The 20 Best Acts We Saw at SXSW 2019

Music Lists SXSW
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 20 Best Acts We Saw at SXSW 2019

Another March, another 2,000 or so bands descending on Austin, Texas, hoping to find a new record deal, a booking agent or just some new fans. Along with assistant music editors Ellen Johnson, Lizzie Manno and writers Adrian Spinelli and Steven Edelstone, I spent the week trying to catch as many of those acts as I could. This was my 15th trip to SXSW but it was the first time here for Ellen, Lizzie and Steven, and it was fun to experience it with them, watching them run around from venue to venue, listening to them excitedly share new discoveries and just, well, trying to keep up. We collectively caught hundreds of acts, while our audio/video team of Brad Wagner and Bob Mallory recorded 26 sessions in our backyard studio. Here, in alphabetical order, are our 20 favorites from the week. —Josh Jackson, Paste co-founder/editor-in-chief

Angie McMahon

AngieMcMahon_Spinelli.jpg

My favorite discovery of the week was Angie McMahon, an Australian singer and guitarist who recently signed to Nashville’s Dualtone Records label. At the helm of a three-piece unit, McMahon filled the vaulted ceilings of St. David’s Church at Friday night’s Communion Music showcase with her deep, velveteen vocals and fiery rock songs. Come Saturday morning, McMahon was awarded SXSW’s annual Grulke Prize as the festival’s best Developing Non-US Act and I didn’t waste an opportunity to see her again at the charming and intimate Continental Club on South Congress Ave. The final performance felt like nothing short of a coronation for McMahon, an artist who came to Austin to share her music with the world and emerged triumphant. Spin her latest songs like “Keeping Time” and “Pasta” and you’ll hear why. —Adrian Spinelli


Black Midi

No one quite knows what Black Midi are. They’re simultaneously an art rock act, a post-punk group, a noise band, a free-jazz ensemble, and an improvisational outfit that’s somehow both tight and loose at the same time, amongst a myriad of other descriptors. They’re impossible to pin down, but one thing’s for sure: they were the best damn thing I saw at SXSW this year. With none of their members even at age 20, they’re already individually some of the most talented instrumentalists around. They more than lived up to the hype as being one of London’s best live bands even though they’ve only released one song to date (and it’s not even on Spotify). Equal parts beautiful and brash, Black Midi’s live set is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, one that leaves you in complete awe despite not knowing what you just witnessed. They’re a band you have to see live to truly get, one that probably won’t make much sense until you’re sweaty and bruised from the moshpit. With complex time signatures, whispers, screams, distortion, and extremely unique drumming, they may be hard to nod along to, but you’ll walk out knowing that you truly saw something special. They were one of the most talked about groups at SXSW this year, and for good reason—Black Midi laid waste to every stage they stepped onto and damn near burned the city to the ground. —Steven Edelstone


CHAI

Most of my favorite sets of SXSW 2019 were overly joyful, or, as Miya Folick (another gem from this week) would have it, “unapologetically kind.” Artists seemed genuinely thrilled to be here, beyond pleased to be sharing their music and just having fun. But the most fun act of South By was CHAI, the jubilant four-piece rock band from Japan who charmed the hell out of everyone who saw them this week. Decked out in fitting shades of pink, all four women sustained their grins for the entirety of their set, during which they played songs from their delightful, uproarious new album PUNK. Toggling between Japanese and English, CHAI destroyed any premonition of a language barrier. Also, the only love song they’ve ever written is about dumplings. By the end of their set, my face hurt from smiling. —Ellen Johnson


Charly Bliss

CharlyBliss_Spinelli.jpg

To fully understand the energy of frontwoman Eva Hendricks and Charly Bliss, you gotta see them live. I learned that when the Brooklyn four-piece totally smashed the Cheer Up Charlie’s stage on Wednesday afternoon, the first set of the week that truly gave me all the feels. Not sure why I was surprised, but any doubts I might’ve had about Charly Bliss were effectively squashed. Hendricks is a dynamic instrumentalist and her distinctive high-pitched voice stands delightfully front and center on a range of harmonies. This is a killer indie power-pop band and bring on Young Enough. —Adrian Spinelli


Claire George

ClaireGeorge_Spinelli.jpg

Recently signed to the Cascine label, George puts on a dexterous one-woman show and is quickly developing as an exciting producer and singer. Her electronic productions slotted finely alongside the avant-garde sounds of Shigeto and Ouri on the Ghostly International/Atlas Obscura sunset showcase at the picturesque Waller Creek Boathouse. I also caught her set at Yondr’s show at Barracuda and the graceful vocal effects she flashes on stage accentuate her core pop sensibility. I heard a new song from George, not on her dashing debut Orbits EP, that flashed her beautiful voice, showed her most intriguing songwriting to date and had me begging for more recorded material. The latter especially, is what artists hope to achieve at SXSW. This is one to watch no doubt. —Adrian Spinelli


