South by Southwest turned 30 this year. Amid the breakfast tacos and 80-degree days, the festival yielded some powerful musical moments. Here are the highlights (and a few lowlights):
Performing an afternoon show flanked by a pair of dancers, R&B singer Lizzo offered a provocation: “It’s Friday. If you haven’t lost your phone yet, use it to take a picture of my ass!” In the 80 degree heat, the trio proceeded to twerk and bounce across the stage for dancehall-trap tune “Phone,” leading the receptive crowd in the body-positive anthem. Far from idle party jams, Lizzo’s songs are aimed at directly at the conservative ideologies attacking queer and black communities (“This song is dedicated to Mike Pence—you know why”). Her best track, “Coconut Oil,” is an affirmation about self-care and self-love, and the singer confessed that it was tough to perform on the fifth anniversary of her father’s death—to say nothing about the stresses of a marathon SXSW schedule. “Then I remembered why I do this.”
In Austin's South Congress area, Hurray for the Riff Raff headlined a Friday night set at Hotel San Jose, one of the many SXSW adjacent free shows happening in town. The project, fronted by Bronx singer-songwriter Alynda Segarra, just released its sixth album, The Navigator, that taps into a lot of the moment’s shared emotions—about immigration and identity—using roots music flavored with salsa and blues. “This is another immigrant song,” Segarra said several times, including before a piano-driven ballad about her father titled “Fourteen Floors.” Her closing call to arms, “Pa’lante,” is a powerful song of hope and resistance that rebuts any argument that political music needs to be abstracted to avoid being corny. (You can see her performance earlier in the week at the NPR showcase here.)
If you’ve never been to SXSW, here’s a bit about geography: At night, the center of the festival, Sixth Street, is like a combination of Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras and Times Square on New Years. Keep in mind that SXSW tends to coincide with Saint Patrick’s Day. The farther you get from this nexus, the lighter the crowds are, the more non-industry folks are about, the air smells fresh and a wash of calm comes over you (ok, maybe not) . Seeing ribald rockabilly loudmouth Mojo Nixon at the city’s iconic Continental Club was my way of getting a tiny taste of weird old Austin within walking distance of the main hub (or at least that’s what I told myself). At the annual gig, the mostly retired musician had a lot to say about the president (“Half-wit hillbilly Hitler” was one of the better epithets) and proved that his showmanship hasn’t flagged a bit, donning a green shamrock blazer with short shorts and pausing between songs to unleash some snot onto the stage. “Last night’s residue,” he quipped. Charming.
One of the most engaged crowd responses happened right off the Sixth Street strip, where a showcase called Contrabanned: #MusicUnites hosted musicians with roots in the seven Muslim-majority countries banned by the president’s recent executive order. The crowd joined in to dance with pop singer Emmanuel Jal (South Sudan/Canada) and sister duo Faarrow (Somalia/Canada), but the strongest reaction came for Mohsen Namjoo, an Iranian singer-songwriter who played a lute-like setar, inspiring a full-room sing-along.
Inside that same venue, globalFEST hosted several engaging, genre-flouting acts. The best of those, Haitian-born Canadian Vox Sambou, led his band in a set of vibrant Afrobeat that traversed styles from reggae to hip-hop. In those modes, the rhythm section stretched into the grooves, riding a wave of elastic rhythms propelled by congas and kit drums. This music too had a political edge, with Sambou asking the audience to release its anger in a shout that crescendoed back into the music.
The other main hub of SXSW is the Austin Convention Center, a massive structure with a few stages set up among its conference rooms. It’s a little sterile, to say the least, and probably the last place you’d expect to see noise-hip-hop trio Ho99o9 (pronounced "horror") performing a Saturday afternoon set in a space that smelled like a freshly vacuumed hotel room. “This is like playing in front my fucking parents in our fucking living room and shit,” one of its MCs remarked. That might be true, but it’s also true that the sound system in Ballroom D was massively powerful, propelling the group’s combination of noise, metal and rap directly into the chest of anyone willing to submit. It was a good set, and the band didn’t seem to let on that they were tired by the busy week as they leapt off amps and drums, posing like rock stars despite the square digs.
For musicians, cramming as many sets as possible into a week is a kind of Running Man–like gauntlet, and it can yield understandably uneven result. When a band makes its set sound vital despite that, it can be a revelation. On Wednesday night, Mexico’s Le Butcherettes held little back as it unleashed its confrontational punk rock on the Mohawk’s small indoor stage. Speaking in Spanish, front person Teri Gender Bender delivered operatic pronouncements—a little like Diamanda Galas or Tom Waits, dipping into guttural sounds and wails—while playing keyboard and guitar. It seemed fresh and, against a lineup of half-asleep indie-rock noodling, utterly one of a kind.
Another band that stood out was power-pop group PWR BTTM, whose virtuosos never seem like they’re working that hard. That fact allows you to focus on the melodies, which are catchy, and the lyrics, which tell brutally funny, gut-punching stories of queer love. Playing from its forthcoming record, Pageant, its first on Polyvinyl, the band mixed seriousness and lightness: its songs covered text messages and boys, while its pre-set introduction assured the audience the show would be a safe space.
At SXSW and elsewhere, performers are increasingly relying on backing tracks for instruments and vocals. There’s a number of reasons for that: Some want to focus on dancing or crowd work, or simply want to bolster the sound of their vocals. But the strategy can also backfire. On Thursday night Taylor Bennett, brother of Chance the Rapper, relied on his backing tracks to a crippling extent, resulting in a bit of awkwardness as the room noticeably cleared over the course of his set. The artists I saw that embraced a live band when they didn't necessarily need to—including two Chicago acts, singer Jamila Woods and rapper Noname, who share musicians—proved that performing without a safety net can pay off big. For Woods, the live band added a rock groove to her debut, HEAVN, linking it more directly to hard-edged funk-rock. For Noname, it allowed her to expand on the soulful, jazzy sound of her Telefone mixtape, creating an even more velvety backdrop for her playful verses.
While there was an unannounced show from Lana Del Rey, the biggest surprise of the week was a headlining set by Garth Brooks, as part of the fest’s free programming at Auditorium Shores. In general, the festival seemed to embrace a broader shift away from big, corporate stages and big-name surprises. I did manage to see one special-guest set: reunited post-hardcore band At the Drive-In, which will be releasing its first album in almost two decades in May. The band looked and sounded energized, like a group still with something to prove.
Last year, Drake played a surprise Saturday night set at SXSW. This year, the biggest music news of the week was Drake releasing More Life, an ambitious 22-song album, on Saturday night. This time, Twitter, not Austin, was where the public listening party happened. At the festival, the Roots performed a by-the-books set with guests both announced (Method Man, Redman, Jidenna and Shakey Graves) and unannounced (Rae Sremmurd, Brandy and TI). And the agile hip-hop group did what it could to comment on the day's events. There was no Drake, but the Roots paid tribute to Chuck Berry, who died Saturday, with a cover of “Johnny B. Goode” led by guitarist "Captain" Kirk Douglas.