The 20 Best Performances We Saw at SXSW 2021

Music Lists SXSW
Share Tweet Submit Pin
The 20 Best Performances We Saw at SXSW 2021

This year’s South by Southwest was one for the books—or the MacBooks, as it were—as the Austin, Texas music, film and tech festival went virtual for the first time in its history. Watching pre-recorded sets from the comfort of home certainly had its drawbacks (though more affordable beer was not one of them), but SXSW Online still provided plenty of opportunities for music discovery, with nearly 300 showcasing artists performing over a five-day span. Just as the Paste Music team recommended 20 bands to catch before the festival, we’re now looking back on the sets that stood out most to us, highlighting both the buzzy acts we were confident would deliver and the fresh faces who caught us by pleasant surprise. Discover (or get reacquainted with) them all below.


AIRY

AIRY-sxsw.jpg

AIRY’s performance in a spare, softly lit setting sounded like it was lifted from the stage of the Bronze (of Buffy fame). The South Korean singer stared at the camera with unwavering directness as she played the guitar and wove a spidery, Crumb-like tapestry of sound with her backing band. At one point her entrancing voice climbed in tandem with a squealing guitar. The dream-pop artist’s final song culminated in a lengthy, silvery jam that highlighted her chemistry with her fellow musicians and their collective prowess. On top of all that, her white trousers covered in card suits were undoubtedly one of the best fashion statements we saw all week. —Clare Martin

Anna B Savage

annabsavage-sxsw.jpg

Anna B Savage only just released her debut album, A Common Turn, earlier this year, but she already performs like an incredible cult artist from yesteryear. Taking the stage at the British Music Embassy, Savage sounded raw and completely in her element, wielding and fluctuating her glaring contralto voice to staggering effect and performing without a backing band. Alongside rough guitar strums, her voice floated between jazzy and folky tones, but never settled neatly into either. Her quiet-loud dynamic was arresting, lending room for her deep, poetic lyricism—it honestly felt like you were watching a soon-to-be-influential singer/songwriter in a coffee shop from decades past. Her songs are fully realized, with a nuanced emotional perspective and a deep ache at their core, heightened by the liquidy rhythms of her near-operatic voice. With gorgeous imperfections and a unique sound, Savage’s set was positively masterful. —Lizzie Manno

Black Country, New Road

BCNR-SXSW.jpg

The English group crafted their SXSW set expertly, starting with “Track X,” lofty on plucked strings but more subdued than their other songs. The sprawling, klezmer-filled “Opus” made for a magnificent closer, building to a frenzy that would have been unreal to experience in the flesh but was nonetheless rewarding as a virtual experience. Seeing the seven-piece perform reinforced not just how young they are and, therefore, how much we have yet to see from them, but also their natural connection as musicians. Throughout the set they made slight improvisations and changes as they played together, like some amorphous aural post-punk organism. —Clare Martin

Caiine

caiine-sxsw.jpg

Manchester, U.K. singer/songwriter Caiine presented some of the festival’s most soulful, emotive vocal work, pulling her three-song setlist from the dozen or so singles she’s released over the past few years. The neo-soul artist opened with 2019’s “Century,” declaring “This is my century / and you only see what you need to see” in a husky, lush vocal tone that demands attention. She rounded out her set with two more recent singles, 2020’s “Disengage” and “Breakdown,” an upbeat synth-pop track and emotional piano-forward ballad, respectively, showcasing her (and her writing/performing partner’s) stylistic versatility. —Scott Russell

Choses Sauvages

chosesauvages-sxsw.jpg

Montreal group Choses Sauvages immediately took me by surprise during their 2021 SXSW set. The French-speaking groove curators create ridiculously fun, disco-inspired jams, and they just seem to be having an awesome time while doing it. Think Phoenix meets Daft Punk meets Parcels, and you’ve got this funky, bass-heavy cocktail. The beauty of SXSW is discovering an artist you otherwise never would’ve heard of, or maybe even considered listening to because of a language barrier. But whether you speak French or not, Choses Sauvages make tunes that are so easy to get on board for. —Ellen Johnson

D.A.N.

