Last March, the cancellation of SXSW 2020 felt like a watermark. Little did we realise just how the next twelve months of live music shutdown would go. This year, as the first green shoots as recovery start to sprout, it’s back – but in virtual form. So, after a year of getting used to streamed sets and digital extravaganzas, does the world’s biggest new music festival work away from the packed venues? Crisps in hand, kettle boiled, here’s some of the key acts we saw on day three (Thursday, 18th March).
Pop stars are supposed to come ready-polished, right? Their edges rounded off, stage moves pre-determined and ‘ad-libs’ scripted. So how come Dork Hype List cover star and alt-pop mischiefmaker Baby Queen feels like she’s shining the brightest of the lot? With a rapidly expanding catalogue of zeitgeisty, oh-so-internet bops, it would be all too easy for Bella Latham to come across as a focus-grouped, slightly cringey box ticker. But she isn’t. When she talks about pop being real, it’s not some beardy-weirdy sense of exceptionalism for ‘the artist’, but more a willingness to let it all hang out in the name of finding a real connection. Constantly pacing around the stage like someone trying to get in the last of their 10,000 steps, ‘Raw Thoughts’ may have all the surface sparkle of a playlist-friendly unit shifter, but those loose ends and moments of self-doubt still poke through. ‘Want Me’ ditches any notion of playing it cool in favour of the chase, while ‘These Drugs’ is a wide-open book – an often painfully honest account that chooses to pull tight rather than push away. Leaving every flicker of reality and glorious imperfection on display, Baby Queen may not stick to the established rulebooks of old, but times change. Arriving in the middle of ‘these unprecedented times’, those picture-perfect projections of a flawless life seem hokey at best. In being her true self, Baby Queen is telling us that it’ll all be alright, even if it’s never quite okay. Stephen Ackroyd
Whisper it not-so-quietly now, but Sinead O’Brien is fast becoming something more than a bit special. On the surface, a meeting of poetry and post-punk isn’t exactly new. Under her impeccable gaze, though, it’s starting to feel revelatory. With confident poise but a determined disposition, it’s clear that Sinead is an artist who is meticulous in her control of every aspect of her performance. From the persona she projects – a lightning rod stood in the middle of a thunderstorm of clattering riffs and pinging strings – to the twisting, emotive way she delivers her words, the star power is evident. On the one hand, she’s an instrument in her unholy orchestra. On the other, she’s the virtuoso manipulating the listener with every vocal flick and staccato flourish. Emerging in a scene that’s increasingly starting to feel like the same old moves pulled by indistinguishable, identikit faces, Sinead O’Brien is more than compelling; she’s positively arresting. Stephen Ackroyd
It’s the middle of the night, and Sorry appear to have arrived on a spaceship to play inside a tv monitor. It’s great and we’re almost certain we didn’t imagine it, though at this point it’s hard to tell. With a longer running time giving more of a ‘proper gig’ feel here, it throws everything you’d expect from a Sorry set at you. And more. Vibey, effortlessly cool, sleazy riffs, perfect samples, it’s a perfectly judged rummage through the ‘925’ drawers with a sense that they are continuing to rework these songs even now. Giving another airing for one of their newer tracks,’There’s So Many People That Want To Be Loved’, there’s so much good stuff happening here that we can even forgive them for not playing ‘Starstruck’. Just. Jamie MacMillan
Arriving on stage fresh from hanging out at the bottom of the garden like the mystical indie creatures that they surely are, so ethereal and wispy are Drug Store Romeos here that you worry that they might float away altogether. And yet, here they are, still hanging around in the ears long after the set has ended. ‘Quotations For Locations’ is delicious, while ‘Frame Of Reference’ feels like watching winter frost turn to spring. By the time ‘Now You’re Moving’ arrives in all its trippy hoppy trip-hop splendour, we are properly addicted to this trio. Jamie MacMillan
When most bands drop an album, that’s the peak of their ascent for the next couple of years. Job done, stick a couple of tours on the end, then on to the next one. Occasionally, though, an act will deliver a record that’s an actual word of mouth grower. Pillow Queens‘ ‘In Waiting’ was doubtless one of the very best records of 2020 – a glorious, affirming, defiant call that demanded attention. In the months since its release, that cry has only grown louder – racking up both plaudits and landmark achievements along the way. Tonight, they’re out to show why – a harmonic force that feels both fresh and exciting, but also familiar and warm. In an era where success often comes with good marketing and focus-grouped vibe checks, Pillow Queens win through on one point alone – they’re really, really fucking good. Stephen Ackroyd