Disq

Comprised of lifelong friends Isaac deBroux-Slone and Raina Bock, Disq grew up in Wisconsin together on a steady diet of The Beatles, Weezer, Todd Rundgren and Big Star. Despite neither of them being of legal drinking age and with only a 2016 mini LP (Disq I) and this recent Saddle Creek seven-inch to their name, Disq found themselves on this year’s SXSW lineup. I caught their 1 a.m. set at the Danger Village and Force Field PR showcase at Cheer Up Charlies, and their outdoor patio set to several dozen people felt like a pinch me moment. Though their recent single showed plenty of promise, I had no idea how deep their songwriting skills and seasoned musicianship ran—and apparently neither did the audience. At one point, a man in the front row grinned and turned to his friend in utter disbelief of the band’s talent and mouthed, “Are you fucking kidding me?” The scrawny Disq frontman Isaac deBroux-Slone is unassuming. He’s wearing a Beatles t-shirt, baggy jeans with rips in the knees, clear spectacles and big black X’s on his hands. One of the crowd members yelled to the young Thurston Moore lookalike to ask what year he was born, to which he replied, “1998.” Disq’s fusion of Sonic Youth-esque noise rock, Teenage Fanclub-esque jangle-pop and Weezer-esque twee-pop was visceral and punchy—containing sparkling pop hooks and distorted riffs that connected instantly. Brimming with confidence and stunningly compelling guitar pop in hand, Disq are undoubtedly a band to watch. —Lizzie Manno


Durand Jones & the Indications

DurandJones_Spinelli.jpg

There was only one band I saw more than once this week, but after our Paste Studio backyard session on Thursday, I couldn’t stop following Durand Jones & the Indications wherever they played. Like many neo-soul acts, Jones and his fellow musicians pull from legends like Curtis Mayfield and James Brown, but they also go deeper into lesser known regional acts of the mid-Atlantic states to come up with something that feels completely fresh. The falsetto of drummer Aaron Frazer blends beautifully with Jones’ soulful vocals on several tracks. And at Stubb’s, Jones was singing a call-and-response with his trumpeter. The world needs to know about this band. —Josh Jackson


Fontaines D.C.

Irish band Fontaines D.C. appear to be the next big post-punk export from the British Isles. They’re set to release their debut album Dogrel on April 12 via Partisan Records, and the five-piece band made their SXSW debut this year with some serious hype behind them. Frontman Grian Chatten doesn’t have a rough, throaty punk roar, but his droney, poetic speak-sing packs just as much of a punch. When he’s not evangelizing in a distinctly Irish tongue, he wanders anxiously around the stage rather than throwing himself around or into the crowd. Tracks like “Boys in the Better Land,” “Too Real” and “Big” were all winners—their gritty social commentary is powerful and their no-frills rock riffs possess a meaty, spring-loaded energy. —Lizzie Manno


Katie Pruitt

On Wednesday night, I stumbled into a bar on 6th street and Janis Joplin’s spirit appeared in the voice of one Katie Pruitt, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter from Atlanta, Ga. whose powerhouse voice and wise, beautiful modern love songs absolutely blew me away. Pruitt is far and away the most passionate performer I’ve seen this week, delivering her songs with that same likable, strong-willed intensity as Brandi Carile. She sounds a bit like Carlile, too, seamlessly matching up her edgy Americana grit with soft country tones. Her song “Grace Has A Gun,” written about a unfavorable ex-girlfriend, is witty, sad and potent. “She had a gun under bed,” Pruitt sings. “And that wasn’t the most terrifying thing about her…at all.” Later on in the set, another clever sound byte sticks out: “You’re way too generous with all the fucks you give,” she sings. Pruitt is unapologetically herself, and her energy is a welcome addition to the Americana sphere. Like Joplin, she tells stories of broken relationships and she sings with her entire face, from her core. It left me speechless. I’m quite certain we’ll be seeing a lot more of her. —Ellen Johnson


Lizzo

Lizzo_IanYoung.jpg

We went to the Church of Healthy Self-Esteem, and Lizzo was our preacher. Dressed in a glittery Texas two-piece, the Houston native had the Stubb’s crowd completely in her sway; when she jokingly announced her candidacy for presidency, we were all ready to join her on the campaign trail. With a growing arsenal of feel-good singles, the singer/rapper has everything you need to be a superstar: vocal chops she showed off during a snippet of Aretha Franklin, a hard-fought self-confidence, arresting originality and the charisma to make you feel like you were witnessing a special moment in music history. By the time she came out to play her latest hit, “Juice,” for an encore, I became convinced we’ll soon see her on a Grammy stage in the near future. —Josh Jackson


