The 30 Freshest Sets at SXSW
From seasoned superstars to gifted up-and-comers, this best-of-the-fest rundown will ease your FOMO (no Solo cup req’d)
The creative orgy that is South By Southwest concluded in Austin late last night, and you couldn’t be blamed if you felt like no matter how hard you went, you missed out on something… somewhere. The endless scroll of surprise appearances, special guests, and private parties can make your head explode. The only proper way to manage the FOMO frenzy is to make a plan, leave yourself some wiggle room for your whims, and find peace where you are.
We scoped out as much of the festival as we could (with thousands of showcasing artists, it’s impossible to truly make a dent in it) to uncover the best and brightest. Here, we ranked our 30 faves. This list is certainly no substitute for being there, but it’ll give you a sense of the quality, variety and depth of talent that once again graced the clubs of the Live Music Capital of the World at its most liveliest and most musical.
30. Go Fever (3/15, Swan Dive)
An enjoyable local throwback outfit that merges vintage western folk with AM radio rock. Fans of She & Him should feel comfortable giving them a cursory listen.
29. M. Ward (3/17, Clive Bar)
Speaking of She & Him, the guitar-whiz “him” 50% played a short, sweet showcase at the intimate Rainey Street stage. Ward’s been in the game longer than you think, and his run through his back-catalogue (as well as new music!) was welcome.
28. Fair City Fire (3/15, The Blind Pig)
The Austin, Texas quartet played an energetic three-hour set as a trio Thursday, featuring a bevy of covers interspersed with strong original material. Their newest single “Attack” is a fist-pumping burner that swirls Kings of Leon mixed with Gaslight Anthem.
27. Nick Grant (3/18, 800 Congress)
It’s sort of unfair to rank showcase sets at The Roots and Friends Jam Session, since the whole affair played out like the best kind of live band karaoke (more on this later), but the triptych offered by the smooth and whip-smart Atlanta MC had the crowd roaring.
26. Shakey Graves (3/18, 800 Congress)
“You guys ready for a nice, country-themed waltz — with the Roots?” Breakout Austin star Shakey Graves asked before launching into one of the most eye-opening odd-couple pairings in recent SXSW memory. He may have outgrown most venues in his home city, but in this intimate setting, he was as lights-out as ever, with The Roots adding some funk to his arsenal of Americana.
25. Mariana Vega (3/17, Cu29)
The Miami singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist had the packed crowd at this small cocktail lounge enthralled and occasionally on the verge of tears with her heartfelt stories and smoking voice. An extraordinary (and Latin GRAMMY-winning) talent that, if there’s any justice in this world, should be on the verge of bigger things.
24. Benjamin Booker (3/17, Banger’s)
The NOLA-bred blues troubadour cycled through an impressive blend of rock, soul and gritty delta sludge at the StubHub showcase. A sturdy, cocksure stage presence with songwriting chops to match, Mr. Booker proudly travels the same enjoyable lane as guitar wunderkind Gary Clark Jr.
23. Rae Sremmurd (3/18, 800 Congress)
Life Goals: The joy on the faces of the Tupelo, Mississippi trap-house superstars as they rumbled through a slinky, soulful interpretation of “Black Beatles” with The Roots. The rest of their set was a livewire of Southern stunting and swagger.
22. Neko Case (3/17, Clive Bar)
The venerable veteran with the golden pipes had a busy festival, showcasing on her own and with her Indie brethren in the New Pornographers. A staggering talent with a consistently excellent discography, she nailed the ballads and whiskey-soaked ramblers with equal aplomb.
21. Fastball (3/15, Parish)
Back in the days of Office Space and just before the rise of Spoon, Fastball carried the torch for Austin-based affable pop-rock. Capital-P professionals who were equal parts self-deprecating and self-aware, Fastball played all the hits you know, the one hit you really, really know, and even new material that suggests the group never shrunk from their late-90s spotlight, but rather their bygone stardom was a happy accident for a vintage bar band that made it all the way.
20. Real Estate (3/14, Empire Garage)
New Jersey prep-rock band Real Estate played a swirling, hypnotic blend of standout tracks old and new — the kind of band SXSW attendees usually go gaga for. As a pure sonic experience, it’s hard to name too many in their lane who can beat their gifts for mood and melody.