Where to start. It’s safe to say that few bands have provoked and divided opinion at Dork quite as much as Black Country, New Road. With only fifteen minutes available to them, what they pull off is everything that makes them so interesting (for the lovers) and impossible to ignore through gritted teeth (for everyone else). ‘Track X’ is a perfect study of fragility and modern romance, while the muscles of ‘Opus’ flex and retract into those ridiculous freak-outs that whisper promises of carnage in their natural (live) setting. Jamie MacMillan
Harmonies reign supreme when Weird Milk touch down in The Close Encounters Club. An immediate set of sparkling indie bangers follow, debuting new material packed with Last Shadow Puppets-esque hooks that set up shop on first listen. New songs debuted tonight ‘We Were Strangers’ and ‘Vienna’ ring with the sound of a band who know exactly what they’re all about, served up in a moreish cocktail that we’ll be asking for refills of far into the future. A joyful statement of intent indeed. Jamie Muir
With Olivia Dean on stage, you’re immediately at ease. Reaching through the screen with effortlessly warm smooth-pop vibes, her performance at SXSW already feels like the real deal. Not just a performance, it’s more like you’re hanging out with your mate on a scorching summer day sipping iced coffees in the park. ‘Echo’, ‘The Hardest Part’ and closer ‘Reason To Stay’ practically bubble with pure joy, and by the time Olivia’s set ends we’re left with one request. More please Olivia, more please. Jamie Muir
Be it pandemic related regulations or simply the logistics of live streams, many of the solo acts at this year’s streamy-weamy SXSW have found themselves stripping down their performances to unbacked endeavours. For most, being without their associated bands results in something – y’know – a bit boring. That’s not something that Matilda Mann needs to worry about, though. Well versed when it comes to taking on the world with only her trusty guitar for company, she’s more than adept at winding twisting, intricate, delicate tales that tug on the heartstrings. Stephen Ackroyd
What do you need post-midnight as you sit staring at your laptop screen? A warm serving of Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard, taking no prisoners with a hip-shaking, playful pounce into rock ’n’ roll, perchance? On stage, Triple B become a force of nature, frontman Tom Rees high-kicking and pointing them through glorious glam-rock thrills in the form of ’30,000 Megabucks’ and ‘New Age Millenial Magic’. Squeezing into less than 10 minutes, Buzzard Buzzard Buzzard seize the moment to turn SXSW into a shimmering disco ball party, one thriving with an urgency that’ll have us pulled to the barrier in the months to come. Jamie Muir
Also nested within the Focus Wales showcase, Rosehip Teahouse are every dreamy band-lovers perfect find. Their lo-fi charm and immediate warmth are a combination that beams from ear to ear, ‘Summer Sleep’ encapsulating a magic that feels like untapped potential just ready to blossom. If tonight at SXSW is anything to go by, they’ll be just the tonic we need in the coldest of nights. Jamie Muir
When The Chats got famous off the back of a viral hit about taking a cigarette break, nobody expected them to stick around. With this in mind, it’s a testament to their quality that we’re here clutching a coffee at 2am in the morning to watch them three-and-a-half years later. The mullets are still there and so is the garage punk, but this time they’re joined by a koala and a kangaroo, both drinking budget lager while the band thrash out the bangers. ‘Pub Feed’ and ‘AC/DC CD’ is all we get before they’re ushered off, but it’s a white knuckle journey to the outback and back. Jake Hawkes
Continuing that theme of discovery that’s suddenly as easy as one click on a trackpad, India’s JBABE has a spellbinding moment at SXSW. Bringing to mind the layered textures of Frank Ocean and Bon Iver, under the lights of one projector and surrounded by different instruments – it feels like stepping into the bedroom studio of an undiscovered genius. Not just a delightful new discovery, it’s a reminder of how important new music festivals are in showcasing a world of talent. Jamie Muir
SXSW contines until Saturday, 20th March. Check back for more tomorrow!