We’re excited to reveal the winners of the AU review’s 5th Annual SXSW Awards, which celebrates the best performances and events we caught at the Austin, Texas festival – and some of the disappointments too.
BEST AUSTRALIAN GROUP
I knew Sydney indies Bad Pony were good live, I just didn’t know they were THAT good live. Having missed a few opportunities to check them out, I made full use of The Aussie BBQ’s relaxed Back Yard to take in their urgent, unabashed sound and infectious energy. The crowd loved it: I loved it; they were clearly loving it, smashing percussion like there was no tomorrow with powerful howls of passion that really rendered their lyrics with palpable emotion and adrenaline.
It was hard to choose a standout performance from The Aussie BBQ this year, seeing as the lineup was just too damn good (huge nods to Gang of Youths, Vowws, and Elsz), but my vote goes to this irrepresible five-piece.
Runners Up: Gang of Youths, Lime Cordiale, Vowws
BEST AUSTRALIAN SOLO ARTIST
Perth artist Stella Donnelly could not have had a better run at SXSW – every show we caught her at had the acclaimed songwriter with the crowd in the palm of her hands. We don’t need to tell you how great she is – you are already well aware – and here’s hoping this run of shows leads to great things for the talented musician.
Runners Up: G-Flip, Thandi Phoenix, Elsz
BEST INTERNATIONAL GROUP
Tank and the Bangas
Mammoth walls of galactic synths were built, each bigger than the last, giving the ever-charasmatic lead Tarriona “Tank” Ball something to scale with her effervescent style. This was Tank & the Bangas, the New Orleans band that won NPR’s Tiny Desk Competition last year and are sometimes – rightfully – referred to as one of the best live bands in the country.
Ball has an off-kilter Cee-Lo Green-like style, imbued with slam poetry and an uncommon command that can grasp the crowd with powerful refrains and then blast them with bolts of electric, eclectic vocal gymnastics. It’s intense, fun, impossible to ignore, and a sharp reminder of how energising live music can be.
Runners Up: August Greene, Dizzy, Texas Gentlemen
BEST INTERNATIONAL SOLO ARTIST
Following the long-awaited reveal of a release date for her oft-delayed new album Joyride (13th April 2018), Tinashe made a triumphant return to SXSW with numerous showcases through the week. The invite-only Vevo House hosted her first one, highlighting a vibrant, energetic interpretation of songs from all three albums, beautifully choreographed so as to illustrate tracks like “Party Favours”, “Faded Love”, and “2 On” in ways that greatly enhanced the music. Flanked by several dancers, the L.A-based artist certainly embodied the hard work and unwavering confidence often credited to her work, coupled of course with the spectacular R&B-leaning pop she has a penchant for, throwing out infectious hooks and slinky, seductive vocals that were lifted by an unseen band. Word of the performance must have quickly spread, because by the time she hit the Container Bar the following night the crowd had doubled, with demand so high that people were desperately watching the show through small gaps in the outer walls of the venue.
Runners Up: Jade Bird, Buddy, Duckwrth
BEST HIP HOP ARTIST
Celebrating black culture, black excellence and black music isn’t necessarily new. What’s new is that the rest of the world is finally joining in, so it feels like the perfect time for Common to link up with Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins for a supergroup of sorts, dedicated entirely to the spectrum of black music deeply rooted in the culture. Jazz, hip hop, rock and soul have been impeccably infused within these meandering soundscapes, given life with Common’s rich, thoughtful poems about resiliance, struggle and social progression. The Chicago emcee hasn’t sounded this fresh in years, re-energised by this exceptionally talented band and, most memorably, by long-time collaborator mumu fresh who pops up for a powerful rap on “Practice”.
What’s more is that Common makes full use of the band to squeeze in some of his solo hits as well, pumping the crowd with cuts like “The People”, “Go”, and “The Light” to great effect.