19. Jidenna (3/18, 800 Congress)
The victory lap for one of the artists who truly won the week (more on that in a bit), Wisconsin-native crooner Jidenna was right at home with The Roots, playing his biggest, brightest hits in his signature style — and his one-night-only backing band matched him at every turn. A joint album between the two should be on a lot of music fans’ wishlists.
18. T.I. (3/18, 800 Congress)
Bring ’em out. Bring ’em out. The Roots did exactly that with their endless parade of special guests, and T.I. — who low-key has one of rap’s more thrilling bodies of work in his decade-plus career — exploded onto the Bud Light-branded stage with a scorching mini-set of crowd-pleasers.
17. D.R.A.M. (3/17, Banger’s)
The Hampton Roads singer/rapper is an extraordinary talent, who flashed considerable vocal and lyrical muscle (as well as an endearing ear-to-ear grin) during his smooth forty-minutes of stage time. Yes, he played “Broccoli,” but the whole show featured his shape-shifting versatility and uniform excellence of lesser-known album cuts.
16. Torino Black (3/16, Cheers Shot Bar)
Multicultural, multilingual hard rock masterminds Torino Black played a searing, soaring assault on the rooftop of an Austin bar better known for being a place where college kids and bachelor parties get blackout drunk. Led by the double-barreled blast of Venezuelan-born lead singer Sisi Berry’s signature wail and Saul Arteta of Spain’s blistering guitar, the band took a tough crowd and left them sweaty and breathless.
15. Rae Sremmurd (3/16, YouTube at Coppertank)
Sometimes it’s hard to separate objective analysis from the bliss of The Moment. We posted up front and center for the Sremmlife showcase live-streamed on YouTube, and from the second they stepped on stage, Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi started the party (yes, the first song that night was “Start A Party”) and never let up on the gas pedal for over an hour of bat-shit crazy double-cup anthems and club bangers. Jxmmi poured cans of Bud Light onto the stage and used the pool as a slip-and-slide. Swae preened and partied like a freshman in his first weekend at ASU. (Author’s Shameless Highlight: Slim Jxmmi literally reached out to hand me a beer. You can go to hundreds of concerts and never have a moment like that.)
14. Tameca Jones (3/14, Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room)
Austin R&B up-and-comer Tameca Jones delivered the goods with a fierce, sultry set at the intimate and impeccably-decorated venue. Cozy with the microphone and comfy with the crowd, Tameca’s original style — a pilot suit! — and impossible vocal taste sets her apart from a sea of soulful also-rans. Her selection of covers included a wildly entertaining spin on Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” and an interpolation of Ice Cube’s “Today Was A Good Day.” She’s already shared a stage with Leon Bridges and played ACL Festival. If Tuesday night’s romp is any indication, it won’t be long before her name gets printed much larger on festival bills.
13. De La Soul (3/18, 800 Congress)
De La Soul is not dead. Not yet. Not by a long shot. The hip-hop legends had a hell of a hustle this SXSW, dropping by at stage after stage to tear through their hits and show off their new music. Their verse trade-offs with Black Thought blew through the roof. Their silky flow and effortless charisma bled from the stage and could be felt for entire city blocks, as the throngs of folks hoping to get inside stood against barricades to gape in awe.
12. Brandy (3/18, 800 Congress)
Admit it: It’s been a while since you’ve thought about Brandy. So when Black Thought called out her name as a surprise — and most surprising — guest at the Bud Light Jam Session (Black Thought himself said this was “straight from left field”) a lot of jaws fell to the floor. By the end of her dexterous charming five-song playback, closing with extraordinary reads of turn-of-the-millennium smashes “I Wanna Be Down” and “Baby,”they were still there. Welcome back, Brandy. We’ve been sleeping on you way too long, and you came back just in time.
11. Communist Daughter (3/15, Lambert’s)
Singer/guitarist Johnny Solomon calls it “Post-Folk Grunge,” bassist Adam Switlick calls it “narrative sand-rock revival.” Whatever you call it, Twin Cities Indie darlings Communist Daughter — possibly this year’s SXSW winner for best band nobody’s heard of — played an absolutely astonishing sampler of Andrew Bird-meets-The National alt-country, mope-core and synth pop. Molly Moore’s disarming vocals led the charge for the approachable, gorgeously-constructed soundscapes. And yet, the real MVP of the band could very well be Dillon Marchus, who simultaneously played note-perfect guitar, keyboards, synths and glockenspiel(?!?!) without missing a beat.
