SXSW Music: 30 best bands we saw
Hear EW's picks for buzzy newcomers who are poised to rule 2016.
Each year, thousands of artists descend upon Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest festival — a week-long celebration of industry showcases, panels, free beer and BBQ, and artists trying to be seen. The annual bash has become such an event, even President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama served as keynote speakers this year.
Through a severe weather warning, unlimited tacos, and one surprise performance from Drake, EW was on hand to scout everyone from up-and-coming talent to superstars. Out of the dozens of daytime sets, evening gigs, early-morning showcases that we saw over the course of a week, these are the 30 stood out. Take note — you’ll be hearing a lot more from these artists in the coming months.
With his surprise performance at the Fader Fort Saturday night, Champagne Papi was the highest-profile musician to descend on Austin for this year’s South by Southwest. And though his set was brief — just six songs — he showed why he’s one of hip-hop’s best talents today. After an uneven — and also unannounced — showcase by artists from Drake’s OVO Sound label, Drizzy himself appeared, guns blazing out of the gate with “Energy” and “Know Yourself” from last year’s smash If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. He also indicated his braggadocio is still intact, busting out the Meek Mill diss “Back to Back” rather than bigger hits like “Hotline Bling” or “Hold On, We’re Going Home.” Drake closed his set with “Summer Sixteen,” the first single from his long-gestating Views From the 6, assuring fans that the album would drop in a matter of weeks. –Eric Renner Brown
After more than 40 years out of the musical spotlight, Patrick Haggerty and Lavender Country experienced a major resurgence in 2014 when the music label Paradise of Bachelors reissued Lavender Country, the band’s 1973 album and often cited as the first openly gay country album. Now 71 years old, Haggerty stopped by SXSW to play a handful of excellent shows; he fine-tuned songs like “These C–ksucking Tears” and “Back in the Closet,” which resonated with the millennial crowd. During a daytime show at Pitchfork’s showcase, Haggerty slammed fascism and heteronormativity and thanked fans for bringing his album back to life. It didn’t hurt that earlier in the week These C–ksucking Tears, a short documentary about Haggerty, won honors at SXSW Film Festival. –Jessica Goodman
A few weeks ahead of the release of his debut full-length album, minimalist electronic composer Roger Sellers (who performs as Bayonne) held court at his label Mom + Pop’s showcase early Thursday afternoon. Through a foggy haze of drizzle and humidity, Sellers turned his live looping tracks into performance art. Darting around a few-foot radius of the stage, he moved from a drum kit to a synth board, where he performed on his knees or with his head resting on the table, heaving exuberance about the wires. –JG
Def Jam’s latest R&B signee ruled Fader Fort’s Wednesday daytime set with hard rocking hair flips and raw, addictive vocals. On stage, Bourelly, who co-wrote Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” and the heartbreaking “Higher,” demands attention. “Why is no one as lit as me?” she yelled as everyone tried desperately to just get on her level. –JG
The Grammy-winning country singer headlined multiple showcases, but it was her early evening Fader Fort set on Thursday that showcased her mass appeal. She hit the stage just after party rappers Rae Sremmurd, and as the die-hard SremmLifers left, the crowd thinned out. Still, Musgraves delivered hits like “Follow Your Arrow” and “High Time,” and rallied the crowd with covers of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Were Made For Walking.” –JG
The rock god brought his heavy new band to the The Moody Theater Tuesday evening to kick off Austin City Limits’ 42nd season. Pop played eight of the nine songs from his latest album, Post Pop Depression, but he also loaded the 22-song set with solo cuts like “Nightclubbing” and “The Passenger.” Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme worked some six-string magic and the drumming of Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders sounded even hotter live than it does on Depression. And for any rock and roll die-hard, few things beat the head-rush that comes from hearing the opening riff of “Lust for Life” echo through a venue. –ERB
