A freak thunderstorm that hit Austin around 9 p.m. on Thursday threw off what was shaping up to be SXSW’s biggest day: All outdoor events after that hour were canceled outright (including some highly anticipated sets, like Lil Yachty at the Moody Amphitheater), while other showcase schedules got all jumbled up. But it had already been a full day of exciting new sounds before the storm hit — and when the clouds lifted at 11 p.m., there was more to come. Here are the best things we saw on day three of SXSW 2023.
Tomberlin Shines on a Muggy Afternoon
Despite the sluggish humidity signaling the impending storm that took over Austin on Thursday afternoon, there was no chiller place to be than in Tomberlin’s audience at the Brooklyn Vegan showcase at Empire Garage and Control Room. The soft-spoken singer took the outdoor stage with just her droll humor and guitar — with which, she shared, she’d finally been reunited after five months in a repair shop — and delivered a performance with vocals so crisp and songwriting so sincere it cut straight through the muggy air. It’s a feat to be able to conjure such dangerously high emotions smack dab in the middle of the day, but Tomberlin did it effortlessly, delivering consecutive gut punches as she belted lyrics like “You paid for lies to be made truth/Does that fuck with you?” from “stoned,” and “I know I’m not Jesus/But Jesus, I’m tryin’ to be enough” from “born again runner” (both from her impressive 2022 album I Don’t Know Who Needs to Hear This…). It was a mesmerizing gig that provided some much-needed respite from the frenzy of the day, the festival, life as a whole, etc. —L.L.
McKinley Dixon Shows Off His Poetic Vision
Virginia-raised, Chicago-based artist McKinley Dixon has an ambitious vision, as anyone who’s heard an early copy of his upcoming album Beloved! Paradise! Jazz!? can’t wait to tell you. (Named after Toni Morrison’s classic trilogy of novels about the Black experience in America, the album is due out in June.) Onstage at Stubb’s on Thursday afternoon, he translated that vision with a raw urgency that was breathtaking. In a white tee with the radical slogan “STAND UP, SHOOT BACK” and a bandana, Dixon rapped relentlessly over a tight band whose drums, keys, bass format recalled the Roots at their hardest-hitting. His pointed social critiques often came wrapped in personal stories: On “Tyler, Forever,” he delivered a poignant eulogy for a friend; on “Chain Sooo Heavy,” from his 2021 album For My Mama and Anyone Who Look Like Her, he drove home a deft metaphor about the burdens an individual can carry. He did it all in a voice that rang out with extraordinary force and vitality. —S.V.L.
Sunflower Bean Kick Out the Jams
Sunflower Bean is a band that’s used to working its tricks at night, but unexpected circumstances in the form of a storm warning forced the New York trio to go on early with the sun still out at Stubb’s. No problem: They came out strong with a blistering set of seven brand-new, unreleased songs that leaned into the heavy side of their sound. “Safety is a lie,” singer-bassist Julia Cumming spit on a song called “Lucky Number. “I just met you, take me home,” she growled on another called “Teach Me To Be Bad.” These songs had a new edge of anger that suits Sunflower Bean well, and a little danger, too. Olive Faber’s drumming was ferocious, and Cumming and singer-guitarist Nick Kivlen were locked in together, playing hard and fast. Some of that energy might have come from the fact that Sunflower Bean is without a record deal for the first time in years — they sounded like a band with something to prove. “This next song is about my childhood,” Kivlen deadpanned. “It’s called ‘Serial Killer.’” As they left the stage with the sun just starting to set, they had the satisfaction of having played the living hell out of their early-evening set. “All right,” Cumming said. “6:45, still got it!” —S.V.L.
Blondshell Rages On
Over at Rolling Stone’s Future of Music showcase, the rain was no problem. Blondshell, the alt-rock project of L.A-based Sabrina Teitelbaum, stood out from the night’s other artists in part because of the number of albums she’s released so far: zero. Despite her self-titled debut not hitting till next month, Teitelbaum has earned significant buzz — this very website called her “all the rage.” Her set showed why: Blondshell’s songs are long on gut-punch emotion, big choruses, and quotable lines (“Mama, I’m adjacent to a lot of love,” from “Kiss City”). Dressed down in a T-shirt and jeans, Teitelbaum stalked the stage while playing most of that upcoming album, cranking up the intensity at times and falling to her knees while singing the “gonna make it hurt” refrain from “Salad.” As local indie legend Britt Daniel of Spoon looked on, Teitelbaum flashed heart-hands and thanked Austin for the warm reception, which is surely to be duplicated again in coming years.
Bonny Doon, Masters of Midwestern Chill
Bonny Doon are bearded Detroit men of very few words who prefer to let their unbelievably chill indie rock speak for itself. And when they did utter a sentence or two at the historic nightclub Antone’s — where they played near midnight, following the storm — it was to reassure the crowd that when they said things like “Very fun!” they were not being sarcastic. (Seriously.) Bill Lennox and Bobby Colombo guided the audience through a tight 10-song set, taking turns on lead vocals and guitar. Six of those songs appear on their upcoming third album Let There Be Music, including the blissed-out highlight “Naturally” and the stomper “Crooked Creek.” The latter contains two lines that reflect this band’s entire laidback vibe: “Yeah, I know God, she’s a friend of mine/Comes over for beers all of the time.” —A.M.
