Even before settling into the Austin Convention Center’s Ballroom D bright and early Wednesday morning, to hear first lady Michelle Obama’s keynote speech focusing on female empowerment that kicked off the 30th annual South by Southwest music conference and festival, it had been illustrated in miniature the night before how, this year, women were poised to make a formidable impression.
My SXSW experience had an inauspicious beginning Tuesday, when Minneapolis-based singer Har Mar Superstar, after delaying the start of his set upstairs at Maggie Mae’s by a half hour, performed one brief, extremely angry song for the packed room, threw down his microphone and stomped off the stage. (He later tweeted that damage to his band’s equipment had caused the kerfuffle.)
Still, it was a jarring start to the week, yet just 10 minutes later, the universe was realigned by Austin-based singer-songwriter Carson McHone’s subtle, striking folk-rock in Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, downstairs and around the corner from the then-mystifying tantrum. McHone’s plaintive voice was cradled by the deftly performed instrumentation around her, full of feeling and skill. (If only those yammering near the back of the room would’ve shut up to appreciate what she was doing.)
After Michelle Obama’s keynote Wednesday, I ventured over to the Spotify House in east Austin, where Arlington’s own, Maren Morris, commanded the main stage with the practiced ease of the star she has always been.
She pulled from her forthcoming full-length major label debut, Hero, June 3, and had the eager crowd singing along with every word of her hit single, My Church. (Another Spotify House stunner was Joseph, a band of three sisters hailing from the Pacific Northwest, who reminded me vividly of an Americanized Staves.)
Then it was over to Stubb’s for the annual NPR showcase, a reliably well-curated mixture of rising stars. (“Stay for the whole night,” implored NPR host Bob Boilen, “you’ll find something new.”) I arrived in time to see Chicano Batman, a band whose sound is tricky to succinctly describe. Clad in ‘70s-era tuxedos, the Los Angeles foursome worked through soul and funk vamps, with the occasional disco flourish to cap it all off. The music set a mood, but never rose above a low boil.
Mitski Miyawaki followed, and her tightly wound set felt like a dare to all those mingling in the Stubb’s backyard, sipping beer and scarfing BBQ sandwiches. The performance peaked with some visceral, almost abrasive art-rock, alternately cooing and screaming. The New Yorker’s music is like a raw nerve, one not everyone eagerly examined, but rewarding for those who did.
Margo Price, one of my far and away favorites of the festival thus far, closed out my second day with a stomp-and-holler set of country music, pulled from her debut LP, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. There, under the spring night sky, the sight and sound of Price singing as if she’d stepped out of Music City’s past into the present, was to be, for the moment, blissfully sated.