For all the crow that MTV has had to eat for decades based around the accusation that they don’t care about music (which was lobbed at them roughly six hours after they first launched), the annual mtvU Woodie Awards tend to have a pretty good lock on acts who are about to make the move from the fringes to the mainstream. As this year’s host Jack Antonoff pointed out during his introduction, last year’s day-long celebration not only featured one of the first performances by his band Bleachers, but it also represented the live debut of Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s chart-topping “Fancy.” In fact, ever since the network moved its annual awards show from New York to Austin, their festival has built up quite a reputation for featuring performers right on the cusp of next-level greatness, including A$AP Rocky, Echosmith, Mac Miller, and Odd Future, among many, many others.
The 2015 version of the Woodies brought together another disparate group of performers, all of whom had to go the extra mile in putting their best foot forward since their audience was completely waterlogged by rain. As in the past, the hip-hop performers seemed to both deliver more satisfying performances and also more easily woo the crowd. Rae Sremmurd performed what must have been their 37th set of SXSW on Friday evening, and while they still maintained a pretty major bassline intensity, they did seem slightly fatigued as they shouted out “No Flex Zone” for the umpteenth time. Slim Jimmy and Swae Lee were also rapping along to the edited versions of their tracks, which seemed to throw them off and definitely softened the impact of some of their biggest hooks (most notably “No Type” and “My X”).
Action Bronson had similarly low energy, but he really made it work for him. The Queens-bred MC, who announced his height and weight like a prizefighter, ambled onto the Woodies stage just before the start of the awards show’s broadcast. Armed with tracks from his about-to-be-released album Mr. Wonderful, Bronson did little more than puff on a blunt and rap his butt off, spitting the multi-layered punchlines that make “Actin Crazy” and “Easy Rider” utterly irresistible. Bronson even brought out Chance the Rapper so they could tag-team on the track “Baby Blue,” which gave Chance the opportunity to lay out his phenomenal dis, “I hope you never get off Fridays/ And you work at a Friday’s/ That’s always busy on Fridays.” While the crowd was mildly non-plussed by Bronson’s presence, he pointed out why that might have been at the end of his set: “You probably never heard so much motherf—ing rap in 20 minutes.” Considering the speed of his delivery and the density of his gags, he was probably right.
The rest of the Woodies Festival was taken up by the likes of Clean Bandit (who are pretty much La Bouche with updated haircuts), MisterWives (a New York band who are basically just Save Ferris, with all their horn breaks and general jauntiness), and Ty Dolla $ign (who was game and beloved by the crowd but probably too laconic for his own good). The only other real standout was Raury, the 18-year-old Atlanta native whose mixtape Indigo Child was one of the buzziest of last year. Raury is a remarkable specimen who trades in rootsy R&B that brushes up against gospel music and claustrophobic down south hip-hop, and he delivers it with poise, energy, and charisma that shouldn’t exist in a performer at that age. Raury is what Andre 3000 dreams about at night, and if he can balance his hippy-dippy leanings with an already-evolving sense of songcraft, he’ll undoubtedly be a superstar.
The actual Woodie Awards show was a fine turn for Antonoff, who handled hosting duties breezily. The worst band at SXSW kicked off the broadcast, but then things got way, way better: James Bay delivered yet another passionate, polished version of his still-climbing hit “Hold Back The River,” and Big Sean wrapped everything up with his trademark tomfoolery via the one-two punch of “Blessings” and “I Don’t F— With You.” In the middle, a large chunk of the show was given over to Fall Out Boy, who were the inaugural inductees into the newly-established Hall of Wood. A handful of artists paid tribute to them in a video, and the band showed up to run through a rapid-fire medley of some of their biggest hits, including breakout single “Sugar, We’re Going Down” and the more recent smash “Centuries.” (They also played latest single “Uma Thurman,” which deserves to be a chart-topping track if only because it interpolates the theme from The Munsters.)
As for the winners, Childish Gambino took home a pair (he sent a video thanking the fans and also thanking Kanye for not interrupting it), and Taylor Swift, Hoodie Allen, Jack & Jack, Years & Years, and Porter Robinson also got themselves some wood (the origins of which, by the way, were explained by Rita Ora and Charli XCX in a series of genital-pun-filled videos). It’s unclear whether or not this Woodies contained a star who will be topping the charts in a few months, though both Bronson and Raury have a leg up on the competition. For yet another year, mtvU justified the existence of the “M” for everybody.