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The Best Music We Saw at SXSW 2019

A downsized 2019 edition of South By Southwest meant no endless lines to see arena-sized headliners play small clubs. With the exception of a J Balvin drop-in, the biggest acts at the Austin fest were arguably longtime indie staple Broken Social Scene and Outkast’s Big Boi. But that allowed for the sort of chase that made SXSW so special in its infancy: the search to catch the next big thing on their way up. Here are 10 acts that stood out from the pack.

Lizzo
(Stubbs BBQ)

Lizzo’s jaw-dropping, star-making performance at Ticketmaster’s SXSW showcase was our top pick of the festival, but it’s worth reiterating how powerful — and entertaining — songs like “Juice” and “Boys” are when they’re performed live. The scene: three plus-sized women busting out amazingly athletic dance moves while Lizzo herself preaches body-positivity and self love while displaying her own unshakeable confidence. Lizzie can wail: when she hits the high notes, she HITS THE HIGH NOTES. Her Coachella sets and her forthcoming full-length major-label debut (out April 19 on Atlantic) should propel her from cult sensation to superstar status.

Ross Golan’s The Wrong Man
(Central Presbyterian Church)

Ross Golan is a hit songwriter who’s worked with pop stars like Charli XCX and the host of the popular podcast “And the Writer Is…,” so it’s no surprise he knows his way around a hook. But this one-off, solo-acoustic performance of his rock opera “The Wrong Man” (coming up soon as an album on Interscope and an off-Broadway stage show) was so much more than that: the Lin Manuel Miranda-meets-Dashboard Confessional performance was a masterclass in storytelling, with Golan adopting the voice of each of the characters in a moving story about a man wrongly accused of murder. By the end, each song’s refrain weaves around each other in a true display of songwriting prowess. Just brilliant.

The Nude Party
(Barracuda Outdoors)

This shambolic Upstate New York-by-way-of-North Carolina band isn’t reinventing the wheel, but that’s sort of the point. Take the Velvet Underground’s meandering melodies, the Rolling Stones’ swagger, Arcade Fire’s gang vocals, and the Old ‘97s’ country-rock ‘tude, put them in a blender, and out would pop the Nude Party, which has about six too many members (and four too few microphones) — but all the better for onstage unpredictability.

White Denim
(Cedar Street Courtyard)

Flood Magazine’s annual FloodFest at Cedar Street has a reputation for booking some of the biggest artists doing the SXSW circuit, and this year was no exception: both Broken Social Scene and Big Boi played the event, but the highlight may have been White Denim’s shredtacular set. The Austin-based band are SXSW veterans, but this year’s iteration is their freest-flowing yet, with frontman James Petralli nailing lick after odd-time lick. Rock is dead? Hardly.

Odessa
(Geraldine’s)

An invite-only songwriters circle at Geraldine’s restaurant at the Hotel Van Zandt was hosted by hitmaker Nathaniel Rateliff, but Los Angeles-based singer Odessa was who made the biggest impact. Her song about rainfall was accompanied only by her tapping out percussion on a guitar to imitate the drops falling on a rooftop. Odessa’s  moving voice — at times quiet and pensive, at other times reaching and hopeful — entranced the crowd who looked on in stunned, pin-drop silence.

Susto
(Lucy’s Fried Chicken)

Charleston’s Susto has gravelly singing, memorable hooks, and dynamic songwriting that’s tailor-made for fans of “Summerteeth”-era Wilco and the catalog of Dr. Dog. At Lucy’s, the band won over a crowd of locals who’d packed the place for Willie’s son Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real. Though the crowd wasn’t necessarily familiar with Susto’s groove-inducing rock, many, many booties were shaking along through the set.

Kosha Dillz’s Oy Vey! Showcase
(The Parish)

Things got so hot during Jewish rapper Kosha Dillz’ annual Oy Vey! Showcase — now in its eighth year — that someone set off a fire extinguisher, literally. Just before headliner Gangsta Boo (of Three Six Mafia) was set to perform, the whole room filled with smoke and everyone on stage started wondering whether something had gone off. It hadn’t — and Boo knew it, pushing on hard during a show Dillz billed as a display of “anti-anti semitism,” which also included a wide range of oddball characters, including costumed rockers Fragile Rock and Tel Aviv folk duo JonZ.

Golden Dawn Arkestra
(Hotel Vegas)

Over-the-top, ridiculous spectacles are a trademark of SXSW and for the past few years a spotting of Golden Dawn Arkestra — a collective from Saturn, TX who looks to be from Saturn, the planet — have been at the top of the heap. The music (played by at least a dozen musicians) is a party-hearty amalgam of Sun Ra, Femi Kuti, and the Flaming Lips — an interstellar party that has to be seen to be believed.

Andrew Bird & Yola
(The Line Hotel)

Before his show on Saturday at the fest’s biggest performance space, the open-to-the-public theater at Auditorium Shores, folky singer Andrew Bird hosted an invite-only party for a couple-hundred guests at the rooftop restaurant at the Line Hotel. The event doubled as an opportunity to shoot his ongoing collaborative YouTube series “Live From The Great Room.” The highlight, surprisingly, wasn’t his first guest, T Bone Burnett (who turned what was intended to be a duet into an interview segment) but newcomer Yola, who — rightfully — self-identifies as the Queen of Country Soul. The two singers had only met hours before, but their 30-minute set was pure, intimate magic — Yola’s harmonies enunciating Bird’s lyrical melodies, and his violin-plucking giving a solid platform for her voice to soar. It wouldn’t be surprising for this collaboration to spawn many more: there was a clear mutual admiration between the duo, who served each other as near-perfect complements. Beautiful.

Moritz Simon Geist
(Seven Grand)

Dresden and Berlin-based beatmaker Moritz Simon Geist is a step ahead of his peers when it comes to a live show, as he proved during SXSW over multiple engagements to anyone lucky enough to have caught his set. Watching the tall German perform electronic music live is akin to viewing a mad scientist in a lab… and in his mobile lab are small analog hand-built motors that click, 3D-printed robo-kalimbas that vibrate, salvaged parts from old hard drives that whir — all set up in a triangle tower of techno. (He calls it “Tripod One,” per his website, which notes that the “kinetic sculpture is played live as a music instrument in an AV-performance as small mechanics and physical tone-generators insides the sculpture produce the noises used in the musical context.”) Geist wanders back from his tower to a table, where he mans the desk overseeing more traditional techno making tools, such as a a drum machine. He calls himself a “performer, musicologist, and robotics engineer,” and your friends who go to museums might like him just as much as your mates who go to underground techno shows do.

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