Rembert’s Top 25 Musical Performances of SXSW

South by Southwest will always be the place where it all began.

My first trip to Austin for the festival, last year, was my first big assignment. The objective: go, do things, write about them. That’s all. While that was important, it also was the first real example of my Internet world coming to life. Mysterious, funny Twitter handles suddenly drinking beers, wearing tank tops, and ferociously taking notes together on their phones. Finally.

After last year’s 10-day bender came to an end, I knew that in addition to the new real-life colleagues whom I now refer to as “friends,” I had also found my happy place. My adult summer camp. My extremely tiring vacation oasis. And, more than anything, I knew I was coming back the next year.

The lead-up to last year’s SXSW was a very confusing time for me, because I didn’t know what I was doing. About a week before the festival, fellow Grantland staffer Amos Barshad graciously sent me a giant spreadsheet that was making the rounds of every single thing that needed to be RSVP’d to, along with the amount of free food and drinks that would be supplied and which musicians would be in attendance. I was eternally grateful, because up until that point, I hadn’t ventured beyond SXSW.com.

This year, I made the spreadsheet. I was ready, and even though the time between SXSW 2012 and 2013 had seemingly taken six years off my life, I was convinced I could do the full 10 days again, but even better. And if the high right ankle sprain, hoarse voice, wristband tan, scruffy face, and occasional dizzy spells are any indicator, I’d say that my goal was achieved.

Wanting to wrap up my coverage with a giant music piece, on the first day I began frantically taking down notes on every single act I saw, as well as photos and videos. As I plugged my phone into my computer for the first time in 10 days on the plane leaving Austin, I sat in shock as the machine told me I took 1,750 photos and 82 videos. Even more shocking: the quality of the majority of photos and videos. Just horrible. But it reminded me of a few key facts I hope to never lose track of:

I’m a festivalgoer first, writer second, reporter fifth, photographer 28th, and videographer 172nd.

When something great is happening on the stage, I can’t stand still and take a picture or shoot a video. I’m an active participant. All I want to do is dance. Or sing along. Or yell. Or cry? I’d try, managing to document for about 10 seconds, and then become so overwhelmed I’d shove my phone in my pocket, completely forgetting I had a job to do. I refuse to get jaded by the music world. Not yet, anyway.

Of the 62 sets I saw in Austin over 10 days, these are the 25 best. In order. Ranked, if you will.

Enjoy.


25. French Montana

March 16, 8:22–9 p.m.
The FADER FORT Presented by Converse, 1101 E. Fifth St.

I put this performance here with the strongest of asterisks, because as the final night headliner of The FADER’s four-day concert series, his performance was as anticlimactic as it gets. The previous night’s headliner (to be discussed at length later) certainly should have concluded the series’ four-day run. Alas, he didn’t, and French came out and deflated an otherwise pumped-up crowd from his surprise opener, Bun B.

So why is it on the list? Well, for 10 minutes, he brought out Diddy. And Diddy did his verse from “All About the Benjamins.” Nothing will ever be wrong with that.

But other than that, this performance was proof that not everyone can play with a band. In the rap world, having a live section behind you almost represents some type of legitimacy, a false notion of “I’ve made it” (this is all MTV Unplugged Jay-Z’s fault). But it doesn’t always work, as we saw with French.

Oh, and French brought Macklemore out. And then Macklemore brought Wanz out. And then they performed “Thrift Shop.” This was easily one of the most troubling moments of SXSW, even more than the Frito pie that had me calling random numbers and leaving voice mails, simply whispering “Help.” Had Diddy not come out and created a special moment, I think this might have been my lowest musical event at SXSW, which is unfortunate, because I happen to really like MonTanA.

 

24. Joey Bada$$ and Pro Era

March 15, 11:32–11:58 p.m.
The Green Label Sound House, 77 Rainey St.

I have a soft spot for young people who become successful and then bring all their friends along. It’s the dream of every group of friends, the high school model of “if one of us makes it, the rest are dropping everything and coming along for the ride.” The Entourage mentality, if you will.

This was all I could think of as I watched 18-year-old super-talented Brooklynite Joey Bada$$ jump up and down with his crew, Pro Era, in the depths of not-Brooklyn. It was nice to see him out of his NYC element. He handled it quite well.

