SXSW 2018: In Khalid’s utopia, all are welcome

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You can see the world in Khalid’s smile.

At least, you can see the world he wants to create. When Khalid flashes those huge, glistening, spotless teeth, it’s obvious he’s envisioning a world where everybody lives in harmony and accomplishes their wildest dreams, uninhibited by age, race, gender or wealth. And why shouldn’t he? The 20-year-old R&B crooner became one of the biggest, most wholesome success stories of 2017 with his masterful debut, “American Teen,” which articulates the emotional complexities of adolescence and the anxious excitement of entering adulthood. It is neither contrite nor self-serious, jaded nor maudlin. It sounds, quite simply, like utopia.

Khalid performs at Trinity Warehouse at SXSW on Thursday March 15, 2018. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

And in Khalid’s utopia, all are welcome.

The honorary El Paso native emerged from the side of the Trinity Warehouse stage shortly after midnight, a Texas flag proudly projecting on the stage behind him. Dancers holding American flag pom-poms worked through ebullient cheer routines as Khalid flexed his velvety pipes, flashing a knowing grin at a fan the same way one would greet a friend at a high school football game.

“Thank you because you come to every (expletive) thing, whether it’s in Texas, whether it’s in Florida, whether it’s in L.A.,” he said. “I love you.”

MORE PHOTOS: Khalid at SXSW 2018

Khalid doesn’t need to push his range to make a point. Instead, his strength lies in making his fluid vocal runs seem effortless, and then turning those effortless vocal runs into magnificent acts of catharsis. When he sings, “But I’ll keep your number saved, ‘cause I hope one day you’ll get the sense to call me” in “Saved,” he’s surely addressing one person, but he’s also speaking on behalf of any person who has ever known heartbreak. That is to say, the whole world.

Although he just exited his teens last month, Khalid has already conquered the music industry, going quadruple platinum with his debut single “Location” and racking up five Grammy nominations for “American Teen.” It would have been unsurprising, if disheartening, to see him treat his SXSW like a chore, especially when he’s due to embark on a North American arena and amphitheater tour in less than two months. But Khalid’s also smart — and grateful — enough to recognize his incredible fortune, and he shared his fans’ rapture on Thursday night. His radiance wasn’t limited to the venue, either: The woman on the receiving end of a FaceTime call beamed as she watched the singer from many miles away.

RELATED: So many bands! Our music team makes some SXSW recommendations

“I’m not gonna act like I haven’t sung this song 10,000 (expletive) times, but this is a special occasion for you,” Khalid joked before playing a stripped-down version of “The Ways,” his Swae Lee collaboration off the “Black Panther” soundtrack. His virtuosic backing band lent the song a newfound sensuality in its slowed-down, more organic incarnation, while they punched up other tracks with red-hot drum fills and keyboard leads. His EDM-flavored Marshmello collaboration “Silence” turned into a muscular R&B freakout, as the singer sauntered across the stage during the transcendent beat drop.

Khalid ended his set, predictably, with the anthemic “Young, Dumb & Broke,” effectively closing the book on the first chapter of his career and preparing to embrace his imminent superstardom. Fans at the Trinity Warehouse witnessed a rare snapshot of an artist at the top of his game, with nowhere to go but up, yet still in a refreshingly human capacity.

When Khalid graces the H-E-B Center in Cedar Park in two months, he’ll still be singing the same utopian daydreams. And all people — young and old, dumb and smart, broke and rich — will still be welcome.

Genre-jumping cult rock icon Todd Rundgren works his magic at SXSW

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Though his résumé includes work with Hall and Oates, Trent Reznor, Meatloaf, Robyn, Patti Smith, and Pee Wee Herman, songwriter-producer and self-proclaimed wizard Todd Rundgren isn’t exactly a household name. But the cult prog-rock hero has a fervent following and drew a big, generation-spanning crowd to Elysium Thursday night for his one SXSW 2018 performance.

Todd Rundgren performs at Elysium at SXSW on Thursday March 15, 2018. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

With his iconic Snape hair and black glasses, the theatrical frontman waved and stretched out his arms as he worked his way through a nearly hour-long set packed with the genre-jumping gymnastics to be expected from a creative chameleon who so firmly refuses to be boxed in.

