As always, Austin, Texas’ gargantuan South By Southwest festival is too big for you — even if you eschew the opening four days of movies. (Don’t think that will be easy just because you’re a music fan; screening this year are The Art of Organized Noize, Goodnight Brooklyn — The Story of Death By Audio, the star-choked The American Epic Sessions and dozens of others.)
Either way, you’re still looking down the impossible barrel of five straight days of nonstop music, scattered throughout the Lone Star state’s downtown. We can’t give you a Time-Turner, or remove your need for sleep or sustenance, but we can and have put together a very partial list of artists you won’t want to miss.
BJ THE CHICAGO KID(date TBA)
After a long and generous career in the background — backup singer for gospel group Mary Mary, writer for artists like Shirley Caesar and guest spots on singles by Kanye and Schoolboy Q — Bryan James Sledge is stepping forward. His second R&B album as BJ the Chicago Kid, In My Mind, came out last month on the illustrious Motown, and landed guests from Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar. Like Kendrick, Sledge’s earthy, temptation-immersed music (“Church,” “Jeremiah”) keeps groping insistently for the divine.
HINDS (Hype Hotel, March 15; Mohawk Outdoor, March 16; Cedar Street Courtyard, March 17; Radio Day Stage, March 18)
You think you’ll be tired by the end of this? Fortunately, this densely booked all-girl garage rock foursome from Madrid has energy to spare. Their sturdy ’60s melodies and dirty guitars provide a time-tested sound, but the interplay of Ana Perrote’s and Carlotta Cosials’ twinned punk yowls is their secret weapon.
IGGY POP (ACL Live at the Moody Theater, March 16)
At this point, the thrashing, shirtless erstwhile Stooges frontman is the godfather of more than just punk: David Bowie, GG Allin and Eminem would all be diminished without him. At 68 (69 in April) he’s still a wiry, wailing, scowling dynamo. After collaborating with yet another spiritual descendent , Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, on Post Pop Depression, his 17th studio album, he’s beginning a tour that also features members of Chavez, A Perfect Circle and Arctic Monkeys. The album comes out two days after his SXSW performance — a much better preview than any YouTube video.
ANDERSON .PAAK & THE FREE NATIONALS(Hype Hotel, March 18)
The Oxnard, California rapper, onetime Breezy Lovejoy, and self-described “product of the tube and the free lunch” has produced for Sa-Ra and slam poet George Watsky; worked with Flying Lotus and The Game; appeared on Dr. Dre‘s blockbuster Compton and recorded an EP of soul- and R&B-infused covers of white artists (The Beatles, The White Stripes, The Postal Service) in a puckish reversal of the white world’s black-music gold rush. He switches nimbly from rapping to throaty, jazzy singing and back again, sometimes on the same track. If you can only see one SXSW show, here’s how to get rap, jazz, soul, G-funk and Ben Gibbard under your belt all at once.
D∆WN (The North Door, March 16; Empire Control Room, March 17)
Space-age R&B auteur Dawn Richard is a member of the recently reunited Danity Kane and of Diddy’s gorgeously lush record-nerd collective Dirty Money. She’s also that rare and enviable thing: a natural futurist. Her albums Armor On and Goldenheart have been giddily ambitious, sculpting a dense, even proggy R&B sound, as her swooping vocals as guide through the songs thickets.
ELEANOR FRIEDBERGER (Central Presbyterian Church, March 16; Clive Bar, March 17; Parish, March 18)
One-half of hyperactive indie-rock collagists The Fiery Furnaces, her brother Matthew was responsible for the band’s cascading sonic sprawl, but Eleanor was the one who elevated the lyrics and her affectionate, bookish deadpan vocals anchored the whole frantic sound. Solo, she might seem restrained at first, even conventional, but the enormous, intricate songs she led you through in the Furnaces gave her a precise sense of structure, and her easygoing folk-rolk masks knotty, shrewd gut-punches like “He Didn’t Mention His Mother.”
