15 standout music acts at this year's SXSW
For another year, hundreds of artists big and small descended on Austin for South by Southwest. From hometown heroes to Beyoncé’s proteges, read on for EW’s favorite sets from the annual festival.
Lana Del Rey
The audience for Lana Del Rey’s Apple Music show on Friday night was amped — perhaps too amped. As casual fans chattered and snapped photos, diehards loudly hushed them, only compounding the din that often obscured the 31-year-old singer’s set. But pop’s noir queen soldiered on, delivering an entrancing set that ranged from old standards like “Video Games” and “Blue Jeans” to her new single “Love.” The highlight, though, was a deep cut: For “Yayo,” the stirring closer from her self-titled 2010 debut, Del Rey jettisoned her backing band and somberly plucked a Flying V guitar — and even the crowd’s most talkative members stood rapt.
After two decades of consistently excellent albums, it’s easy to take the Austin indie-rockers for granted. Pro tip: Don’t. In the wee hours of Friday morning — the release date for their ninth studio album, Hot Thoughts — the local heroes greeted a packed house at The Main and proceeded to barrel through a 12-song, career-spanning set. Spoon tore through fresh cuts, like swaggering opener “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” and nocturnal funk jam “Can I Sit Next to You,” as if they’d been playing them for years. And staples like 2007’s “Don’t You Evah” and 2014’s “Inside Out” shined as brightly as ever.
Chloe x Halle
Teenage sisters record a cover of Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts,” it goes viral, Queen Bey catches wind of it and signs them to her record label. The origin of Atlanta-based duo Chloe x Halle sounds like a superfan’s dream — but, in a next-level set at the YouTube House on Friday afternoon, the 16- and 18-year-old sisters proved they’re the real deal and more. The Beyoncé proteges have a gifted sense of vocal harmony, but their songwriting, which perfects and expands on the R&B-electronic fusion Bey pioneered with her self-titled album, backs up their chops. And the two, who had dropped their The Two Of Us mixtape a day prior, topped their benefactor in one impressive way: Beyoncé hasn’t performed her surprise releases the day after putting them out.
“You know what they say about drag queens,” PWR BTTM singer-guitarist Ben Hopkins told an enthusiastic crowd gathered in the French Legation Museum’s garden on Thursday. “They’re best viewed at 1:30 in the afternoon, in bright light, and with no booze!” The flamboyant pop-punk duo might’ve claimed to be out of their element, but their frenetic set suggested just the opposite: In a half-hour, Hopkins and bandmate Liv Bruce, flanked by two touring musicians, blazed through the riffed-out, acerbic jams that pack their forthcoming sophomore album, Pageant. And their stage banter was by turns hilarious (“If you don’t like Carly Rae Jepsen, what are you doing and why are you talking to me?”) and poignant: “We live in dystopian times, and that sucks,” Hopkins said before dedicating a song to overthrowing President Donald Trump. “But we can still strive for utopian ideals.”
After collaborating with Chance the Rapper on “Sunday Candy” and “Blessings,” the Chicago singer and poet made a splash last summer with her debut album HEAVN. And her set at Pitchfork’s day party Thursday confirmed that she belongs to be in conversations with buzzier young Windy City acts like Chance and Vic Mensa. To conjure her empowering brand of R&B live, Woods brought along four backing musicians, who imbued her tunes with generous helpings of funk and groove. The true highlight, though, were Woods’ vocals, which managed to be even more impressive in person than on her recordings.
The 25-year-old Chicago MC bears plenty of similarities to Woods: She first came to prominence through her collaborations with Chance (“Lost,” “How Great”), before releasing an acclaimed debut (Telefone) in summer 2016 that garnered her wider praise. Performing after Woods at Pitchfork’s day party, she even brought along her peer’s backing band. But Noname’s real story has been her growth as a performer. In a cameo with Chance on an episode of Saturday Night Live this past December, Noname seemed hesitant; now, she easily commands audiences with her affable stage presence, breezy beats, and personal rhyming.