MORE PHOTOS: Todd Rundgren at SXSW 2018

Several of Rundgren’s tunes were plucked from his star-studded 2017 album White Knight, but a light sampling of tunes across his career were also present. Highlights included the danceable, falsetto-spotted ’70s rock of “Secret Society,” the Talking Heads-light jam of “Buy My T,” and the crowd-moving cymbal-riding disco beat and rave keys of “Party Liquor.”

RELATED: Check out the 2018 SXSW unofficial party guide

For an encore, Rundgren launched into The Cars’ “Good Times Roll” solo with his swimming-pool green electric guitar before being joined by the band. “Where the [expletive] are these guys?” Rundgren jokingly asked. “You’re all fired.”

An ignorant city kid’s take on Old Crow Medicine Show at SXSW

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This is not my scene, I tell myself as I enter Fair Market prior to Old Crow Medicine Show’s SXSW 2018 set. But I’m a firm believer in getting outside one’s comfort zone (when it comes to music, not shoes; get some more comfortable shoes for tomorrow, I think) and I feel that swearing off an entire genre of music should be something we feel ashamed to do for its closed-mindedness. If nothing else, it’s antithetical to discovery, which is one of the greatest joys of music. So, here I am.

The band Old Crow Medicine Show performs at the Budweiser Country Club at Fair Market during the 2018 SXSW Music festival March 15. 03/15/18 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

I arrive early for this SXSW show, partly assuming Old Crow Medicine Show is some sort of barefoot Appalachian-style bluegrass act that the kids love based off the single song I know going in, “Wagon Wheel.” People do love them, I see—sprawling lines snake slowly into Fair Market—but I will soon learn my uninformed labeling of them is off base.

As I take my place under the metal semi-cylinder of the hangar, an energetic cap-wearing young man named Kane Brown is on stage. The crowd goes wild, but, if I’m being honest, I don’t care much for him or his medley of pop tune covers, including songs by Khalid (who I think to myself is playing across town not long from now as I flinch through this), Outkast, and The Fray.

PHOTOS: Old Crown Medicine Show at SXSW 2018

I swallow my distaste with a swig of beer from an aluminum bottle from the big brewery sponsoring this shindig. Brown leaves the stage, and a DJ fires up a crowd-pleasing selection of between-set tunes ranging from “Jessie’s Girl” to “Cupid Shuffle,” the later of which the masses totally take the bait for and begin dancing along to. As wedding DJ-ish as this move is, I support anything that gets people participating. And besides, I’ve decided to leave my judgment hat on the rack this evening.

Finally, Old Crow Medicine Show comes out to a rumble of applause. The frontman, a well-moustached man the internet will later inform me is named Ketch Secor (side note: which is an incredible name that rings with such an air of Star Wars bounty hunter rad-ness that I almost can’t believe it’s real) is a madman on stage, kicking about and singing at the top of his lungs like some sort of countryfied Cage the Elephant, another massively popular act I incorrectly assumed would be a snooze. These are the cases I love being proven wrong.

RELATED: Check out the 2018 SXSW unofficial party guide

The band is sharply dressed in denim, vests, boots, cowboy hats, and the like—far from the faux shabby mountaineer look I was expecting. A better surprise yet, rather than sleepy, soft and slow-paced folk, they’re firing on all cylinders, opening with a trio of stomping tunes featuring a storm of fiddle, the deep gut-punching grove of stand-up bass, and barrel-chested harmonies belted in unison, all performed at a runaway train tempo.

And of course, there’s some banjo—the cilantro of the string family: a complex and savory treat to some but a soapy-metallic meal-ruiner to others. Here it fits well alongside harmonica and the sweet sing of pedal steel guitar. This is the sound of a 20-year-old act that has honed their craft to a degree few ever get to. This is good.

The band Old Crow Medicine Show performs at the Budweiser Country Club at Fair Market during the 2018 SXSW Music festival March 15. 03/15/18 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The set continues this way, with the band swapping instruments and Americana sub-genres nearly every song, bringing out an accordion for some mid-set dabbling in Zydeco and Tejano music, cueing denim-ed couples across the space to spin their partners around the dancefloor.