Mavis Staples

I try to make new music discovery my priority at SXSW, but when the opportunity presents itself to see Mavis Staples at a tiny venue, you take it. Ms. Staples is a national treasure, and deserves all the awards and accolades that have been thrown her way. Seeing her perform, she just draws all the love and goodness from your subconscious until it overwhelms every anxious thought or negative feeling. Mixing a little Talking Heads into her setlist of soulful originals, she and her crack band delivered one of the most memorable sets of the fest. —Josh Jackson


Meernaa

Meernaa_Spinelli.jpg

Soulful as hell, the Oakland-based Meernaa did double duty quite a few times throughout the festival, playing their own sets while also backing up Bay Area singer/songwriter legend John Vanderslice, performing back-to-back each time. Credited with pushing the famous solo artist and producer-of-the-stars towards a more synth-filled route for his new album The Cedars, Meernaa combined pitch-perfect keyboard atmospherics with extremely impressive guitar solos, leading to some of the most enjoyable music to close your eyes and get lost in that I heard all week. An almost impossibly tight quartet with lush instrumentation somewhere between the blues rock of The War on Drugs’ druggier cuts and Madeline Kenney’s groovy guitar work, Meerna, led by lead singer/guitarist Carly Bond, is gearing up for a big 2019, releasing their debut album, Heart Hunger, following a lengthy tour with the aforementioned Vanderslice, the group showed just why they have become the favorite band amongst musicians who call the Bay Area home. —Steven Edelstone


Miya Folick

Miya Folick’s operatic synth-pop is something to be cherished in this cold, dark world. Her 2018 debut album Premonitions displayed her otherworldly vocal talent, emotionally nuanced songwriting and contagious compassion. The Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter doesn’t just want us to feel better, she wants us to be better. Adorned with hauntingly beautiful vocal loops and majestic keyboards, “Thingamajig” was one of the most impactful moments of her Cheer Up Charlies set. In an impromptu spoken word interlude, she expressed having a type of impostor syndrome—that she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t deserve to be there and that she doesn’t know what she’s doing. The song encourages us to stop pointing the finger at ourselves when we should blame power structures instead for their perpetuation of personal inadequacy. Though there are undeniable moments of poignancy and catharsis, they’re often squished between spunkier, light-hearted numbers like “Cost Your Love,” which sparked a joyous sway from the Cheer Up audience. Whether it’s the angelic upper registers of her voice or the punk-ish, barbed wire battle cries, Folick never loses the audience’s utmost attention, and it makes me wonder how much longer she’s going to be playing intimate venues like this one. —Lizzie Manno


Priests

Priests_Spinelli.jpg

Along with Lizzo and Angie McMahon, Washington D.C.’s Priests left the biggest impression on me this week. From the first set I saw on Tuesday afternoon at Stereogum’s Range Life party at Cheer Up Charlie’s, to their electric 1:20 am closing performance at their own Sister Polygon label showcase at Barracuda, this band put it all out on the table at every opportunity they got and I just love seeing that at SXSW. Frontwoman Katie Alice Greer has the ability to make every member of the audience feel like she’s singing directly to them and you can just feel how much she and her incredible bandmates in Priests want to be on stage rocking their asses off. “Jj”, off of their fanfuckingtastic debut, Nothing Feels Natural, might’ve been the best song I saw performed this week and the material from their upcoming The Seduction of Kansas album wasn’t too far behind. It’s gonna be big a big year for Priests. Get on board y’all. —Adrian Spinelli


Say Sue Me

SaySueMe_Spinelli.jpg

Say Sue Me are proof positive of music’s influence across the globe. The South Korean quartet’s instrumentals fit alongside the dreamy jangles of American bands like Real Estate and Jay Som, while singer Sumi Choi’s delivery is as sweet and sticky as Aussie Stella Donnelly. When everyone might’ve been dragging a bit on Saturday night, they were flawless as a fill-in at Modern Sky’s showcase at Beerland, Texas; “Let’s Don’t Say Anything” from 2017’s self-titled release (they’ve put out two albums in the past two years and both are stellar) especially shined. And while a bit of a language barrier presented itself in our conversation with the band at their Paste Live at SXSW Session, nothing communicates universally as clearly as good music, and they were fantastic. —Adrian Spinelli


