The 10 Best Sets We Saw at SXSW 2017

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The 10 Best Sets We Saw at SXSW 2017

Now that Paste’s team on the ground at South by Southwest 2017 has returned home—to Atlanta, New York and various part of the West Coast—and taken a few days to process the whirlwind events, we were finally able to look back on last week with clearer hindsight. Paste and Daytrotter co-hosted 39 sessions and those running around Austin caught dozens more shows. Here, however, are the 10 best sets we saw at SXSW 2017.

1. Cheetah Chrome, Johnny Blitz, and co.
Beerland on Red River Street in downtown Austin may hold blues jams on Monday nights, but typically the concert calendar is refreshed every week with a new array of noise rock, garage and punk bands from around the region. The low stage and cheap beer and cinder block basement atmosphere there being the ideal backdrop for confrontational and dangerous performances. Which is why it was the absolute perfect spot for Cheetah Chrome and Johnny Blitz, members of the legendary Cleveland punk band The Dead Boys, to stage a celebration for the 40th anniversary of the release of that group’s debut Young, Loud & Snotty. With the able assistance of vocalist Jake Hout (standing in for the long since deceased Stiv Bators), the group played the entire LP with sweat and fire, wiping away all four decades of the past in the process. We were led right back to those dingy spaces where filthy leather clad punks shoved each other and the band during every tale of teenage woe, homoeroticism and indifference to the world at large. —Robert Ham

2. Suzanne Ciani
In a rare occurrence of cross-festival promotion, Moogfest, the music and technology event held every year in Asheville, North Carolina, took over the grounds of Cheer Up Charlie’s in Austin and bringing with them fun hands on installation art and DJs spinning tunes behind dozens of lamps synchronized to cycle through a variety of colors. On the outside stage, there was a finely curated lineup that included rapper Professor Toon and an especially intense set by Goth noise artist Pharmakon. But the highlight for the evening was an axis tilting performance by groundbreaking electronic artist Suzanne Ciani. On hand, in part, to promote A Life In Waves, the new documentary about her life and career, the 70-year-old musician used her beloved Buchla system, a massive analog synth that was about the size of small car engine. With it and a couple of iPads as triggers, Ciani coaxed out waves of sound that felt like a tribute to the city’s ecosystem. The pink noise was as thick and syrupy as a humid Austin afternoon, held aloft of fluttering tones that evoked the flap of bats’ wings and screeching wows that played like the call of the grackle. —Robert Ham

A LIFE IN WAVES Official Trailer from Window Pictures on Vimeo.

3. Diet Cig
Watching Diet Cit frontwoman Alex Luciano made me want to pursue a music career where I, too, could jump around on stage and sing songs about girl power and how, “it’s hard to be a punk while wearing a skirt.” Between Luciano and drummer Noah Bowman, Diet Cig’s music is playful, upbeat and addictive. The New Paltz duo’s debut album, Swear I’m Good At This isn’t even out, yet, but they’ve already made a name for themselves at SXSW and even beforehand. If you have a chance to see Diet Cig live, do it. Drop whatever you have planned, and do it. —Annie Black

4. Robyn Hitchcock
After hosting this session for Paste and Daytrotter, I could count on one hand the number of people at SXSW who told me their own in-person Robyn Hitchcock stories. That’s not surprising — the man is just that memorable. And charming. And intelligent. One hour with Hitchcock is like a day with your favorite never-serious uncle, who gripes about his supposedly advanced age but acts eternally youthful in the way that he can talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. Case in point: I asked Robyn how he was at the start of the session, and he replied with, “I’m nestling between a pair of headphones in a sea of reverb.” But to the music: Alternating between strumming an acoustic and blaring a harmonica, the former Soft Boys singer started his set with an oldie (1993 “Serpents At The Gates Of Wisdom”) and three new tracks from his forthcoming self-titled (out on April 21 via Yep Roc): “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox,” “I Pray When I’m Drunk,” and “I Want To Tell You About What I Want.” Well, I’d like to tell you what I want. And it’s to see Robyn Hitchcock perform every day. —Rachel Brodsky