The band jokes about playing until sunrise and the show continues without a slow point or misstep, building steam until closer “Wagon Wheel,” which, played here, is much more lively than I could have anticipated compared to the inescapable version I’ve heard on the radio.

“It all sounds a little sweeter in the Lone Star State, don’t it boys?” says Secor as the band winds down. I have to agree. The band exits the stage before one of the most genuinely demanded encores I’ve ever seen a crowd call for.

Old Crow Medicine Show’s new record, Volunteer, is due out April 20.

SXSW 2018: Tinashe flourishes and Smokepurpp flops at Pandora showcase

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There are two ways to look at Lil Xan’s last-minute cancellation of his Wednesday night Pandora House headlining set (and the rest of his SXSW shows) due to an illness. On one hand, Xan’s a flashy, young up-and-comer with a few genuinely hot singles, and it would’ve been nice to see how he handled such a high-production environment (and if he could earn back the good graces of hip-hop purists after he blasphemed the name of Tupac last week). On the other hand, his absence cut the showcase by an hour, which, after the wave of talentless MCs that closed out the night, proved the greatest gift of all.

Kelela preforms at The Gatsby during SXSW, Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Even without the Xan Man rounding out the bill, the Pandora showcase was still a scheduling disaster, as sound checks ran long and artists took the stage late. Under better circumstances, Atlanta’s YFN Lucci might have impressed with slick, pop-friendly tracks like “Everyday We Lit” and “Key to the Streets.” Instead, he performed for approximately 13 minutes and left the stage seemingly mid-song, much to the audience’s confusion.

Still, even Lucci’s set sounded like high art compared to Louisiana teen JayDaYoungan. It’s difficult to comment on his actual artistry or lyricism, because he can’t rap. No, literally. He proved physically incapable of stringing actual words together into any sort of tangible rhyme scheme or melody to accompany his bargain-bin trap songs. Half the time he didn’t bother trying, lazily signaling to the audience to sing and letting his backing tracks do the work. It was better that way.

RELATED: So many bands! Our music team makes some SXSW recommendations

After the scheduling shake-up, Wednesday’s headlining slot went to Smokepurpp, a 20-year-old SoundCloud rapper from Miami who sounds like every other 20-year-old SoundCloud rapper from Miami. His beats are distorted and bone-rattling, and his lyrics are mostly unprintable, though they usually involve promiscuous women, illicit substances and expensive vehicles — sometimes two or three at a time! That was best heard on his breakout hit “Audi,” which commanded a respectable mosh pit among the sparse 1 a.m. crowd.

To his credit, Smokepurpp seemed at least mildly engaged throughout his performance and at times even rapped on beat. But forgive me if I’m hesitant to celebrate an artist with millions of Spotify streams, headlining one of the biggest brand showcases at one of the biggest festivals in the world, for doing the bare minimum.

RELATED: Check out the 2018 SXSW unofficial party guide

That’s not to say the whole showcase was a bust. Kelela captivated the audience with her gloomy, alternative R&B, switching between a low, sensuous croon and breathy falsetto atop cavernous, frigid beats. Tinashe dominated the stage immediately afterward, winning several audible gasps for the sheer athleticism — and sensuality — of her performance. Her sultry pop-R&B bangers might not win any awards for originality, and even she sounded a little embarrassed by her canned stage banter, but it was hard to deny her massive hooks and masterful choreography, which she and four backup dancers delivered without breaking a sweat.

These back-to-back R&B powerhouses were the obvious highlights of Wednesday’s Pandora showcase, and the audience knew it, as the at-capacity venue immediately cleared out once Tinashe left the stage. Unless those people read this review, they may never know what they missed in the showcase’s final two hours. Lucky them.

Joyous jamming: Preservation Hall Jazz Band swings into Austin

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Tell someone you’re from Louisiana and you’re bound to get a few questions: “Are there swamps everywhere? How about alligators?” The answers to these mostly disappoint for those who fancy the state nothing but Bourbon Streets and black bayous teeming with reptilian killing machines. Louisiana is complex, but there’s a simple sense of freedom and joy in the music of its most famous city.