They’ve been around for more than a decade, but The Kills still belong on a shortlist of the world’s coolest rock bands. The duo, comprised of Alison Mosshart and James Hince and flanked live by a two-member backing band, lived up to their reputation at South by Southwest, busting out fan favorites (“No Wow,” “Tape Song”) and cuts from their forthcoming album, Ash & Ice, during a headlining slot Friday night at StubHub’s showcase. Beyond their considerable swagger, the Kills are also some of the best in the business musically, from Mosshart’s snarling vocals to Hince’s exhilaratingly perverse take on blues guitar. –ERB
Jack White recently signed Margo Price to his Third Man Records label, and it’s easy to see why the increasingly country-oriented rocker took interest: Price, who releases her debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter later this week, has the songwriting talent, vocal chops, and intuitive stage presence to immediately make her a star. She graced the packed indoor space at Cheer Up Charlies — likely the smallest room she’ll play for the foreseeable future — for a set Saturday afternoon with her style of back-to-basics country adorned with Allman Brothers-worthy rock licks. Part of that’s thanks to her wailing backing band, but highlights like “Four Years of Chances” left little doubt that the show was all Price’s. –ERB
Young Thug’s fake funeral procession
Young Thug played a few hyped-up shows at SXSW, and while the crowds were raucous, singing every single word to “Check” and “Stoner,” the Atlanta rapper got more attention for his marketing campaign. After rolling thunderstorms in Austin on Friday, Thug held a faux funeral procession down the city’s historic East Sixth Street, where pall bearers carried a coffin covered in graffiti and a marching band played behind them. Inscribed on the casket were dates, revealing the start of Thug’s Slime Season 3. Come March 25, he’ll release a new mixtape or album. –JG
Just a year old, Pumarosa broke out last year with their trippy seven-minute single, “Priestess,” via buzzy UK label Chess Club Records, and when they played at Fader Fort on Thursday, lead singer Isabel Munoz-Newsome held the crowd captive with strung-out vocals that sounded like spells. Judging by the row of nodding label folks and A&R reps who came to see the London five-piece, we’ll be hearing more from Pumarosa this year. –JG
Anderson .Paak & the Free Nationals
The rising star brought his appealing blend of hip-hop, soul, and funk to numerous stages during the week, and if his gig at the Fader Fort Saturday evening — the last of his South by Southwest sets — was any indication, fans who turned out saw some of the most original, accomplished music of the festival. Aided by his fiery backing band the Free Nationals, .Paak, who earned widespread notoriety through his appearances on Dr. Dre’s 2015 return Compton, trotted out highlights from January’s Malibu like “Am I Wrong” and “The Season | Carry Me.” With contagious enthusiasm, the 30-year-old sang, rapped, drummed, and played a short but sweet cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” By the time he hopped into the crowd — and disappeared into the audience — it seemed like there was little he couldn’t do. –ERB
The Madrid-based quartet seemed to have more more fun than anyone at SXSW. Fresh off the release of their first album, these women played a whopping 17 shows, and their garage-rock tunes could be heard from almost any corner of downtown Austin. While playing their label Mom + Pop’s showcase on Thursday, Hinds let loose, chugged Lonestars on stage, and showed how much they’ve improved since forming less than two years ago. Yelps and ponytail flips led into grungy guitar riffs and an all-out party. Earlier this year, co-founder Ana Perrote told EW that Hinds wanted to change the world. After this week, they’re certainly one step closer to taking it by storm. –JG
The 27-year-old Dane has stormed the charts with his Top 10 single “7 Years” and he brought ebullience, sincerity, and some very good pop tunes to the MTV Woodies Wednesday afternoon. Graham opened up to the audience about growing up in a disadvantaged household and losing his father, but also exhibited how he overcame his personal hardships to become a sensation: energetic and upbeat ska-tinged tunes — he was joined by a horn section — with a strain of honesty that’s rare in pop. –ERB
