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The 15 Best Sets We Saw at SXSW 2019

BrooklynVegan + Margin Walker Lost Weekend 2019 at Mohawk
Otoboke Beaver at Mohawk for BrooklynVegan + Margin Walker’s Lost Weekend (more by Amanda Hatfield)

SXSW 2019 is a wrap! We saw so much great stuff and — as is always the case with very busy SXSW schedules — we unfortunately had to miss a handful of the acts we were excited to see (and probably missed even more that we still don’t realize we wanted to see). Here’s a list of the 14 sets we loved the most, in alphabetical order….

Bambara

Bambara have been favorites in the Brooklyn scene for a few years now, but — thanks in part to last year’s great A Shadow on Everything — they seem to be making a more widespread impact than ever and it was great to see them wreak havoc in Austin. If you’re not familiar, their sound is sort of early Nick Cave menace meets Swans atmosphere, and on A Shadow on Everything they added a stronger dose of accessible songcraft to their eardrum-crushing sound. Singer Reid Bateh’s voice sounds sharper than ever, and he’s a beast on stage, thrashing around and looking pissed-off and threatening the entire time. All eyes at Wharf Cat’s first-ever official SXSW showcase were generally on him, but the whole band (who are a trio but expand to a five-piece at shows) is relentless. The songs were as dark and atmospheric and as encompassing as you want from this kind of music, and there’s hardly a moment where any member is standing still.

CHAI

CHAI’s SXSW week coincided with the release of their great second album PUNK and the indefatigable spirit of that record was more than present when we caught the Japanese band at 1 AM on Thursday night at the She Shreds x NYLON showcase on the eve of the album’s release. (Well, technically an hour after it came out.) As on the album, the live show subverts the “kawaii” concept of ultra cuteness, and even features the four members chanting “KAWAII! KAWAII!” at one point. Mixing myriad styles — post-punk, prog, disco and neon-shiny pure pop — with serious musicianship and choreography, props and more, CHAI’s joyous positivity was a welcome shot in the arm for the last set of a long day of festival-going.

The Chills

Despite traveling half way across the world to tour all the way across America — The Chills’ first real U.S. tour in 20 years — and being 5 SXSW shows into their 7-show run shortly after a tragedy in their home country of New Zealand and after most likely attending the premiere of a Kickstarter-funded movie about their life at the same SXSW where they also probably met with lots of press, Martin Phillipps and band didn’t even seem a bit tired during their 1:00 a.m. set Saturday night set at the back of dive bar Beerland where they played to a packed crowd, one day after receiving the Grulke Prize for “Career Act” at this year’s Austin festival. It was truly the year of The Chills, and like at previous shows on the tour,they treated the excited crowd to a set of newer material and old favorites, winning over diehard fans and newly curious fans alike with their experienced take on jangly New Zealand indie rock (not so famously known as the “Dunedin Sound”). And by “experienced,” I don’t just mean great players (though they were); this is now The Chills’ — known for a rotating lineup of musicians — longest ever lineup. As Martin explained to the arts fuse: “Todd Knudson (drums) and James Dickson (bass, although initially keyboards) have both been with me for twenty years this year. Erica Scally (violin, guitar, keyboards) joined about fifteen years ago and then Oli Wilson (keyboards, etc.) around ten years back. They believe in me and we know that we have something special together.”

Control Top

As we already wrote:

They’re like Sonic Youth meets Le Tigre meets Yeah Yeah Yeahs meets Touch & Go-style hardcore, and they already look and sound as convincing as those bands did early on. They’re the ideal power trio, where every member brings something entirely unique and crucial to the band. Singer/bassist Ali Carter is as confrontational and intimidating as you want from a punk band, and she’s got both a knack for melody and a piercing scream. She didn’t break character once during the show (even when she said something to the effect of “we may seem hateful but we love you too”), and the one song where she looped her bass and hopped into the crowd to just sing, she was even more of a force. Guitarist Al Creedon (ex-Bleeding Rainbow) didn’t say a word the entire show, but he had just as massive a presence as Ali. His guitar playing varied between bashing chords, technical fretwork, and abrasive noise, and his stage presence was as unbridled as his playing. He’d drill his guitar in the ground like a jackhammer or swing it around his body, and he was met by approving screams from the crowd more than once. And holding it all down was drummer Alex Lichtenauer (also of the HIRS collective), who is truly a beast. You need a pounding, precise drummer for music like this, and Alex is both of those things and more. Their debut album Covert Contracts comes out April 5 via Get Better, and when it comes out I can’t recommend checking it out enough.

