After two years away, the return of SXSW was certainly cause for celebration. The multi-discipline festival’s new music showcase is a key date in the calendar of every up-and-coming artist, and the Austin, Texas event’s in-person return this year (2021 was held online) showed another encouraging sign that nature – or the live music industry – is beginning to heal, following the pandemic-enforced shutdown of the past two years.
NME headed to Austin last week to check out what SXSW 2022 had to offer – here’s a round-up of the most exciting artists we caught at this year’s festival.
Words: Jonathan Garrett and Rhian Daly
It might still be the morning when Canada’s Fanclubwallet takes to the stage at Mohawk on Thursday (March 17), but the venue is swarming with people. When Hannah Judge and her band start their set, it’s clear why: the Ontario indie-rocker’s songs are full of fresh takes on the emo indie that’s been having a moment as of late.
Judge’s dry humour courses through the songs (and her between-song banter) from the off, like on fuzzy opener ‘Gr8 Timing!’ where she sings: “I deserve to be with someone that hurts me / So I’ll just spend all of my time with myself / I don’t need anybody else’s help.” That the track then shifts into an upbeat, disco-tinged banger immediately after those lines are delivered is just as funny – and makes for an instant live hit. At the other end of the set, Judge previews her upcoming debut album ‘You Have Got To Be Kidding Me’ (due May 20) with its mellow title track – yet more sincere proof that Fanclubwallet should be our next big indie star. (RD)
The thing you notice straight away about Lowertown — even before they start playing — is how young they are (that’s without even looking at the big black Xs on their hands, which are the dead giveaway). Once they start playing, though, your mind immediately shifts to recognising the band’s enormous potential, no doubt the reason famed The 1975‘s label Dirty Hit snapped them up in a hurry. The Atlanta indie duo, who expand to a four-piece when playing live, has perhaps the highest ceiling of almost any group we witness throughout SXSW.
Their Saturday night (March 19) set at the Elysium is very much a work in progress and is unfortunately rife with technical issues, both beyond their control and self-inflicted. Frustration is evident not even five minutes in when guitarist Avsha Weinberg breaks all of his guitar strings, causing an awkward delay while he scours the venue for a back-up. But in the fleeting moments when Weinberg and vocalist/guitarist Olivia Osby’s bedroom confessionals go widescreen, Lowertown are positively transcendent. They close with ‘Antibiotics’, a new track from their yet-to-be-released full-length album, and as Osby writhes on the floor, lost in the moment, it’s hard to deny that we are watching a band on the cusp of greatness. (JG)
The North Carolina band are an unusual proposition on record — cross-pollinating the blissful guitar heroics of early Smashing Pumpkins with the earthy twang of vintage country music befitting their roots in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s all documented on their newly released eclectic covers collection ‘Mowing The Leaves Instead Of Piling ‘Em Up’, as well as on their excellent and wildly overlooked 2021 LP, ‘Twin Plagues’.
NME catches the band at a 1pm show (shockingly early by SXSW standards), and it feels at times like a blown-out Sunday service – except on a Friday and featuring a lap steel guitar player in a Hotline TNT t-shirt. Vocalist Karly Hartzman, perhaps sensing that the crowd might not be overly spiritual types, explains that her songs’ Jesus references are “because we’re from the south. I’m Jewish, but you can experience Jesus culturally and not spiritually”. Amusingly, perhaps to convince herself, she adds: “He’s here. I can feel him.” While we can’t tell if it was indeed Jesus or just the second-hand smoke, NME definitely feels something too. (JG)
For reasons presumably known only to them, Geese arrive on stage at Container Bar on Thursday carrying a gigantic pencil. For most of their set, which highlights the best of their 2021 debut album ‘Projector’, it plays no significant role other than providing light-hearted hijinks. The Brooklyn band don’t need props to captivate, though, as they prove before the pencil makes its return. Frontman Cameron Winter lunges across the stage between songs while he lurches and stumbles around as he sings, bringing a tipsy air to his recitals of punk poetry over his bandmates’ mesmerising grooves.
