Afrobeats, Música Mexicana, and a Canadian Hologram Take Austin
Would you believe us if we said a hologram sponsored by the Canadian government was one of the best things we saw on the second full day of SXSW 2023? There were plenty of flesh-and-blood performances that knocked our socks off, too, as the festival hit its stride with artists big and small from across genres and decades packing the venues that make Austin one of the greatest music cities in the world. Here are our top picks from Wednesday, March 15.
U.S. Girls Make an Appearance Via Hologram
A little after noon, a human-sized box in the corner of the bar at Swan Dive sputtered to life, and Meg Remy appeared in it out of thin air. She stood there, barefoot with a tape deck on the floor beside her, and eyed the crowd as the opening feedback drone of “Futures Bet” began. Then she started to sing — or, rather, her surprisingly lifelike hologram did. The moment felt weird, funny, and fitting for an artist who’s better than almost anyone at exploring the uncanny edge where technology and human beings meet. The showcase was put on by the government of Canada, where she lives, and before her performance a speaker earnestly discussed the potential of AI; but Remy would rather explore the surreal ironies, as she does on her recent LP Bless This Mess. Making eye contact and small-talk with people she recognized in the crowd, she explained that she was in fact performing live from a soundstage in Toronto via a video link: “My body’s in Ontario, but my soul is in Texas… How do I look?” She vamped in 3-D through the fantastic art-pop single “Only Daedalus” before saying goodbye. —S.V.L.
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Pheelz Comes All the Way From Lagos to Austin
“It is a very long flight from Nigeria, so I hope you are ready to party,” Pheelz said early in his set at Mala Vida. The Lagos-born producer-turned-star certainly was. Clad in white shades, with braids flying, he stayed in a buoyant mood despite intermittent technical difficulties, like when he lost drum sounds for a while. Pheelz taught the crowd signature phrases (“gegeti!”), slow-jammed a version of Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa’s anthem “Young, Wild & Free,” sung a little Backstreet Boys, and proclaimed the Nigerian accent the sexiest alive, just ahead of Spanish and French. He had reason to feel good: After helping produce some of Afrobeats’ biggest hits — songs like Olamide’s “Durosoke” and Adekunle Gold’s “Sade” — Pheelz ventured out as a solo artist in 2021 and scored a global smash with the excellent “Finesse,” before releasing this year’s EP Pheelz Good. His music is sleekly rhythmic and versatile, mixing up Afrobeats, R&B, and pop, all heavy on melody. By the time he played “Finesse,” he wasn’t just courting the crowd; he was in the middle of it. Pheelz waded into a pit of fans, chanting the can’t-miss chorus, written at a low moment: “Ahh, finesse!/If I broke na my business.” “Afrobeats is here to stay!” he said at another moment, and no one argued. —C.H.
Indigo De Souza Takes Us to Church
“I live in a renovated church in North Carolina, so this feels a lot like home,” Indigo De Souza said to a sanctuary of fully packed pews Wednesday night at Central Presbyterian Church. That feeling of ease showed in De Souza’s pointed assuredness and command of the space during the Audiofemme showcase, as the indie rocker and her band created a reverent soundscape sandwiched by vibrant stained-glass windows. De Souza’s signature reverberating falsetto and occasional snarls into the mic, paired with the band’s new addition of a violinist, ushered an extra melancholy, haunting energy into the room. Her set was dominated by yet-to-be-released songs, giving the audience an exhilarating taste of her upcoming album All of This Will End, and wrapped with an even more slowed-down, arresting version of “Younger & Dumber,” closing out the evening like a benediction. —L.L.
The Zombies: Still in Season, Baby
We know what you’re thinking. What the hell is this British Invasion band from the Sixties doing at SXSW? The lads are currently promoting their new documentary, Hung Up on a Dream, and performing throughout the week, mostly to kids below the age of 25 who are singing along to “Care of Cell 44” and screaming “LEGENDDDD!” (and when keyboardist Rod Argent tore through the solo on “Time of the Season,” you couldn’t help but agree). The band also delivered some tracks off their upcoming album Different Game — while joking about how many years have passed since the Love Generation. “I know it’s a long time ago,” vocalist Colin Blundstone said before kicking off the 1965 B-side “I Love You.” “But if it was a hit, we’re interested, whether it was a long time ago or not!” —A.M.
