South by Southwest is a mecca for many things: film, tech, free alcohol, exposing unbelievers to breakfast tacos, and, oh yeah, music. While big names have become commonplace at shows (this year I fulfilled my high school fantasy of seeing Third Eye Blind), at its core, SXSW provides key exposure for bands on the verge. Kendrick Lamar, John Mayer, James Blunt, and Hanson all played SXSW before they became part of the household vocabulary.
Admittedly, I am not the most indie of the indies, so there are some people I’d never heard of who were drawing huge crowds. I was also extremely limited by what I could attend—there are times at SXSW where 119 things are going at once, and I can only be so many places at once. But here are the performances that completely blew me away during the festival.
After hearing JONES’s first song at Hype Hotel, I texted my friends—who were outside drinking free Don Julio—to come inside because this girl was incredible. Understandably hesitant, I ran outside and dragged them in, and none of them regretted it. From London, JONES’s sultry sound is completely captivating, and she has wonderful stage presence. A down-tempo version of “How Deep Is Your Love” topped off an incredible set.
2) Tory Lanez
When he sang his famous song, “Say It,” I realized I had heard of this guy before. But his performance at Pandora house has got to be one of the top five most energetic performances I’ve seen in my life. I’m sure he gave his handlers a heart attack—he was climbing on towers, performing entire songs being carried by the audience without missing a damn word. He performed until they turned his mic off, and the crowd was desperately calling for more.
3) Troye Sivan
OK, here is where I might show my age, because I’d never heard of this kid before. I saw him twice—once at a YouTube party, where I was unimpressed, and once at a Pandora showcase, where I wanted to become his best friend. He is just so freaking adorable. A 20-year-old from South Africa/Australia, he is incredibly charming with poignant, dance-y songs (at least, they are dance-y when he plays them live). Plus he had one of my favorite quotes from SXSW when introducing his song “Lost Boy”—he wrote the song about his fears of having a family and a career he loved after realizing he was, “Not 100% heterosexual…not even close.” (The answer he decided on? Fuck it. A man after my own heart).
4) Hailey Knox
Confession time: I’m a huge sucker for people who can layer their sounds (see: Geographer). Hailey Knox performed at Rachael Ray’s private press party and layered about 500 different sounds to become a one-woman band/beatbox. It was the perfect chill background music for the sunny afternoon.
I was outside Fader Fort, walking to another show when heard Jahkoy playing a kind of electronica/R&B hybrid. It was so good I stopped in my tracks, then stood in line for a chance to catch the end of his set. He had to spell out his name several times (I still think he was saying Jahkoi), but honestly he killed it on stage and I would listen to this music all day.
6) Viola Beach
Not a “performance,” per se. I finally had the chance to stop in at the British Music Embassy, which I have heard always brings amazing music, during their BBC 6 showcase. They were paying tribute to Viola Beach, a band that was supposed to be playing SXSW, but was tragically killed (along with their manager) in a car accident in February. The host spoke about how sunshine basically radiated out of their music, and I totally agree with that statement. Give them a listen.
7) The Skins
The Skins are apparently Adrian Grenier’s (of Entourage) neighbors in Brooklyn, so he had them play at his Dell for Social Good party. So they were playing in front of a lot of nerdy computer execs. And by the end, EVERYONE was dancing. They bring an in-your-face punk rock vibe that’s hard to capture outside of a live performance—hence me using this video instead of something from their channel. But highly recommended to check out.