It was a jam packed Wednesday at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Here’s a look at just a few of the many highlights…
Kicking off numerous showcases at SXSW this week, Tinashe hit up Vevo House for her second performance of the night and – to no one’s surprise – completely owned the smoky jungle-like stage with extra oomph from a live band and some uniformly excellent choreography, tethered to each song so hits like “All Hands on Deck” and “Party Favours” took on new and exciting forms. With the release date for her new album Joyride finally confirmed, the singer-dancer-actor had a noticeable glow throughout the entire nine-song set, watching fans mirror the energy on stage and eat up the album’s lead singles “No Drama” and “Faded Love” and sing loudly to anthems like “All My Friends” and “2 On”.
For those looking for a little “alt-R&B” in the same vein as artists like 6LACK and Frank Ocean, there was Adrian Daniel, a young Brooklyn singer-songwriter bubbling under the radar with a recently released project (Flawd) packed with sure-fire hits that should be taking off in no time. The very of-the-moment sound, which has lifted artists like The Weeknd and Ocean into stratospheric success these past few years, isn’t going anywhere soon, particularly when artists like Daniel are reinterpreting it and adding their own flavour; Adrian perhaps one of the brightest of that ilk, built with Brooklyn’s raw and gritty aesthetic but softened by an inspired falsetto that creeps into the more sultry tones imbued with the legacy of fellow New Yorker Maxwell and chiselled by the young artist’s own deft way of shaping emotion with honesty and integrity. That all came across well at the grungy Dirty Dog Bar for Adrian’s only SXSW showcase, even in the face of visible frustration as the venue’s sound mixing was – for lack of a better word – awful. It’s a testament to an artist’s talent when they can still convey their sound in a less than ideal setting.
The new project marrying the poetic and powerful lyrics of Common with the sonic wizards of Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins has been a hit ever since reaching a wider audience on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series in February, just a month after the supergroup debuted live in New York. The existence of new-age jazz and funk-minded musicians like Glasper and Riggins has seemed to reinvigorate many of the best emcees of our time, from Kendrick Lamar and now to Common, who at 46 (as of just a few days ago) hasn’t sounded this fresh in years. It comes across on stage, the happiness and joy – the sense that this is the project Common has been looking for his entire career, allowing him to celebrate black music, black excellence, black perseverance and black culture in a way that sticks true to the socially-conscious poetry he has been spitting ever since Can I Borrow A Dollar?.
The result is a Common more charismatic and energetic than usual (and if you’ve seen him live before, you know that’s saying a lot – the man is still one of the best performers around), digging deep into celebrations of strength and uplifting messages of hope that tap into an optimism not often found on the pop charts. Socially progressive and proud lyrics were seamlessly tied into stunning, expertly crafted soundscapes that ranged from the odd and off-kilter to smooth and soulful. It was a cohesive set, calming when the thoughtful lyrics of cuts from the August Greene album rang out over Stubb’s, and explosive when Common mixed in his own solo material – of course, bolstered by the live band – like “The People”, “Go”, a snippet of “Thelonius”, and “The Light”. Though the highlight was a duet., “Practice”, with constant collaborator Maimouna Youssef, who joined the legendary emcee in spitting her own verse, a potent meditation on the strength of women. NPR sure know how to pick a headliner.
Earlier at the Vevo party, Common explained the thinking behind their live sets: “We play what we feel and vibe with y’all, that’s the August Greene experience.” And you can’t argue with that.
Tank and the Bangas are one of those bands that will be called “the best” of the festival when this is all over, and the acclaim will be very hard to argue against. The New Orleans funk and soul band, led by the endlessly charismatic and eccentric Tarriona “Tank” Ball, come swathed and synths and seamless soundscapes. Within a minute they had already channelled references to Goodie Mob, Dr Dre, and Busta Rhymes, worked into a new-age funk jam that sent shivers down spines and immediately perked the sleepy crowd up. It’s going to be hard to find a set as fun and full of life as this one.
The ever-popular Fader Fort kicked off it’s three-day SXSW run with the reveal of a new, grassy outdoor venue (7Co) and a line-up of fresh talent like Chicago emcee Valee and JayDaYoungan, headlined by unimpeachable hip hop royalty Bun B. There was also free buttermilk popsicles, so there’s that. Look out for this venue to be one of the most popular houses of the festival over the next few days, especially when their penchant on roping in some enormous surprises guests that aren’t even announced until they hit the stage (to put that in context, Drake showed up in 2016).
And this was just the top of the iceberg, with a run of parties that started early and ran well into the night. Canadian bands like Partner impressed at the Canadian Blast, which this year moved to the Swan Dive for the first time. Nearby, the Secret Sounds Party hit capacity early, with queues extending to see the likes of Stella Donnelly, G-Flip and Gang of Youths. Those who couldn’t get in could walk across the street to see acts like Mimicking Birds impressing at the Portland Party.
Elsewhere in town, FOXTRAX, Peach Pit, SISTERS, The Lagoons, Sneaks and Sarah Shook & the Disarmers played the Bandsintown Official Big Break Artist Showcase. …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead played an intimate set at the Dine Alone Showcase, and Shame helped end the night at Cheer Up Charlie’s, closing their set with a cover of B52’s “Rock Lobster”, which they claimed to have never played live before. But it was so much fun, after a typically loose and wild set that I wasn’t sure if they were telling the truth.
Additional content and photo of Tinashe by Larry Heath.