Branden Lewis of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band performs in a street parade on South Congress Avenue to celebrate the world premiere of “A Tuba to Cuba” at SXSW on Wednesday March 14, 2018. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Peddling that pure, joyous Crescent City sound for a packed house at the Mohawk, New Orleans’ legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band delighted and dazzled dancing, adoring fans Wednesday night. Impeccably dressed in suits, ties, hats, and shoes of vibrant colors and outlandish patterns, the band got down to business just after 10 p.m.

PHOTOS: Preservation Hall Jazz Band at SXSW 2018

Employing percussion, two saxophones, trumpet, keys, trombone, upright bass and sousaphone (the massive wrap-around-the-torso tuba-ish instrument of marching band fame that was stolen from and just recovered by the band), the seven-piece band brought down the house, putting smiles on faces and making hands clap and feet dance. Preservation Hall Jazz Band is the ultimate pretense-free party band, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a crowd displaying such genuine enthusiasm for a show anywhere else at SXSW.

RELATED: Check out the 2018 SXSW unofficial party guide

With minimal vocals beyond short group-shouted refrains of “I ain’t mad at you” or “keep your head up high,” the instruments were the stars of the show, and they did shine. Each song served as a showcase for multiple solos—chances for the band to playfully one-up each other in improvisation before passing the spotlight to the next musician—with each solo testing how much further an already dropped jaw can drop.

Energetic and charismatic trombone player Ronell Johnson was a crowd favorite, spraying his trombone from side to side at the crowd like a brass bazooka, hamming it up for fans and roping them in with each slide and pull, and always keeping the crowd clapping along. Not to be outdone, 85-year-old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel dropped to his knees for a solo. Gabriel’s is an impossible cool that we are all either too young or too old to ever be but are welcome to witness in his unyielding, infectious smile, furiously flying fingers, and confidence on stage.

RELATED: So many bands! Our music team makes some SXSW recommendations

Preservation Hall Jazz Band takes its name from Preservation Hall, the legendary French Quarter home to live jazz nearly every night of the year. This sacred jazz site was founded in the ’60s by Allan Jaffe, whose son, Ben Jaffe, carries the PHJB torch to this day as the group’s tuba-toting leader.

Jaffe closed the celebratory set with a suggestion for fans looking to embrace a more jazz-inspired carefree existence. “Before you turn your phone on in the morning—turn your phone off when you go to bed, get an alarm clock… Wake up, take a deep breath, stretch and touch your toes, and put on Preservation Hall Jazz Band,” Jaffe said. “Start your morning right!”

Preservation Hall Jazz Band was in town for their lone day of SXSW 2018 performances alongside the SXSW debut of the documentary “A Tuba to Cuba,” which follows Jaffe as he travels to Cuba tracing the roots of New Orleans jazz. The band marched down the street following the film’s afternoon screening hours before their nighttime set at the Mohawk. “A Tuba to Cuba” plays again Friday afternoon at the Alamo Ritz.

Looking for the heart of Wednesday night at smaller SXSW venues

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In our South by Southwest preview coverage, we focused a bit on how fewer huge names were heading here compared to recent years. That doesn’t mean SXSW isn’t rife with talent, including some acts that might be big draws relatively soon.

We spent Wednesday evening on a hunt for some of those, based on pre-festival scouting of the SXSW schedule. A downtown stroll took us to four venues for acts from three different countries, plus a local favorite we know well but think the rest of the world should hear.

Canadian band Dizzy performs at the Blackheart during SXSW on Wednesday, March 18, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

8 p.m.: Dizzy (Canada) at the Blackheart. From the suburban Toronto town of Oshawa, this young foursome caught our eye in part because their recent debut single came out on Royal Mountain, home of fellow Canadian indie-pop darlings Alvvays. Singer Katie Munshaw has a magnetic stage presence, and brothers Charlie, Alex and Mackenzie Spencer lay down dreamy soundscapes behind her. A sizable yet still comfortable early crowd at the Blackheart seemed to appreciate the group’s music. Just how far Dizzy may go remains to be seen, but this is the kind of promising young band upon which SXSW’s long reputation for discovery has been built.