The buzziest Toronto act at South by Southwest other than Drake was this punk band. They annihilated the Spotify House’s Porch stage Friday afternoon with jagged jams that recalled alt-rock pioneers like the Pixies and Sonic Youth. Singer and guitarist Katie Monks channeled Kurt Cobain with both her grunge aesthetic and vicious howl — and earned bonus points for wearing a Punisher t-shirt on the day the new season of Daredevil dropped on Netflix. –ERB
Punk journeyman James Alex emerged late last year with The Things We Do To Find People Who Feel Like Us, the debut album from his new band Beach Slang. Alex’s lyrics impress with their earnestness, and that vibe extends to Beach Slang’s live show: At a lunchtime set that kicked off SPIN’s party at Stubb’s, the singer tossed breath mints in the air to catch with his mouth, joked about looking like a strange cross between Harry Potter and Johnny Depp, and even left the stage to hug a particularly passionate audience member. “I feel like we should be eating pancakes, it’s really early,” Alex remarked. “You guys are a beautiful alarm clock.” Many in the crowd would’ve said the same of Beach Slang’s euphoric riffs. –ERB
Since Chicago’s Twin Peaks burst onto the scene with their 2013 debut Sunken, they’ve recorded some of the best nuggets in a burgeoning garage-rock revival. For their third album Down In Heaven, out in May, they’ve got their sights set higher, and their Friday afternoon set indicated they’ve also elevated their live act. With songs like fan favorite “I Found A New Way” and latest single “Walk to the One You Love,” the five-piece brought youthful charisma to the Spotify House stage without sacrificing instrumental prowess for a result that carries on the legacy of Exile-era Stones. –ERB
As part of Fader Fort’s closing lineup, R&B newcomer Gallant shined bright, starting his set with his slowed down, sexy cover of the Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly” and closing with well-received breakout song “Weight in Gold.” Backed by a full band, the 23-year-old singer writhed on stage with immense joy and unabashed feelingsand hit high notes as well as divas like Mariah. –JG
Car Seat Headrest
The stock of 23-year-old Will Toledo, who hails from Leesburg, Virginia and has already built a deep catalog of recordings, continues to rise. He’ll release his second official album Teens of Denial soon and gave cuts like single “Vincent” fiery readings during his many South by Southwest sets. In particular, he helped to kick off the week at The Onion and A.V. Club’s party at Barracuda Monday afternoon, braving temperatures cracking 90 degrees to wow an enthusiastic audience with his catchy, indie-rock riffs and earnest lyricism. –ERB
While much of the crowd at Mohawk’s House of Vans event gathered at the venue’s outside stage late Wednesday for Erykah Badu’s headlining set, Philly rockers Sheer Mag delivered something special to the loyal few who remained indoors. The band’s jubilant riff-rock sounds a bit like Lynyrd Skynyrd performing a late-’70s gig at CBGBs — and vocalist Christina Halladay’s skills put basically every other singer in the game to shame. Brilliantly catchy tracks like “Fan the Flames” are pop-punk in the best sense. –ERB
Budding psych-rockers Sunflower Bean were another act that seemed omnipresent at South by Southwest. And with good reason: Sunflower Bean’s loopy riffs also jangle with an effortlessness that helps them appeal to the Tame Impala and Real Estate crowds alike. The power trio brought its melodies to KCSN’s Radio Day Stage event Thursday afternoon — what rock band doesn’t dream of playing a conference room at a convention center? — and impressed a modest audience with the polished songs from its recent debut Human Ceremony. –ERB
The 25-year-old L.A. rapper played a supporting role in Odd Future when the rap collective broke out in 2011 — sharing songs with Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, and Tyler, the Creator tends to do that — but he drops his debut album Genesis later this month and demonstrated he can ably command an audience on his own. Genesis played to a small but devoted crowd at Mohawk’s House of Vans event Wednesday night, where he sampled the Dirty Projectors, had the audience throw up their “spirit fingers” a la Bring It On, and rhymed with a ferocious flow that easily surpassed his laconic, stoner-oriented roots. –ERB
Into It. Over It.
