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Five acts that broke out at SXSW 2016

Dawn
Photograph: Courtesy Sasha Samsonova Dawn

Traditionally a showcase for rising talent, SXSW also makes room for plenty of big-name acts these days. But you can still find those bubbling-under-the-radar performers if you try. If you couldn’t make it to SXSW this year to seek them out yourself, fret not: Here are the five best up-and-coming acts that’ll be coming through your town soon enough.

1. Anderson .Paak

Anderson .Paak

Paak got a big boost midway through 2015 after appearing on Dr. Dre’s Compton album, but it wasn’t until his own record, Malibu, dropped this year that we saw the full scope of the singer's ability to conjure pop hooks next to funk grooves and rap verses. Paak and band, the Free Nationals, were unavoidable at SXSW, but at Wednesday night’s NPR showcase at Stubb’s they didn’t show any signs of fatigue. Following sleepy country songwriter Margo Price, Paak had no problem waking up the crowd with the liquid funk of “Put Me Thru,” the future-soul sounds of “Am I Wrong” and the braggadocious boasting of “Suede.” Disparate as the styles might sound, his music is the rare kind that needs no introduction, with most of the crowd converted on the spot before catching up to ask his name.

2. Whitney

Whitney

Knowing that Whitney was formed by ex-members of indie-rock bands Smith Westerns and Unknown Mortal Orchestra doesn’t really prepare you for the mellow Americana-inspired sound that the six-piece band radiates. At Cheer Up Charlie’s on Friday, drummer Julien Ehrlich sang into a mic craned over his head, crooning with a voice somewhere between Neil Young and Levon Helm. The rest of the band locked into a groove bolstered by keyboard and trumpet and guitar-work reminiscent of Mac DeMarco’s scooped tone. Even barely into spring, its synthesis of sounds—roots rock, glam and indie-rock like a bedroom-recorded Hall & Oates—is pure summer haze, boosting the band’s classic songwriting into must-see stuff.

3. WALL

WALL

Photograph: Courtesy Peter Senzamici

Despite the setting—a sunny Texas afternoon—the New York post-punks possess a certain menacing swagger. Singer Sam York’s lyrics come off like a string of indictments, with the band’s throbbing beat pulsing underneath. “You're watching my every move,” she sneered on the tiny stage of Hotel Vegas, to a room of people not quite sure if they were the ones being called out.

4. Dawn

DAWN

Photograph: Courtesy Sasha Samsonova

Often at places like SXSW a performer is faced with less than ideal conditions. On Friday, with a headlining slot at Pitchfork’s day party, Dawn Richard (who performs as Dawn) crammed her band, two muscled dancers and a giant triangular backdrop onto the small stage of Austin club Barracuda. Somehow, the close quarters made her set even more vibrant and vital, as she sang, danced and sweated triumphantly through the frenetic, adventurous pop-R&B of her latest album, Blackheart.

5. Downtown Boys

Downtown Boys

Providence’s Downtown Boys have a unique ability to cut through the din—something that was blindingly clear as the band aired its saxophone-driven political-punk anthems at Wednesday afternoon’s outdoor Ad Hoc showcase at Cheer Up Charlie’s. Singer Victoria Ruiz used the time between tunes to talk about abortion rights, wealth inequality and racism. Before its killer cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” Ruiz declared “Darkness is not a synonym for grotesque,” then proceeded to attack each line with a gusto that forced anyone standing on the sidelines to take notice.


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