On day two of the 2015 South By Southwest Music Festival, I make it my mission to check out bands I’ve heard tons of buzz about but haven’t seen live, bands who’ve either released very little music so far or who are famous elsewhere but haven’t gained tons of traction in America yet. Throughout the day and deep into the night, I’m blown away by every single band I see, so here’s hoping that the word gets out about all of this talent. Rather than narrating the day chronologically, I’ll start with the acts that left the heaviest impression on my consciousness and then proceed from there. These are bands that will — or, at the very least, should — blow up in 2015.
When BØRNS takes the stage at midnight at the KCRW showcase in Parish bar, I’ve been on my feet for about twelve hours seeing bands (and, to be fair, waiting for bands to soundcheck and set up). My body aches and my spirit is growing weary. When the glam pop-rock singer emerges into a blue spotlight and exclaims the first few notes of “10,000 Emerald Pools”, I nearly weep with relief at having found myself in the beatific presence of such an insanely charismatic performer. With shoulder-length curly hair and a confidently androgynous demeanor, BØRNS trades off between playing guitar and gesturing Jagger-style, radiating beneath the swirling disco ball while belting his joyously catchy glam-influenced pop gems. Along with his three bandmates, BØRNS possesses the magnetic grace of a performer primed for stardom. I feel as confident about BØRNS’s imminent rise to fame as I did after seeing Irish hit-maker Hozier perform his first American show at Newport Folk Festival last summer. BØRNS’s already-viral song “Electric Love” should get tons of love this year, and his live show is absolutely not to be missed.
Along a similar line, at ten PM I’m thankful that I made the trek across I-35 into East Austin to catch youthful singer Ryn Weaver play a set at Hype Hotel. When preparing for the festival, my attention was piqued instantly by Weaver’s song “OctaHate,” which opens with perky keys and “Royals”-like finger snaps and then builds to a soaring dance-pop hook. The set begins with a throbbing bass note that sets my internal organs vibrating, and Weaver, dressed playfully in oversized pink jean shorts and a crop top, lets her capacious vocals rip while head-banging her long hair and mugging for photographers. At just 22, Weaver straight-up owns the stage, endearing herself so much to the audience that her bass player can’t stop beaming proudly throughout the set. Vocally and stylistically, Weaver resembles a junior version of Florence Welch (of Florence + the Machine), or she might secretly be the fourth Haim sister. Either way, she performs like she already knows she’s a star, and I can’t imagine that “OctaHate” and other clever tunes won’t skyrocket once she releases her first LP The Fool (on 16 June) and hits the road.
The Radio Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center is a surprisingly soothing place to see music, even if the building feels just as corporate and anodyne as any other such oversized, built-for-purpose venue in every major city. There’s air conditioning, overpriced (but decent) pizza, and the acoustics are seriously on point. On Wednesday afternoon, the KCRW Showcase boasts an enticing program that includes veteran folk singer-songwriter Laura Marling and up-and-coming acoustic crooner James Bay. These two Brits make for a fantastic one-two punch of literate, emotionally complex music, though the tones of their songs and their performance styles differ markedly. Playing in front of a Texas flag adorned with a drawing of his trademark long hair and jaunty hat, Bay is a beguiling and earnest performer, modulating between tender, quiet verses and huge waves of sound on choruses, stunning in scale given that it’s just Bay and a percussionist making all that noise. Crowd members both seated and standing sing along passionately to Bay’s songs “Hold Back the River” and “Running,” tunes that have already gained steam in America and are sure to continue converting listeners into fans when he releases his first full-length album Chaos and the Calm on 24 March. In contrast to Bay, Marling is all-business onstage, hardly addressing the crowd but nonetheless hypnotizing all of us with her complex, lightning-fast guitar playing and psychologically probing lyrics. Marling’s fifth album Short Movie (also out 24 March) takes her trademark sound in a different direction, and it’s thrilling to watch her unveil these new compositions in person.
Let it be said that dreamy alt-rock is in fine hands these days thanks to emerging bands like the U.K.’s Wolf Alice and Nova Scotia’s Alvvays. Both bands are fronted by female singer/guitarists whose powerful voices seem disproportionate to their petite frames and are backed by highly adept musicians who can manipulate an effects pedal like the best 90s fuzz-rock bands. Alvvays plays a muggy, late-afternoon set inside Hype Hotel, with lead singer Molly Rankin creating beautifully echoing vocals while lead guitarist Alec O’Hanley executes some pedal wizardry with his Converse sneakers. Later on, Wolf Alice opens the nighttime KCRW showcase at Parish. I haven’t heard many of their songs before, but the first note I write down simply says, “Holy shit I love this so much!!” The dynamics in songs such as “Blush” are totally absorbing; they’ll quiet down, even leaving room for dramatic pauses, and then gear up for reverb-heavy blitzes.
Finally, the night wasn’t complete until I caught Belgian performer Stromae at the NPR Music showcase at Stubb’s. The outdoor crowd is enormous, and Stromae has hundreds of bodies moving to his fusion of hip hop, dancey electronica, and Caribbean-inflected rhythms. Stromae is an internationally renowned musician, and he has no trouble winning over his mainly American audience, even getting us to sing along (somewhat haphazardly) to his French lyrics. (“Louder!” he kept exclaiming to a sea of game yet clueless English speakers.) Stromae’s act is full-on theatrics: he Vogues like Madonna, struts the stage like a cabaret performer, and frequently has an assistant help him change jackets like an old-school dandy. The show was participatory, engaging, and unexpected, and I’ll be listening for his exuberant Eurodance in clubs for the rest of my days.