The 18 Best Sets We Saw at SXSW 2018
by Amanda Hatfield, Andrew Sacher and Dave
After self-releasing their Jack Shirley-produced debut album what people call low self-esteem is really just seeing yourself the way that other people see you, San Jose's awakebutstillinbed quickly became one of the most talked-about bands in online emo circles, and they signed to Tiny Engines a month later. I like the album, but it was seeing them at Lost Weekend 2 that sealed the deal for me. Singer/core songwriter Shannon Taylor is truly a force who can seamlessly go from a whisper to a harsh scream, and when she whips out those screams it's difficult to not be mesmerized. They played very early (noon) on the small inside stage at Cheer Up Charlies, but with a talent like Shannon leading the band, they already seem like they could win over big crowds (like the ones they'll hopefully play to on their upcoming tour with Joyce Manor).
A Place to Bury Strangers
Despite playing over 10 SXSW in three days before arriving at our party on Saturday, Brooklyn's A Place To Bury Strangers -- new drummer Lia Simone Braswell included -- performed like well rested rock n' roll Olympians. And despite my fear that their dissonant, loud sound might scare fans of more traditional rock sounds off after Andrew WK and before Gang of Youths, APTBS had the still-full crowd loving every second of it. The show started as high-energy as APTBS ever are, and it got even crazier as it went on, with band members hopping off stage and performing part of the set in the crowd, as they often do. You can watch for yourself:
One of the highlights of Becca Mancari's great 2017 debut album Good Woman is the effects-laden pedal steel that adds a dose psychedelia at times, so it was a welcome surprise to find out Becca's band includes an effects-laden pedal steel player on every song. It also includes a super tight drummer and a talented bassist, but of course Becca is the star. Her voice soars, and she was clearly born to perform. She looks right at home on stage, and has the swagger, presence, and witty stage banter of someone who's been doing this their entire life.
Australia's G Flip has only released one song so far ("About You") but proved during her live show that she's got a whole arsenal of very catchy pop. "About You" was obviously the set highlight and a lot of people in the crowd already knew the words, but every song she played was on that level. She said it was not only her eighth show of SXSW but her eighth show ever, but she and her band already seemed like they'd been touring together for ages. They were super locked-in, and they had a unique setup where sometimes Georgia Flipo herself drummed and other times the bassist switched to drums so Georgia could just sing. The show was full of energy and it felt like they won over everyone in the room.
Gang of Youths
I don't think any band exceeded my expectations this week more than Gang of Youths did. They sound like an ambitious rock band on their latest album, but the live show nearly doubles that ambition. They already seem like they should be playing to crowds 10 times as big as they played to on Saturday, and they don't hold back one bit from playing like the rock stars they deserve to be. Sometimes that means getting what you might call a little cheesy, but Gang of Youths own all of their guilty pleasures so confidently that it ends up seeming like there's nothing guilty about it (they also mentioned on stage that they'd rather do what they were doing than ever be pretentious hipsters staring at their shoes, which the crowd appreciated). They have some slower songs on the new album, but they kept this brief set to all ragers, and they were the perfect songs to be hearing on a sunny St. Patrick's Day afternoon, as much of the enthusiastic crowd would surely agree. If you're unfamiliar, they've got a serious Springsteen vibe, but they keep things interesting with an atmospheric side that feels equally influenced by The National and post-rock. Post-heartland rock? Whatever you wanna call it, it's a great sound and the live show must be seen.
When we recently caught the Portland indie-folk artist making her NYC debut, she played solo, but this time she had a band (including a trumpet player on every song) and she's even better this way. Her voice soars even more powerfully than it does on the album, and it's nice to hear her aided by some nice harmonies from her keyboardist/backing singer. When Haley and her band bring their folky sound to a rockin' roar, like on set closer (and set standout) "Worth It," it's next level.
