McLovin performed in at least two bands during SXSW, most remarkably as Ben Kweller’s side man. The lefty featured a sweet, custom bass rig with the low string at the bottom.
“Was that McLovin?” I asked one of his bandmates.
“Well, it’s Chris,” he answered. “But yes.”
Historically, the tech, film, and music conference is high on celebrity power. But in recent years, for economic, racial, permitting, and industry-in-flux factors, its music-centered second weekend has become an afterthought.
After Kanye West put mainstream rap on the SX map with a viral 2009 performance, Austin, Texas became a centerpiece of hip-hop culture as spring breakers from Prairie View to Bethune Cookman drove in on the promise of secret Kendrick Lamar concerts. The action overshadowed the conference and organizers struggled to retain registrants’ attention because the Pandora House featured an open bar and SZA. A horrible drunk-driving accident in 2014 began a festival-wide reconsideration.
Today Sixth Street still comes alive during SXSW but the official showcases have largely been relocated away from “Dirty.” The Spotify, iTunes, Pandora, Fader, Taco Bell, Hype Machine, Purevolume, McDonald’s side stages are gone. If you’re an aspiring rapper here to link-up with someone who can help you professionally, handing-out your music on Sixth is limiting because those badge-holders are loitering elsewhere downtown.
Gone are the days of waiting all day to watch Drake perform 15 minutes-worth of If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. (The Fader Fort, a first-wave-of-gentrification East Austin landmark, is now a multi-residential unit that features a Whole Foods.) You can no longer scavenger-hunt for a Doritos vendor and perform street art to get a Lady Gaga ticket. Samsung is not hosting a Prince concert. Splashthat RSVP links for fake Frank Ocean pop-ups are not being passed around the groupchat.
During a panel this year about live music online, a SoundCloud rep said that young people are mostly getting their new music from video games and livestreams. A Warner Music rep is still figuring out concerts in the metaverse, and said that a recent virtual Saweetie concert had to be bleeped into oblivion because the rapper was performing via children’s platform Roblox.
But you can still discover great new music for the workday if you bother to look. Or take orders.
“Pull out your phones right now,” legendary rap DJ Kid Capri told the Parish early Sunday. “Pull up your Spotify. Pull up your Tidal.”
If you do it right, SXSW is like going to the grocery store and sampling. I watched 25 bands on Saturday bopping around with intention. Here is the best new music from my 9 days at SXSW 2023—complete with a killer Spotify playlist.
Ben Kweller’s 16-year-old son Dorian died in a car accident on Feb. 27. He was slated to perform his first SXSW under the moniker Zev.
When this reporter walked into the Mohawk to observe a showcase that doubled as a memorial and fundraiser, a mashup of Kweller family home movies screened on the wall. The accompanying song was so good I had to Shazam it: “How I Am” by Zev.
What does a Best New Music shout-out from Pitchfork.com get you in 2023? Lots of curious olds like me watching controlled chaos inside of Austin’s hottest new punk room, Chess Club, at the CREEM magazine party. These Philadelphia four-piece thrashers have everything: Wry punchlines, gold chains, Bobby Caldwell drops during their tuning breaks, abrasive hip-hop samples, gorgeously descriptive lyrics (“I hit the dab pen on the Megabus”) followed by a chorus so good it becomes a war chant: “Who gon’ beat my ass?”
I broke a cardinal SXSW efficiency rule and circled back to watch a second set.
“Crisis averted,” veteran blog-era rapper Fat Tony said onstage after he connected a charger into his MacBook. He’d been playing punchy, synth-rich beats while performing crisply written, peanut-brittle-hard raps about the drive-thru.
Pandemic rock was a recurring genre at SX: Singer-songwriters used the long break to journal and arrange arresting, ponderous albums, then record them at “Jack’s mom’s house” and “Jack’s apartment.” Jack’s mom must have been in Sofia Jensen’s social pod.
Sandwiched between SXSW breakout performers Golden Dregs and Hamish Hawk late Saturday at Swan Dive, I’d penciled-in London’s Night Tapes as a bedroom indie pop band to spot-check. But on a chilly patio, just one bass-heavy, people-moving line after another while Estonian frontwoman Iiris Vesik regularly covered her left ear to make sure she was wailing in tune on the high parts. The gig doubled as a release party for new single “Selene.”
It isn’t a SXSW until you find a pew at the Central Presbyterian Church and watch a band respond to the room’s unique acoustics and intimidating, large cross. Brooklyn’s Pearla is the brainchild of Nicole Rodriguez, and she can direct a slide player while juggling guitar and synthesizer duties as well as anyone in indie rock.