De La Soul

De La Soul have been in the midst of some streaming service drama with their former label Tommy Boy Records, and they referenced that multiple times on stage at the StubHub showcase on Wednesday, but it didn’t stop them from putting on a 45-minute set full of hits and positive energy. They took a couple lengthy blocks of time to break from the music and hype up the crowd, but the crowd ate up every second of it. And whenever the music started back up again, De La sounded as great as they did back in the day. They’ve been doing this for 30 years, and it’s clear that they still love what they do and — as they mentioned along with a promise that those Pete Rock & DJ Premier-produced albums are coming — have no plans to stop anytime soon. They not only have the classics but good recent music, and every song they played at SXSW sounded tight, no matter what era of their career it came from.

Haiku Hands

Australian trio Haiku Hands won us over with their recent singles (like this year’s “Dare You Not To Dance”), but it wasn’t until seeing them live that it really clicked. Claire Nakazawa, Beatrice Lewis, and Mie Nakazawa are clearly as into choreography as they’re into songwriting, and their stage presence took the songs to the next level. Beats blasted over the PA system while all three members (who were decked out in jumpsuits) danced and sing-rapped in unison. It felt something like M.I.A. meets CSS meets “Pump Up The Jam,” and it’s the kinda thing you kinda just have to see for yourself to fully experience. Now that SXSW is over, they’re touring with CHAI (another of our SXSW favorites), including a NYC show at Market Hotel this Tuesday (3/19). If that tour is hitting a venue near you, don’t miss it.

Hubert Lenoir

As we already wrote:

Quebec’s Hubert Lenoir brought down the house on the outside stage of the BrooklynVegan x Margin Walker Lost Weekend day party on Thursday, his first-ever US show. He’s a total devotee to ’70s glam, from his Bowie-esque songs to his eyeliner and flamboyant stage presence, and he’s got a super funky band made up entirely of high-energy performers. Their cowbell player rocked harder than almost anyone I saw play that day. Hubert often sings in French, but I was instantly hooked even when I didn’t understand a word he was saying. He stage dove multiple times and whether he was on the stage or in the crowd (or standing on the crowd), nobody could take their eyes off of him.

J.S. Ondara

As we already wrote:

One of the most commanding sets we saw all week was from J.S. Ondara, the Kenyan-born folk singer who fell in love with Bob Dylan’s music, moved to Dylan’s home state of Minnesota, and then released his excellent debut album Tales of America on Verve Forecast earlier this year. It seemed like J.S. had a good amount of people in the crowd who were there specifically to see him, and you could hear a pin drop while J.S. played his gorgeous songs. His voice is truly angelic, and it was nearly impossible to watch him and not be mesmerized. As sad and serious as his songs are, his stage banter was genuinely hilarious, and his quips had the whole place cracking up. In addition to playing songs off his album, he did a significantly reworked cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which fit in perfectly with his originals, and he ended his set with “Saying Goodbye,” during which he started a massive crowd singalong.

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Mike Krol

As we already wrote:

The inside stage of the BrooklynVegan x Margin Walker Lost Weekend Friday party hosted a very rockin’ set from Mike Krol and his band (which includes Allison Crutchfield of Swearin’ and Waxahatchee on bass/backup vocals), who are fresh off releasing their new album Power Chords on Merge. Power chords were indeed what Mike Krol’s band brought, and Krol is a natural frontman. He’s got punk intensity but the kind of rockstar aura about him where you can already picture him playing to huge rooms. He and his band were super tight, and they also brought with them some appealing visual elements, like black-eye makeup, fake blood, and plenty of strobe lights.

Oh Sees

duh.