 

23. Ice Cube

March 14, 11:31–11:50 p.m.
The Doritos #Boldstage, Fifth Street and Red River

I was in an odd headspace when this performance took place, because 10 minutes prior I had finished interviewing LL Cool J on a couch in a room with three people watching us, one of whom was filming. I was actually planning on leaving the venue and heading somewhere else, but Ice Cube’s familiar drawl kept me put for about 20 minutes. His friend WC was onstage, Crip Walking as per usual, because that’s the only way he knows how to travel. Cube also did a Nate Dogg tribute, which was nice. The best part: the motherly lady next to me, who was dancing up a storm to Cube’s set but wouldn’t take it as far as joining in on the “smoke weed every day” lyric. I truly respected her.

Also, this came out of Ice Cube’s mouth: “If you don’t think Doritos throw the best party you better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

The man knows how to push a product.

 

22. Just Blaze

March 12, 5:23–6 p.m.
Translation’s SXSW Crossover Day #ConceptHack, 401 E. Cesar Chavez St.

The bad part: Just Blaze opened for Baauer of “Harlem Shake” fame, which really hurt my heart.

The good part: This was the first half of his set:

“Public Service Announcement”
“U Don’t Know”
“I Really Mean It”
“Oh Boy”
“Dipset Anthem”
“Jigga My Nigga”
“Roc Tha Mic”
“Flipside”

Just fantastic.

 

21. ScHoolboy Q

March 13, 7:22–8 p.m.
The FADER FORT Presented by Converse, 1101 E. Fifth St.

I already wrote at length about this show, but let me further stress that Q is one of the funniest, most entertaining people in rap.

 

20. Andrew W.K.

March 15, 11:05–11:29 p.m.
Tumblr + Gap = SXSW FILTER on Rainey Showcase, 609 Davis St. (Clive Bar)

I had never seen Andrew W.K. live, but wanted to for a long time because he is responsible for an important song in my life. That song is called “Long Live the Party.” For years now, whenever it has been time to make that much-overdue trip up to Hanover, New Hampshire, this is the song my friends and I turn on as we leave Interstate 91 via Exit 13, cross the Connecticut River, and enter the great state of New Hampshire. So it was important to me that I saw him and visually thanked him. It also seemed like an appropriate time to check something off my life bucket list:

The crowd surf.

I would never skydive, because I want to live until I’m 200, but I understand the appeal of adrenaline rushes. This was probably the most intense, fantastic 20-second adrenaline rush in recent memory.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 12.54.34 PM

Somehow, while this was happening, I pulled out my phone and videotaped my time crowd surfing. This was a great idea:

The only problem was that, at some point, I had to come down. After almost being brought down lightly twice, only to be thrown back up top for all to pass around again, the third time was more of a drop. Let’s just say that when impact was imminent, my phone took precedence over my body, and I’ve been limping ever since.

I’ve never been happier with a decision.

 

19. Parquet Courts

March 16, 3:04–3:24 p.m.
The FADER FORT Presented by Converse, 1101 E. Fifth St.

This band is very good. As I drove from the Austin airport to my hotel upon my arrival, their song “Stoned and Starving” was playing on the radio. I thought I’d stumbled upon an old punk-rock station, but soon learned that not only were they young, they were playing a number of shows at SXSW. They were the perfect band for a chill midday set.

 

18. Killer Mike

March 15, 1:41–2:02 a.m.
Dr. Martens Presents FILTER on Rainey, 96 Rainey St. (Bar 96)

“You are witnessing elegance, in the form of a black elephant.”

The lyrics, the first of “Untitled,” a track from his great R.A.P. Music, are great to hear through speakers, but so much better when he’s preaching it to you onstage. Mike has incredible stage presence, and even when he goes on his rants about Reagan and Obama and America, you find yourself shrugging your shoulders in agreement, even if you don’t fully agree, just because he’s so passionate. And, as he said, elegant.

Watching him go through old and new tracks was great, especially since I hadn’t seen him perform live in some time. And then he went into his features well, a great well, which climaxed with Bone Crusher’s “Never Scared.”

That video made it for only 13 seconds, because I was surrounded by friends from Atlanta whom I actually knew when that song came out. And there was no way I could stand and watch.

BOWS WERE MEANT TO BE THROWN.