The Chicago pop-punk band makes emo music so good, it could’ve relegated Fall Out Boy to opener status had it come out a decade ago. But fresh off their third studio album Standards, released earlier this month, the group kicked off a massive tour Monday afternoon at Barracuda by affirming their music is far from just a nostalgia trip. Along with collaborator Joshua David Sparks, frontman Evan Weiss writes vital rock songs and those tunes have even more teeth live. Music like this demands to be heard with cheap beer in hand and surrounded by fellow fans — and while Into It. Over It. can’t guarantee those aspects, they decisively held up their end of the bargain. –ERB
Jackson Phillips’ beachy, dreamy synth rock excels on his latest EP, Day Wave’s Hard to Read, so we caught one of his buzzed-about sets at Noisey and Jansport’s Wednesday night showcase, where Oakland-based Phillips and a full band played beneath fairy lights set against boulders at Cheer Up Charlies. With sweating beers in hand, the crowd head bobbed along to the blissed-out chill and got swept away to the West Coast for a brief, welcome moment.–JG
Some naysayers may argue that indie-rock as a genre is on its last legs, but Kevin Morby was one of the South by Southwest acts who proved it’s not dead yet. In a blistering Wednesday evening set at Mohawk’s House of Vans event, the former member of psych-folk outfit Woods and his backing band jammed with melodic intensity — many of those tunes from Morby’s upcoming album Singing Saw that called to mind Desire-era Bob Dylan. –ERB
Public Access T.V.
Ever wonder what the Clash would’ve sounded like if they’d heard the Strokes’ Is This It? before recording their self-titled debut? That might neatly capture the sound of this Manhattan band. During their Saturday afternoon set at the Spotify House’s Porch stage, the group combined the former’s knack for bouncy melody and economically used distortion with the latter’s gift for interwoven, mathematic rhythms. A tall order? Sure, and the band’s songwriting hasn’t quite caught up to its goal — but if it does, they’ll become a force to be reckoned with. –ERB
Rap’s hottest producer took over the Fader Fort for a massively hyped up set that closed out the venue’s first day on Wednesday. Though rumors of a Future guest appearance proved false, fans were delighted when Metro brought out Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert, DJ Esco, and underground dance star SheLovesMeechie. Together, they threw a debauched party, played hits like Future’s “F— Up Some Commas” and Kanye West’s “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1”—which Metro produced and features the catchiest hook in rap: “If Young Metro don’t trust you…” –JG
Jidenna played a tight, intimate set at the Vevo House on Tuesday night, where he rocked a four-piece suit (they exist!) and furthered his status as a “Classic Man.” The R&B singer broke out with the Grammy-winning tune last year and proved this week that he’s not just a one-trick pony. Signed to Janelle Monae’s Wondaland Records, Jidenna ran through his already released songs “Long Live the Chief” and “Extraordinaire,” both ripe with messages of racial equality and social justice and featuring catchy, earwormy hooks. But it was his sheer charm and phenomenal dance moves that hinted at a bright future.–JG
In only 10 minutes after 1 a.m. on Saturday night, Ashanti managed to have one of the best little sets of the week. She was one of the many performers to take the stage at The Roots’ Super Jam and in between singing the hits — Fat Joe’s “What’s Luv?,” featuring Ashanti on the hook, “Baby,” and “Foolish” — she told the crowd, “I’m working on a new album. Wanna hear some new sh-t?” The entire crowd joyfully shouted, “Yes!” –JG
Grime acts popped up at various showcases all week, bringing British hip-hop vibes to Austin, but breakout star Stormzy stood out as one for fans of all genres to watch in 2016. With an assist from DJ tiny, the 22-year-old MC held down Fader Fort’s Friday set with a massive, sweaty performance, studded by his hit, “Shut Up.” In between rhymes, he shouted his name over and over. “Many of you here don’t now me so I’m going to keep saying my name till you do!” Heard loud and clear, Stormzy. —JG
Twenty-two-year-old British rapper Little Simz is a mainstay in U.K. hip-hop, with five EPs, four mix tapes, and a Kendrick Lamar co-sign – he called her “the illest thing right now” in an interview with Mistajam – and based on her set at Tumblr’s 79-Cent Party, which was billed as an all-female lineup, on Wednesday, she’s set to explode Stateside. –JG
To hear more from these artists, check out EW’s SXSW playlist on Spotify.