5. Hoops
Every SXSW, there seems to be one band that I can’t stop hearing about, and this year that honor goes to Hoops—it feels like everyone I’ve run into this week has listed them among their favorite sets. Friday night, I finally got to see what all the hype was about at Cheer Up Charlie’s. The indie-pop four-piece didn’t disappoint, serving up slick guitar lines and a welcome reminder as to why their self-titled EP made our list of last year’s best. Their full-length debut, Routines, is out in May, and it can’t come soon enough. —Bonnie Stiernberg

6. Merchandise
“Clouds, please stay there, please,” begged Carson Cox of Florida post-punk outfit Merchandise as he and the rest of the band performed outside, probably echoing the wish of every audience member who’d sardined themselves in the outdoor space at Cheer Up Charlie’s. Naturally, the clouds did no such thing, as they eventually opened up to bake the Merchandise members once more. “God damn you, sun!” Cox responded good-naturedly, as he ran through reverb-heavy tracks like the yearning “Right Back to the Start” from the band’s 2016 release, A Corpse Wired for Sound. Despite the oppressive heat and the fact that this writer didn’t bring sandals to Austin, Merchandise’s cucumber-cool set was well worth the heat. —Rachel Brodsky

7. Modern English
While introducing “I Melt With You” as, “the one that pays the bills,” it’s clear that Modern English is a self-aware band. Most people, at least those in the Millennial and Generation X demographics, know them just for that one solid, effervescent hit. But Lord, this band is so much more than a one-hit-wonder. Nearly 40 years after their start in Essex, these British gentlemen still retain that iconic post-punk, synth-heavy feel. For our session with Daytrotter at Same Sky Productions, the group started with “Moonbeam” off of their latest album Take Me To The Trees, followed by the sort-of-title-track “Trees,” and ended with their mega-hit “I Melt With You.” There is a refreshing bout of humility in these men despite the years of rock star living. Often times, you may hear people say “what’s old is new,” but for Modern English, what is old is timeless and what is new is classic. —Annie Black

PWR BTTM was the best band I saw on Tuesday and it was an easy choice at the end of the day. I remember seeing them play a smaller showcase late into the night last year and it felt like a worthy coronation to see the queer punk band on the big stage at NPR’s showcase at Stubb’s tonight. Perhaps the most important band in the business, PWR BTTM has made it their priority to bring the voices of queer, gender neutral and anyone who’s just weird, depressed or unsure of themselves, to the forefront of our daily conversations.

“This is another new song and it’s about teaching people how to use gender neutral pronouns if they haven’t before,” Liv Bruce told the crowd. And it just brought a massive smile to my face, because their message is one of empowerment and understanding different lifestyles, while they’re out on stage shredding like hell. Hopkins and Liv Bruce—the core members of the duo, who had two other musicians on stage with them for this show—take turns switching off on lead vocals. New tongue-in-cheek single, “Answer My Text,” resonated brilliantly on-stage and the band played through feedback with dexterity, making it an integral part of their delivery.
Despite a serious underlying message, Hopkins and Bruce are forever playful with their crowd banter. They reminded the crowd to “tip your bartenders!,” proclaiming that they’re going to “slide into La Croix’s DM’s” for an endorsement, and likened a story of not getting a text back from a boy to Homer’s Odyssey. Between witty banter, meaningful music, and confident, yet, earnest delivery PWR BTTM encapsulates the America that I want. —Adrian Spinelli

9. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
Sub Pop has something special on their hands with Melbourne’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. Yeah, this is surf rock, but RBCF sounds nothing like American surf rock bands. Each member of the quintet takes a turn on the mic and songs from the recently released The French Press EP were as great as we had hoped. Singles “Julie’s Place and “French Press,” with thick basslines, vocal harmonies and sticky guitar melodies, were easy stand-outs in a stellar set at The Sidewinder. —Adrian Spinelli

10. Spoon
The Convention Center is, admittedly, a pretty weird setting to actually see a band in the middle of the day. It’s perhaps better suited for things like badge pickup, panels and phone charging stations. But as soon as Spoon hit the stage on Friday of SXSW, it didn’t matter where they were playing. They woke up the members of the crowd who had shown up to take advantage of the AC and a place to sit down with tracks from their just-released Hot Thoughts as well as old favorites like “I Turn My Camera On.” Maybe it was the energy of their album’s release day or just the fact that Spoon never disappoints live, but their set was a definite highlight of this year’s fest. —Bonnie Stiernberg

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