The best way to describe this punk potpourri is with song titles: Downtown Boys’ “100% Inheritance Tax” and “Break a Few Eggs” (they’re the revolutionaries); Beach Slang’s “Bad Art and Weirdo Ideas” (they’re the commune kids); Sharkmuffin’s “First Date” and “Mermaid Sex Slave” (they’re the feminists and the sharpest jokers). Together, they’re a whole intersectional movement, with guitars.
LORETTA LYNN (Stubb’s, March 17)
One of the few people in Austin this week who can definitively be said to be bigger than SXSW is Loretta Lynn (her entry on the festival’s website doesn’t even bother with a bio). The country legend, Grand Ole Opry veteran and coal miner’s daughter, whose first new album in a decade came out this month, understands country music’s power as a salve for heartbreak and poverty, and may just be the most smartly class-conscious SXSW performer who is neither a rapper nor in Downtown Boys.
RICH THE KID* (date TBA)*
The Haitian-rooted Atlanta rapper has worked with Young Thug, Riff Raff and stoner-rapper extraordinaire Curren$y; his breakthrough single, “Keep It 100,” neatly interlocks trap producer Zaytoven and trap king Fetty Wap. His upcoming but not-yet-scheduled Soulja Boy collaboration, Get Rich, has steamroller potential.
THE STRUMBELLAS (Parish, March 17; Swan Dive, March 19)
The Strumbellas’ third album, Hope, comes out in April and this sprawling band of six ambling alt-country Ontarians show they know how to expand a loping country ditty like “Spirits” into a crunchy, stomping, whistling singalong that pressure-hoses the troubles from the minds of the dancing throngs.
BLOC PARTY (Banger’s, March 17)
The London dance rockers recently replaced their awe-inspiring rhythm section, but Kele Okereke‘s half-new, half-old band still neatly cradles his earnest blurts in warm, glowing synth rock. Their recent album, Hymns, hums with grace and calm where previous albums stammered and lurched; fortunately, their current live show blends old anxiety with new contentment.
TWIN LIMB* (St. David’s Historic Sanctuary, March 16)*
It’s high time someone ruined the accordion’s reputation for cheerfulness. This Kentucky band’s dark, stylistically promiscuous folk-rock drapes whispers, eerie squeezebox and strange samples over the songs’ acoustic bones. The result is a melancholy, slow-motion hoedown.
SAM OUTLAW (The Gatsby, March 17; Swan Dive, March 19)
A Californian for whom a career in laid-back, melancholy Americana was the happy solution to an early mid-life crisis, Sam Outlaw’s gone from a self-released 2014 debut to working with Ry Cooder, members of My Morning Jacket and Dawes. For someone whose life has so abruptly transformed, Outlaw seems comfortable and confident delivering his warm, lived-in songs.
RAE SREMMURD (Empire Garage, March 18)
Slim Jimmy, Rae Sremmurd’s resident old man, was 21 when “No Flex Zone” blew up; his brother Swae Lee was 19. Their debut, SremmLife, stuck close to dominant ’10s beatmaker auteur Mike Will Made It, with impressively big-name features from the likes of Nicki Minaj and Big Sean. If you’ve been jonesing for the follow-up, the ecstatic, pogoing chaos of their live show’s the right fix, though we second Swae Lee’s warning: Not for the soft.
TOVE LO (Cedar Door, March 18; The Belmont, March 19)
The Swedish synth chanteuse knows her strengths: “I like to listen to desperation,” she says. She’s attempted to write happy songs, but is “useless at it” and the confession got her named “the saddest girl in Sweden.” But all this overplays the misery and underplays the wit of Tove Lo’s songs: the staccato stoner-girl itinerary of “Habits (Stay High)” and the over-the-top devotion of “Love Ballad.”
