The music portion of SXSW 2023 kicked off with wild parties, quietly powerful songwriting, new artists making an impression, and one surprise pop-up from an A-list act — all the things that make this a great festival. Here are the best things we saw on Monday, March 13 and Tuesday, March 14 (the music festival’s first full day).
Surprise! It’s Boygenius
“Phoebe’s got a plane to catch in 20 minutes,” Lucy Dacus tells me, nodding at her boygenius bandmate, last name Bridgers. We’re at a bar in the Austin airport. And the group has, improbably, just finished their second of two acoustic sets; the first was by the baggage claim. The Tuesday afternoon shows were a surprise, and most of the 50-or-so people in the audience — a smattering of TSA agents, tech types leaving the media leg of SXSW, and some randos on the way back to Idaho — are thoroughly confused. But even those that don’t know the indie supergroup were transfixed, their high harmonies ringing out despite the high-ceiling acoustics of the terminal. “The original idea was to fly in, play the shows, and leave right away,” Dacus explains — Tom Hanks’ Terminal, kinda, but for rock. Then she and BG’s Julien Baker decided to stay to catch a couple of shows on Tuesday night. We’ll see what other surprises are in store. —N.S.
Bartees Strange Brings the Emotional Fireworks
“We’re all here because we give a shit,” Bartees Strange told the people who had gathered around the Austin Motel’s midcentury-classic outdoor pool on Tuesday afternoon. After more than a few youthful trips to Austin back when he was growing up in Oklahoma, he continued, this was his first time actually playing SXSW. The occasion was an afternoon showcase put on by the Working Families Party, whose progressive coalition-building efforts have expanded in recent years from the party’s original base in New York to places like this. Before Strange’s set, Austin’s newly elected U.S. Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas) gave a short but spirited speech on the theme of bread and roses — why we need abortion rights and Medicare for All, as he put it, but also great music to stir the soul. Strange delivered plenty of that with his set, drawn from 2022’s acclaimed Farm to Table and 2020’s Live Forever. On an average night when he plays a club or a theater, songs like “Boomer” and ”Heavy Heart” are full-band show-stoppers full of noise and drama; here, in a stripped-down setting with only multi-instrumentalist Graham Richman beside him, Strange’s deep, rich, knowing vocals took the spotlight and put his songwriting in a new light. When he reached the emotional peaks of “Hold the Line” and “Hennessy,” the effect was sublime. If this is what the future of progressive politics in this country sounds like, bring it on. —S.V.L.
Ric Wilson Summons a Funky Vibe
“Hanging Loose” isn’t merely a song title for Ric Wilson: It’s a philosophy. Early in his early-evening SXSW set on Tuesday at the Empire Garage, Wilson told the crowd “I’m gonna rap a little bit, I’m gonna sing a little bit and I’m gonna dance a whole lot,” underlining how his funk fusion is meant to move the masses. Drawing heavily from the slick sounds of the late 1970s — he often nods to the music Prince made long before the rock dreams of the Revolution — Wilson deftly blends funk, hip-hop, and jazz, placing an emphasis on the groove but also pausing to offer lyrical detours that almost feel like spoken word. Such digressions don’t detract from the breezy, mellow vibes that kicked off SXSW in smooth fashion. —S.T.E.
RaiNao Keeps the Party Going
RaiNao is one of the rising stars of Puerto Rico’s musica urbana scene, and her set at Tuesday’s Canela Music showcase made it clear why Bad Bunny has singled her out as someone to watch. The singer’s alternative blend of R&B, jazz, and trap influences kept the audience on their toes, firing them up when she reached for her saxophone for a quick solo or invited a fan to dance on stage with her. Deftly switching between slower, sultry songs and confident perreo bangers, she had the crowd at Parish eating out of the palm of her hand. By the end of her all-too-brief set, the singer’s mic was cut off, but she left the crowd begging for more, smiling as she left the stage to chants of “Otra! Otra! Otra!” —C.C.
Joanna Sternberg Gets in the St. Patrick’s Spirit
Few things will pierce you in the heart more than a Joanna Sternberg song — especially at Cheer Up Charlie’s, when the venue experienced so many sound issues that the New York artist offered to sing without a mic. Sternberg was flustered, but overcame the obstacles with their Daniel Johnston-like melodies and brutally honest lyrics from their upcoming album I’ve Got Me and gems from 2019’s word-of-mouth favorite Then I Try Some More. “Practicing self-love is a habit that’s new,” they sang on a stool, wearing a shirt from their newly-signed label Fat Possum Records. And when they gave a shout out to Saint Patrick’s Day, they won the crowd over with their goofy charm. “I’m trying to be Irish, okay?” they said. “You have to picture Shane MacGowan singing. I’m a poser!” —A.M.
Spoon Honor Austin’s Institutional Memory
Spoon’s surprise headlining set on Tuesday at the Annual Birthday Bash of Ray Benson — the towering Austin legend who fronts Western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel — had the feeling of an unofficial passing of a torch. Benson has been a fixture in Austin for half a century; Asleep at the Wheel traditionally plays the first set at the annual Austin City Limits festival. During much of that time, Spoon has worked steadily, building a reputation as one of the city’s most reliable bands. Once upstarts, they’re now institutions, gaining muscle and memory as they metamorphosized into survivors. Their closing set at the Birthday Bash summoned all their strengths. They brought an arena-level show to the relatively smaller confines of a makeshift venue on 6th Street, while also finding space for such next-generation Austinites as Sabrina Ellis of A Giant Dog. It provided a rousing closer to a fundraiser for Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, and it felt like a bit of old Austin within the gilded glint of SXSW 2023. —S.T.E.
Le Ren’s Soft, Pretty Folk
“I’m so sorry, this one’s gonna be really slow and soft,” Canadian singer-songwriter Lauren Spear, who performs as Le Ren, told the crowd at Swan Dive on Monday night. She gestured beyond a disco ball and hanging houseplants to the noisy bar on the other side of the room.“ I wish we could compete with that, but we simply can’t. It’s good to know yourself!” Still, Spear delicately ran through her folky acoustic set to some dedicated listeners — one even sitting crossed-legged on the floor — at the M for Montreal showcase. Accompanied by Fez Gielen on steel guitar, she performed songs off 2021’s Leftovers, including “May Hard Times Pass Us By,” “Dyan,” and a tender “Who’s Going to Hold Me Yet.” She also covered George Jones’ “The Day I Lose My Mind,” which was just as poignant as her recently released rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” (She didn’t perform that one here, but on record it’s a lovely duet with Big Thief’s Buck Meek.) “I think we got two more songs in us, and then over to the rock & rollers,” she said in a laidback tone, sounding pretty rock & roll herself. —A.M.
Elephant Gym’s Unexpected Juxtapositions
Elephant Gym plays as if rock history is a suggestion, not a sacred text. It doesn’t take a close listen to determine recognizable elements — they’re inordinately fond of New Wave disco, the melodies are British swing filtered through a Francophile lens — yet the juxtapositions hit at an offset angle that’s compelling, not awkward. Elephant Gym commanded the cramped quarters of the Elysium, a venue that accidentally encourages communion with its awkward angles. They conveyed power not through noise or volume but rather control and purpose, tempering their attack with a bit of levity. —S.T.E.
(Full disclosure: In 2021, Rolling Stone’s parent company, P-MRC, acquired a 50 percent stake in the SXSW festival.)