 

17. Passion Pit

March 11, 11:44 p.m.–12:27 a.m.
Taco Bell/The Hype Machine’s FEED THE BEAT, 301 Brazos St.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 1.13.56 PM

Rarely do I go from lukewarm to hot on a band in one performance. This is what happened, however, as I stood in amazement while Passion Pit proved to me that they’re a real band.

I don’t remember lead singer Michael Angelakos being as charismatic a front man years ago, but he most certainly is now. The show was aided by the die-hard fans in attendance, but even off to the side, not knowing a ton of the songs, I found myself mystified by the way Angelakos pranced around the stage.

I think they’re a real band now. Apologies if I’m the last one to catch on.

 

16. Bun B

March 16, 7:35–8 p.m.
The FADER FORT Presented by Converse, 1101 E. Fifth St.

Compared to last SXSW, it seemed as if Texas was getting a great deal more love as host state this year, by way of big-name acts. As unofficial governor of Texas, it was no surprise that Bun B would make appearances throughout the festival, whether he was listed or not. While the world waited for French Montana, Bun came out and went through catalogue gems like “Get Throwed” and “International Players Anthem,” and then treated the crowd with both his and Pimp C’s verse on “Big Pimpin’.”

The trillest, Bun is. No one else is even close.

 

15. Delorean

March 14, 4:45–5:23 p.m.
Pitchfork Day Party, 1100 E. Fifth St.

It’s always a great feeling to finally hear, and see, the song you’ve been obsessed with for years. This was the case with Delorean and their song “Seasun.” Thankfully, however, it was the last song they played, because it meant I was forced to stand in the beautiful weather for their entire set, which was delightful. They played in larger venues during the weekend, but the intimate setting for the Pitchfork Day Party was perfect for actually discovering the band.

 

14. Icona Pop

March 14, 12:20–12:45 a.m.
Viceland, 401 E. Cesar Chavez St.

One of the hardest-working bands of the festival, duo Icona Pop seemed to be everywhere. I saw them twice, and seemed to be on the low end of the average festivalgoer. You would go to a venue and accidentally see them, because they just wouldn’t stop playing. Of the two times I saw them, however, their late-night set under the tent, with beaucoup lasers and double-beaucoup drunkards, was the perfect atmosphere.

They’ve got a jam on their hands with “I Love It,” but their live show feels very much like one long medley of songs, “I Love It” included, which eventually turns into an hour-long dance party. This is a good thing.

 

13. Action Bronson

March 12, 11:25–11:50 p.m.
The Warner Sound Captured by Nikon, 305 W. Sixth St. (The Belmont)

Action is a legend. Yes, his stage performance was great, but at the end he walked up into the terrace, with all the VIP humans, and decided to make his presence felt.

I repeat: Action is a legend.

 

12. The Neighbourhood

March 16, 5:15–5:40 p.m.
The AllThingsGo + Indie Shuffle SXSW Showcase, 900 Red River St. (Club De Ville)

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 1.46.54 PM

Leading up to SXSW, I’d never heard of the Neighbourhood. Between my arrival and March 16, however, I’d been told by at least eight people that I needed to see their set before they left Austin. Always one to follow instructions, I did, and those eight people weren’t wrong.

I won’t waste time trying to put them into a genre, but, as a friend noted, “They either look British or Californian,” the lead singer is always in a constant state of body roll, and their music is very, very smooth.

I was hooked, and then they did a mash-up cover of “Say My Name” and “Cry Me a River.” I almost created a record label on the spot just to sign them.

11. Diplo

March 15, 1:22–1:55 a.m.
The MySpace Secret Show, 504 Trinity St. (The Copper Tank)

I love Diplo for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is that he loves having 75 to 90 goons onstage with him at any given time.

At one point, someone else with a mic said that there were too many dudes onstage. Diplo then took the mic and said that it wasn’t a problem.

He enjoys his goon squad. Nothing’s more admirable than that.

10. MSMR

March 15, 2:45–3:10 p.m.
FILTER Magazine’s Showdown on Cedar Street, 208 W. Fourth St.

I won’t lie, I didn’t show up to this set to see MSMR. For one, I had been tipped off by a friend at FILTER that Usher was present, wearing a bucket hat, and that I needed to see for myself. Upon learning that, and that they had free Wi-Fi, I made the trek.

