The Best Music We’ve Seen So Far at SXSW 2023

An insightful Jeff Tweedy, sunshiney Armani White, and more

Though South by Southwest Music officially started yesterday, the Chronicle music team, as usual, spent the weekend sniffing out visiting stars and local standouts alike. Offerings ramped up Monday with the kickoff to the Festival’s musical programming, packing SUSU, Armani White, Michigander, and more.

Jeff Tweedy Opens Up Like an (Audio)Book

Jeff Tweedy (photo by David Brendan Hall)
“I’m not going to play one song about my dead father,” Jeff Tweedy assured the audience at Audible’s pop-up performance space on Saturday … “I’m going to play three.” The Wilco songsmith – christening Please Tell My Brothers, a collection of songs and commentary for the audiobook app’s Words + Music series – strummed, sang, and spoke through a mix of solo material and Wilco favorites. The insightful performance exceeded expectations of a platform-supported SXSW Interactive appearance. The 55-year-old Chicagoan discussed his family with candidness and reverence – informing material like opener “I Am My Mother” and “Family Ghost,” bookending his dead dad trilogy. In his singer-songwriter mode, it was easy to appreciate the granular quality of Tweedy’s lyricism, where couplets are as impressive individually as they are compositionally. See recent Wilco nugget “Story to Tell,” where he offers: “The world is always on the brink/ And love is dumber than you think/ Singing songs of death and doom/ With all the voices inside you.” The hour included a poignant bit about how sharing songs is his way of working towards an existential commonality, “feeling deserving of how good we feel.” By the end, I came away thinking: “I like where Jeff Tweedy’s head is at.” – Kevin Curtin

“Head Over Heels” for Porcelain’s Nineties Doom

Nothing could have better prepared me for a week-plus of navigating lanyard-wearing men in suits than a tinnitus-inducing, time-traveling Friday night at Chess Club, where I saw more locals than visitors donning festival badges. Measured yet caustic, Austin’s Porcelain slings exactly the type of melodic, fuzzed-out punk my Seattle-chasing brain yearns for. Guitarists Steve Pike and Ryan Fitzgibbon headbanged in line with bassist Jordan Emmert, at turns pounding out intricate melodies and slowing for dramatic breakdowns. A sense of humor boosted the fourpiece’s musical merits: Inexplicably, the band walked up to a slowed, “doomer” version of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” transforming the New Wave love song into something that fit appropriately in between sets by Exercise, Stab, the Dead Space, and the Well. Even better, when the group’s squall began to dissipate, the remix would poke through the feedback, faking out a set-end before the noise resumed. Chess Club seemed to be in on the grunge night joke, projecting episodes of The X Files on the brick wall behind the stage while each band performed. SXSW may be firmly planted in the present, but the spirit of the Nineties was alive on Friday. – Carys Anderson

Choreo-Busting SUSU Set Empire Garage Ablaze

SUSU (photo by David Brendan Hall)

Liza Colby and Kia Warren of the New York City quintet SUSU embody two characteristics most people lack: extreme athletic prowess and a penchant for rocking the fuck out. Saddled with a mid-afternoon Monday set at Empire Garage, the singers pulled every trick out of their leopard-print bags – including Southern-accented banter, dueling tambourines, and outfit changes – to put on 43 minutes of red-blooded rock & roll. Opening number "Psychedelic Gangster" brought SUSU's performance to a higher plane, beyond the amplifiers and barricade Colby and Warren climbed atop. The bandleaders stalked toward the audience in rhinestone glasses and jackets zipped to their noses before slowly revealing their visages and ethereal harmonies. Then, they broke into a speedy, quad-killing choreo. Backed by Franco Vittore's livewire guitar solos, the lead duo danced like women possessed, tossing their afros and tambourines haphazardly in perfect rhythm. Big, swinging bluegrass riffs also debuted with unreleased single "Rubber Hits the Road." Immediately after, this writer found themself in Colby's grips – literally forehead to forehead – during SUSU's rowdiest and sexiest number. Even after the band turned away, the audience cheered on. SUSU didn't just tear down the garage walls, they torched them. – Kriss Conklin