Catch them again: 2:05 p.m. Thursday at Whole Foods Downtown Rooftop Plaza (free, no badge required).

9 p.m.: Jade Bird (England) at Latitude 30. The smallish venue long used as the British Music Embassy was too intimate for the demand on this night, as a sizable line stretched down the block of badgeholders wanting to get in to see Bird, Frank Turner (who followed) and others. And with good reason. Alternating between guitar and piano, Bird played immediately engaging pop songs, sometimes quiet and pensive, sometimes forceful and bubbly. At 20, she has the confidence and stage presence of someone who’s been doing this for a decade. Her three-piece backing band provided just the right steady support while keeping her vocals clearly out front. Her new single “Lottery” (275,000 YouTube views) was the highlight of a great 40-minute set.

Catch her again: 8 p.m. Thursday at Mohawk outdoor (official SXSW show); 4 p.m. Friday at Waterloo Records (free, no badge required); 4 p.m. Saturday at Cheer Up Charlie’s (free, no badge required).

RELATED: Our Austin360 guide to unofficial SXSW day parties

10 p.m.: Field Report (Wisconsin) at Swan Dive. Leader Chris Porterfield worked early on with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon in the group DeYarmond Edison, but his music sounds less akin to Vernon’s than to that of California rock-pop band Dawes. Their set stressed material from a new album, “Summertime Songs,” due out next week on Verve Forecast. Tunes such as “Blind Spot” and “So Far Yet to Go” were forceful but melodic, easy to know and like even on first listen.

Catch them again: noon Thursday at Austin Convention Center Radio Day Stage (official SXSW show); 5 p.m. Friday at Banger’s (free, no badge required); 8 p.m. Thursday at Continental Club (official SXSW show); 6 a.m. Friday at W Hotel (broadcast live on KGSR).

10:20 p.m.: Bonnie Whitmore (Austin) at Victoria Room at the Driskill. We’ve seen Whitmore a lot; her Thursday late-night residency at the Continental was a finalist in our inaugural Austin360 Music Awards last year, and lots of folks have heard her from the duet she did with Hayes Carll on his song “Another Like You” a few years ago. A singer, songwriter and bassist, Whitmore does all three things well, and on this night received solid support from a three-piece band including another accomplished local singer-songwriter, Bonnie Whitmore, on guitar. “I’m Not Your Baby” anymore recalls Bonnie Raitt’s R&B sass, “Time to Shoot” digs deeper and darker, and she hits immediate pop with “I’ll Be Fine” (co-written with Austin’s Jaimee Harris).

Catch her again: Several more SXSW shows, but also most every Thursday at 10:30 p.m. at the Continental Gallery.

SXSW 2018: Low provide sanctuary from festival chaos — mostly

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Even on the Tuesday of SXSW, it’s easy to get already overwhelmed by the chaos of chatter, lines, and clashing smells of street food. You would think a church would be as good of sanctuary as any, especially with St. David’s Church hosting Duluth, Minn. group Low.

Low, from Minnesota, perform at St. David’s Church. (Andy O’Connor / for American-Statesman)

Mere seconds into their set, a barrage of horns came in, and Low doesn’t have a horn section. Someone forgot to put their phone on silent. Even in a church, we were not free from the outside madness creeping in. The audience laughed it off, proving that fans of very serious, very sad music aren’t humorless in the least. Or that SXSW hadn’t totally crushed their souls yet.

RELATED: Your guide to the unofficial parties at SXSW 2018

That hiccup aside, their performance was sublime, an early contender for one of the most special performances of the week. Befitting the church setting, Low stripped their already minimalist arrangement down to just organ and vocals — no drums, no guitars. Low’s core, vocalists Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, stood at the podium and soared over low, soft drones. Even with a confident and authoritative pose, they were a balm, becoming one with the ambient organ. Not only did they seem unbothered by the early disturbance, they rose above it. The music demanded focus, yet the room allowed for space and meditation. For so little input, there was a lot going on inside the church.

