SXSW is a lot like high school when you really think about it – not only is the whole thing essentially one big popularity contest, but when you take into account the numbers of people taking excessive advantage of free booze, energy drinks everywhere you turn, cliques roaming the streets (even the unpracticed eye can easily tell who’s in a band together, who works together, who’s what’s street team, etc, by what clothes they’re wearing), nerdy guys and girls (yours truly included) taking notes, everyone sneakily spending a lot of time on their phones, left-and-right yawning, and way too many Doritos for anyone’s good, and you’ve got a fairly functional macrocosm of your experience in grades nine through twelve. Thus, it’s only appropriate that we wrap up the festival with a superlatives list. Only we couldn’t pick just one “Most Likely to Succeed” and way too many were eligible for “Best Hair,” so we had to make up our own categories…
Best Guitar Dueling: Young Man
Frontman Colin Caulfield and guitarist Emmett Conway of Chicago’s Young Man are two buttoned-up guys who look like English majors, but get them into a solid groove – and don’t worry, because they do, right on schedule, about halfway through every song – and you should probably take a seat as the two of them propel what on the band’s records comes off as dream-pop into something you might seriously be able to mosh to if you weren’t too busy staring at the two of them somehow making masterful, dizzying, and so-fucking-loud staggered guitar riffs look easy. It’s indicative of the whole fivesome’s talent that part of the appeal of their live set is how it’s so unlike anything you’ve ever seen or heard before – a little Deerhunter, a little Dirty Projectors, a little Local Natives, all totally mind-blowing. The end product moves like a well-oiled machine, never ever gets boring, and relentlessly shows up headliners.
Best Shredding: Delicate Steve
The New Jersey quintet Delicate Steve is fronted by an appropriately skinny, lanky kid named Steve Marion, who informed his audience midway through the set that he was chugging Gatorade on account of having passed out during an outdoor performance the day before. Small wonder, because dude gets into it in a way that’s probably inadvisable in 80+ degree, 90+ percent humidity Texas heat, bouncing around the stage, wailing on his guitar as his band builds up a chugging day-glo tribal pop backbeat, generally crafting something we can best describe as Dirty Projectors meets Ratatat. We’re not sure why tracks like “Butterfly” aren’t instant rave classics yet.
Best Drummer: Paul Alcott of Ramona Falls
It’d be hard for anyone to distract attention from Ramona Falls’ magnetic frontman Brent Knopf, but Alcott (who also drums with Parenthetical Girls and plays keyboards for Menomena), managed in spades – the insane, massive fills were one thing, but Alcott took every opportunity to come out from behind his kit, stand on bass amps and yell along, drum on the walls, play cymbals backwards, and shake around his giant red ‘fro. End result – one of the most engaging sets we saw.
honorable mention: Young Man’s new drummer, Darien Williams – we’d be impressed by anyone who could keep up with that band, and Williams more than proved his worth.
Best Backup Dancers: Santigold
Santi’s set of mostly new material at Stubbs was nonstop awesome (especially that one jam that samples “Pon de Floor”), in part thanks to her duo of backup dancers, so relentlessly steely-faced Santi referred to them as “the baddest bitches I know.” One cowboy-themed interlude complete with guys in horse costume after another onstage change into half-schoolgirl and half-french maid outfits after another moment where they dragged Santi around the stage while she sang, those two were on, as vital to Santigold’s set as those beats.
Honorable Mention: Vockah Redu’s booty-poppin Cru
Best Stage Setup: Purity Ring
Purity Ring’s Megan James spent most of the time her bandmate Corin Roddick was soundchecking his futuristic array of electronics setting up her band’s insane backdrop – flags backlit by Home Depot industrial lighting, a bass drum that glowed when she struck it, an electric lantern she later held over her head or swung at her side during her songs’ most magnetic moments – but when the lights went out, the purpose of all her work instantly became apparent. Purity Ring’s live set could have easily fallen into the trap of two kids pushing buttons that catches a great number of acts who rely so heavily on electronics, but add James’ hypnotic stage presence to a mesmerizing array of beat-synched flashing lights, including those Roddick played like a xylophone, and you’ve got one of the best sets of the whole festival.
Most Criminally Uncrowded Set: TOPS at Canada House
Montreal’s TOPS played their jittery guitar pop to about ten people upstairs at this uncreatively named venue while festival-goers lunched in the restaurant section downstairs – they missed out on Jane Penny’s sweet, lively vocals and David Carriere’s cutting, sharp guitar, especially on straight-up jams like “Turn Your Love Around,” whose hypnotic latter half had Penny abandoning her hazy croon for a nervous yelp and the rest of her band following suit into electrifying new-wave territory.