Runners Up: Buddy, Rapsody, T.I
Swimming With Bears
I immediately fell in love with the vocals of Joe Perry (who doubles as the band’s bassist). This quartet out of Austin feel as fresh as they do doused in the soulful music of years past. Definitely a group to watch. Check out their track “French Girls”.
Runners Up: Vowws, Bad Pony, Paul Cauthen
Winners of the Polaris Prize last year – the Canadian version of the Australian Music Prize – the live show of a Lido Pimienta show is an intensely fun and one-of-a-kind experience; something multiple Canadians had told me. And the Columbian Canadian performer did not disappoint, delivering one of the most memorable sets of the week. A show unlike anything I’d ever seen.
Runners Up: Tank and the Bangas, Swimming With Bears, G-Flip
THE BUZZ AWARD
Just a couple of weeks before SXSW, this unknown Australian artist (previously in the underrated group “Empra”, who were an unofficial SXSW band a few years back), dropped the track “About You” and just about broke the internet. In a move that is reminiscent of Vance Joy and Chet Faker’s approaches in past SXSW years, G-Flip (real name Georgia) made a splash by putting on her first-ever show at SXSW – at the Twitter / Sounds Australia Party (pictured above). No pressure, right? But she impressed at this show, and every other one she played, jumping between drums and vocals, showcasing a set full of potential singles with a two piece band. The future is very bright for this artist after what is unarguably a dream “buzz” run for a SXSW artist, be they from Australia or any other country.
Runners Up: Duckwrth, Billie Eilish, Kelela
…and you will know us by the trail of dead
Marred by some pretty average sound at Swan Dive, Trail of Dead still put on a loud, energetic set for all in attendance, leaving more than a few ear drums ringing, playing a good mix of their catalogue along the way.
Runners Up: Bad Pony, LIFE, Shame
THE BEST DAY PARTY
Rachael Ray’s Feedback
Now in its 11th year, Rachael Ray’s Feedback didn’t disappoint with one of the best lineups they’d ever assembled, alongside some typically stellar food from the famed TV chef. From Salt-n-Pepa to Albert Hammond Jr. (pictured), Girl Talk to Kurt Vile and Hinds to Waxahatchee, there was a little something for everyone here. But it was the Dr. Pepper’s Jaded Hearts Club Band, led by Matt Bellamy of Muse, and featuring members of The Zutons, NIN, JET and more, that closed out the afternoon and had everyone talking. Not to mention lining up down the block for hours to get in!
Runners Up: The Aussie BBQ, Southwest Invasion, Canadian Blast
Australia House Opening Event
Catered by Australian chef Matt Moran, a special invite-only opening night event at Australia House was filled with the best food we’d enjoy all week at the festival – not to mention a live cooking demonstration that ensured a few of us who had carefully positioned ourselves right at the front of the stage were going to get some beautiful lamb, flown in from Australia and fresh off the “barbie”. Well played.
Runners Up: Canadian Blast BBQ, Vevo House, Interactive Closing Party (Stubb’s)
BEST EVENING SHOWCASE
Mass Appeal and Netflix’s “Live at the BBQ”
Particularly with The Roots’ annual jam being cancelled (see our “Biggest Disappointment” award below), Netflix and Mass Appeal’s enormous Live at the BBQ party at Stubb’s was easily the most popular of SXSW’s final night. With queues snaking off Red River Street, the spacious outdoor area filled up to catch headliners Rapsody, Dave East and T.I, all whom were celebrating their starring roles in new Netflix hip hop documentary Rapture. It was rumoured (or perhaps just hoped for) that Nas would show for a surprise set but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Though there was still plenty of keep the crowd well satisfied, including showcase sets from buzz acts like Def Jam’s newest signee Bobby Sessions, GOOD Music trap rapper Valee, and tough-as-nails Texas rapper Maxo Kream, versatile Florida rapper Wifisfuneral and a few more. You also had stalwarts like local legend Trae the Truth (who wins hands down as far as hardest working act through the festival goes – he was damn near about everywhere through the week) and legendary producer Just Blaze, who surprised the crowd towards the end of his set by bringing out Beanie Sigel.