“My Honesty” features one of the best bratty, heavy, serenely repetitive rock choruses New York City noise rock has offered up in ages. The flippant, purposeful music of Been Stellar is an easy bet for what rock stardom looks like these days: First the outside stage of your town’s most celebrated 1,000-seat rock club in the fall, then a supporting slot alongside an arena band in the summertime.
“I almost blamed myself when you left,” went the chorus on the Atlanta rapper’s heartbreakingly vulnerable, catchy, and Auto-Tuned set-closer. Kodie Shane grew up with family ties to the music business and has top-flight music with famous people like Rick Ross under her belt. But several years after prodigious work with Lil Yachty, the now-24-year-old rapper enters the chat with master-class moves.
It’s difficult to transcend a brunch booking at a brewery on the last day of SXSW. Belfast’s Lemonade Shoelace went mostly instrumental and let the bass player sing because the frontman said his voice was gone. Afterward, Wellington, New Zealand’s twin sibling rockers Hans Pucket brought the house: Personnel that swapped instruments, jokes about why the New Zealand accent sounds the way it does (“We don’t open our mouths when we talk”), would-be anthems about anxiety (“You Must Chill”), righteously percussive indie rock from the Vampire Weekend school of secular pop composition.
Hermosillo, Mexico’s Margaritas Podridas (“Rotten Margaritas” in English) are punishingly metal onstage but… also write palatable dream pop. The band cops to its ‘90s influences, modeling itself sonically after grunge and shoegaze with strong, politically charged Courtney Love swag..
Someone has to write songs about forlorn jukebox dives where an estranged dad puts on six George Jones songs in a row and makes it weird. Birmington, Alabama’s Banditos are led by the imposing voice and wit of singer Mary Beth Richardson; the best southern rock doesn’t blink and borrows from both honky tonk and soul.
Thursday night at Seven Grand, Takoma, Washington punk-rockers Enumclaw showed their bite behind the blog darling facade. Performing 15 minutes late after someone stole his stuff and he needed help borrowing gear, singer Aramis Johnson tuned-out the distractants and funneled that righteous indignation into a full-throat performance.
Yes, there were lots of bands from the U.K. that sounded like Idles: disjointed breakdowns where the drummer taps on the snare drum casing during pregnant pauses, siren guitars, sing-rap lyrics about Brexit and/or fish and chips, drummers in throwback World Cup shorts. North Yorkshire Moors, England’s Avalanche Party did great working a late-night stage at comedy club Velveeta Room. And they cared a lot: Preshow, many “thanks mates” as they laboriously set up the backline item-by-item to make it work.
I missed the Australian songwriter’s final-of-three-official SX sets Friday afternoon while on the news desk. Sounded great on her IG Stories though. Big fan of last year’s The Future Is Here But It Feels Kind of Like the Past. Pro tip: Catch the buzz band early in the week, especially when it has a bunch of performances lined up. You’ll trick yourself into “Eh I’ll stop by the next one.”
At SXSW Music, a post-punk band from Detroit with a handful of heralded-online albums can feel like a headliner because they’ve been quiet for a few years and the 100 people who care all are in town. And they can confuse onlookers by performing at the Australia House.
Your favorite dream pop breakout from 2018 remains an excellent songwriter. Thursday at a tequila bar (like, a cool one), Brooklyn singer Barrie commanded the room with nostalgic, big songs elevated by two high-voltage backup singers.
Composer Frogi writes bedroom pop with the best of them: Inward-thinking, vulnerable, densely layered, memorable. Saturday the L.A. producer blended strings and synths for a righteously indignant performance where she clarified between songs: Yes, I write and arrange all of these songs; I’m constantly combatting sexism in the industry; this song is called “Bop It” because the industry makes me feel like I’m a child’s toy sometimes.
Thursday night at Latchkey during the Spanish New Wave showcase, self-described “neo-psychedelic” and “emo rap” performer Ghouljaboy played chillwave in the key of Neon Indian. The very online Jerez De La Frontera, Spain singer won on calm vibes and well-written songs.
The only SXSW set where the band pointed to its business cards onstage and encouraged onlookers to grab one. Maybe that’s because the indie pop of Sydney’s Salarymen (they sound like Cults) was being performed in the Hilton lobby, where deals get done.
SXSW’s Interactive portion saw many Germans, presumably from the tech sector, congregating at the German Haus. Monday night, a band best described as “Extremely German” (industrial percussion, crunching guitars, English-language lyrics ripe for Eurovision) performed with vigor and pace. Just give in to the pop ambition of “Not the Right Place” already.