Sidney Gish

I recently read that the magic of South By Southwest happens when you suddenly realize you’re exactly in the right place at the right time. My moment happened Wednesday afternoon as I was standing a few feet from the stage at Cheer Up Charlie’s, when a young musician by the name of Sidney Gish knocked me clean off my feet. Granted, I was already familiar with the singer/songwriter and Northeastern University student because her sophomore album, No Dogs Allowed, released on New Year’s Eve in 2017, was one of my favorites from last year. I knew Gish to be a talented lyricist (perhaps even one of the most underrated out there, at the moment), but I didn’t know she’s a stomp-down fantastic performer. The best human comparison I can think of for what I witnessed Wednesday afternoon is Janis Joplin. Gish and Joplin both sing with the same feverish, antsy vigor—I’m not sure if Joplin’s an influence, but Gish certainly channeled that energy throughout the set. She recorded No Dogs Allowed at her parents’ house over Christmas break in 2017 where family members were around for the holidays. Two of those people, Gish’s aunt and uncle, were in the crowd at Cheer Up Charlie’s. She of course shouted them out, just one of many endearing moments during her fiery 30 minutes on stage. She absolutely rips on the guitar and sings with a wrenching gusto most easily comparable to Joplin’s wild, beautiful style. —Ellen Johnson


Sir Babygirl

SirBabyGirl_Spinelli.jpg

Armed with face paint, a rainbow-frilled dress (or oversized tutu?), two back up dancers, and a pink guitar, Sir Babygirl without a doubt put on the most fun show at SXSW this year, commanding her sweaty crowd to go ballistic for the entirety of her set. With more energy than anyone I’ve seen in quite some time, those in attendance were there to match every scream, only offering her devoted fans a respite during her emotional cover of Ke$ha’s #MeToo anthem, “Praying,” which left multiple people, myself included, welling up a bit. Towards the end of her performance, she brought to the stage her two biggest fans—her parents, who were dancing harder than anyone and decked out in Sir Babygirl merch—offering up perhaps the week’s most joyful and wholesome moment. “Lights shine brighter when there’s tears in your eyes,” she sings on album opener “Heels;” she’s not lying—her technicolor star felt even more dazzling behind my watery eyes. She’s well on her way to becoming a gay icon, giving SXSW the show of her life and a dance party for the ages. —Steven Edelstone


Taylor Janzen

Look around—we are currently in a renaissance for the singer/songwriter genre. The three members of boygenius—Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus—are leading the way at the moment, but there’s about to be a new force in town… Taylor Janzen, a native of Winnepeg, Canada, is every bit as a powerful, emotional, and poignant lyricist as any of the aforementioned trio. Her debut EP, Interpersonal, released this past August, is a quiet and stark rumination on her battles with mental illness and religion. But instead of performing solo per usual, she brought a full backing band to Austin this year, bringing a new might to her music previously unseen, giving infinitely more oomph to songs like “The Waiting Room.” But best of all was new-ish single “New Mercies,” which showcased how strong her voice can be when backed by thunderous drums and a lead guitar. She’s only 19, but she’s about to become an absolute star. —Steven Edelstone


Wand

Wand’s last two releases, 2017’s Plum and 2018’s Perfume EP, meshed Cory Hanson’s touching, beautiful melodies with ramping psych riffs. The Drag City psych-leaning five-piece is set to release their latest full-length, Laughing Matter, on April 19 and they made an appearance at Hotel Vegas for the Levitation showcase. Playing lots of new material, Hanson and co. brought zigzagging guitar jams (sometimes with a violin bow in hand) and melodies with an alluring, warm purity. Hanson’s delicate psych croon and wintery backing vocals from keyboardist Sofia Arreguin sounded sublime when paired together, and the Los Angeles-based Wand proved to be a charming, soothing oasis from much of the freakier psych rock acts on the bill. —Lizzie Manno


Yola

Few names were dropped this week as much as Yola’s. The British artist and self-proclaimed “queen of country soul” fulfilled our prophecy and conquered South By Southwest with set after jaw-dropping set of impassioned singing. She’s been wooing country circles with her new Dan Auerbach-produced album Walk Through Fire, the title for which doubles as a metaphor and an actual reference to reality—Yola Carter emerged from a house fire after literally catching flame. Not only is she a masterful vocalist, but Carter is also an excellent songwriter. Her expressions of longing, love and small-town fit squarely in the country canon, but her experiences are singular. Yola Carter is a powerhouse and a musical star in the making. South By hype doesn’t always yield expectations, but in Yola’s case, it was right on target. —Ellen Johnson

Recently in Music