Otoboke Beaver

As we already wrote:

Near the end of the BrooklynVegan x Margin Walker Lost Weekend day party on Friday, the inside stage hosted one of the very best sets of the day, Japanese punks Otoboke Beaver. The room was full of screaming and sometimes-moshing fans, and Otoboke Beaver seriously brought it. They can be fun and bouncy, but they can also be as pissed-off and aggressive as the most ferocious hardcore bands. Frontwoman Accorinrin flailed around stage, stared out into the crowd with menace, and gave the finger to the crowd a few times. During one song, the whole band chanted “Go! To! Hell!” Accorinrin’s energy is matched by guitarist Yoyoyoshie, who’s like a more punk Angus Young on stage, bashing into her bandmates and crowdsurfing with her guitar several times. As much as it’s a spectacle, the songs are there too. Their new album ITEKOMA HITS comes out April 26 via Damnably — check it out once it drops.

Rico Nasty

As we already wrote:

Even before she hit the stage, there were chants of “RI-CO! RI-CO!,” and her DJ had the crowd moshing to his selection of hits while they awaited her arrival. When she finally hit the stage, the place immediately erupted, and the level of excitement only heightened from there. The place was full of people jumping up and down and yelling all the words and Rico looked and sounded like a star the whole time. Sometimes she would ditch the mic and just dance, but it didn’t even matter. The place was a constant madhouse and it’s obvious that there are already tons of Rico Nasty diehards. When she did her recent Doja Cat collab “Tia Tamera,” her DJ cut the sound on the hook and all of Mohawk had no trouble picking up the slack and screaming the song at full volume. Rico is the real deal, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to have ended our Thursday day party.

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Sir Babygirl

Sir Babygirl’s debut album Crush On Me queers bubblegum pop, and her live show, in much the same spirit, is an ecstatic queer dance party. Kelsie Hogue readily admits her theater kid past, and does it proud by nailing her song’s vocal runs live just as well as she does on record. It’s her delivery, though, that reveals her pop star ambitions, and she has charisma to spare to pull it off. Backed by a pair of dancers, Kelsie had people singing and bouncing along, except when she pulled out a showstopper cover of Kesha’s “Praying” and stunned the crowd into silence. That her parents were there cheering her on from the side of the stage, wearing Sir Babygirl t-shirts, made the vibes all the more fuzzy and communal.

Weakened Friends

Portland, Maine trio Weakened Friends provided a strong dose of catharsis at BrooklynVegan’s SXSW showcase on Saturday night. The sincerity in singer Sonia Sturino’s delivery, which at times threatened to boil over with emotion, put me in mind of The Mountain Goats’ most impassioned songs, but with more of a crunchy, power-pop backing. They also sometimes reminded me of early Tegan & Sara. The tight three-piece have undeniable chemistry and energy playing off each other and are as enjoyable to watch as they are to listen to.

Youth of Today

As we already wrote:

The time away from being a frequently active band has done nothing to tarnish Youth of Today, whose show on Thursday was as killer as you’d hope. All four members — each of whom are legends in their own right and an unstoppable force together — were as tight and lively and genuinely into the music as could be. Ray still barks like he has pebbles in the back of his throat and darts around the stage like he did in his early 20s. Porcell’s guitar sounded razor-sharp, and he was in great spirits, bouncing around the stage and singing along the whole show. Walter, who is probably overall the most famous member of the band as the frontman of Quicksand, looked like he was having the time of his life stepping away from the frontman role and just slamming away at his bass on these songs that he clearly loves as much as ever. And Sammy held it all down behind the kit, giving these songs the strong backbone they need. Unsurprisingly, the crowd ate it all up. Throughout YOT’s set it was an endless stream of moshers kicking up dust, stage divers flying off the stage, and the whole crowd shouting along to classics like “Positive Outlook,” “Take A Stand,” “Make A Change,” “Can’t Close My Eyes,” “Disengage,” and more. These songs may have been written over three decades ago, but they’re just as relevant today. That was especially clear during set-closer “Break Down The Walls,” which was prefaced by Ray giving a speech about how the song has taken on a new significance. And given the political climate we’re currently in, it felt like everyone in the crowd screamed along to that one just a little louder.

and…

16-20 (also in alphabetical)
Amanda Palmer
Amyl & the Sniffers
Injury Reserve
Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers
Leikeli47

BONUS POINTS FOR the rare Marked Men show at Cheer Ups on Saturday, part of the free AdHoc shows at the Red River venue, and for running in to the always fun Peelander-Z on the street outside Mohawk after that gig.

BROWSE ALL OUR SXSW COVERAGE, and see you again in 2020, Austin.

by Amanda Hatfield, Andrew Sacher and Dave

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