Villano Antillano Owns the Spotlight
Though there were bigger acts to come, the second night of Rolling Stone‘s Future of Music showcase belonged to Villano Antillano. After bringing earlier performer iLe back on stage for her opening song, the rapper turned back to the crowd with a warning: “That was the most serious part of my set, so now we’re gonna get into the fuckery.” Latin rap’s first prominent trans artist delivered. Her prowess and confidence commanded the stage, and with a relentless flow, Antillano sucked up all the oxygen in the room, upping the ante with each new song. She gave the audience a sampler of her varied tastes, rapping over dancehall beats and Caribbean rhythms. She kept the crowd on their toes, dedicating one song to a toxic ex, and the next to “good pussy.” By the last song, the venue was an all-out party, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the 27-year-old rapper was running the show. —C.C.
Jay Wheeler Is a Stadium-Level Voice
Closing out Rolling Stone‘s Future of Music showcase on Wednesday was reggaeton star Jay Wheeler. Before releasing his debut album, Platónico, in 2019, the Puerto Rican singer first gained traction at 16, when a song he wrote and posted after a breakup went viral. Subsequent releases made him famous for his voice, with his fans giving him the nickname “La Voz Favorita” (the Favorite Voice). It’s always been about love for Wheeler, and last night was no exception. Throughout his set, the singer repeatedly shouted out fans in the audience, thanking them for supporting the romantic music he puts out. “I’ll always be singing romantic music for y’all,” he told the crowd. Moving through serenades, and a few more upbeat dembow tracks, his vocals shined, drawing cheers and getting the crowd to sing along. Wheeler has a voice that could sell out a stadium, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t be soon. —C.C.
Softee’s DIY Pop Spectacle
Sometimes SXSW is about faking it ’til you make it, or doing whatever it takes to get an audience’s attention. Electro-R&B/alt-pop singer Softee — a.k.a. Juliard-trained, Broadway-experienced actress Nina Grollman — might not have had a pop-star-sized stage at the comedy club known as the Velveeta Room, but she did her damnedest to make it feel like one. She pelted the crowd with Ring Pops, tossed out balloons with provocative messages written on them, and had two backup singers flanking her to give her songs a little extra oomph. But the real star of the show was her vocals, daring and wild in a way that made all the rest of the spectacle seem superfluous. On “Rebecca,” a synth-y torch song about a forbidden crush, Softee ran into the crowd and howled her heart out, making an unforgettable moment out of what could have been just another 6th Street showcase. “That was fun,” she said as she left the stage. —S.V.L.
Baby Rose’s Plush Soul
Seven Grand is a whiskey bar that provides an oasis of calm in the middle of the madness of SXSW. Its plush environs, replete with mounted deer heads on the wall, provided an ideal place to see Baby Rose, an independent soul singer from North Carolina. Baby Rose could be classified as a retro soul singer, but where that term usually refers to vocalists who evoke the classic sounds of the 1960s, she incorporates a fair amount of smooth, sultry quiet storm into her music. It’s not precisely a revival of early 1980s R&B as much as it is an expansion: Although the emphasis is on slow-burning soul, there’s a livelier, deeper sense of groove that keeps her music feeling modern. A controlled, deliberate singer, Baby Rose can seem from a certain angle like a hippier incarnation of Anita Baker, yet there’s just the slightest hint of earthiness to her performance, which is enough to make her throwback soul seem sensual and alive. —S.T.E.
