned the act of conducting into the dance from the Isley Brothers' "Shout."

Haley Dahl, lead singer in rock band Sloppy Jane, performs at the Mohawk on March 16 for South by Southwest.
Phoebe Bridgers emceed the South by Southwest showcase for her Saddest Factory Records roster, but she also jumped onto a song for each artist's set.

If Sloppy Jane started off with a healthy dose of WTF, they ended up winning hearts throughout Mohawk with a hell of a show. Which is not to say that the WTF dosage decreased by any measurable increment.

"I pledge allegiance to Jesus," Dahl sang as a mantra, eventually crumpling to the floor and rising again with new streaks of blue glitter paint trickling from her eyes. Her voice was strong and capable of shapeshifting styles: St. Vincent-y croons one minute, My Brightest Diamond-like baroque tones the next, and then a touch of classic Patti Smith when things got really frantic.

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Under the cape, she wore a textured blue suit, but a suit in the sense that Batman is wearing a suit. Horned epaulets and zip-up high-heeled boots flew the coop in a chaotic burlesque to reveal sequins and torn fishnets, all still royal blue. 

The weather forecast on stage shifted in a flash to pure punk onslaught with "Where's My Wife." Bridgers joined Dahl onstage to scream the titular question, and both twisted on the floor. (Bridgers, in fact, used to play bass in Sloppy Jane.)

It all ended in a farewell can-can and a "Happy New Year" countdown. Imagine watching "Tommy" at the Mohawk, and that's a near approximation of the night with Sloppy Jane. Truly, they gave one of those experiences that you feel like you could see only at SXSW.

Katie Gavin of electro-pop band MUNA performs in the Saddest Factory Records showcase at the Mohawk on March 17 during South by Southwest.

As the night continued, congressional candidate and former Austin City Council member Greg Casar came out to rally the crowd behind progressive platform planks. Claud took the stage, playing pleasant indie-pop songs from their album "Super Monster," with a noticeable polish-up from ACL Fest in October.

But the evening's headliners (and I'll confess, the reason I made sure to get a good spot on the Mohawk balcony) were in a league of their own. L.A. trio MUNA took the stage right before 1 a.m., and it was star-solidifying.

MUNA — lead singer Katie Gavin and guitarists Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson, with touring support behind them — make propulsive pop-rock that builds a dance floor wherever their speakers are. They're no strangers to Austin, including an ACL Fest appearance years ago and a support gig for Harry Styles at ACL Live. Recently, they've been opening up for Kacey Musgraves on the road.

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Gavin introduced one song as being about desperation and longing. "Actually, that's all our songs," she corrected. 

And it's true, and it's why MUNA has earned a dedicated fan base over a short few years. This is the grand tradition of crying in the club, but with explicitly queer lyrics that invite that community to see themselves in lyrics about infatuation and toxic relationships, no mental gymnastics necessary. 

Naomi McPherson, left, and Josette Maskin play together of electro-pop band MUNA performs in the Saddest Factory Records showcase at the Mohawk on March 17 during South by Southwest.

Upbeat banger "Number One Fan" got the energy-losing audience hyped with a singalong. "Stayaway" showed how synched the three members really are: a little light choreo here, and then Maskin and McPherson playing like twin tornadoes as Gavin emoted into the night sky at center stage.

"Crying on the Bathroom Floor" was a pulsing, synthed-up street stomper. A country-style "Taken" with acoustic strings gave Gavin's deep tones room to shine. Then, MUNA launched into "Pink Light," one of their best songs. The glow onstage followed the theme as Gavin sang lyrics of sweet devastation:

But there's a pink light in my apartment
It comes mid-morning as a reminder
That at the right time, in the right surroundings
I will be lovely, but I can't help thinking

That maybe if you stayed for an hour or two
When the sun came up, when I last saw you
Maybe if you'd seen the soft pink light
I wouldn't be alone tonight

The mood at Mohawk felt nothing short of rapturous.

New tune "Anything But Me" strutted its way into the wee hours and built some buzz for the band's third album, a self-titled project out June 24. (It's also one of their funniest: "You're gonna say that I'm on a high horse/ I think that my horse is regular-sized.")

Earlier single "I Know a Place" hit home MUNA's mastery of creative an inclusive space. But the band knew what folks wanted at a Bridgers-led SXSW showcase, slyly stringing the audience along before playing "Silk Chiffon," the TikTok-viral pop song that features their label boss.

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Out of all the Bridgers guest spots on Wednesday night — well, maybe except for the crawling and screaming with Sloppy Jane — this was the most satisfying. Hearing a venue full of people shout "I'm high and I'm feeling anxious inside of the CVS" is a healing moment, let me tell you.

In a year when SXSW's music lineup kept the megastar top line light with just Dolly Parton and a couple others, and stocked deep with lesser-known artists just coming up, MUNA stood out early on as one of the most prominent names at the Austin music fest.

Bridgers proved her curatorial mettle and her power to pack in a crowd. MUNA, too, met the moment on Wednesday night. 

To quote "Number One Fan": So iconic.