The best things we saw at SXSW 2017

2017 was another stellar year at SXSW and because the weather was uniformly great throughout, we wound up seeing more bands than could possibly be rounded up. Below are the best of the best of what we saw.

Maggie Rogers

Most new artists riding such a tsunami of buzz and chatter would risk crashing onto the shore at SXSW. Incredibly, Maggie Rogers managed to far exceed the already lofty expectations preceding her. Performing a late evening set at St. David’s Cathedral in front of a completely packed house (with several hundred more left to listen outside the venue doors), the 22-year-old Maryland eastern shore native impressed with her vocal range as much as she surprised with her sophisticated, expansive pop vision. Rogers began as a self-described folk artist and while folk elements are still very much present in her songwriting, they are used to accent rather than define—to bring an unusual intimacy and sense of place to a notoriously broad, non-specific medium. Judging from the lengthy standing ovation that followed stripped-down set-closer ‘Alaska’ Rogers won’t be returning to anonymity anytime soon.

A Giant Dog

Austin was made for high-octane, no-frills rock n’ roll, and A Giant Dog was clearly made for Austin. The Texas natives have been bubbling under for the past several years, but enjoyed a star-making turn at this SXSW, headlining the Merge Records day party. Leotard-clad frontwoman Sabrina Ellis led her quintet in a thundering stampede of sleazy anthems with titles like ‘Sex & Drugs’ and ‘Sleep When Dead’, leaving nothing but a trail of tinnitus in their wake. If the forthcoming ‘Toy’ manages to translate even a fraction of their live show’s insouciant swagger, it’s sure to be a beastly good time.

White Reaper

Not ones to shy away from bold pronouncements, Kentucky’s White Reaper titled their forthcoming second album, ‘The World’s Best American Band’, and on the evidence of their feature slot at the Polyvinyl showcase at Cheer Up Charlie’s, they’re already well on their way. The five-piece whipped the crowd into a fist-pumping frenzy with scuzzy Thin Lizzy-styled riffs and offered a smattering of tracks from the new album, all of which went down with the assembled throng like their team just scored the winning goal at World Cup. Victory laps can’t be far behind.

Jenn Five

Lift to Experience

There were no shortage of top-shelf, turn-of-the-millennium Texas rock bands at this year’s SXSW. Both At the Drive-In and …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead were undoubtedly the best publicised of the bunch judging from the crowds, but long dormant Denton powergazers Lift to Experience treated those who attended their more sparsely attended reunion show at the Parish to a trial by fire. Opening on a mildly self-deprecating note, frontman Josh T. Pearson remarked, “we’re a little rusty but we’re still pretty fucking good” before unleashing an absolutely brutal onslaught of feedback for nearly ten straight minutes. The set resembled less a collection of songs than an abstract sonic journey with Pearson acting as spiritual guide. By the time they got to the end, the crowd had been stunned into awe-struck silence. You could’ve heard a pin drop.

Lift to Experience @sxsw. It's impossible to convey how loud it is in here.

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The Norweigan pixie punk quartet made a minor splash last year with the 90s-movie referencing single “Empire Records,” and the ebullient live show at Bar 96 brought their pogo-ing tunes to life even in spite of the nagging technical difficulties. Vocalist Haley Shea darted and bounced while guitarist Tor-Arne Vikingstad laid down post-punk hooks galore. The easy chemistry and infectious energy made it feel at times like you were glimpsing a young band having a laugh in their basement, which is no small compliment.

Jenn Five

Honorable Mentions

Dude York – Like Ash at their Free All Angels peak, this Seattle trio specialize in effervescent pop-punk with a penchant for big choruses. Peter Richards and Claire England made it all go down easy at the Stubhub day party at Bangers, trading breezy harmonies and buzzy riffs. They even played a song called “Something In the Way” that wasn’t a Nirvana cover and better yet, didn’t make you wish it was.

The Drums – Though this SXSW appearance marked his first following the well-publicized break with original bandmate Jacob Graham, Drum-in-Chief Jonny Pierce seemed in tip-top form, gamely pirouetting and leading his new backing band through a selection of their singles and underrated album tracks. The late afternoon set at Container Bar was light on material from new album Abysmal Thoughts, but you would have been hard-pressed to lodge a complaint.

Cloud Castle Lake – Many bands in recent years have attempted to spin Radiohead’s elliptical sonic experiments into radio gold (see Alt-J and Django Django). To their credit, Cloud Castle Lake take the opposite tack, choosing to deconstruct Radiohead’s more ambitious artistic gambits even further. The range on display during their official showcase on Friday night offered plenty to whet the appetite for the currently-in-the-works full-length.