Eslabon Armado’s Música Mexicana Gems
The hottest club in Austin on Wednesday night might have been the Belmont, where a young, enthusiastic crowd packed the outdoor courtyard after midnight to get a glimpse of Eslabon Armado. The emo-tinged Northern California quartet, who made history last year as the first música Mexicana act to hit the Top 10 of Billboard‘s main albums chart, are part of a wave of artists doing exciting things within time-honored Mexican styles and attracting a major audience in the process. Lead singer Pedro Tovar shone in one soulful ballad after another, strolling around the stage doing air-guitar moves to accompany his brother Brian and second guitarist Damian Pacheco, and showing an easygoing charm that was undeniable. Eslabon Armado’s songs can be moody in tone, but the feeling in that courtyard as every fan sang along was a pure joy to rival anything in town this week. —S.V.L.
Superchunk, Steady as Ever
Superchunk first played SXSW back in the early 1990s, back when the band and the festival itself were young upstarts. Thirty years later, they’re both institutions that have weathered their fair share of changes. In the case of Superchunk, they lost their longstanding drummer Jon Wurster just last month, when he declared in a public statement that his “heart just isn’t in it anymore.” For the band’s Wednesday night set at the Mohawk, they were anchored by Michael Benjamin Lerner, a Seattle indie-rocker best-known for his project Telekinesis. Lerner doesn’t thunder like Wurster, but he’s an agile, spirited drummer who can deftly navigate the changes within Mac McCaughan’s songs. The set made it clear that Superchunk has been in a bit of a purple patch in the last decade, something that’s evident in the setlist; “Me and You and Jackie Mittoo” sounds every bit the indie-rock classic as “Driveway to Driveway.” Like Spoon, who played SXSW the night before, what impresses with Superchunk is their well-defined muscle and lack of frills:They’re rallying forth with a sense of purpose. If there are no true surprises in either the sound or songs, there’s something to be said for a band that always delivers. —S.T.E.
Renée Reed Weaves a Magic Spell
The 13th Floor — a downtown bar named after Roky Erickson’s legendary Austin psych band, the 13th Floor Elevators — was oddly playing British comedy on the TV as Renée Reed took the stage. “Hopefully this music goes okay with Mr. Bean on the TV right now,” the Louisiana songwriter joked, politely launching into fantasy folk from her self-titled 2021 debut. She swam through tracks like “Out Loud,” “Neboj,” and “Fool to the Fire,” seemingly unbothered by the raucous drinkers and in her own world of mysticism, wearing a white crochet top and gripping her acoustic guitar. The entire crowd was transfixed — even Mr. Bean himself. —A.M.
Hello Mary Bring the Alt-Rock Stormclouds
Brooklyn’s Hello Mary had the not-always-enviable task of winning over the crowd that happened to be there for the first slot of the night when they took the stage at the Creek and the Cave around 8 p.m.. They took on that challenge eagerly, making an early bid for the loudest, crunchiest guitar noise of the week as they kicked off a showcase put on by the magazine/label So Young. Singer-guitarist Helena Straight, bassist Mikaela Oppenheimer, and drummer Stella Wave tore into the songs from their just-released debut LP with gusto and a genuine alt-rock edge. They built up to a satisfyingly big racket on “Take Something” and “Spiral,” twisted into a snarling solo on “Special Treat,” and swung in a dark, dreamy direction on “Knowing You” — a song so new it doesn’t appear on the album, and possibly their best one yet. —S.V.L.
Floodlights’ Aussie Indie-Rock
Fresh from a supporting slot on Pavement’s Australian tour, Floodlights do echo Stockton, California’s favorite sons in some telling ways. Specifically, the Melbourne-based indie-rockers seized upon any opportunity to ride circular rhythms and riffs into the twilight, not so much jamming as meditating on a phrase. Floodlights accentuate the painterly aspects of their sound with an auxiliary keyboard player, an addition that adds a slightly cinematic bent to their earthly vistas. Some squalls break the reverie, particularly a harmonica wail straight out of “Hand in Glove,” but Floodlights aren’t practitioners of noise; an increase in volume doesn’t ratchet up the tension, it adds a wave of intensity. —S.T.E.
(Full disclosure: In 2021, Rolling Stone’s parent company, P-MRC, acquired a 50 percent stake in the SXSW festival.)
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