Hop Along were a perfect band to close out a day full of indie pop, emo, folk, country, pop, and more. Hop Along's sound has at least some elements of all of those styles of music, especially the songs they were previewing from their highly anticipated album Bark Your Head Off, Dog (due 4/6 via Saddle Creek). Hop Along have had a fully realized sound since 2012's great Get Disowned, but it sounds like these new songs are taking them to an even higher level. To help them pull off their new and improved, more fleshed-out sound was Thin Lips singer Chrissy Tashjian (who sings on Get Disowned, Painted Shut, and Bark Your Head Off, Dog too), who added backing vocals, acoustic and electric guitar, and keyboards to the band's already-accomplished live show. With Chrissy, they sounded better than ever, and her individuality was a welcome addition to a band where every member shines in their own way. Joe Reinhart adds complex, classic rock-inspired lead guitar; Mark Quinlan pounds the hell out of his drums and is a real showman who rises to his feet while drumming, Lars Ulrich-style; Tyler Long's sturdy bass playing is the band's never-faltering backbone; and Frances Quinlan's voice is one of modern-day indie rock's true treasures. There seems to be no limit to what she can do with that thing, and there really isn't anyone else who sounds like her. Now as a five-headed beast, with all the appeal that Hop Along already had plus more, they ran through a mix of old favorites and not-yet-released new songs, and sounded fantastic the whole time. It was as much of a treat to hear their most beloved song "Tibetan Pop Stars" as it was to hear them bring recent single "Not Abel" to life. If the day party didn't have to end, they could've played twice as long and I don't think a single person would have minded.
An Americana country artist from the UK. A little weird on paper, but on paper there is no way to describe the power that is Jade Elizabeth Bird's voice. Backed by a talented band that includes Will Rees from Mystery Jets on guitar and in-demand drummer Matt Johnson (Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, St. Vincent, etc), she was ending her run of extremely hyped SXSW shows with us to an extremely packed crowd on the Cheer Ups inside stage. Without a hint of exhaustion, she complimented the crowd multiple times, as they complimented her back with loud cheers.
Jeff Rosenstock was the announced-last-minute headliner of the official Polyvinyl showcase, and he and his band opted to speed through their set with minimal banter and play this year's POST- in full. I've seen Jeff a bunch of times so I had no doubts that he would bring it, but coming fresh off the release of one of the year's best albums and having the increased enthusiasm of this being one of the first times ever playing those songs live, Jeff and his band were even more full of energy than usual and that's really saying something. The crowd reciprocated, getting all riled up and shouting along to every song, and the adrenaline rush made being out past 2 AM and getting hit with a little rain feel like the middle of a sunny day. After doing the entire album, Jeff shouted out Polyvinyl (which he just signed to this year) and said something like "I happen to know that Polyvinyl have... SKA ROOTS" and then went on to revisit his own ska roots to close out his awesome set.
...one of the day party's most unforgettable sets: genre-defying, mask-wearing rapper/singer Leikeli47. She played a ton of highlights of last year's great Wash & Set, including the title track, "Miss Me," "Attitude," "Bags," and more, and she was joined on stage at times by various dancers, which only made the energy in the room even higher. The crowd was constantly moving to every song she played, and she was met by massive cheers several times. Not only was the whole thing a spectacle, but Leikeli can really rap and really sing, and that was very evident throughout her performance. Check out her BV set:
Maxo Kream's Punken is one of my favorite rap albums of 2018 so far and he was one of the artists I was excited to see at SXSW, so I went in with high expectations and they were met. Maxo's brief set at Mass Appeal and Netflix's Live at the BBQ was heavy on the crowdpleasers from his new album ("Bussdown," "Grannies," "Roaches," etc) and the crowd was definitely pleased (he got a mosh pit started early on). Maxo relied a little too much on a backing track at times, but it was hard to complain too much. In the moment, nothing could've brought down the exciting mood.
Though Princess Nokia and I both live in NYC (and other BV staffers have caught her here), it took me traveling to Austin to finally see her and I'm so glad I did. She headlined the SMILF night of Showtime House, which was hosted by the show's star, writer, creator and director Frankie Shaw (who you also know as Shayla from Mr. Robot), and Frankie was clearly excited to introduce Princess Nokia. She referred to her as a "feminist badass" which was met by huge cheers from the crowd (the whole showcase was celebrating feminism and had feminist pins that you could customize yourself), and she brought up how her SMILF character masturbated to a Princess Nokia song in the first episode (also met by huge cheers). The song in question is "Tomboy," which was a highlight of Princess Nokia's set, but really every song she played was killer. She can seriously rap and the whole crowd was bouncing up and down to every song. The energy in the room was undeniable, but it wasn't just a party the whole time. She got serious at times too, like when she took a break from the danceable beats to do "ABCs of New York" with all the focus on her skills as a lyricist.
