5 Great Shows from SXSW

Feeling Feelings with Cuco

With half-ironic, half-lovely album titles like Wannabewithu and Songs4u, you can probably know what to expect from the pop/R&B/hip-hop musician Cuco: Relaxed, sentimental songs with nice beats and sweet nothings that fangirls just go crazy for.

At least this was the scene at the Mohawk bar during SXSW. Cuco, along with a seven-person band, swooned the audience into swaying and singing.

Cuco's absurdly romantic, lush R&B sound fit perfectly with the venue's multicolored lights mixing in with the fake fog and night air. In addition to your typical vocals, drums and guitars, Cuco's band also featured plenty of keys and horns to add layers of syrupy smoothness to the whole ordeal.

From South LA, Cuco adds a bit of Hispanic flair to his music by occasionally playing the trumpet or singing in Spanish. This just served to boost the romance and resulted in an even more intimate and nocturnal atmosphere throughout the performance.

Despite only starting his musical career in 2016, Cuco (AKA Omar Banos) has already amassed (or seduced) a devoted following, as proven by a good majority of the crowd singing along to each and every song.

All-in-all, it resulted in an intimate, soothing and colorful night, except for one Australian tourist leaning over to ask me, "Is this guy very popular? I'm just trying to figure out why because I must be missing something." So Cuco might not be for everyone then, but if he is for you, then you're probably already roped in.

click to enlarge Nerdcore: Chaffer the Darklord - JEFF GARDNER
Jeff Gardner
Nerdcore: Chaffer the Darklord

The Nerdcore(?) Showcase

For the 11th year, more than 100 party-goers gathered to hear nerds proudly rap about their culture. The hectic night featured 10 "nerdcore" rappers singing and dancing about everything that fits in their domain: video games, science fiction, technology, and fantasy. But this didn't mean they strayed from classic hip-hop motifs either; some songs were also mixed with references to drugs, crime and just how damn cool the rap lifestyle is.

Featured musicians included the bald, bespectacled MC Frontalot who is the originator of the "nerdcore" term, newcomer Sammus, international hip hop duo Dual Core and, with a full brass band, ex-middle school teacher Mega Ran.

The Karma Lounge in downtown Austin was sweaty and packed for the Nerdcore Showcase, which is somewhat surprising considering this took place on St. Patrick's Day. Despite their gimmicky appearance and novelty sounds, many of the rappers maintained component flows and hilarious lines.

While rappers like Crunk Witch and Schaffer the Darklord offered more blackly comedic and boastful sets, Mega Ran offered anthem after anthem of inspirational and rambunctious bangers.

Many of these rappers aren't posers, either. Well, maybe to hip hop, but not to intellect. One of the night's singers, Sammus, is currently pursuing a PhD in Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University.

To say a bunch of geeks managed to make a club bounce is a bit strange, but that's the world we live in today. Sure, it's silly, ridiculous even. But who said it wasn't?

Josh T. Pearson Works with the Chaos of SXSW

Nothing should have worked with Josh T. Pearson's set at SXSW: He lost his voice the previous night, there were some technical difficulties, he revealed he was working on probably an hour of sleep, and to top it off, his four-piece band was only about three days old. Despite all of these setbacks, Pearson delivered an enrapturing performance. Perhaps it was simple luck, but for anyone who knows the indie-rock-gone-country-singer's music, Pearson works well in the midst of disaster.

Pearson and his band played some select singles from his upcoming album, The Straight Hits!, as well as some reworked songs from his critically-acclaimed The Last of the Country Gentlemen. 

His once sparse and depressive acoustic dirges received a second life. The keyboard player added lush and delicate layers, the drummer added a surprisingly effective beat to the experimental songs, and the bassist added a slick core to bring them all together. For a band that just, and I mean just, formed, they played tight and with a great amount of chemistry.

You've heard honest, twangy country rock like Neil Young, and you've heard the lengthy, epic (occasionally ambient) instrumental movements of post-rock—well Josh T. Pearson and his band somehow combined the two to make some bonafide country post-rock, if that can be called a thing.

And although the set was rife with apologies by the singer, it was also filled with great one-liners between the songs and a cheering, mesmerized crowd. 

click to enlarge Low - JEFF GARDNER
Jeff Gardner

Low is an Oasis in the Frenzy

Whereas many outdoor concerts go for being as frantic and in-your-face and attention-grabbing as possible, indie rock outfit Low takes it slow and steady. This was especially clear when they followed-up the electropop freak-out of Superorganism at SXSW.

Since 1993, Low has reacted to noisy rock shows and rambunctious audiences by turning their volume down. As purveyors of "slowcore," the three members hardly move on set and their instrumentation progresses minimally, methodically and hypnotically. Sure, it might be melancholy, but this style can also result in powerful jams.

Awash in reds and purples, Low's music offered tired festival-goers an auditory break—at least some of the time. Many of their songs started subdued and sad, but grew into greatly layered behemoths of fuzzy guitar, bass and kettle drums.

Hailing from Duluth, Minnesota, Low creates music that's often as bleak and cold as their surroundings. But in a hot, manic Austin night, this could be just what the (witch) doctor ordered.

click to enlarge Sudan - EMILY DIECKMAN
Emily Dieckman

Sudan Archives Combines It All

Of all music performances (stress on the "performances") at SXSW, one particularly noteworthy set was that of Sudan Archives. Also known as Brittney Denise Parks, the 24-year old from Ohio combines the music of Northeast Africa, R&B and electronic into whatever she wants to call it.

Sudan Archives mixes, well, a lot of things. Her music alone is one thing to take note of for any fan of sonic experimentation, but her stage presence is an entirely different beast. Sure she's a multi-instrumentalist, but she's also a dancer with fierce eyes and even fiercer body movements.

Her set began with ambient violin and some cryptic glances. Then all hell broke loose when a wild, electronic drum beat came in and turned the mood from new age to new rage. What proceeded was a series of dances, string jams and transcendent lingering passages in between. Her frenzied, anxious violin strumming on top of an aggressive house beat mixed with tribal drumming is enough to rouse just about anyone into a whirling dance.

Guitar, hand percussion and acoustic pickups were also implemented. On top of it all, Sudan Archives interacted with the audience a bit, sometimes shouting sometimes smirking at the crowd to get them dancing or cheering.

Of course the crowd cheered.

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