It’s a week before SXSW Music 2018 and I’m already exhausted. I also couldn’t be more stoked. In a few days, I get the opportunity to cannonball into a maelstrom of sights and sounds, showcases and songs. For seven days, Austin literally becomes the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
Over 2,000 bands will play official SXSW showcases this year. Among them are over 260 locals, ready to rep ATX and highlight what’s amazing about the greatest music city ever.
To help you prepare to listen local, I’ve listened to every Austin band playing official SXSW shows and hand-picked 15 must-see artists. Done right, SX is an incredible experience, and these musicians will help you celebrate what’s good and beautiful about Austin music.
As always, a few notes:
- Every year, I make a point of picking a new crop of artists I’ve never featured in a previous SXSW list or full article (à la Mobley, CAPYAC). Many of my previous picks are playing official and unofficial showcases this year. Check out my 2016 and 2017 lists to see previous recommendations.
- Concerned about that 1 a.m. start time? Many of the bands on this list are playing multiple shows. Check out their social media accounts and websites for more information.
- This list is in alphabetical order, not best to worst.
- We’ve created a Spotify playlist of our picks for your listening/watching enjoyment.
1/ Alesia Lani
With a sultry groove, lush vocals, and the maturity to explore deeper themes than, “Hey, let’s get it on,” Alesia Lani is pure neo-soul gold. On “Along the Way,” Lani plays point/counterpoint with a new lover and explores the tangled emotions of young love, while the sparse percussion and keys of “For You” creates a sensual sense of intimacy. Full of nuance and meaning, Lani stays true to the genre’s burning heart.
Recommended tracks: “Along the Way,” “For You”
Official SXSW Showcase: March 16 at 11:55 p.m., Karma Lounge
2/ Charlie Faye & the Fayettes
Bubblegum soul in the style of ’60s girl groups like The Ronettes and The Chantels, Charlie Faye & the Fayettes plows through the term “retro-act” through sheer force of musicality and charm. Songs like “Green Light” and “Sweet Little Messages” shimmer with sweetness and groove, while “Eastside” pops and struts with Motown funk. A charming and timeless love letter to classic soul.
Recommended tracks: “Sweet Little Messages,” “Eastside”
Official SXSW Showcases: March 16 at 11 p.m., Saxon Pub; March 17 at 12 a.m., Continental Club
3/ Dawn and Hawkes
For some reason, it seems like a former “The Voice” contestant makes my Top 15 every year. But the minute I heard the haunting, sincere, and touching “Yours and Mine,” I knew Dawn and Hawkes was in. One of the best musical depictions of marital devotion since Iron and Wine’s “Naked As We Came,” the perfect harmony and delicate folk guitar cut me to the core. Maybe it was partly the imperial stout I was sipping whilst combing the SXSW artist list, but thank you, Dawn and Hawkes. You truly made me feel.
Recommended tracks: “Yours and Mine,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face”
Official SXSW Showcase: March 16 at 7:30 p.m., Native Hostel
4/ Dr. Joe
Watching Dr. Joe thump out shouty, brash rock-a-soul on ancient keyboard equipment is an intoxicating experience. In the vein of Ben Folds, the man doesn’t just play the keys. He brutalizes them through sheer force of musical will, supported by insane chops. His use of vintage gear gives songs like “Believer” and “Tell Your Mama” an air of timelessness. If you’re anywhere near Maggie Mae’s on the 14th and have 20 minutes to be blown away, then spend it watching Dr. Joe work his magic.
Recommended tracks: “Tell Your Mama,” “Believer”
Official SXSW Showcases: March 14 at 8:35 p.m., Maggie Mae’s
5/ Fragile Rock
When I first saw a stage full of instrument brandishing puppets miming along to emo rock in the style of Broadway’s “Avenue Q,” the thought “novelty act” crossed my mind. Luckily, this cloth and bone crew has the chops, songs, and humor to squash my first impressions. With purposely cheeky songs like “Socks are Murder” and the rollicking CBGB snarl of “Wake Up to the Breakup,” Fragile Rock’s music works just as well on Spotify as it does on YouTube.
Recommended tracks: “Socks Are Murder,” “Wake Up To The Breakup“
Official SXSW Showcase: March 14 at 8 p.m., Maggie Mae’s
6/ Ghostland Observatory
One of Austin’s original electro-funk bands, Ghostland Observatory, has been pumping beats through Central Texas and beyond since the mid-2000s. Lead vocalist Aaron Behrens’ powerful tenor soars over Knight Rider synth lines, while 808 beats create an atmosphere that’s lively and jamming one moment, brooding and dangerous the next. Evidently, being on extended hiatus didn’t prevent the group from making this SXSW stop, so be sure to check them out while you still can.
Recommended tracks: “Sad, Sad City,” “Give Me the Beat”
Official SXSW Showcase: March 15 at 11 p.m., Lustre Pearl
With simple songs of love, loss, and tiny moments, Hovvdy has turned my winter blues into an internal reflection. Part Bon Iver, part early Death Cab, this tender twosome conjures up complex emotions through sincerity, sparse instrumentation, and two-part harmonies dripping with introspection. If listening to the title track of the latest record, “Cranberry,” doesn’t illicit some sort of memory, pleasant or otherwise, then lean in a bit more closely.
