SXSW 2021 // Daily Highlights
SXSW 2021 showed the world a new, digitally-connected way to attend a music festival.
Although SXSW 2021 wasn’t quite like years past, their online platform created a space for isolated music-lovers to connect while touting performances recorded in unique locations around the globe. As we reflect on the last week of music, showcases and films, here are 30 highlights from this year’s festival.
Tuesday, March 16
PVA takes on genre-hopping with inspiration from New York’s 1970’s “No Wave” scene. Their SXSW set was buzzing with underground techno and included sharply, elated dance bops. The trio used their virtual space to bring the audience something they have been missing throughout 2020 – a night of letting loose.
Ximena Sariñana (w/ Ruzzi)
Ximena Sariñana performed one of the most beautiful acoustic sets of the festival. Joined by Mexico City-based multi-instrumentalist Ruzzi, the duo created a magical sonic landscape with very few instruments. We could listen to Ximena’s voice and Ruzzi’s delicate accompanying instrumentals for hours, now we just need to brush up on our Spanish.
Taking the virtual stage at the end of the night one, Couch Prints commanded their 2-D setting. Shot against a painted-white brick wall and in black and white, the three-piece put on an utterly mesmerizing and intimate performance, achieved through limited camera angles and extended one-shots of singer Jayanna Roberts. With just one EP under their belts, we can’t wait to see what they release next.
Honorable mentions/unique finds:
British Music Embassy showcases
British Music Embassy had one of the best set designs of SXSW 2021. The dynamic between stage lighting, open space for all instruments/musicians and the sleek design helped create a high-quality performance. Each performance was matched with complimentary lighting and visual effects catered specifically to each artists’ personality. We had a lovely time being in the virtual space throughout the festival.
Demi Lovato documentary Dancing With The Devil (Film Festival)
Taking a break from the live music for a moment, we tuned into the world premiere of Demi Lovato’s new documentary Dancing With The Devil (dir. Michael D. Ratner); it is set for public release as a YouTube series starting March 23. We were blown away by her openness and courage in sharing the details surrounding her 2018 overdose and how she is moving forward.
Jazz re:freshed Outernational showcase
Promoter Jazz re:freshed and producer British Underground joined forces for the Jazz re:freshed Outernational showcase, recorded at Abbey Road Studios. Featuring emerging British jazz musicians, highlights included fabulous sets from skillful tubist Theon Cross and three-piece Noya Rao. It was the perfect set to close out day one.
Wednesday, March 17
Airy, a Korean indie-vocalist, brings dream state to reality with her lo-fi, indie-pop beats leaning on layered instrumentals, atmospheric synths and slow tempo jams to show her presence. The performance matched her energy perfectly – a hazy set design matched with cloudy vocals and vivid guitar work. While listening to the set, we couldn’t help but feel blanketed with her prominent guitar solos and cooed with her angelic vocals following behind.
Enola Gay, Irish post-punk four piece, uses lyrical declamation and endless reverb-charged layered guitar while taking inspiration from left field electronica and dark punk overtones. Their set was a fierce, concise performance that was long enough to bring out their edginess but short enough for the audience to wish they played just “one more song.”
Concluding the Flipped Coin Music showcase was TENGGER, who describe themselves as a “traveling musical family…who create their brand of psychedelic New-Age drone magic through the use of harmonium, voice, toy instruments and analogue synths.” Their set was atmospheric and expansive, hypnotizing listeners with their drawn out soundscapes. The couple was joined by their son RAAI, whose adorable interpretive dancing nearly stole the show.
We ended our night with a bright and bouncy set from Shannen James. Shannen’s music is just plain good, it is mainstream yet unique catchy pop music with elements pulled in from electronic and country genres. The performance of her newest single Superstitious was a highlight. We’re manifesting a Kacey Musgraves tour with Shannen James opening (trust us, Kacey, this would be amazing).
Honorable mentions/unique finds:
Flipped Coin Music showcase
South Korea’s Flipped Coin showcase had many artists that blew us away. From Y2K92 to HAEPAARY 해파리 to Airy to TENGGER, the various music groups captivated the virtual audience; performances ranged from soft hip-hop bops to light, bedroom indie-pop to soulful mantric instrumentals. South Korea came and demanded us to listen in the most beautiful way – bringing representations of its local musicians who purely live through their art.
Sounds Australia: CLOSE UP showcase
Sounds Australia put out a wonderful daily showcase: CLOSE UP; each day they highlighted six rising Australian artists performing two songs each from locations across the country. The presenters “hosted” the virtual showcase from their backyard, cracking jokes and hanging out in what can only be described as “the most Australian way.” Additionally, the presenters and many of the musicians acknowledged the indigenious history of Australia and the lands they were occupying. Takeaway: we want to be friends with these fun-loving and respectful people.
Thursday, March 18
Sinead O’Brien was a highly-anticipated performance for us at GIG GOER. Her live performance was both hypnotizing and delicate, with heavy rock instrumentals underlying effortless poetry. Her spellbinding performance will go down as the most unique and intoxicating, a performative post-punk art installation.
We tuned in for the end of the Taiwan Beats showcase and were pleasantly surprised by electronic quartet NekoJam. Their happy, upbeat dance music was just what we needed in the middle of a long day and it carried us through the end of the night. Before introducing their song Together, lead singer Sandra took a moment to express the band’s gratitude and how the past year has made them step back and really cherish what they’ve been able to achieve together. They urged everyone to stay safe… and then we all danced together (virtually).
As one of our Ones to Watch for this year’s festival, Weird Milk did not disappoint. Their very short and very sweet set broadcasting from The Close Encounter Club was an absolute delight. In true Weird Milk fashion, strong vocal harmonies were the highlight.
