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Remi Wolf Roars, A Giant Dog Stuns, Ben Kweller Returns and More SXSW Highlights

Variety logo Variety 3/20/2023 Jeff Miller
© Provided by Variety

The first real SXSW in four years wrapped up this weekend, but it’s likely what went down this year will be looked at in the future as another transitional year. After a mid-pandemic return in 2022 that was intentionally less high-profile than past editions, this year’s South By was supposed to be a return to form of the citywide takeover that’s made SX a staple in the calendar for decades for musicians and execs alike.

In practice, though, the music portion of SXSW still felt under-attended, and the current wave of music just on the fringe of popularity under-represented. Even the former Spring-break hub intersection of Sixth Street and Red River was a ghost town on Friday night, and lines to get into showcases across town were essentially nonexistent. On top of that, many of the highest-profile showcases were postponed or shut down following a massive lightning storm on Thursday night. Perhaps it’s post-Covid malaise, perhaps it’s the heightened cost of touring, maybe people were waiting to see how this year went — but something in the Topo Chico has changed, hopefully not for forever.

That said: SXSW has always been a hub to find new talent on the way up, and in that, this year’s fest delivered the goods in the same way it has for decades. Here’s the best stuff we saw, from newcomers, veterans, and speakers alike, this past week in Austin.

Remi Wolf

(ACL Live at the Moody Theater)

Though the 27-year-old genre-defying singer/songwriter Remi Wolf has been buzzing since appearing on “American Idol” a decade ago, her time is clearly now: At her first-ever SXSW showcase on Thursday at the massive ACL Live (scheduled appearances in 2020 and 2022 were canceled), Wolf’s stage-commanding confidence, poise, and songwriting prowess made her set unquestionably the best show we saw this year. Playing with a crack band against a screen of rotating hypercolor visuals, Wolf’s set called to mind Lizzo’s jaw-dropping breakthrough in 2019. Although they sound nothing alike and are very different performers, they’re both women in the pop world who clearly, defiantly, push back against the norms of what that world has traditionally sounded like and looked like — though in Wolf’s case she does it by dressing down rather than dressing up (her stage garb was a oversized shirt and jeans that humbly could have come straight off the racks at Zara). Her cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” slowed down and funked up the original, giving her room to show off the range of her vocal fry; her own crowdpleasing “Liquor Store” gave the mostly Gen-Z crowd a chance to sing along (the show was wisely free and open to the public, filling the room with actual fans). But the highlight may have been the opening song, “Quiet on Set,” a rap-sung-rock-pop-whatever banger that was like Rage Against The Machine through the filter of Billie Eilish. If all of that doesn’t make sense to you, just step out of the way: She’s gonna be huge no matter what.

Ben Kweller

(Mohawk Outdoor)

Veteran rock songwriter Ben Kweller’s SXSW showcase was intended to be a celebration of both the 20th anniversary of his seminal power-pop album “Sha Sha” and the debut performance of his 16 year old son, Dorian “Zev” Kweller. Tragically, Zev died in a freak car accident just weeks before the event. No one would have blamed Kweller for canceling after such a devastating loss, but instead he went on, making the show a fundraiser for the foundation he’s launching in Zev’s honor, showing a video of his son’s life before the showcase started, and playing a cathartic, powerful set with a four piece band (including “Superbad” actor Christopher Mintz-Plasse on bass) that felt as healing as it was surely difficult. The highlight was the debut of one of Zev’s songs, “How I Am;” it’s amazing that Kweller was able to make it through that and the closing, intense “Penny on a Train Track” without bursting into tears, but it’s clear that in this case, on this night, music was what was needed for both the performers and the audience to powerfully cut through palpable grief.

A Giant Dog

(Hotel Vegas & The Continental Club)

Austin’s A Giant Dog have been making strides at home for a while, but SXSW was sort of their coming-out party: the band was seemingly everywhere at all times, playing multiple shows at the giant Hotel Vegas venue while also on bills at Longplay, Feels So Good, and the Continental Club, where the band did a duet with Spoon’s Britt Daniel — essentially local royalty anointing them the next-big-thing. It certainly feels like they could be: singer Sabrina Ellis, who spends most of their shows stripped down to electrical-tape pasties, undulating in a way that feels far more emancipatory than overtly sexual, comes from the Karen O school of band-fronting, yelping at one moment, hopping into the audience the next, and wailing like a banshee for the rest. It’s hard to take your eyes off of them, and their bandmates know it, playing willing, roaring second-fiddle to a power that still feels like it’s in the process of being unleashed.