After a week spent even more glued to my screens than usual, I wasn’t sure if my brain-fry would let me make it to Friday night’s Tokyo Sessions, but the showcase’s first act made me very glad it did. On their studio recordings, Tokyo’s D.A.N., made up of Daigo Sakuragi, Junya Ichikawa and Teru Kawakami, inhabit a nuanced space between Sigur Rós-esque post-rock and atmospheric dance-pop a la James Blake (a resemblance that owes much to Sakuragi’s tuneful falsetto vocals). But in their South By set, backed by a few more live members, D.A.N. were downright epic, incorporating jazz and funk touches into their ethereal sound, and continuously toeing the line between beauty and brooding. They opened their set with a (seemingly unreleased) track titled “Floating in Space,” then moved into 2019/20 singles “Bend” and “Aechmea,” and each song’s artful soundscapes sprawled across the expansive Tokyo Sessions stage, revealing D.A.N. as a band to be reckoned with. —Scott Russell

Drinking Boys and Girls Choir

DBGC-sxsw.jpg

Daegu City, Korea rock trio Drinking Boys and Girls Choir opened Friday night’s Damnably Records showcase on a raucous note, delivering a blast of mosh-inspiring, yet melodic K-punk from minute one, and barely stopping to take a breath through their sub-10-minute set. All three members, MJ (drums), Meena (bass) and Junghoon (guitar), sing in both Korean and English, adding dimension to their sing-songy skate-punk stylings, and Junghoon’s guitar work stood out in particular. Some wild camera work also helped ratchet up the intensity of their set: DBGC piled into a tight performance space, and the fish-eyed camera (a GoPro on a selfie stick, I reckoned) cranked the claustrophobia factor, frantically darting between band members like a sugar-high hummingbird. It ruled. —Scott Russell

Grrrl Gang

grrrlgang-sxsw2.jpg

A highlight of Damnably Records’ showcase, Indonesian rockers Grrrl Gang were easily one of our most-anticipated acts, and they did anything but disappoint. Following the 2020 release of their remastered compilation album Here To Stay!, the band leveled up with February single “Honey Baby,” which we picked as one of that month’s best tracks. Their continued growth was apparent in their SXSW set: They opened with Here To Stay! cut “Guys Don’t Read Sylvia Plath,” delivering upbeat jangle-rock energy with a punk edge as vocalist/guitarist Angeeta Sentana sang, “I wasn’t born to be a mother / I was born to raise hell everywhere I go.” Bassist Akbar Rumandung and guitarist Edo Alventa showcased their skills during the song’s double-time bridge, but it was their second (and, sadly, final) track, “Honey Baby” (natch), that really jumped off the screen. Sentana’s vocals were studio-level flawless, nailing the single’s utterly irresistible melodies with apparent ease. —Scott Russell

Jambinai

JAMBINAI-sxsw.jpg

Out of all the acts at this year’s SXSW, Seoul outfit Jambinai were one of few who really came out swinging and never let up. The band play a mix of traditional Korean and typical rock instruments, resulting in a hefty, full-throttle sound that fuses noise, post-rock, metal, drone and folk music. They’re all extremely technical, rattling off brisk, atmospheric songcraft with a wide variety of stringed instruments and drums. To call their songs “epics” wouldn’t be hyperbole—although most of their music is instrumental, they’re storytellers at heart, carving out scenes of struggle and majesty. Mournful and earth-shattering as they may sound, it’s also a calming experience for anyone willing to take the plunge into their bedlam. —Lizzie Manno

Kee’ahn

KeeAhn-sxsw.jpg

Australian singer Kee’ahn instantly captivated online audiences during her set last week. She made a memorable impression with her soulful, buttery vocal style and free-flowing lyrics. One standout was her 2020 single “Better Things,” which carries the sway of a Leon Bridges cut and the style of Valerie June. Kee’ahn’s name means to “dance, to sing and to play,” according to Rolling Stone Australia, and her set embodied all of those actions. Kee’ahn proudly honors her indigenous Australia roots while simultaneously bringing something entirely her own into the fold. —Ellen Johnson