Ruido Rosa will be known as the ladies of classic rock. The performance was fogged with dark red lighting and aromatic guitar shredding. Each player bringing their own talent to the stage – jolting drums, voltaic guitar, stunted bass and eerie vocals. A perfect storm for such an edgy (virtual) audience.
Honorable mentions/unique finds:
Alice Skye’s dog Gizmo
Alice Skye put on a gorgeous performance at the end of Sounds Australia’s day three lineup. And then, of course, there’s the matter of her dog Gizmo sitting front and center enjoying the show. We wish we were Gizmo.
The Close Encounter Club showcase
The Close Encounter Club is a cosmic-centered live music venue. The venue has been used to unveil artists’ talents through performances – the latest single and cover of their choice via YouTube. With their intergalactic mindset, the SXSW 2021 set was designed to feel like a concert out of this reality and most definitely out of this world.
Friday, March 19
Anna B Savage
Days later we are still haunted by Anna B Savage’s British Music Embassy performance. Her powerful lyrics and deep vocals immediately hooked us; her continuous questioning “I don’t know if this is even real,” and expressing “I don’t feel things as keenly as I used to” during the song Corncakes left us wanting more from the singer. Her striking solo performance was aided only by her electric guitar. Quite a strong choice, if you’re letting the lyrics and voice speak for themselves. And speak they did.
Friday saw us enjoying yet another stacked lineup from British Music Embassy. London-based Squid entered the party and carried it through to the end. Lead singer and drummer Ollie Judge’s expressive play style and almost cartoon-like voice set them apart from the other performances throughout the festival.
Indigo Sparke had the simplest performance throughout the festival. With one camera and one fixed angle, the only thing to do was listen and experience her sweet words and soft finger-picking. With a hot cup of tea in hand, we enjoyed our Friday night listening to the cooing of Sparke’s voice and angelic energy transmitting through her live, intimate performance.
A mystical performance with moon-charged instrumentals and lyrical devotions, I found myself intently smiling while swaying my body from side to side. Mae Powell brought community into a virtual space that was lacking such. I was in awe with the energetic calmness that was being transmitted through the computer and kept feeling warmth through her words.
Honorable mentions/unique finds:
SXSW’s inclusive programming
We would be remiss not to mention that 14 out of our 19 highlighted artists and bands feature womxn, either as solo artists or contributing performers. We were utterly blown away by SXSW’s programming; their artist diversity, in genre, gender, nationality, etc. should be acknowledged and emulated by all other major festivals. The topic of diversity at SXSW is not just gender-influenced but also culturally aware. Each country was able to advocate for their artists equally and intimately without pressure to fit into a preconceived stereotype (an unfortunate pattern in the media industry). We hope this is just the beginning for music festivals to learn how to build a solid inclusive foundation through accountability, respectfulness and active advocating.
Tokyo Sessions showcase
Tokyo Sessions brought a full concert-scale production to SXSW through chilled synth-pop group D.A.N., confident and independent rapper-singer Awich, and the overload of millennium parade, a large band led by Daiki Tsuneta with an abundance of drummers, keyboards, synths and multiple lead vocal performers. Japan brought futuristic tendencies and loud instrumentals to center around, “in this life we live, everyone is made to feel confused” – confused and elated is how Tokyo Sessions left us.
Saturday, March 20
After only just discovering IDER in the weeks leading up to this year’s festival, we are newly converted superfans. This London-based duo, made up of Megan Markwick and Lily Somerville, are known for their magical harmonies and tunes that swim between genres. They performed a gorgeous stripped down set at BME’s virtual stage and will be releasing their second album later this year.
Roskilde Festival put on a phenomenal showcase at this SXSW Online. Festival veterans Iceage put on a great show, displaying their subtle onstage confidence. After a quick chat with the organizers via LED screen, they slowly built momentum into their two newest singles The Holding Hand and Vendetta. We’re always down for some good rock music from Denmark, what’s not to like?
As soon as Copenhagen-based Astrid Sonne took the stage, she transported viewers into her own world. The soundscapes she is able to create with limited instruments – she was joined by two electric guitars – is almost unbelievable. Paired with glittering LED screen visuals, we were absolutely mesmerized. Just when we thought there wasn’t more to delight, Astrid Sonne picked up a nearby violin. The talent and energy she exudes is impressive.
We quickly noticed the plethora of snacks that were placed throughout the venue: cheese balls, special-K cereal, twinkies, monster energy, etc. We thought to ourselves, this is a perfect reflection of the artist. A wholesome yet chaotic sense similar to his music and craft. An intimate setting where it felt like we were sitting on the orange couch next to him.
Honorable mentions/unique finds:
Northern Expo showcase
Despite this year’s festival taking place online, we still found ourselves wildly exhausted after a week of consuming music from our respective couches. The Northern Expo, taking place midday Saturday, roused us and created new interest in the final day of SXSW. Filmed as one cohesive narrative experience and spanning the entirety of Tromsø in northern Norway, highlights included a set from I See Rivers in a ski gondola and a mountaintop performance from Heave Blood & Die. Our applause to the director, Carl Christian Lein Størmer.
Charli XCX documentary Alone Together (Film Festival)
We found time for Charli XCX’s new documentary Alone Together, directed by duo Bradley&Pablo. The doc chronicles the 5-week process Charli went through while creating How I’m Feeling Now last year during lockdown. Charli’s experiences in creating art to feel less alone resonated with us, as I’m sure it did with many others. We’re interested to see what other “pandemic art” emerges as a result of this wildly isolating yet shared experience. It was a wonderful end to SXSW, a festival known for its community and togetherness yet forced to take place in a virtual space.