The stages are gone. The out-of-towners have all flown out. All that’s left of SXSW Music 2018 are discarded badges, swag bags filled with branded koozies, and a brain full of ear-ringing memories. It was draining yet fun, numbing yet inspiring.
Over six days during SXSW Conference and Festivals 2018, I walked 125,000 steps, traveled 61 miles, and saw 33 bands and artists. If I was walking southward on I-35, I would have ended up in New Braunfels. From my wanderings, I’ve selected the following acts for my annual Superlative Awards. And the winners are…
Surprise Star: Kady Rain
The more ingrained into the Austin music scene I become, the fewer new acts I stumble across during SXSW. But when I popped into Kady Rain’s Friday night set at Javelina, I was shocked. I expected synth, drum machines, and various electronics. As a growing pop princess in the vein of Katy Perry, gear is par for the course.
But what I found were an acoustic guitar and a microphone. Instead of bubbly pop production, Kady Rain and co-writer/producer Ben Bazzera played a stripped-down acoustic set of mostly new material, ranging from aching emotion to straight up hilarity.
Without the flash and sizzle of her soda pop backing tracks, Rain’s impressive vocal range was on full display. The equivalent of expecting a rave and getting a campfire, the raw, intimate performance was a pleasant surprise.
Best Sense of Humor: Shinyribs (2nd Consecutive Win)
To put it mildly, I needed Shinyribs on SX Saturday. After six days of nonstop insanity and a St. Patrick’s Day full of stumbling UT kids and Flogging Molly covers, my heart was weary. My only chance of respite was a retreat to Auditorium Shores.
Shinyribs was the cure for my malaise. With a rollicking set of classics and new material off last year’s award-winning “I Got Your Medicine,” Kevin Russell was an explosion of color and fun. From his classic booty-shake to donning a massive hooded robe covered in purple sequins and neon lights, Russell cemented his legacy as king of Austin fun.
Most Likely To Make You Lose Your Sense of Professionalism: Alesia Lani
The first time I walked into a photo pit, a photographer politely told me to stop grooving. If you’re going to be a pro, he cautioned, then act like one. For the most part, I keep true to this advice. While I’m a writer first and a photographer 11th, having a blue SXSW camera tag on my DSLR means a touch of restraint is expected.
That is, unless, I’m shooting Alesia Lani. Her opening Tuesday night set at Empire Control Room was so full of rhythm, life, and stunning, soaring vocals, I abandoned my sense of professionalism after 15 minutes. Bobbing and swaying to Lani’s hypnotic performance was one of my festival highlights. Well worth missing out on the 30 or so grainy photos I would have taken otherwise.
Most Likely Two Minutes Away From Being Famous: Mobley
When you write about an artist as much I write about Mobley, you start running out of clever things to say. As a result, I’ll put it simply: Mobley’s SXSW performance during a HAAM benefit at The Parish was proof he’s destined for stardom. Even without the clever audience participation and one-man show setup, the music stands on its own.
And when his new album drops later this year, expect Mobley to skyrocket. See him before tickets to the Erwin Center are required.
➡ Keep reading: Mobley’s One Man Band Generates the Energy of 10
Biggest Life of the Party: Nakia
Nakia’s Wednesday afternoon at the Black Fret showcase was a barrage of brilliance. Backed by the always reliable Blues Grifters, Nakia barreled through a set of classics, including a phenomenal cover of The Allman Brother’s “Whipping Post.”
But the highlight of the set was when he leapt off stage and commanded the politely seated crowd to stand and dance. They did as instructed, turning a great performance into a magical one.
Most Theatrical: Culture Wars
Some of my favorite live music experiences happen when a band takes a small stage and turns it into a stadium. With a dizzying array of spotlights, strobes, and smoke, Culture Wars transformed The Parish into a collage of lights and sounds.
The effects enhanced the music. Bathed mostly in silhouette, lead vocalist Alex Dugan strutted, slid, and danced through 45 minutes of pulse pounding ’80s synth and gothic vibe. Conjuring up big emotions through visuals and movement is the definition of good theater, and Culture Wars delivers all of the above in a big way.
Class President (Best of SX): Los Coast
Over the course of my SXSW 2018 experience, I saw nearly a dozen acts that could have qualified for the top award. Only one group of artists, however, has lingered in my mind since I saw their set. Made me search Spotify for their music and curse the heavens when I came up empty. Only one band made me feel like I needed a fix.
Combining throaty, bombastic vocals with a backing band shimmering with soul/funk groove, Trey Pivott’s Los Coast brought the house down at every opportunity. Big and brash with chops for days, this nine-piece channels the best of the genre to create a unique, impressive sound.
When people bemoan the state of the Austin music scene, Los Coast is one of the bands I point to as a living counterargument. It quite literally makes me proud to be a fan of ATX music.
➡ Keep reading: Who Wins the SXSW Music 2017 Superlative Awards?
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
Who do you think deserves a SXSW Music 2018 Superlative Award?