Magdalena Bay

magdalenabay-sxsw.jpg

Luminelle Recordings got stuck with a lousy time slot, airing their half-hour showcase at 10:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, the festival’s first night. I am 31 years old (as of today!), so needless to say, I didn’t catch them live, but Magdalena Bay gave a performance worth circling back for on demand. The Los Angeles synth-pop duo of Mica Tenenbaum and Matthew Lewin “cleverly poked fun at their own low-budget set-up, performing in a living room in front of a green screen, upon which they displayed either cartoonish, hand-drawn imagery or nothing at all,” and they “also added a clip art-esque audience overlay at times to accompany tinny fake crowd noise, embracing the uncanny quality of their unseen virtual audience,” as we wrote in our SXSW recap Monday. Their fun, self-aware “stage” presence gelled perfectly with their playful, bubblegum electro-pop sound as they performed three tracks from their latest EP, 2020’s A Little Rhythm and a Wicked Feeling. —Scott Russell

Matilda Mann

matildamann-sxsw.jpg

Don’t let Matilda Mann’s unassuming exterior fool you. The singer/songwriter from West London writes tunes that are wry, confessional and sincere without being saccharine. She played four songs on the British Music Embassy’s stage: “The Loch Ness Monster,” “Japan,” “Paper Mache World,” and an unreleased opener. Her clear, honeyed vocals are the perfect medium for her whimsical lyrics, like on “Paper Mache World” when she muses, “Who cares for fancy people / Who can’t even fall in love? / I’d rather travel round / To find you in this goldfish bowl.” Her musical influences, like Laura Marling, come across, but Mann’s charm is all her own, as she introduced each song with little disclaimers like, “Apologies for the swearing.” Consider us won over. —Clare Martin

Neighbor Lady

niehgborlady-sxsw.jpg

The South by Southwest virtual experience was frequently a frustrating one, where discovery felt stunted by YouTube-style advertisements and the other distractions of work and home. So it was all the more special to see a few familiar faces among the miles of pre-recorded sets. As I wrote in our preview of the fest, Neighbor Lady are a trendy indie-rock band from Atlanta, Georgia. During their set, the group made up of Emily Braden, Jack Blauvelt, Merideth Hanscom and Andrew McFarland treated us to a handful of new songs, which they will most likely reprise at this weekend’s socially distant, outdoor concert in Piedmont Park. I can only imagine how freeing that will feel to play new music in front of a real crowd for the first time in over a year, but I feel certain Neighbor Lady’s breezy, country-ish rock ‘n’ roll will fit the bill. —Ellen Johnson

Scrounge

scrounge-sxsw.jpg

South London punk duo Scrounge were the penultimate act of Wednesday night’s Fierce Panda x End of the Trail Creative showcase, and they introduced a bit of nerve-jangling intensity to an otherwise laid-back set of performances. Lucy Alexander and Luke Cartledge’s Bandcamp bio simply reads “Guitar, drums, mic,” and the brutalist simplicity of that summary tracks well with their South By set, a fast-paced, intense and visually stylized performance that featured the band’s 2021 ripper “Leaking Drains,” as well as songs from their 2019 debut EP Ideal. Cartledge’s drumming pushed the pace, while he also contributed backing vocals, and Alexander’s singing ranged from a punk growl to a more restrained croon (particularly on the shoegazey “Starve”). Together, Scrounge have an impressively full sound for just two people, melding punk thrash with edgy post-punk intensity to darkly engrossing effect. —Scott Russell

Shannen James

The final act of Wednesday night’s Close Up: A Sounds Australia Showcase, Melbourne singer/songwriter Shannen James and her band performed in a lovely warehouse space, surrounded by greenery. Their performance was fleeting, as the last of six sets squeezed into an hour, but James’ talent took only moments to assert itself via her opening track “Arrows,” a hooky standout from her 2020 EP of the same name. Her voice, forceful and pretty, can do gentle flutter as well as full-throated choruses, and its versatility allows a folksy tinge into her soaring pop songs. James closed with her 2021 single “Superstitious,” a pure pop track with washed-out guitars and another sparkling vocal performance, making a big impression in a small amount of time. —Scott Russell