Runners Up: Clash + Vero Showcase, NPR Showcase at Stubb’s, Montreal Showcase at Swan Dive
BEST POP-UP VENUE
Years in the works, and leveraging the fine work of Sounds Australia over the last decade with events like The Aussie BBQ and Sound Gallery, and following in the footsteps of venues like Canada House and The British Embassy, Australia finally got its own house at this SXSW – and it did not disappoint.
Runners Up: Pandora Discovery Den, Vevo House
BEST PERMANENT VENUE
Empire Control Room & Garage
Two venues for the price (price being a metaphor; there was no price) of one? How can this Austin institution not be heaped with praise for hosting some of better late-night events during SXSW. First there was Trae the Truth and friends, bringing in everyone from Zaytoven to Zoey Dollaz to support the Texas stalwart, blending in well with the Garage stage (which is pretty much as it sounds – an open-air garage fitted out as a live music venue) and its rustic, raw vibe with no-fuss, no-bullshit bangers that pumped well into the night. The same space was then taken over on the weekend for the heady hip hop of Stone’s Throw records, a rap nerd’s dream come true, while Clash + Vero took over the more intimate adjoining Control Room to pull together a line-up of pretty much all the biggest buzz artists of the festival across hip hop, including Duckwrth, Buddy, and Kody Shane, as well as reliable acts like Anna Wise and rising UK star Not3s. Having the room to bounce between both parties was so valuable.
Runners Up: Stubb’s, Cheer Up Charlie’s, Mohawk’s
WORTH THE TRIP
Almost an hour out of Austin, heading out to Luck Reunion has always been a difficult commitment – it costs you a day at SXSW. But my only regret is not doing it sooner. Getting to see Willie Nelson perform on his own ranch, surrounded by his family and friends – both on stage and off – is the sort of bucket list experience everyone should be lucky enough to enjoy in their lifetime. There was a magic in the air as the two thousand guests – all with immovable grins – enjoyed great food, an open bar and some of the finest music that you’ll find anywhere in the world – let alone in Texas. Luck Reunion is one of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had, and a day I’ll never forget.
THE “WE WISH WE DIDN’T MISS YOU” AWARD
Playing just one show on the Thursday night, Khalid went into SXSW as one of the biggest names at the event – at least in terms of the artists who represent those who have exploded in the last year or so. Needless to say the Lost in Music showcase was a criminally difficult show to get into and we didn’t make it along. By all accounts it was a great show. And we wish we were there.
Runners Up: St Vincent (who popped up for a secret show during the Interactive portion of the week), Dr. Pepper’s Jaded Hearts Club Band (the supergroup performed solely at Rachael Ray’s Feedback)
No Roots Closing Night Event
After waiting in line for over an hour at Fair Market, the would-be venue for The Roots’ annual jam with specials guests including Ludacris, Tank & the Bangas, and rumoured R&B legends SWV, a few people here and there started to whisper: “the show has been cancelled”. I looked around; surely this wasn’t happening, people were leaving – and not just any people, these were people in the media, VIP and artist guest lines who you’d think would be more “in the know” than your average Joe. Something was going on, and it wasn’t good. Then someone showed me a tweet from Questlove; the show had indeed been cancelled, and now security guards were confirming it to confused people that have been queuing for quite some time. “Look, uh, I’m sorry to tell you this but we won’t be proceeding with the show”.
Austin had unfortunately been plagued with a string of bombings in the week of SXSW, seemingly racially motivated attacks that had led to a credible bomb threat being called in for the show. Understandably, organisers Bud Light made the swift decision to put safety first and cancelled the show, which I’m sure was a very hard decision as from taking a peek inside, a lot of effort had been put into making the venue look spectacular. That and The Roots are never, ever, ever ones to disappoint.
Runners Up: No Neil Young ACL Show
Photos by Larry Heath except where mentioned. Additional article contributions from Chris Singh.