PHOTOS: Fashion Festies at SXSW 2018

Low’s music has been thrown in with the “slowcore” movement from the 90s for its downbeat and downtrodden nature, but this didn’t feel dour. This was not their usual setup, yet it made the church feel even smaller and intimate than it already was. For a little while, it felt like a room to ourselves, not part of the moving and shuffling going on in the streets. Low provided a dreamy, comforting isolation.

“Peace be with you” were Sparhawk’s last words to the crowd. We’ll need all the peace we can get over the next few days.

SXSW 2018: Billie Eilish is about to be very famous

Look, we all knew Billie Eilish was going to be one of this year’s South by Southwest breakouts. The 16-yr-old singer’s debut single “Ocean Eyes” was just certified gold with over 350 million streams worldwide and she comes into the fest off a string of sold out shows and heads out on the next leg as soon as the fest is over.

Billie Ellish performs at the VEVO House during South by Southwest on March 14, 2018. (Photo by Erika Rich)

An eager crowd pressed into the small stage area at the VEVO House to see her, and by the time she finished her first song, a powerful rendition of “Bellyache,” in which she moved from belting a hook while wildly jumping around the stage to standing in place, reaching inside and allowing her voice to lift into a plaintive piccolo whisper, we knew exactly why we were there.

LET’S PARTY: Check out our guide to the best unofficial parties at SXSW 2018

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Clad in what looked like a pair of jammies, covered in unprintable expletives, her set was an impressive demonstration of range. She delved deep on “Six Feet Under,” she made us dance with “Copycat” and she was the picture of ingenue cool on a ukulele cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”

In all, she proved she has the depth and range to be way more than a flash in the pan. She’s a genuine pop phenomenon who is about to be very, very famous. And mainstream American radio is probably better for it.

RELATED: So many bands! Our music team makes some SXSW recommendations

SXSW 2018: Superchunk thrash, crash and bash through first of three shows

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“So if you guys are going to see bands on Monday, what will you be doing on Friday? Just napping?” Mac McCaughan asked the full house at the Mohawk as his band, Superchunk, kicked of the first night of South by Southwest music showcases with a bang on the Red River club’s outdoor stage.

Superchunk knows the drill well by now, having played SXSW since the early 1990s. Back then, though, the whole thing didn’t kick off until Wednesday; this year, the band will have come and gone by then. In 2018, it’s a smart move to arrive early: Not only are most of the Interactive registrants still around, but Superchunk is one of the biggest draws on the fest’s first two music nights.

Superchunk at the Mohawk in Austin, Texas during SXSW on March 12, 2018. (Tess Cagle / FOR THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN

PHOTOS: Superchunk at Mohawk for SXSW 2018

They’ll play an acoustic set Tuesday afternoon at 3 p.m. at Waterloo Records before closing out their trip Tuesday night at 8:15 p.m. at the Main. If Monday night’s set is any indication, those shows will be packed, lively and worth every moment spent. Since returning in 2010 from a nearly decade-long hiatus, the North Carolina group has been on fire, with three impassioned albums including last month’s “What a Time to Be Alive.”

The band — McCaughan, guitarist Jim Wilbur, drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Jason Narducy (who tours in place of co-founder Laura Ballance) — played about half of the new record in their hourlong set, squeezing in quite a few old favorites as well including 1994’s “Driveway to Driveway” and 1991’s “Skip Steps 1 & 3.” Nearly three decades into an 11-album career, the band is still spectacular in live performance, a whirlwind of energy and songs that remain the envy of the many indie-rockers who followed in their footsteps.

RELATED: Our guide to SXSW unofficial parties

SXSW is an especially good fit for Superchunk because its daytime industry panels are well-suited for a bandleader such as McCaughan who also heads up one of America’s most successful indie labels, Merge Records. He’ll be up bright and early (well, in musician time) for a 12:30 p.m. panel Tuesday at the Convention Center, joining his longtime bandmate and Merge co-founder Ballance in a discussion about the label and the group’s new record, which tackles sociopolitical fallout in the Trump era head-on.