Squid

Squid-sxsw.jpg

Another highly anticipated performance of ours, Squid’s British Music Embassy set overlapped with an excellent Damnably Records showcase, putting the Paste team in a serious pickle. Though I’d later revisit it on demand—it was that good—I first jumped into Squid’s stream during the long instrumental break on their recent single “Narrator” near the height of its intensity. Drummer and singer Ollie Judge is an undeniably compelling performer, and seeing him repeat the song’s “I’ll play mine” refrain through gritted teeth, only to switch to a full-throated shout, was an arresting experience. The quintet also performed their latest single “Paddling; during which their group dynamic came to the fore as they exchanged vocal duties, passing the spotlight between members without ever losing the track’s gripping groove. “Thanks, that’s us,” Judge said quietly after the band’s set screeched to a stop, as if he knew the performance had already spoken for itself. —Scott Russell

Tebi Rex

tebirex-sxsw.jpg

Crowd work seems antithetical to a virtual festival, but Irish rap duo Tebi Rex made it work. “I wanna see yis move, yeah,” rapper Max Zanga, one half of the outfit, told us before throwing himself completely into their pop-infused hip-hop. Zanga and singer Matt O’Baoill’s energy burst through the screen as they jumped and danced along to their songs “I Never Got Off the Bus’’ and “Oh It Hurts.” Between songs, the pair took time to introduce DJ R3D and drummer Aaron Kelly who were accompanying them—a nice touch—and then it was back to their dynamic, infectious performance, enhanced by a dazzling light show. We’d be remiss if we didn’t shout out their hats as well: O’Baoill sporting an orange baseball cap and Zanga stealing the show with a strawberry-covered bucket hat. —Clare Martin

Vero

vero-sxsw.jpg

If you’ve heard the first two EPs from Stockholm band Vero—2019’s Saxophones and Danger Zones and 2020’s Heaven on Earth—you’d be a bit caught off guard by their recent SXSW set. As the second artist performing at the ÅÄÖ Sounds Swedish showcase, Vero downplayed their previous electronic and dream-pop leanings in favor of a darker, moodier and more muscular sound. With low-toned guitars and a distinctly ‘90s, attitude-filled rock sound in the vein of Liz Phair and PJ Harvey, their presence was instantly alluring. The band excels at locking into a cool, confident stasis, but they’re able to reach robust climaxes with similar ease. Julia Boman’s vocals are, at once, expressive and unbothered, and they’re enhanced by a chug of unpolished guitars. Their captivating mood-setting abilities certainly stand out, but their intuitive pop prowess takes them even further. Vero is set to release their debut full-length later this year via PNKSLM Recordings, and if it sounds as visceral as they did here, they’ll be well on their way. —Lizzie Manno

Walt Disco

WaltDisco-sxsw.jpg

Picture avant-garde art rock fused with glam rock, then add in a helping of Talking Heads and sprinkle on some David Bowie for good measure, and you might be somewhere in the neighborhood of the riveting band that is Walt Disco. The Glaswegian six-piece’s presence on the British Music Embassy stage was unrivaled, even as guitarist Lewis Carmichael video-called in from his grandad’s dining room. Lead singer James Potter chewed up the scenery, and partway through one song, the whole group stopped to run in place a la Stop Making Sense. The band’s looks were also some of the best of the entire festival, with one member wearing a yellow plaid blazer that would make Cher Horowitz jealous; another in a flowing Prince blouse; and drummer Jack Martin rocking a school blazer, leather pants and red lipstick. —Clare Martin

Yoshi Vintage

yoshivintage-sxsw.jpg

Rapper Yoshi Vintage, originally from Flint, Michigan, but currently based in Los Angeles, immediately commanded attention on the Carefree Black Girl stage with her 2020 single “Still a Rose.” A sample of activist Tamika Mallory’s powerful words played over a looped piano melody: “We are not responsible for the mental illness that has been inflicted upon our people by the American government.” Yoshi Vintage’s performance was powerful in its own right, as she addressed the camera with arresting candor and let the backing track fall away on her final song to rap the last few bars a cappella. —Clare Martin

Also in Music