Near Beer


L.A.’s the Henry Clay People were SXSW stalwarts in the heights of the conference’s mid-aughts prime, and it always felt like they were on the precipice of national acclaim though they never hit it. Henry Clay singer/guitarist Joey Siara’s new band, Near Beer, are basically TCHP 2.0: they share a scream-shout aesthetic and lyrics about the angst of growing up, now with approaching-40 gravitas rather than mid-20’s angst. It’s adult punk rock for adults, with a combustible edge that makes it feel exceptional rather than perfunctory.

Voka Gentle

(13th Floor & Hotel Vegas Indoor)

At every SXSW, the opportunity to literally accidentally hear your new favorite band is part of the appeal; this year’s random discovery was Voka Gentle, an unfortunately named London-based electro-rock quartet that happened to be playing at the 13th Floor on Red River as we were mid-route between other gigs. It sounded intense from the outside but inside was even more visceral once you were in front of the stage: the foursome puts out a sort of Nine Inch Nails-meets-LCD-Soundsystem vibe, with patient analog synths and heavy guitars aggressively merging with some British wit sung and snarled by both the men and the women in the band. It was one of those “Is this actually good or is it just the right timing?” moments that inspired a double-check: at a second set later in the week at Hotel Vegas, the room was more packed and the vibe was even more intense.

Luck Reunion

(Luck Ranch)

Willie Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion always draws the most-buzzed about bands of the festival, because who the heck is going to turn down an opportunity to play at Willie’s Ranch, even if it’s an hour out of town? This year’s lineup included 70’s throwbacks The Heavy Heavy, country chanteuse Sierra Ferrell, and neo-funksters Sir Woman as well as headliners Spoon and of course Willie himself, but the draw is as much the music as it is photo-ops and yee-haw; there’s nowhere else in and around SXSW that feels as Texan as taking a walk in the crowd at Luck, where everyone who had room to pack their cowboy hats and thigh-high boots finally feels at home wearing ‘em.

PJ Western


Full disclosure: I played percussion for PJ Western at SXSW this year, which alone would have been a highlight of the festival. But getting to live for a bit in the songs on the forthcoming PJ Western debut – written by singer Josh Epstein during the height of the pandemic – made me understand even more how intricate his songwriting chops are: as a member of Jr. Jr., he’s made waves in licensing circuits for a while, but the new album, which veers between Steely Dan-style sweetness and Gary Clark Jr. blues licks should grant sync after sync.

Kosha Dillz’s Oy Vey Showcase


The hardest hustler in the game, Dillz played who-knows-how-many SX shows over the course of the week (I hopped up on bass with him for a couple), as well as busking rhymes on the sidewalk any chance he got. But the Jewish rapper’s centerpiece is always his Oy Vey! Friday showcase, which this week featured one of the oddest and in some ways most important acts of the festival: Ukrainian instrumentalist/singer Kozak Siromaha, who played a traditional instrument that was sort of like a giant accordion. The set seemed like it was going to be a trainwreck for a moment, until Sinoraha was joined by his buddy from Kalush Orchestra who played a pan-flute AND beatboxed at the same time, turning the dancefloor to the musicians’ side and leading to heavy shouts of “Free Ukraine!” that reverberated down Sixth.

Various Conference Sessions

Once the hub of SXSW activity, the convention center this year felt oddly underutilized: the room given to the radio day stage (which featured performances from buzzy bands like Blondshell as well as international acts including groovy Dominican Republic-based sexted El Gran Poder De Diosa) was hidden in the back and half the size it’s been in the past, and sessions essentially ended after Thursday, meaning there were two full days less content than previous festivals. That said, what happened in the conference rooms was still mostly excellent: a panel on streaming royalties ended up with an argument about the finer points of what a “play” means in a contract, a session on the future of music journalism ended up a discussion about why K-Pop should play as seriously as indie rock, and a songwriting session found the audience singing along with an all-star group led by Zombies singer Colin Blunstone on his band’s classic “Time of the Season.” The music-business education part of the conference should be as important to attendees as the party aspect; by downsizing the conference portion the organizers are doing a disservice to those they are trying to serve.

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