When people talk about Rapsody, they tend to talk about how she can really rap (like we did when we put her on our top albums of 2017 list). That's also what Statik Selektah talked about when he announced her set at Mass Appeal and Netflix's "Live at the BBQ" SXSW showcase at Stubb's on Saturday night, and Rapsody went on to play a set that reinforced just how good she is at the art form. A handful of other rappers on that show relied on a backing track, but not Rapsody. Other than on hooks, the only voice you were hearing was hers and her athletic style cut right through the mix. Rapsody's music can often be more cerebral than danceable, but she still managed to have the very packed crowd moving. She was also inspirational with her stage banter, and gave a powerful speech to the women in the crowd about being absolutely anything you want to be and never letting gender be a qualifier ("don't call me a female rapper, don't call me a female emcee... call me a BEAST").
The third and final day of Lost Weekend 2 began at noon on the outside stage with confrontational punk performance artists Sloppy Jane, who really need to be seen live to get the full experience. Their show feels equally influenced by theater productions as by The Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, it contains nudity, and it's clearly making a statement and meant to provoke. They had nine members on stage, five of which sang, some of whom were in unconventional positions (like lying on a PA speaker or sitting upright on a monitor in front of the stage or standing on a guitar amp), and leading the way is the often-fully-nude Haley Dahl, who has zero restraint and gives a highly animated performance that included writhing around on stage and climbing the scaffolding. Haley is the star and the director, but every member brings something unique to the table and they're all crucial to the Sloppy Jane experience. It's more than just shock factor or a big spectacle -- it's a meticulously composed performance with so much attention to detail and so much raw talent.
Soccer Mommy's Fat Possum debut Clean is one of the most enjoyable indie rock albums of 2018 so far, so we were very excited to see her and she did not disappoint. Main member Sophie Allison did some songs with her band and some solo, and she sounded great both ways, but she especially shined on full-band highlights like "Cool" and "Your Dog." Check our her BV set:
Seattle indie rockers Special Explosion were plagued by some sound issues at the BrooklynVegan/Dine Alone/Buzz Records SXSW showcase, and they were probably a little exhausted and stressed out from their van breaking down earlier that day, but they still proved themselves as one of the more promising indie rock bands around. They played highlights of their great 2017 debut To Infinity, which sorta has Death Cab meets American Football vibes when recorded but was way more atmospheric and post-rocky live. The two vocalists sound great harmonizing together, the frequent addition of keyboards really helps flesh out their sound, and their drummer is a beast. They closed their set with instant-classic "Fire," and though this early-evening SXSW set may not have been the right time for it to happen, I can see that one quickly becoming a massive singalong at live shows.
Their one SXSW show this year was a Friday night Rainey Street shindig sponsored by M&M's (though as a duo they also would have fit right into the Twix "House of Duos" party at the same venue a day earlier). Amelia Meath -- as she revealed during their 45 minute set -- was suffering from food poisoning (she says she threw up that morning on 6th Street, which incidentally is actually a popular activity in Austin on a weekend that contains St. Patrick's Day, SXSW, AND the Final Four). You never would have known it though, as they tore through straight hits, new song "PARAD(w/m)E" included. If you weren't dancing and smiling like they were on stage, you probably -- unlike Amelia -- should have been taking the evening off in your hotel room.
U.S. Girls closed out the outdoor stage [of the first day of Lost Weekend 2] with one of the best sets I've seen at SXSW thus far. They're fresh off releasing their excellent full-band album In A Poem Unlimited and main member Meg Remy is touring with a full band too (at this particular show there were 10 people on stage), and the band is truly next level. I'd seen Meg solo before but this was my first time seeing the band, and I can't recommend seeing this band enough (if you're in NYC, you can see them three times in one night in April). They're groovy, psychedelic, incredibly full sounding, and their chemistry is unreal. There was as much dancing on stage as there was off stage -- the whole outside of Cheer Up Charlies was in a trance.