It’s almost an old story at this point, but it bears repeating: South By Southwest is very, very different now than it was just a few years ago, when over-the-top brand initiatives meant that superstar artists and their massive fanbases descended into Austin for megaplatinum nights at small, sweaty clubs. Instead, it’s returned to its roots, sort-of, as a coming-out party for artists establishing or re-establishing themselves; other than Keith Urban, there’s nary a superstar to be seen on this year’s official lineup, and the secret shows of years past seem to be exactly that (of course, there’s the odd exception: recent Oscar performer Miguel did play a private party on Tuesday night, but even that is a far cry from the Jay-Z appearances of years past.)
That means there’s a renewed opportunity for young artists to break out of Austin in a big way, which is clearly the reasoning behind the SXSW push for Noah Cyrus, who headlined the large Empire Garage stage on Wednesday night. Miley’s sister’s time in the spotlight is right now; though she hasn’t had a huge hit in the U.S. yet (“Make Me (Cry)” peaked at No. 46 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2016), her radio-ready pop and her pedigree have primed her to breakthrough.
Cyrus’ SXSW debut found her confident and enthusiastic, though the material — mostly culled from the upcoming album “NC-17,” with a couple of choice-but-beige covers of “Feel It Still” and “Can’t Feel My Face” — was inconsistent. Clad in a crop-top and athletic pants that looked ripped out of Sporty Spice’s closet, the youngest Cyrus sister proved that she was an able entertainer on the types of songs her sister abandoned when she entered her weird phase — anthemic choruses with a familiar, breathy timbre. Among those in attendance: “13 Reasons Why” star Dylan Minnette, who danced with friends towards the back of the venue.
Did it establish Noah as an emerging superstar? No more of less than other worthy contenders we saw on Wednesday, including Los Angeles phenom Lauren Ruth Ward, who communicated with her eyes to a rapt audience as she hit Joplin-esque notes at the Palm Door. Ditto for Nashville’s Liz Anne, who conjured both St. Vincent and Lucinda Williams in a set that got better and better with each song. But that’s the magic of SXSW in these nebulous musical times: a superstar may not be born each night, but there’s still a steady buzz in your ears as each one ends.