10. Jidenna (3/16, YouTube at Coppertank)
Of the showcasing artists we saw at 2016’s SXSW, two really won the week, announced themselves to the world and made their live-performance star turns: Anderson Paak and Gallant. 2017’s festival belonged to Jidenna. Whether you call him The Chief or The Classic Man, Jidenna turned the crowd of 300+ at Coppertank into a swooning, swaying mass of blissful humanity. Signed to Janelle Monae’s Wondaland records, the Stanford alum with Nigerian roots bares more than a passing resemblance in both music and fashion sense to his label’s executive. Toggling between hip-hop, soul, Afro-punk, reggae, worldbeat and alt-R&B, Jidenna owned the stage, converting the agnostics into true believers, and put his indelible stamp on the evening.
9. Talib Kweli Greene (3/17, Banger’s)
The verbose vocabulary wizard — a rapper’s rapper writ large — who’s occasionally a bit hit-or-miss on record out-shined even his finest stuff on wax with arguably SXSW’s most unexpectedly thrilling set. A fiery ball of energy on stage who’s much harder and more charismatic live than you think, Kweli blew the doors off Banger’s by playing straight bangers from start to finish. Sometimes you get the sense from the former Reflection Eternal and Blackstar virtuoso that he’s hip-hop’s Will Hunting, asking his audience “Do you know how easy this is for me? Do you have any fucking idea how easy this is? This is a fucking joke. And I’m sorry you can’t do this.” To underline the point, Kweli mashed up (deep breath) “Ruff Ryderz Anthem,” Akinyele’s “Put It In Your Mouth,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario,” Rakim’s “Paid In Full,” Kanye West’s “Get ’Em High” and — I shit you not — the theme from the Peanuts cartoons. Oh, and for good measure, he covered The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” By the time he closed with his showstopping smash “Get By,” Kweli cemented himself as a tour-de-force live act, one that rivals even his considerable gift of gab.
8. Spoon (3/16, The Main)
Britt Daniel is Austin’s reigning Poet Laureate. Spoon’s frontman and principal songwriter has, over the course of a two-decade career, built a staggering body of work brick-by-brick that’s as consistent and engaging as any in just-off-the-radar rock-and-roll. There’s nothing flashy about it… until he drags his band on stage. As satisfying as a steak dinner, and with yet another new critically-acclaimed album out this week that features more of the same accessible pop, Spoon raged through standout tracks old and new to give the hometown faithful a blissful evening to remember.
7. Sleigh Bells (3/14, Empire Garage)
The Brooklyn duo of breathy, chanting Alexis Krauss and post-hardcore guitarist Derek Edward Miller (previously of Poison the Well) brought the Mazda Studio house down with their ear-splitting devastation, in an hour-long set that laid waste to convention of what defines “music.” Impossibly catchy and impossibly loud (think: “Hollaback Girl” meets Rob Zombie and you’re only about halfway there), their sonic napalm roared through the night, with “Riot Rhythm” and “Infinity Guitars” in particular scorching the city and leaving no one safe.
6. Method Man and Red Man (3/18, 800 Congress)
“If y’all love this 90s shit, lemme hear you say ‘Hell Yeah!’” Announced the stoner-rap on-again, off-again duo of Meth-and-Red. Yeah, some people come to SXSW to see what’s next, but it’s hard to top the thrills of hearing “All I Need” and “M.E.T.H.O.D. Man” and “How High” played full-blast backed by America’s hottest live band.
5. Anna Wise (3/14, Swan Dive)
She’s mostly known as the semi-anonymous voice behind Kendrick Lamar cuts like (deep breath here) “Money Trees,” “Real,” “Institutionalized,” “Untitled 01,” “Untitled 05” and her GRAMMY-winning turn on “These Walls.” But Tuesday’s hypnotic early slot at a half-empty Red River lounge was captivating in its brilliance, heart and prodigious talent. Anna Wise doesn’t just sing on stage. She dances, raps, makes her own beats, loops her vocals, modulates her mixes and builds improvisational soundscapes on her Ableton Push setup. Wise’s solo output is worth checking out — her lyrics are fiercely political and clever, her voice is as singular as her live show. By the end of her set, when she jumped off stage to dance and give out free hugs to her friends, the top-line thesis of the night had been written: Anna Wise is a true gem of an artist that’s only beginning to scratch the surface of what she’ll no-doubt soon become.