Best Stage Banter: Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus
Whether he was advising his audience “Your feelings are crazy valid! Hella valid!” before launching into “No Future Part III,” accolading headliners Built to Spill (apparently a show of theirs he caught at sixteen helped him realize “playing guitar is where it’s at!”), reminding us all that mental illness is a social construct (before a new song that goes “I’m going insane”), or celebrating the reawakening of pop-punk (by introducing most of the band’s new songs as just that), Stickles continued to prove himself as one of the most engaging frontmen in rock music, even when he’s not ripping up the guitar or crowd-surfing (but it’s not like he didn’t do either of those things in spades).
Best Group Interpretive Dance-Along: Dan Deacon
Dan headlined Insound’s Thursday party in style, with two drummers and an effects-laden table in tow, and nailed an impressive set of familiar and brand new material (he’s apparently dropping a new record in September – look out for it, because the new jams were incredible). Plenty of orchestrated dance breaks and hilarious anecdotes from Dan notwithstanding, the highlight of his set came when he introduced a friend who had been booking SXSW shows for years, asked the crowd to make a space in the middle (we obviously acquiesced), then asked us all to follow along with said friend’s interpretive dance, which started with some mass Tebowing and moved into sweeping sun-worship territory.
Best Twelve-String Acoustic Guitar: Mikal Cronin
Cronin and his bandmates (including his longtime friend and frequent collaborator Ty Segall truly destroying the guitar) should also win awards for Best Cover of Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World,” Best During-Solo Stage Writhing, and Best Matching Tattoos, but as we can only give away one, we’ve got to hand it to Cronin for making a truly insane amount of noise on an instrument we’ve hardly ever seen anyone use outside of Fleet Foxes, let alone use to make lo-fi punk as exhilaratingly, blisteringly scuzzy as his. We’ve got to mention “Apathy” and “Is It Alright” by name, but his whole set – and he only played an electric guitar for two songs – was picture-perfect garage rock.
Best Talking Heads Revivalists: New Build
Somehow we ended up accidentally catching New Build three times, but it’s no problem – what’s on record a trio of Hot Chip’s Al Doyle and Felix Martin and their friend Tom Hopkins gets expanded live into a six-piece, three of whom are drummers, so their live sets are pretty much nonstop rhythmic, percussive fun. Thus, if you were into the jittery Talking Heads quality of the best tracks (“Do You Not Feel Loved?”, “Misery Loves Company,” “Medication”) on the band’s brand new record Yesterday Was Lived and Lost, you’ve got to check out their live show, which amps up that quality to eleven. Thanks to Doyle’s sharp guitar, those wandering basslines, and a more-than-impressive array of synths and MPCs presided over, in turns, by the entire band, catching New Build feels like being in a thoroughly now version of Stop Making Sense. In other words, check them out now.
Lifetime Achievement Award for Best Patterned, Probably Women’s Shirts: Brad Oberhofer
Best Whitney Homage: Jukebox the Ghost unexpectedly killing what they referred to as a “shameless cover” of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” thanks to their relentless, infectious energy
Best Use of Looping Pedal: Yellow Ostrich’s Alex Schaaf, who looped both vocals and guitar and then laid down insane, unexpected distorted solos
Best Flute Backpack: Gardens & Villa’s Chris Lynch, who seriously, honestly carried three or four wooden flutes in a beaded backpack, alternating between singing and wailing on one of them as the rest of the band laid down slinky, electro-tribal grooves, and somehow made it entirely not ridiculous
Best Streetside Sissy Bounce: whoever that was in the alleyway between Beerland and Stubbs on Thursday late afternoon
Best Use of Actual Cassette Tapes: Peaking Lights’ Aaron Coyes
Best Rap Lyric: “You’re under arrest! You’re under arrest! Put your hands behind your head and move your breasts!” – Vockah Redu, who opened for a bunch of garage rock bands
Most Uncanny Will Ferrell Lookalike: John Philpot of Bear in Heaven
Best Coordinated Outfits: Black Belles, obviously all in black, with velvet hats
Best Overcoming of Impossible Odds: Grimes (the worst sound system we heard all week; her own sore throat; a crowd of extremely drunk and impatient festivalgoers)
Top Five Most Buzzed-About Acts We Couldn’t Catch: Django Django, Poliça, A$AP Rocky, Japandroids, Sun Araw
Top Ten Bands That Had Us Walking Down the Street After Their Sets Having Existential Crises as to How Can Anything Be So Amazing (In Order of Intensity): Young Man, Yellow Ostrich, Titus Andronicus, Mikal Cronin, Purity Ring, Santigold, Oberhofer, Ramona Falls, Dan Deacon, New Build
Top Two Bands Whose Sets We Made This Superlatives List During: Tycho, Bear in Heaven