Midway through their raging, early afternoon set at Barracuda on Saturday, Dream Wife’s singer, Rakel Mjöll, made a revelation: This South by Southwest was the rising group’s first gig in the States. But the all-female punk trio — backed live by a touring drummer — performed like old pros, bringing tight precision to their razor-sharp songs. And the tunes are something to behold: On “FUU,” for example, Mjöll alternates between singing “I’m gonna f— you up!” and aping the Spice Girls’ “I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want” lyric. As she prowled the stage, it became clear why The Kills chose Dream Wife to open their upcoming tour.
Leithauser’s primary band, The Walkmen, went on hiatus in 2014, but that hasn’t slowed the singer and his rough, powerful tenor down. In his opening set for Spoon, the singer trotted out numerous tunes from his 2016 collaboration with former Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij — and given room to breathe live, the material took on new life.
Josh Ostrander, who performs as Mondo Cozmo, greeted St. Patrick’s Day revelers gathered at the Cedar Street Courtyard on Friday afternoon with the optimal mix of good vibes and full-bodied alt-rock. Songs like “Shine” — an ode to staying positive and getting stoned that hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs chart in January — sounded ready to blast through the walls surrounding the tiny patio. Ostrander will bring his tunes to larger audiences beginning later this week when he hits the road with Bastille as the opener for their North American tour.
The Washington, D.C. punks had this South by Southwest’s most politically incendiary set. During their performance at Cheer Up Charlie’s late Friday night, singer Katie Alice Greer decried the festival as a “bloated corporate monster of the culture industry” that had emerged from “late capitalism.” Greer brought the same gusto to the dense, topical lyrics — “Munayyer says Netanyahu’s actually the best thing,” for one — that litter Priests’ fantastic January album Nothing Feels Natural. Her T-shirt, which displayed a massive photograph of ultimate bad-girl Rihanna flipping off spectators, may have summed up the band’s ethos best.
The Zimbabwe-born Aussie demolished Barracuda’s outdoor stage Saturday afternoon, delivering a raucous set that proved her hip-hop bona fides and EDM-oriented party savvy. (She’s collaborated with both Killer Mike and Martin Solveig.) Expect big things from the young musician, who makes music that sounds something like a cross between M.I.A. and Azealia Banks.
“This is f—ed up, in a really good way,” the 24-year-old Australian told the Thursday evening crowd at Barracuda when summing up her South by Southwest thus far. Lahey’s deep arsenal of pop-punk hooks have catapulted her from her bedroom, where she recorded her debut B-Grade University EP, to opening for Tegan and Sara on their recent tour. And while her songs separate Lahey from the pack, her stage banter seals the deal. “I’m totally over it,” she joked before launching into “Perth Traumatic Stress Disorder,” her ode to getting dumped in Perth. “I’m — I’m totally over it.”
Despite a heavy dose of sound bleed from an adjacent stage, Burch did justice to her quiet style of ’70s-indebted folk-rock, playing through cuts from her latest full-length, February’s Please Be Mine, with little fanfare but lots of intensity. Burch’s tunes would sound at home on a Carole King record but, like Angel Olsen, she deploys her arresting voice to transcend the genre.
Think of ’em as Dinosaur Jr. Jr. The Sub Pop Records indie-rock quartet took the Cheer Up Charlie’s stage by storm Friday night with the jagged, flannel-clad riffs of last year’s Return to Love. Strikingly cohesive live, the ’90s revivalists clarified that the spirit of bands like Pavement remains alive and well.
The Saturday night showcase of indie label Stones Throw provided the ideal comedown for a hectic week of concerts. Mndsgn, who produces the same style of electro-inflected instrumental hip-hop as labelmates Madlib and Knxwledge, stole the show with a low-key set of spacey jams. And things heated up just the right amount when Stones Throw compatriot The Koreatown Oddity stepped out to rhyme over Mndsgn’s beats.