SXSW 2015 was a throwback to five years ago: crowds were lighter, marquee names weren't in abundance and (most crucially) people were more interested in discovering new acts than waiting around all day to see established ones. This made for an easier and more pleasant experience than the two prior years. Police were helpful, the safety measures seemed smart and lines were mostly quite reasonable. Overall, it was the thoughtful course correction many hoped for.
The "Choose Your Own Adventure" festival means everyone has a completely different experience. After 2014, where we happened upon Sam Smith, Chet Faker, London Grammar, Future Islands and Charli XCX, we thought there was no way to top it. However, we still found tons of notable artists old and new while catching nearly 50 acts. Of that lot, there were dozens of great moments, but here are five we'll remember for years to come.
Run The Jewels: Stubb's on Friday
You could be forgiven for thinking that Run The Jewels would simply turn up and honor an obligation. The rain was mucking things up at SPIN's day show, and Killer Mike was just back from a visit to his Atlanta doctor after being attacked at an earlier showcase. But that's not how these guys do things. As El-P and Mike hit the stage, the crowd roared approval and flashed the duo's signs, leading them to declare, "We're gonna burn this [expletive] place to the ground!"
They weren't kidding. The audience at the gig sang every word from both RTJ albums, and the rappers prowled the stage with an intense confidence. It's rare to see a live act that's at once totally on point and also having a great time, but this was it. Run The Jewels resonated with rap fans and you could see the group feeding off the massive energy and audience love.
Courtney Barnett: Mohawk on Wednesday
Courtney Barnett may be the Keyser Soze of indie rock. Her lolling voice and lo-fi guitars may initially strike the listener as shambolic, but she's pulling a fast one on you. There's a serious method and craft to her tunes. It's always interesting to see a talkative audience quiet down and step away from the bars when something engages them — such was the mood at the Mohawk.
Barnett's demeanor was low-key but chipper: She barreled through songs and kept the banter lean. New cuts showcased from Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit were impressive. Toward the end of the set during "Avant Gardener," we actually saw someone punch up the Amazon app and order Barnett's records. Barnett's talent stood out in a big crowd.
Hot Chip: Samsung on Friday
While not a public showcase, Hot Chip's Samsung-sponsored gig Friday was their first Austin appearance since 2008 — and they made the most of it. The band emerged just before 1 am in polished and fine form. After a quick run through the excellent new single "Huarache Lights," the group treated the crowd to a "best of" set with a few new songs sprinkled in. The crowd loved all of it, but exploded when "Over And Over" started.
This is a fanboy band, and Hot Chip fans really, really love them. Of the older cuts, "Night And Day" was a real killer as well, but the biggest thrill of all was finally getting this fantastic group back to Austin.
Swervedriver: Red 7 on Friday
While we often think of Swervedriver as the spiritual cousin to bands like Ride and Lush, the band's rollicking set at Red 7 had us reassessing our memories. These guys were, and are, more metal than their peers. Despite a driving rain that cascaded sheets of water onto portions of the crowd, the band's massive sound was entrancing. New songs from this year's I Wasn't Born To Lose You blended seamlessly with those from 20-plus years ago and it became obvious that this wasn't a nostalgia run or a cash grab.
Swervedriver have come back fully embracing their sound and their legacy, and as we left, we hoped they'd come back for a full set soon.
Kate Tempest: Red 7 on Wednesday
British wunderkind Kate Tempest definitely produced the most interesting set of the 48 we saw this year. We're not 100 percent sure how listening to her albums would go, but we'd sure as hell buy a ticket to catch her live show again. On stage, Tempest alternates between beat-based songs and a capella poetry. The narratives are like sketches or one-act plays describing party conversations or a naive twentysomething arguing with a wise old man.
Like many of our best SXSW sets, Tempest won points for playing serious music joyfully. She radiated excitement, and the audience responded by paying rapt attention until she finished. "I've never seen anything like this festival! I'm walking 'round with my jaw dropped," she exclaimed. The feeling was mutual, as the audience had never heard any music quite like hers.