This year’s SXSW Music may have been a little more subdued than recent years; the city of Austin has been issuing fewer and fewer temporary permits, likely in response to the tragic 2014 car accident that claimed four lives. But there was still an ungodly amount of music, bands, and fans flooding the city’s downtown, east side, and outskirts, and we did our best to see as much as possible.
It would take a few weeks to detail each of the dozens of sets we caught while in town for the festival, so we plucked our ten favorite moments to highlight, with a few honorable mentions tossed in for good measure. Check out our report below, and see if your new favorite band isn’t in there somewhere.
Sheer Mag – Tuesday, March 15 at Lamar Street Pedestrian Bridge
Sheer Mag performs on the Lamar Street Pedestrian Bridge in Austin, Texas, March 15, 2016. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.
In what has become an annual tradition, a word-of-mouth set powered by a generator went down on the first night of South by Southwest at 3am on the Lamar Street Pedestrian bridge, a couple dozen feet from the surface of the Colorado River. Nosefratu, Sheer Mag, Downtown Boys, and GLAASSSS tore through short, ferocious sets to a crowd of punks shotgunning beers, pumping fists, and moshing with reckless abandon. A single cop car stood sentry on the south bank of the river, apparently indifferent to the spectacle.
Downtown Boys at the AdHoc Showcase at Cheer Up Charlie’s, Austin, Texas. Photo credit: Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Downtown Boys – Wednesday, March 16 at Cheer Up Charlie’s (AdHoc)
We’ve caught quite a few Downtown Boys sets over the past year—indeed, by the time we saw them at the stacked AdHoc showcase, we had already caught two sets in Austin by accident (including the aforementioned bridge show). But the ripper they tore through outside at Cheer Up Charlie’s on Wednesday was quite possibly the tightest and loudest we’ve ever heard them play, and it was heartwarming to see them mint new fans in real-time.
Jéf – Wednesday, March 16 at Sledge Hammer (MMF LatAm)
Jéf performs at Sledge Hammer in Austin, Texas, March 16, 2016. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.
When we first arrived at the MMF LatAm showcase at Sledge Hammer on Wednesday night to the sounds of Jéf gently strumming his amplified acoustic, we thought we were in the wrong place. A portly hirsute singer/songwriter performing Ben E. King covers was not quite what we expected from a showcase filled with Latin American musicians bringing their music to América del Norte. But his voice and presence was infectious, and as he segued from American English pop covers into his originals in Portuguese, we were sold.
Lorely Rodriguez, a.k.a. Empress Of, performs at The Historic Scoot Inn in Austin, Texas, March 16, 2016. Photo by Pooneh Ghana for Tumblr.
Empress Of – Wednesday, March 16 at The Historic Scoot Inn (Tumblr 79¢ party)
We’ve been giving Empress Of’s latest LP Me quite a few repeat spins since its release last year; Lorely Rodriguez’s angelic voice vacillates between driving pulsing dance rhythms and sweet soul. We were a bit taken aback by how hyped her set was, as she flittered about the stage, tossing her hair and amping up the crowd — but probably shouldn’t have been. Even at its softest moments, her music is brimming with a frenetic energy, and her performance is that energy manifest. We can’t wait to see her again.
Gallant – Friday, March 18 at Hype Hotel
Another soulful crooner whose set had more energy than we expected was Gallant, the R&B singer who caught our attention with his gut-wrenching Sufjan Stevens collaborations. We caught him at the Hype Hotel’s indoor hangar, where he sprinted from end to end of the stage, emoting with a ferocity that injected new life into his already beautiful songs. For evidence, see the above clip of his single “Bourbon,” captured from the photo pit.
Davido performs at the FADER Fort in Austin, Texas, March 18, 2016. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.
Davido – Friday, March 18 at FADER Fort
Recent FADER cover star Davido is more privileged than even most pop stars; the Nigerian-born pop singer’s father’s wealth can be measured well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But it’s hard to deny how much fun his show is — the stage during his set at the FADER Fort was crowded with dancers and an entourage to rival even the most codependent contemporary rappers. The performance was our first exposure to his music, live or otherwise, and it was memorable enough to make us seek out more.
Guerilla Toss – Friday, March 18 at Barracuda (Infinity Cat)
In town to promote their first — and excellent — DFA Records full-length, Eraser Stargazer, Guerilla Toss played a ton of shows in Austin last week. This set for Infinity Cat — the erstwhile Nashville label that put out their tape as part of its cassette series — was their fourth show of the day, but it still knocked, with their quirky, experimental brand of dance pop moving even some of the crowd’s more stoic members. In a group with a Wii-nunchuck wielding bro manning a drum machine, possibly the most interesting contributor was the band’s lighting engineer — essentially its sixth member — projecting images onto a screen as part of a light show that gave even the most mediocre photographers images with a psychedelic swirl to match the music (see the image at the top of this post for evidence). Just try to listen to Eraser Stargazer without moving; we’re not entirely convinced it’s even possible.
Diarrhea Planet’s Jordan Smith gives the crowd what they want at Barracuda in Austin, Texas, March 18, 2016. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.