4. Ho99o9 (3/17, Blackheart)
Words won’t do this justice. Less than 48 hours after having their showcase set cut to just one song because the crowd got too unhinged for the venue to handle, doom-punk-soul-hardcore-death-rap-electro-synth-glam-noise-metal trio Ho99o9 (pronounced “Horror,” in case that wasn’t clear) took to the stage at the Blackheart and set the stage ablaze. They jumped, sprinted, screamed, sweated and smashed things. Half the crowd ran for the exits, half the crowd rushed the stage and started tearing the monitor speakers apart, I stood slack-jawed just off to the side of the stage, close enough to touch them if they’d ever just stay in one place, wondering how in the hell a band I’d never heard of, a band that features two lead singers — one in a hospital gown and a Taylor Swift wig, the other in furry bluebird carnival costume, just put up the most extraordinary live show I’d ever seen. I may never play their music in the car. I may never learn the name of any of their songs. But, you can rest assured, if and when they come back to Austin, I’m buying tickets and telling everyone I know. More than just the most shocking act of the festival, there’s simply nothing like them on Earth.
3. Danny Brown (3/15, Empire Garage)
There’s rap… and then there’s Danny Brown. The unflappably zany Detroit MC closed out Wednesday night’s Mazda Studio with the finest rap performance of SXSW. Pole-vaulting from club-bangers “Dip” and “Smokin’-and-Drinkin’” to his latest smash “Really Doe” and all the wild detours in between, Danny Brown’s singular delivery was a master course in after-hours raging. Occasionally forgetting the lyrics to his own songs and telling the DJ to re-rack and move on, Brown’s unvarnished wild-man persona bounced off the walls of the venue and good taste. And, oh by the way, it was his birthday. In his own words: “I’m 36 years old! You see how sexy this looks? You, too, could look like this if you smoke five blunts a day!” The only thing smoking more than Danny Brown on any given day was his set this night. Preposterous. Absorbing. Intoxicating. Grab your Solo cups and catch him in a city near you.
2. The Roots (3/18, 800 Congress)
Yes, we mentioned the litany of famous friends that paraded down the stairs and onto the stage at SXSW’s de facto closing party. But holding it all together and holding it down was the Tonight Show house band—arguably the best, tightest and most consistent band of the last 25 years anywhere in the world. A capacity crowd of 300+ and a blocks-long line of onlookers outside the venue were treated to a thrilling performance of rock, soul and hip-hop excellence. The Roots went back to their roots, blazing through tracks off Illadelph Halflife, Do You Want More?! and Things Fall Apart, capped off by a perfect performance of “You Got Me” that sent the audience — black, white, gay, straight, male, female, and from all over the world — home with heart-pounding smiles. Noting the death of Chuck Berry earlier in the evening, The Roots then performed a very touching, very-Roots-ian cover of “Johnny B. Goode.” They played for three hours. They could’ve easily played six. Questlove, Tuba Gooding Jr. and company did it all with seasoned soul and unrelenting enthusiasm. A frenetic display worth all four hours we waited to be first in line and guarantee our golden ticket inside.
1. Solange (3/15, YouTube at Coppertank)
Goosebumps. Chills. And that unshakable feeling of unchecked joy. Solange Knowles delivered the highlight of SXSW 2017 with a showcase for the ages. The enthralling artist gave the audience a night to remember long after the initial high of being there wears off. “Cranes in the Sky” made men and women alike bawl in public. “Don’t Touch My Hair” brought a hush to the room. “Losing You” turned into an all-out dance party. Arriving on stage a solid 20 minutes late, Solange remained gracious and graceful throughout the hour-plus celebration. Her backing New Orleans brass band hit every right note. The backup dancers swayed and sashayed in some of the finest choreography you’ll see at a pop performance. And, my god, that light blue dress. This is a true perfectionist at the peak of her powers. Solange lit up the room and left everyone feeling warm all over. The Patron Saint of Saint Heron, Ms. Knowles slayed and sent us all into the night scrambling, trying to make sense of someone so keenly in tune with her craft, her crowd, and our current social climate — someone who may rival only her sister as the most captivating pop artist working today. It was perfect. It was awesome. And it was the best thing we saw this year at South By Southwest.
Top image photo credit: Aaron Rogosin via SXSW.com