Rapper Armani White Presents Lizzo-Level Positivity

Though a faux-rally for Terry Crews’ character from the 2006 movie Idiocracy wasn’t my intended introduction to Armani White, the rapper’s 7pm Monday SX debut sure beat 12:25am that night at Amplify Philly. Under a banner reading “Your President of Uhmerica: Camacho 2020FO” in regards to the satirical film, there was absolutely no dark humor to be found in the Pennsylvania streaming megawatt’s set. White’s self-proclaimed “happy hood music” provides contemporary hip-hop’s answer to Lizzo, all smiley positivity with appropriate-for-all-ages banter and choruses readymade for yoga t-shirt slogans. For his second visit to Austin, White stepped all the way up from a morning slot on the T-Mobile Stage at ACL Fest 2019 to opening for Lil Yachty at Waterloo Park on Thursday. Despite the sharper edges of recent Jeleel! and Denzel Curry collabs, dips into the archive laid White’s pop-hip-hop base with serious mainstream festival appeal. One of many song-starting shticks, he threw out fruit snacks before 2018’s “Onederful,” where audiences caught on to, “This my type of day, my type of day-ay-ayyy.” Upheld by a sax player, DJ running the piano tracks, and backing vocalist Christian Eason, hands waved again to “SayWhaat / Long ass Car Ride,” also off White’s 2019 self-released Keep In Touch. More insight into genre direction, Eason broke out in Justin Bieber’s pop-soul hit “Peaches” midway. Teased and teased again throughout, the finale delivered White’s massively viral track, where even shouts of "Bitch, I'm stylish/ Glock tucked, big T-shirt, Billie Eilish” didn’t break his sweetie-pie spell. – Rachel Rascoe

Michigander Maintains Warm Midwestern Joy

Michigander (photo by Gary Miller)

Matching with his bandmates in all black, Jason Singer’s lighthearted Austin set followed the Michigan native’s recovery from a music-video induced broken leg, forcing a year-long break from performance. Despite major streaming success on emotive songs, the five-year-old band maintained genuine excitement and a kind Midwestern attitude Monday night at Half Step. Echoey drums, piercing guitar strums, and poignant bass plucks blended effortlessly, demonstrating the now-Nashville-based group’s commitment to their craft. The four rockers aren’t reinventing the wheel, nor do they claim to. Instead, Michigander embraces music with an unpretentious joy, often hard to find in indie music. From U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” to their very own “Let Me Down,” Singer was adamant that the whole audience, “even the cool guys,” embrace sappy singalongs. Heartfelt warmth replaced the booming house and hip-hop sounds surrounding on Rainey Street. Finishing with their 2019 hit single “Misery,” Michigander’s raw, catchy alt songs generated a sense of togetherness. – Katie Karp

Max Cooper's 3D Show Works Without Glasses

The queue snaked twice like a conga line outside the British Music Embassy on Sunday night, where Max Cooper was to play a 3D/AV (AV for audio-visual) live show at Cedar Street Courtyard. Inside, the conga line compressed. The Irish-born, London-based Ph.D. in computational biology stood silhouetted between two wide screens, commanding from the shadows. Long, rainbow rows of dots filled each display and raced past each other like the stroboscopic detail on a turntable. His name now synonymous with an interesting visual experience, Cooper began much the same way he had a few nights earlier at the Concourse Project, with warm, enveloping ambient sound. Using music and visuals from last year’s Unspoken Words, Cooper ranged from ambient to techno and jungle in a kind of autobiography of his DJ past spent experimenting across genres in Europe. Brightly influenced by the 1983 film Koyaanisqatsi, the artist produced his onstage videos with an array of collaborators. The movies paused with deep, sonorous swells only to rush forward again with images of industry, city streets, and neon animals, but mostly abstractions layered to affect a 3D experience. – Christina Garcia

Fake Fruit, Freshly Squeezed

Fake Fruit (photo by Wayne Lim)

Frenetic drumming, crunchy distortion, and a hurtling bassline led the way. Oakland post-punk quartet Fake Fruit ripped the Hotel Vegas patio stage apart in the Monday afternoon heat, previewing newly ripe tracks from their upcoming LP in a tight 34-minute set. From the moment bandleader Hannah D’Amato’s spirited angst exploded into a cathartic scream in “The Well Song,” the SXSW sophomores charged into a relentless ruckus of sweet, jittery licks. Howling feedback in punchy garage-rock number “Venetian Blinds” morphed into a haunting siren to introduce sour anthem “Milkman,” the only already released track of the nine-song set. That, of course, meant nothing to the bobbing heads at the Spring Break Boogie Kickoff, already long won over by the foursome’s compact harmonies, charming nonchalance, and deadpan hilarity. “Open wide, I’m gonna do a gimmick.” D’Amato closed their rambunctious set by solving a Rubik’s Cube in exactly 3 minutes – sprechgesang still steady, too – while the rest of the band raced full accelerando into a tense, scurrying exit. Alas, no time for a fake-out encore. – Wayne Lim


Looking for our New Order review? Check it out here.


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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

SXSW Music 2023, Jeff Tweedy, Fake Fruit, SUSU, Michigander, Max Cooper, Armani White, Porcelain

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