RELATED: Local punks A Giant Dog sign to Merge Records

To close their main set Monday night, they chose the 1989 single that put them on the map, a song that’s always struck an especially ringing chord with Austin audiences. “Slack Motherfucker” arose from Chapel Hill at about the same time Richard Linklater was making the film “Slacker” here. For a bunch of cultural documentarians on the fine art of slacking, they’ve all done pretty well for themselves.

 

SXSW 2018: Spider House’s All the Friends Ball serves as a handy SXSW Music primer

Bryan Rolli
For the American-Statesman

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“How does one cover a showcase, ever?”

My friend’s text gave me pause as I drove to Spider House for All the Friends Ball, the annual concert that kicks off South by Southwest with an all-day showcase of Austin’s finest, freshest and freakiest musicians. How was I supposed to cover a 13-hour showcase that hosted 50 artists across five different stages? Truth be told, I had already missed the first half of the day’s festivities, but that still left me with several dozen artists from which to choose. Would I stick with those I already knew and loved, or check out a bunch of fresh faces? Should I camp out at one stage all night, or would I be better off racing back and forth and gleaning as much as possible from five minutes at each set?

As it turns out, All the Friends Ball serves as a tidy microcosm of SXSW’s music section at large, and should be covered thusly. In other words: Ease into things, let the music lead you, and please, don’t try too hard to have fun.

This approach proved successful for the crowd that ambled toward the Spider House patio to catch Whiite Walls’ twilight set. The sleek disco/funk quintet turned the patio into a dance floor with peppy, percussive guitar licks and infectious keyboard melodies, as one enthralled fan watched from the side of the stage and drummed furiously on his leg.

Blastfamous USA is the new protest rap project featuring indie hip hop artist ZEALE with production duo NGHT HCKLRS. (Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

If Whiite Walls warmed up the nighttime crowd, Blastfamous USA worked them into a righteous frenzy an hour later on the same stage. The blistering indie-rap trio, consisting of combustible MC Zeale and production duo NGHT HCKLRS, delivered a flurry of high-octane, hook-heavy bangers that could incite a riot in the streets just as easily as they incited a mosh pit at Spider House. Zeale raced across the stage and beckoned viewers to jump, march and pump their fists in solidarity, his leather-clad figure silhouetted against the Spider House sign.

“You’re standing too far back, come closer—unless you’re a blogger, then you can be cool and stand back,” the rapper teased. Joke’s on him; even the bloggers wanted to be up front.

Fans of more guitar-driven fare got their fill as well, sometimes from multiple acts at a time. Marmalakes dazzled on the patio with their psychedelic indie rock, while Otis the Destroyer coaxed a sizable congregation over to the chapel stage to watch their rough-and-tumble garage rock. Veteran punk trio XETAS pummeled the ballroom stage — literally, digging the headstocks of their instruments into the floorboards — and turned the dense crowd into a whirlwind of flailing limbs. One overzealous fan took the tumult as an excuse to do chin-ups on the venue’s support beams, earning a rightful tongue-lashing from bassist Kana Harris, who wasn’t about to cede her spotlight to a belligerent jock riding high on testosterone.

The crowd at last year’s All The Friend’s Ball. (2017 American-Statesman)

XETAS’ raucous performance counteracted an intimate, riveting ballroom bar set from SOBBRS, the sobriquet adopted by electro-pop savant Jesus Acosta. Taking cues from the lush, ethereal production and brooding hooks of Lorde and Banks, SOBBRS made a strong case for electronic-oriented music on a predominantly analog lineup; the audience happily obliged.

Closing out the night in the ballroom were Black Pumas, the psychedelic soul sextet helmed by Grammy-winning producer, guitar wizard and Grupo Fantasma alum Adrian Quesada as well as local crooner Eric Burton. Black Pumas just released their first single, the divine “Black Moon Rising,” on Friday, with a full-length debut expected this summer, yet they already seem destined for greatness. Watching them enchant a half-full, sleepily satisfied ballroom felt like the beginning of a meteoric career, just as All the Friends Ball felt like the beginning of a fruitful SXSW. If the rest of the week can foster such authentic joy and discovery, we might just make it out of this thing alive after all.