Recommended tracks: “Petal,” “Cranberry,” “Pretend“
Official SXSW Showcase: March 15 at 9:10 a.m., Cheer Up Charlies
8/ Kalu & The Electric Joint
A mad stew of styles, influences, and genres, Kalu & The Electric Joint is one of the most interesting bands I’ve come across during this SXSW journey. Rooted in the bedrock of ’60s-era head music, Kalu’s sound explodes ever outward into the realms of funk, blues, and the occasional African groove. The concoction works in wondrous, soul-expanding ways and guarantees to be an uplifting, mind-expanding SXSW performance.
Recommended tracks: “Too Low to Get High,” “Testify”
Official SXSW Showcase: March 15 at 12 a.m., The Parish
9/ Los Coast
One of the most scintillating new voices in Austin music, Trey Pivott of soul/funk act Los Coast fires musical magic. His gravelly, shotgun vocals project pure emotion in every line. Like Wilson Pickett and other stalwarts of the genre, he could sing his grocery list and it would incite a civil rights march. The rest of his band is equally adept, providing soaring horns, layered backup vocals, and driving rhythm to his socially-conscious message. He’s got 50 minutes during his SX set to make you a believer. Come early to savor each and every one.
Recommended tracks: “Monsters,” “Simplify”
Official SXSW Showcases: March 14 at 11:30 p.m., Lamberts; March 15 at 1 a.m., The Parish
10/ Magna Carda
Fresh off of winning “Best Hip Hop Artist” at this year’s Austin Music Awards, Magna Carda is continuing its rise to Riders Against the Storm levels of critical and audience acclaim. MC Megz Kelli’s tap-dancing, bob-and-weave flow mesmerizes like a snake charmer’s whistle above jazzy, yet laser-guided production. Black Thought and company would be proud to call this newly crowned ATX hip hop legend a kindred spirit. Make sure your SXSW schedule has Magna Carda written down in indelible ink.
Recommended tracks: “The Root,” “Back Then,” “Angela Bassett”
Official SXSW Showcase: March 16 at 1:25 a.m., Karma Lounge
11/ She Sir
Sweeping and sublime, She Sir’s brand of indie-emo plucks heartstrings, through layer upon layer of dreamy melodies and shimmering ear candy. Tunes like “I Love You, Blowtorch Eyes” lean heavily on late ’90s slacker rock, while “Private Party” adds a touch of The Cure’s shoegaze sensibility, creating an exotic and enveloping soundscape that’s impossible to ignore.
Recommended tracks: “Private Party,” “I Love You, Blowtorch Eyes,” “Kissing Can Wait“
Official SXSW Showcase: March 16 at 11 p.m., The Iron Bear
12/ Swimming With Bears
Two years ago at a Black Fret SXSW showcase at Tellers, co-founder Colin Kendrick introduced me to Swimming With Bears. Since then, I’ve watched the Austin band grow into a powerhouse. Blending soul, funk, and souring, sing-along hooks à la The Rocketboys, the foursome has carved out a unique place in the Austin music scene. Don’t wait as long as I did to check them out.
Recommended tracks: “Do As You’re Told,” “Shiver and Crawl“
Official SXSW Showcase: March 17 at 12 a.m., Barracuda
13/ Tank Washington
As a young lad raised on a steady diet of Gang Starr, Big Pun, and Talib Kweli, Texas hip hop took some getting used to. Thanks to ATX MC’s like Tank Washington, I’m finally coming around. From lyrics to flow, Washington feels genuine, like every positive and negative thing he rhymes about was lived and earned. “MT4Ts” speaks to the hesitant joys and lingering failures of substance abuse, while “Work,” with the help of fellow Austinite Kydd Jones, cruises along like a low-rider crawl down South Congress. Count me hungry for more.
Recommended tracks: “M4T4s,” “Work“
Official SXSW Showcase: March 16 at 12:15 a.m., Karma Lounge
14/ The Lagoons
It was love at first listen. From the moment I heard “California” from these laid-back, smooth ’80s-style chillers, I knew they were destined for this list. With over 19 million listens on Spotify, the song has become the soundtrack for anybody cruising down Route 1 in a drop top on a lazy summer afternoon. With heavenly synth, ice-cream cool harmonies, and the occasional sexy sax to sweeten the mix, every song shimmers with Miami Vice vibes. Just keep the car rolling 10 miles per hour under the speed limit. Anything faster and you’ll be missing the point.
Recommended tracks: “California,” “Obsessed,” “Close My Eyes (And I Wonder)”
Official SXSW Showcase: March 14 at 10 p.m., Javelina
15/ Whiskey Shivers
Punk and bluegrass sounds like an odd combination, but it really isn’t. Add some extra aggro to a down-home barn dance, and you have a mosh pit. Whiskey Shivers embodies this energy with the most electric, finger-bleeding pickin’ and playin’ since Trampled By Turtles picked up a banjo. While the blazing, hyper-tempo-hootenanny tunes may be the most memorable, songs like “Graves” pull the vibe downward to the realm of chain gang chants and gospel-worthy growl. Splendid, extraordinary music.
Recommended tracks: “Graves,” “Reckless,” “Free“
Official SXSW Showcase: March 17 at 1 a.m., Lucille
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
Which local band do you most want to see during SXSW 2018?