AUSTIN, TEX. — SXSW 2019 marked a decided return to the “discovery mode” hallmark for which the festival has traditionally been known. While some big names always drop in—for example, Beastie Boys Mike D and Ad-Rock each gave a festival chat; as did David Byrne—the heart of the festival remained on 100 club stages throughout Downtown and East Austin.
With over 2,000 acts, curation and hot tips are an essential portion of the festival. Official curated shows from KCRW, NPR’s Tiny Desk and Australia’s Laneway Festival, and country showcases like Sounds From Spain, Canadian Blast and Full Irish Breakfast allowed festivalgoers a chance to catch up with the best of a region or style in an afternoon or evening. Unofficial day shows from the likes of Fader, Stereogum and The Current also loom large in determining who becomes the most exciting find at South-By. After 45 bands over the first four days of the festival, and 26 hours of live music, here were our favorites. As always, a caveat: We only saw 5 percent of the showcasing artists, so it’s impossible for any best-of list to be comprehensive.
Ambar Lucid – Lucid cites Mon Laferte and Pink Floyd as influences in her SXSW bio, and her big, dramatic voice does recall Laferte at times. Lucid is polished and a strong presence at 18, with a voice that also occasionally reminds one of Kali Uchis. In a noisy, dark bar, Ambar Lucid’s presence and poise in the most challenging of venues (SXSW sets are notorious for talking and general distractedness) proved that we’ll hear quite a bit more of her in the days ahead.
Sontalk – Fans of War On Drugs and Tom Petty should make hearing Sontalk a priority. The Nashville band plies the same tools of the trade: sturdy songcraft, open space and songs that build and grow into overdrive with shimming guitar solos and unhurried melodies. The vintage Fender amps roared in the bar, and the crowd nodded in appreciation and stared at the stage instead of their phones—no easy feat at SXSW.
Angie McMahon – We went in blind to McMahon’s set based on NPR’s recommendation, and were simply stunned by her songcraft and voice. Listeners fond of Lucy Dacus (or her supergroup, Boygenius) should watch for McMahon’s new album this summer. If the set we witnessed was a preview, it’s going to be a stunner. On stage, McMahon pulls off the tricky act of befriending an audience with banter and charm while playing songs that pack weighty themes and require a listener’s full engagement. She may have been our favorite discovery of the fest.
Pat Byrne – Pat Byrne lives in Austin and traffics in the kind of earnest roots rock championed by artists like Shakey Graves, but with a bit of Irish folk influence. This is, of course, because Byrne is Irish, and was actually the winner of the debut season of The Voice in Ireland. After a victory lap album recorded for Universal sold modestly, Byrne temporarily moved to Texas, where he’s recording a new album and gigging quite a bit. His songs went down a treat at an Irish pub, and his voice and songwriting chops show the reason he’s attracted a lot of attention. Look for a big second act from this artist.
Yola – When Dan Auerbach produces your record, AAA radio is bound to give you a listen, but Yola’s awesome sun-drenched blend of country, ’70s soul and classic rock is the kind of sound that’s all too easy to love. The artist’s voice carried so much Mussel Shoals and Memphis atmosphere that it was rather jarring to realize she’s English. Her matinee set in warm, breezy weather only served to highlight the warmth of her voice and sound. It was the sound of spring through car speakers and it was a must-listen.
Low Cut Connie – Showmanship counts. Upon watching the piano pounding, revival-tent-rattling, old-school rock and roll show from Low Cut Connie, our first thought was: “I wonder if Jack White has signed these guys?” A quick online search reveals that the band’s many fans include the Dap-Kings, Ween and even President Barack Obama, who put them on one of his seasonal “favorite songs” playlists. At their Luck Reunion show, they pulled out all the stops. Guitars were played while lying on the stage. Security barriers were climbed. Audience participation was mandatory. And the band members were busting their tails. This is a sweaty and raucous live show that converts non-believers.
Follow writer Tom Thornton at Twitter.com/tomthorntontx.