Slightly starstruck by being only a few feet from Usher, I went into the side room and tried to finish an article. Unfortunately for the future of that article, I got distracted by the band that was playing below, MSMR. That article never happened because they blew me away, especially given my limited knowledge of the band.

And then, just to make the story come full circle, the band took a photo with their new fan: BUCKET HAT USHER.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 1.53.50 PM

More on Usher later.

9. Solange

March 15, 4–4:48 p.m.
SPIN at Stubb’s, 801 Red River St.

After missing five performances in my home city of New York, I finally saw Solange live. And I was not disappointed. From the quality of her songs on True to her fantastic Dirty Projectors cover of “Stillness Is the Move” to the way she and guitarist/producer Dev Hynes choreographed their steps, it was just a highly enjoyable show. And quite conducive to the outdoor festival space.

8. The Trae Tha Truth/Grand Hustle Showcase

March 15, 5:52–6:18 p.m.
The FADER FORT Presented by Converse, 1101 E. Fifth St.

I’ve never seen this happen before, but in the lead-up to Future, a surprise guest, Trae Tha Truth, then brought out surprise guests. That’s like a plus-one at a party bringing eight of his friends. Risky move, unless those friends are T.I., B.o.B., Pharrell, Yo Gotti, and anyone else who wanted to be on the stage that afternoon.

Trae held his own to start, with the crowd being extremely well versed in the Texas native’s tracks. And then he brought out the King.

TIP’s still got it. Never forget that.

7. Kendrick Lamar

March 13, 9:03–9:52 p.m.
Spotify Live SXSW, 1100 E. Fifth St.

This was, finally, the perfect venue for Kendrick to shine. I’ve seen him in a giant venue, in an outdoor space, and in a tiny space, and each time I just felt like something was off. After seeing his performance in the Spotify space, I now have a recommendation for all future Kendrick shows:

Give the man a catwalk.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 2.07.30 PM

Instead of a setup featuring just a stage and the audience in front of it, he had fans on three sides, and he did a masterful job of interacting with everyone, going up and down, and feeding off the intimacy of the crowd.

Also, shout-out to Kendrick’s leisurewear. Sweatpants and a gray tee. Just fantastic.

6. Future

March 15, 6:30–7:05 p.m.
The FADER FORT Presented by Converse, 1101 E. Fifth St.

I couldn’t have been more proud of Future than I was after his performance. He did it. He showed up, didn’t have to bring out a guest, and absolutely demolished the FADER FORT stage. And this was coming after a very energetic T.I.-headed guest spot that could have overshadowed him. But it didn’t. Because he’s from Pluto. And he knows magic. And he hates it when the lights are on. And, of course, he tends to wake up from naps in a new Bugatti.

NOT A USED BUGATTI.

5. Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band

March 14, 9:20–9:50 p.m.
The Daptone Super Soul Revue, 310 W. Willie Nelson Blvd. (Austin City Limits)

Walking into the Charles Bradley show was probably one of my two peaks of extreme exhaustion throughout the week-plus. So the setting for this show wasn’t ideal, because the room was dark and there was a seat for me. And I knew if I sat down for even five seconds, I’d wake up on Easter.

So I walked down to the main level and just stared in amazement as this beautifully bedazzled old man in his Eddie Murphy Delirious suit rocked my face off.

When he hit that dance move and followed it up with the sing-whine, I nearly fainted from happiness. I was suddenly smiling and energized. Charles’s performance not only rallied me that night, but potentially for the duration of SXSW.

4. A Tribe Called Quest

March 16, 10:16–11:05 p.m.
The Samsung Galaxy Experience, 612 W. Fourth St. (La Zona Rosa)

The bill: A Tribe Called Quest opens for Prince. There just aren’t better lineups. And then, to make matters better, Q-Tip was in a good mood. How could this go better? Well, quotes like this from Tip: “My man Prince is here, real honor to be here with my homie.”

Surreal.

As for their set, it was great.

Almost a full hour of Tribe (with Young Guru’s Dhalsim-esque arms in your face), which is something none of us deserve. And they did most of the hits, except “Scenario.” While there was a small outcry over this once they walked off and it was clear they weren’t coming back, someone had to remind a disappointed friend, “Hey, chill. Prince is on next.”

