AUSTIN, Texas —The South by Southwest Music Festival wrapped up over the weekend, but not before 2,000 bands and artists from around the world had serenaded the city at hundreds of clubs. There were plenty of established performers at the conference, but the focus was on the upper-and-comers, the bands that will define the next year of music and beyond.
Here are some of my favorites from SXSW 2019 (listed in alphabetical order):
The Beths: Beyond the catchy songs the Beths packed into their 2018 debut album, “Future Me Hates Me” (Carpark), there was a standout feature: the intricate vocal harmonies that gave each of the melodies a richness several cuts above the typical indie-rock recording. Live, the band demonstrated that those harmonies are the real deal as singer Elizabeth Stokes was backed by the nuanced multi-part harmonies of guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck. The band echoed the ambition of its New Zealand predecessors, the Chills, which also played several sets at the festival. Led by the brilliant songwriter Martin Phillipps, the quintet layered the arrangements with countermelodies on violin, keyboards, guitar and vocals. The spidery treble-tinged guitar lines and melancholy lyrics on a 1984 song such as “Pink Frost” still sound timeless, as did the more recent songs from the Chills’ latest album, “Snow Bound.”
Black Midi: In the buzz band sweepstakes out of England at this year’s festival, this four-piece would be in the top 3. They’re not cookie-cutter, unless you think a fondness for early ’90s art-punk circa Slint and U.S. Maple is a winning commercial formula. The band’s twisted, slow-burn arrangements, noisy spasms of guitar and panicked vocals conjured visions straight out of a horror movie —think Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic “28 Days Later.”
Black Pumas: The Austin favorites need to be seen to be appreciated. Many of the songs don’t go much beyond “let this love take you higher” bromides, but on stage the co-ed seven-piece band led by singer Eric Burton explodes past the cliches. Burton started out as a street busker, and his presence on stage is robust, a whirlwind of movement and gesture. His vocals — rough-edged to pleading as the moment demanded — bounced off his backing singers and the audience in a free-flowing call-and-response conversation. He directed the band rather than hewing to tightly scripted arrangements, the songs as spontaneous as the emotions that guided them.
Cimafunk: Erik Alejandro Rodriguez, aka Cimafunk, was rocking gold bellbottoms in one of his showcases, and his nine-piece co-ed band was neck-deep in the Afro-Cuban funk. Cimafunk is based in Havana, but his music is a melting pot of Cuban folk, rhumba, bolero and hard-edged, shape-shifting dance music from James Brown to Fela. His band had the chops to make it all go, and the set was less a series of songs than a nonstop river of rhythm.
Mara Connor: The Los Angeles-based singer got the call to play the festival two weeks ago, and dove right in. Connor has only one song available on Spotify, but it’s a good one, and she’s got a bunch more that she showcased in the first of a handful of sets in Austin. A conference of this size can be a particularly unforgiving environment for a solo act, with audience chatter frequently overwhelming the music. I saw at least three such performances the same night that Connor performed, and it had to be discouraging for the artists. But Connor wasn’t fazed. She demonstrated poise and a clear voice with above-average range, and helpfully brought along her own homemade promo that she handed out at each gig.
Fontaines D.C.: Veiled by cigarette smoke, singer Grian Chatten looked agitated from the get-go, pacing the stage and thrusting the mic stand with each drum beat. His words poured out in a sing-speak style that brought to mind the dyspeptic tone of the Fall’s late Mark E. Smith or an angry Jonathan Richman. The Irish quintet revved up a percussive assault, guitar noise and drone melting into drums and bass to create one big rolling tide. “My childhood was small, but I’m gonna be big,” Chatten vowed. Talk about willing your dream into existence.