Sudan Archives Gets Uniquely Lit
“Y’all ready to get lit?” Brittney Parks, known to fans as Sudan Archives, asked the crowd at Rolling Stone’s Future of Music showcase. “I just fucking flew here, so get lit.” Of course, Parks’ definition of “lit” was pretty unique: Dressed in black, feet bare, a violin on her shoulder, and joined by no one, the 29-year-old Cincinnati native sang and rapped her way through a singular catalog. She began with “Homemaker,” the opening track on 2022’s Natural Brown Prom Queen, cooing over propulsive loops then overlaying the beatwise soundscape with stormy violin. On the dope, clattering “Oatmeal,” she intoned over pizzicato plucking and ended up bowing from her knees; on “OMG Britt,” she spit sinister-sounding rhymes over ominous loops. Parks has said that Sudan Archives is, in part, an attempt to “show the Blackness of the violin,” to prove that all over the world it’s not just a classical-music totem but also a party instrument. She’s done that, and a lot more.
Remi Wolf Rewrites the Rules
“South by fuckin’ Southwest!” Remi Wolf shouted as she took the stage to close out the night at Rolling Stone’s Future of Music showcase. “Are you ready to have fun!” We were. The California singer-songwriter kicked off with 2021’s “Quiet on Set,” a gently funky party-starter full of left-field raps where she notes she “Ain’t got no time for the frenemies/Eating my ass like the human centipede.” For the next hour, joined by a guitar, bass, and drums, Wolf bounded all over the stage as the large screen behind her flashed day-glo visuals of her in various outfits. At various points Wolf plopped on a couch, let out good-natured, skyrocketing wails that showed off her powerhouse voice, played drums, turned cartwheels, and covered Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” She noted that two previous SXSW gigs hadn’t panned out — a March 2020 one for pandemic reasons, and a 2022 one because the stage she was supposed to play on collapsed. She made the most of the stage she finally got.
Welcome to Planet Debby
If you wandered into the back room at Empire Garage and Control Room at the right moment on Thursday afternoon, you found yourself in the middle of an interstellar rave in full swing. Toronto experimental artist Debby Friday was onstage, performing a thudding electro-rap song with hints of Azealia Banks and Donna Summer. “I love to love,” she repeated as the beat went on in an extended version of “I GOT IT,” from her upcoming Sub Pop debut, GOOD LUCK. Leaping off the stage into the small crowd, she demanded that they come closer — “I need your energy!” — and kept on chanting, in a long vamp that bent space and time. It was the kind of serendipitous moment that makes SXSW one of the best places in the world to discover a new favorite. —S.V.L.
Caramelo Haze Spiral into a Beautiful Future
SXSW is full of music-adjacent tech companies vying for your attention, and some of them are even worth it. Qobuz, a French high-res streaming service, took over the sleek headquarters of Austin’s KMFA classical radio on Thursday with an intriguing concept: Artists played live in the building throughout the day, with their performances recorded in audiophile-quality sound for eventual release via Qobuz. One act that stood out was Caramelo Haze, a crackerjack combo of low-key instrumental wizards that includes guitarist Beto Martínez and drummer John Speice of Grupo Fantasma, keyboardist Alex Chavez of Dos Santos, and percussionist Victor “El Guámbito” Cruz. Their heady blend of cumbia, funk, electro, and psychedelia hit the spot at an early-afternoon set, spiraling out toward cosmic revelation in a way that would have sounded pretty awesome no matter the delivery system — but particularly so in the HD format known as real life. —S.V.L.
Chickasaw Mudd Puppies’ Primordial Boogie
Chickasaw Mudd Puppies hit the stage just as the storm that canceled all outdoor SXSW events swept through the city. The group hit the stage as expected, largely because they played indoors at Antones, but also because they’re survivors: They played their first SXSW decades ago, and they’ve now returned, right on the eve of a new record. The passages of time are given a passing wink: Lead singer Brant Slay doesn’t need a chair, but he uses one all the same, an affectation to highlight the band’s back porch stomp. Always a curious combination of blues and indie underground — not for nothing were they produced by both R.E.M.’s enigmatic frontman, Michael Stipe, but also Chicago blues legend Willie Dixon — the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies now seem like torchbearers for a new weird America. Peppering their set with lots of new tunes — a comeback record is on the way — the group adhered to any number of uncommercial styles and sounds, but always returned to the basics of hard rhythms, overblown guitars, and greasy blues harp. Age makes them seem elemental: they’re a force of nature, conjuring a primordial boogie. —S.T.E.
Tangerine Dream Float Above It All
What’s in a name, anyway? Tangerine Dream always seemed to exist in their own astral plane, unencumbered by such earthly notions as band membership, so the fact that the German electronic legends have trudged on long after the 2015 passing of their founding member Edgar Froese is a testament to the shape-shifting nature of the group’s music. They belong to a space unencumbered by dimensions and fashion. Appearing at Parish after a series of acts who conflate electronics with rhythm, this incarnation of Tangerine Dream seemed happy to play upon half-remembered ideas, whether it’s the cool vistas of the 1970s or the sleek precision of the 1980s. Their performance underscored how this version of Tangerine Dream doesn’t adhere to the past so much as change with the times, happy to skim the surface instead of plumbing unfathomable depths. —S.T.E.
(Full disclosure: In 2021, Rolling Stone’s parent company, P-MRC, acquired a 50 percent stake in the SXSW festival.)