DANIEL ROMANO (Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, March 18)
The Ontario country singer and Juno nominee’s cigarette-aided drawl rises to warbling heights, then plunges to rumbling, echoing depths. His skinny, serious poet’s affect and Canadian citizenship says Leonard Cohen, but his mordant spins on traditional lyrics and deadpan strain says Bob Dylan.
CORB LUND (Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, March 18)
Boasting a Canadian approach to Americana frontman Corb Lund’s boisterous alt country f band goes by “The Hurtin’ Albertans,” and his sharp, cheerfully merciless lyrics serenade and mock washed-up rock stars, greedy developers and American post-war planners in Iraq. Daniel Romano may have depth; these guys have breadth.
BOOGIE (Monster Energy Outbreak House, March 18)
Another rap up-and-comer who got an opportunity to shine on Dre’s Compton, Boogie’s real calling card is his Jahlil-Beats-produced mixtape track “Oh My,” which casually compresses a harshly detailed Compton struggle into a popping, party-ready banger.
KING MEZ(date TBA)
Dr. Dre continues his streak as 2016’s hip-hop kingmaker and bandleader: King Mez popped up on no fewer than three Compton tracks and before that, landed a freestyle opportunity on Dre’s show The Pharmacy. But Mez’s North-Carolina-by-way-of-Kentucky roots have also propelled him to collaborations with J. Cole and Rapsody and his lyrics mesh together dark, morally charge realism with giddy personal stories.
LOW CUT CONNIE (Empire, March 17; Parish, March 19)
Possibly the best live band in America — their SXSW bio proudly quotes TheNew York Times, which calls their shows “pathologically fun.” A rollicking, rootsy sock-hop band, the cross-Atlantic fivesome come endorsed by Jack White, which is cool, and Barack Obama, which is cooler.
EMILY WOLFE (Trinity Hall at Old School, March 19)
Local girl Emily Wolfe came up among the huge, passionate churn of the Austin music scene, and her crunchy blues rock (she handles vox and guitar) has a native fluency. But it’s the ease with which she switches from stomp-and-wail (commanding, with noise) to intense acoustic intimacy (commanding, with quiet) that makes her a festival must-see.
EMITT RHODES (Hotel Vegas Patio, March 19)
In 1973, the fresh-faced songwriter Emitt Rhodes — who’d done multi-instrumental duty in the ’60s L.A. psych band The Merry-Go-Round — released his third album of jangling, easygoing country pop, Farewell to Paradise. In 2016, he released his fourth. Contract vicissitudes and engineering work ate up the intervening four decades, but Rhodes’ worn-in voice on Rainbow Ends is, if anything, improved. Recommended for fans of warm, unfussy Americana, ’60s nostalgia and anyone who wants to see someone finally getting to do what they’re good at.
ALEX G (Cheer Up Charlie’s, March 16)
The 23-year-old bedroom-pop composer’s seventh album was not just the first on a label, but the first to see the inside of a studio. But Beach Music didn’t turn the songwriter’s lo-fi intimacy slick or bombastic; studio mixing just added a lush layer or two to the sound of Alex’s one-man band. This will be his second SXSW appearance, so expect his live act to have similarly deepened, without losing its ramshackle soul.
EARTHGANG* (date TBA)*
Johnny Venus and Doctur Dot rap in the densely intertwined cadences of friends who’ve been collaborating since high school (the same Atlanta school, incidentally, that produced Goodie Mob), and listening to the same soulful, but subtly weird beats of Southern kids who grew up with the Internet. Their 2014 single, “The F Bomb”, is mission statement, sonic stunt and anti-hater anthem all in one.
LITTLE SIMZ (Scoot Inn, March 16)
The London rapper and actress has appeared alongside Schoolboy Q, Ms. Dynamite, her own tight-knit Space Age collective and on British TV as well as being an honoree at the Gilles Peterson Worldwide Awards. Her Estuary drawl lends a warm, cockeyed feeling to her nimble flow, turning her songs about love (“Closer”) and misery (“Dead Body”) a shade or two cooler.