Winter’s lyrics are often written from the perspective of different characters – a serial killer on ‘Fantasies / Survival’, someone careening into a break-up on ‘Disco’. Live, he becomes something of an actor as he inhabits those roles through shifts in his vocals, which range from cooed falsetto to a Richard Hell bark (as on the tumbling ‘Low Era’). Throughout, he bashes away erratically at a cymbal placed between him and drummer Max Bassin, and it is this instrument that eventually reveals the pencil’s role in things, intentional or not. As the chaos builds to a peak, Winter smashes the cymbal with the oversized stationery until they both lie in a heap on the floor, conquered by Geese – just like Austin is by the end of the week. (RD)
Surely the award for the most improbable gig of SXSW 2022 goes to this brooding post-punk outfit from Brooklyn. Playing at a mid-afternoon outdoor event with an absurdly inexplicable promotional tie-in with a minor league baseball team called the Portland Pickles, Catcher frontman Austin Eichler repeatedly attempts to coax the team’s mascot out of hiding. Though perhaps understandably frightened by the band’s unholy din, Dillon the Pickle eventually warms up and can be seen gyrating towards the front of the crowd with two of his mascot friends by the end of the set. It’s an endearingly bizarre sight, and a perfect encapsulation of everything that makes SXSW an experience like no other. (JG)
Philadelphia’s Christopher Taylor – aka Body Meat – isn’t interested in playing things safe. That’s clear as soon as he begins his set at Antone’s on Friday (March 18) with ‘Ultima’, which meshes chiming melodies and beats that crack like breaking glass, as he paces intensely around the stage. His mission is to push pop music as far as it can go without losing people, and beneath the clashing layers of sound there are plenty of hooks to latch onto and catalogue in your brain to recall later.
Taylor challenges what the performance of electronic music can look like, too. Instead of standing largely still between his synths and drum pads, he uses his body to express the sonics and sentiments in his songs. As he dramatically moves across the stage, the two lights that are attached to his arms at elbow height add yet more intrigue to a set that feels like one of SXSW 2022’s most unique and thrilling. (RD)
It’s a shame that the iconic cover art for the first Strokes album is already taken, because, finally, here’s a band that sounds the way that cover looks. Glove steal shamelessly 80s-ransacking synth-pop and stylistic signposts for their own nefarious ends. The black-clad quartet originated in Florida, though their vampiric complexions suggest limited exposure to sunlight. On-stage at their only SXSW performance before joining Nation Of Language for a handful of West Coast dates, their muscular update of new wave easily wins over the assembled throng at Cheer Up Charlie’s. Thieves like them don’t come along often. (JG)
The industry-heavy audiences at SXSW can sometimes make the atmosphere at shows a little dry. There’s no danger of that being the case at Jelani Blackman’s British Music Embassy set on Saturday, though – the London rapper’s energy is infectious from the off, eliciting an electric response that’s rare at these kinds of showcases. “I feel like there are things in life we don’t celebrate enough,” the rising MC tells the lively crowd before running through his 2019 single ‘Cheers’, asking them all to raise their drinks in a toast.
It’s a perfect encapsulation of the spirit that runs through his performance, which is a total celebration: whether he’s delivering a typically charismatic version of the compelling ‘Hello’ or jumping into the crowd to lift the room’s energy up even higher. It’s irresistible stuff – in fact, his is the only set that ends in cheers for an encore that NME sees all week. And even after Blackman obliges with one more song, the shouts still keep coming. (RD)
Pom Poko‘s fifth set of SXSW 2022 has more energy than most artists’ first. Mixing post-punk-y blasts with halcyon vocal interludes and staccato riffs, Pom Poko are perhaps most strongly reminiscent of another Norwegian SXSW alumnus: Sløtface. PP’s secret weapon is their frontwoman, Ragnhild Jamtveit: using every inch of the stage, she jumps around with an impish grin and cheers the rest of her band on. Their joy is as obvious as it is infectious: while their set may have only lasted 30 minutes, the serotonin hit carries on long after the final note rings out. (JG)
Lil Cherry & Goldbuuda
One day after Korean rapper Lil Cherry and her rapper/producer brother Goldbuuda release their latest addictive single ‘Catwalk’ – complete with a Rico Nasty feature – the duo wrap up their first trip to Texas in riotous fashion. Performing at Balming Tiger’s showcase at Reina and Rey Rey after midnight on Sunday, they make a late bid for the title of most exciting act on this year’s SXSW bill. Busy production melds with mumble rap verses, and pop culture references (from Doja and Megan to K-pop giants Girls’ Generation and SHINee) weave into their infectious hooks as Cherry and Goldbuuda make party-starting look effortless.
When they’re not getting everyone hyped with the fiery likes of ‘G!’ and ‘All-You-Can-Eat’, they take things down a notch with sparkling softer sounds, as on the romantic gleam of ‘Motorola’, one of the highlights of a bright performance. “We’re bringing you vitamin C all the way from South Korea,” Goldbuuda tells the crowd at one point and, after a long week of raging, their set feels like a much-needed boost. (RD)