Diarrhea Planet – Friday, March 18 at Barracuda (Infinity Cat)
We were lucky enough to be a fly on the wall at the recording sessions for Diarrhea Planet’s upcoming full length, Turn to Gold. But as the record doesn’t come out until June 10, it’s been months since we’ve heard most of the songs, and never since we’ve heard them performed live. New songs from popular bands are often met with cautious optimism by even fervent fans, but if the crowd at the Barracuda was unpleased with the copious amounts of shred and finger-tapping solos of Turn to Gold tracks “Life Pass,” “Ain’t a Sin to Win,” and “Bob Dylan’s Grandma,” we couldn’t tell. Just ask the crowdsurfing dad.
Miss Garrison’s Francesca Straube performs at Maggie Mae’s in Austin, Texas, March 19, 2016. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.
Miss Garrison – Saturday, March 19, at Maggie Mae’s (Hermoso Ruido)
We caught the Santiago, Chile-based Miss Garrison early in the week at the MMF LatAm showcase at Sledge Hammer, but it was their set at the Hermoso Ruido showcase at Maggie Mae’s on Saturday that cemented them as our favorite new act of SXSW. Frontwoman Francesca Straube manned synths, drums and vocals, bouncing between her drum machine, a floor tom and left-handed trap kit technique. Their latest material is more synth-heavy, but guitarist Rodrigo de la Rivera still had his moments to shine, making his guitar cry on jams like “Playa.”
Bombino performs outside Waterloo records in Austin, Texas, March 19, 2016. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.
Bombino – Saturday, March 19 at Waterloo Records
Niger’s Bombino, the Tuareg-via-Jimi Hendrix ax slayer that’s caught the attention of the likes of Dan Auerbach and Nick Zinner, played to a wide-eyed crowd full of confused but happy white people that had just packed the parking lot of local shop Waterloo Records to see ’90s alt-rock classicists Soul Asylum. They may not have known the former refugee’s story, or of his introduction to the guitar and Jimi Hendrix in Algeria, but they loved every minute, proving the universal appeal of Tuareg music from the desert to a mainstream audience.
MF Doom’s Video “Performance” & Ghostface Killah’s Wu Classics
We approached the New Era showcase at Emo’s with cautious trepidation, as two of the marquee names on the bill — Jay Electronica and MF Doom — are notorious flakes. And sure enough, Electronica bailed, and Doom’s “performance” consisted of a pre-recorded collection of tracks from his new Doomstarks project with Ghostface Killah. While the crowd booed and hollered “Where Doom at?!?!”, it was hard to deny that the songs sounded dope AF, and their ire was sated somewhat when Ghost came out with Cappadonna and Killah Priest to do a run through some of his classic Wu joints, like “Ice Cream.”
Open Mike Eagle ft. Hannibal Buress
The Onion AV Club’s showcase at SXSW straddled the Interactive and Music portions of the fest, and we caught a set from underrated rapper Open Mike Eagle at Barracuda on our first night in town. The crowd was curious if mostly subdued, but everyone got hyped when their favorite dentist from Broad City showed up to drop a few bars.
All Dogs. Photo credit: Matthew Ismael Ruiz
Dilly Dally & All Dogs at AdHoc
We’ve caught Toronto’s Dilly Dally and Philadelphia-via-Columbus’ All Dogs a few times last year, but their performances were some of our favorite sets at this year’s SXSW. Dilly Dally has been refining their cover of Drake’s “Know Yourself” for a while, and it finally sounds as tight as the original. All Dogs was able to command a hot and sweaty crowd’s attention even through their softer numbers, no small feat in the baking midday sun. Peep their debut LPs on Partisan and Salinas records, respectively.
Music Band’s Harry Kagan and Duncan Shea perform on the bus for “Jam In The Van.” Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.
Music Band & Diarrhea Planet’s “Jam In The Van”
The Jam In The Van series consists of live, on-location studio sessions conducted inside a tricked-out tour bus set up for recording. This year the bus parked outside GQ’s Hormel-sponsored SXSW house on the outskirts of town just off the Colorado River, and hosted two of Nashville’s most ascendant rock acts, Diarrhea Planet and Music Band. The Planet’s six members were a bit cramped in the bus’ tight quarters, but at half the size, Music Band had enough room to flex their distorted guitar muscle. Look for the sessions to be posted soon, here.
Iggy Pop sips espresso at a taping of a special edition of Josh Homme’s Beats 1 radio program “The Alligator Hour,” in Austin, Texas, March 17, 2016. Photo by Matthew Ismael Ruiz.
Iggy Pop & Josh Homme @Apple Music
We reported on this in depth here, but the Beats 1 radio session that Josh Homme recorded with Iggy Pop to promote their excellent new record Post Pop Depression will likely go down as one of our favorite moments, not just of SXSW, but ever. It’s rare to get honest insight into the records that shaped an artist’s life; even rarer to get the opportunity to ask them intimate questions about how they engage with music. We can’t wait for it to air.
El Freaky’s “Lowrider” Remix at Remezcla
El Freaky are no longer a secret: their set at the Remezcla showcase recently got a signal boost from the New York Times’ Jon Pareles. For us, the standout moment was their reworking of the War classic “Low rider,” an anthem long since appropriated by Cholo culture. We couldn’t help but smile as we bounced along to the beat, reimagined with rhythms recalling reggaeton and Miami club music, a beautiful amalgamation of contemporary latin music that reminded us how sometimes, all music has to do is be fun.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified ZZ Top as the performer of the original song “Low Rider.” It was written by War and the band’s producer, Jerry Goldstein. We regret the error.