3. Usher

March 15, 7:35–8:10 p.m.
The FADER FORT Presented by Converse, 1101 E. Fifth St.

The rumor for the majority of SXSW was that Usher might pop up. And then his presence was confirmed in Austin. And then people began talking about him not being the surprise FADER finale, but perhaps doing a set with the Afghan Whigs?

Well, not enough people believed this, apparently, because after Future was finished, the venue cleared out. No one was trying to see the Afghan Whigs.

And then, like clockwork, about 20 minutes into the Whigs set, US-HER-RA-YM-OND hit the stage and it officially became the coolest, weirdest, “What do we do with this?” “There’s no way Usher knew who the Afghan Whigs were when he agreed to this” moment of the festival. Or maybe ever. It made the following night’s French Montana + Macklemore feel like BeBe + CeCe Winans.

The collaboration sounded quite good, believe it or not, with a smoothed-out version of usually horrible “OMG” making you curious as to why this wasn’t the original.

After this, both Usher and the Afghan Whigs left the stage. And then, believe it or not, MORE PEOPLE LEFT.

About 10 minutes later, Usher came back. Alone. Whig-less. With just a towel and a microphone. And, for once, all was right in the world.

In case you were wondering, his voice is still perfect.

2. The Pharcyde

March 13, 6:15–6:44 p.m.
Converse Secret Show, 1303 E. Fourth St.

Headed back to the hotel to charge my devices, I received a text from a friend that said “secret Pharcyde show, get here by six” and a location. I did a hard pivot away from my hotel and went straight for the address. I couldn’t live with myself if I somehow missed out on this.

Upon entering the venue, I was shocked to see about 40 people in attendance. What was going on? Why was I here? Why weren’t there 2,000 people here? What?

Just to give some perspective, this is a shot from the back of the space:

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 2.45.17 PM

Nothing about this made sense. Thankfully, everything about the performance was perfect. All they did were four songs, “Runnin’,” “Ya Mama,” “Passin’ Me By,” and “Pack the Pipe,” and that was enough for me.

Although the crowd was small, people were more into the performance than for the majority of shows I saw, because it seemed as if everyone knew they were being blessed with something they thought they’d never see. It was a special afternoon.

1. Prince

March 17, 12:25–3 a.m.
The Samsung Galaxy Experience, 612 W. Fourth St. (La Zona Rosa)

Unless he pulled a “Lauryn” on us, this was no. 1 before it even started. But then he didn’t. He did the opposite of that, now and forever called “The Prince,” which means “you go above and beyond the call of duty and instead of doing what’s minimally required, you decide to do eight encores and play until three in the morning.”

Standing on one leg for the majority of the day thanks to my Andrew W.K.–assisted bum ankle, once Prince got going I couldn’t help but fight through the pain and dance until he was done. And, around 2:30 (the sixth encore), it seemed as if he might go until five o’clock. I couldn’t wait. Neither could anyone else.

With the New Power Generation behind him, he did everything. He played old songs, he played new songs, and he played songs I’ve never heard before.

HE PLAYED “PURPLE RAIN.”

He played Michael (“Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”) and he played Janet (“What Have You Done for Me Lately”).

He played Curtis (“We’re a Winner”) and he played Aretha (“I Never Loved a Man the Way That I Loved You”).

HE PLAYED “THE BIRD.”

He played Sheila (“The Glamorous Life”) and he played Sheena (“U Got the Look”).

DID I MENTION HE PLAYED “THE BIRD”?

At one point, he looked at the crowd and said:

“Austin, don’t let me hurt you. You know how many hits I got?”

Beyond everything that happened in the show, however, one of the biggest takeaways was that he banned all photography and videography. NO CAMERA PHONES. And, while people still tried, more often than not, the security would stop them a few seconds in and, at times, kick them out.

Even though it seems insane (especially for a promotional phone launch), it created an amazing atmosphere in which people were only focused on the music — and the glory that is Prince.

I think he deserves that much. A few hours of our undivided attention. He is, after all, our greatest living entertainer, without question, hesitation, or discussion.

HE PLAYED “THE BIRD.”

Filed Under: Diplo, Future, Prince, Sxsw, Usher

rembert_headshot3

Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert

More from Rembert Browne

See all from Rembert Browne

More Diplo

See all Diplo

More Hollywood Prospectus

See all Hollywood Prospectus