SXSW 2017 Day 1: Willie Nelson Returns, Vince Staples Tests New Music, Austin Trolls Trump & More

Erik Voake
SXSW 2016.

2016 saw South By Southwest celebrate its 30th year, and 2017 is a milestone year for SXSW in a different sense: After a decade of competitive corporate-sponsored expansion, the Austin festival is finally scaling back a touch this year. And that's hardly a bad thing: SXSW was originally about spotlighting up-and-coming talent, so cutting back on secret concerts from A-listers and showcases sponsored by brand-name products could help SXSW regain some of its cool cache. (That being said, there are still plenty of recognizable names at the venerable Austin festival this year, whether they're performing, giving a keynote speech or sitting on a panel.)
 
Below, Billboard's on-the-scene reporters share standout moments from Day 1 of the music portion of SXSW, from the dive bars to the industry panels.

3:43 p.m. -- Kesha took the stage in Ballroom D for her keynote interview with Refinery 29 chief content editor Amy Emmerich, clad in a Gram Parsons-esque nudie suit, starting out the talk by discussing how nervous she was to just chat for an hour in front of a room full of people, rather than perform. Her anxiety quickly lifted, though, for an often-moving, often-funny discussion about online bullying and how to stop it, clearly a topic close to the performer's heart. -- Jeff Miller

4:50 p.m. -- Not to be outdone by Rachel Maddow producing Trump's tax returns, Austin turned out its own version of Trump -- complete with orange face and white KKK hood -- to prowl the streets during SXSW as a clownish doppelganger to troll the Troll in Chief during the festival. -- Joe Lynch

5 p.m. -- The question with the SXSW day parties is never “whether” but rather “which” and “when?” Tuesday’s best bet seemed like the Soundcloud/Twitter fete at Bar 96. We arrived in time to catch the last couple songs from Upstate New York duo Diet Cig, who have been feted in indie circles and play with verve and enthusiasm, but their songwriting betrays their youth and sometimes wilts in a live setting. Still, their sound and spunkiness bear promise. -- Jem Aswad

5:45 p.m. -- Next up was Australian trio Slow Dancer, the new band from former Oh Mercy frontman Simon Okely. Their vibe is mid-tempo and mellow in a way that slots perfectly alongside ATO Records labelmates like Margaret Glaspy and Nick Hakim, but Okely’s soulful, Stax-inflected vocals and stinging guitar work stand out in any crowd. Having said that, the constant easy grooves do tend to make you crave some Minor Threat. -- JA

5:51 p.m. -- Austin-based Mélat is first generation Ethiopian-American, and while the sounds of her parents' country certainly seep into her music, her love for '90s American R&B was most prominently on display during her late afternoon outdoor set at Cheer Up Charlie's. Luckily for her, she's more than equipped for the technically demanding genre thanks to an exquisite vocal tone. As for her Texan influences, the impact of the Lone Star state on the local singer-songwriter was only apparent with her sign off at the end of her set: "Parting is such sweet sorrow, y'all." -- JL

6:35 p.m. -- Last up was stunning Argentine-born soul chanteuse Tei Shi (aka Valerie Teicher), whose debut full-length Crawl Space is due on Downtown/Interscope at the end of the month. Things got off to an inauspicious start when her band kicked off an opening fanfare as the singer, clad in a white shirt and oddly cut, hip-baring jeans, took the stage -- only to find that none of the vocal mics were working. The house DJ quickly cued up a record, the sound crew got busy and 10 minutes later the band tried again, this time successfully. Their sound is a bit familiar -- the kind of alt-R&B purveyed by dozens of cooing, soulful single-monickered singers over the past few years -- but the vocal strength and individuality Tei Shi shows when she opens up and belts suggest a bright future. -- JA

6:45 p.m. -- Langhorne Slim was not at all interested in a disinterested dinner time crowd during BMI’s 17th annual Howdy Texas party at Stubb’s. “All of you come on up to the front of the stage if you’re gonna stay in the room,” the rootsy singer-songwriter prodded before starting his short set. “Let’s pretend we’re at a concert. “ He soldiered through despite the continued din of the brisket-munching crowd, as well as random sounds from Jimmy Eat World’s line check for a performance later that evening. -- Gary Graff

7:27 p.m. -- “This ain’t a show.  It’s a party,” Ray Benson announced during his annual birthday concert, which has become a South By Southwest tradition to raise money for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM).  With his 66th birthday on Thursday, Benson and Asleep At The Wheel played, appropriately, “Route 66” and a selection of other material from the great American country and western songbook during the 31-song marathon, with help from a guest list that included Willie Nelson, the Avett Brothers, Charlie Sexton and Shannon McNally, Carolyn Wonderland, Marcia Ball and others, as well as the amusing site of Benson receiving a birthday cake during the intermission that was shaped like an armadillo brandishing a lariat. -- GG

7:33 p.m. -- Singer-songwriter Shane Cooley's Americana-influenced songs are right out of the Head and the Heart's playbook, which means -- like that Pacific Northwest band -- he's one hit away from radio stardom. On the back porch of the Rainey Street venue Icenhauers, he proved he may in fact have that song in him, playing through tunes from his most recent release, King's Highway, with a hungry confidence that may prove his hip-shaking ways will soon be making their way to bigger stages. -- JM

8:14 p.m. -- During a Washington, D.C.-centric showcase at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, D.C. duo BOOMscat -- who beat out 600-some competitors to nab a spot on the Wu-Tang Clan-headlined bill -- impressed with an arresting mixture of gospel, R&B and jazz buoyed by Jennifer Patience Rowe's sumptuous vocals and Asha Santee's reverb-laden keyboard. "Our turn up is turn in," Rowe said during their peacefully grooving performance, which was punctuated by a tribute to Rowe's mother, who passed just days prior. "This is what I'm supposed to be doing," Rowe explained of her decision to go ahead with SXSW, saying it's what her mom would have wanted. -- JL

8:47 p.m. -- "Thanks to Dreamville for saving n---as from working at Wendy's and Papa John's," Ari Lennox said with a laugh during her Tuesday night SXSW set, nodding to the J. Cole-founded Interscope imprint she's signed to. While Cole deserves credit for giving Lennox some shine via his label, 30 seconds of listening to Lennox sing live is proof enough she would have pulled ahead of the pack eventually, A-list cosign or not. The 25-year-old alt R&B singer has an incredibly strong, confident vocal tone, and her onstage delivery is a degree of flawless that most singers require a dozen takes to achieve in the studio. Watch out for her. -- JL
 

9:30 p.m. -- Possibly the night’s most hyped show was a late-announced performance from Vince Staples, a proud son of Long Beach, Calif. and one of the most promising and accomplished MCs to emerge in the past five years. The show was part of Apple Music’s SXSW series (along with the Chainsmokers Thursday and a mysterious big show slated for Friday night) and was held in a customized venue on the east side of downtown with state-of-the-art lights and sound but an unfortunately low ceiling and stage, which makes sightlines a challenge not only when the average height of a crowdmember comes up to the performer’s chest, but when you’ve got an artist like Staples, who has great songs, razor-sharp lyrics and a percussive, propulsive flow that drives his tracks as hard as the hardest beats -- but whose enthusiasm for performing live seems tepid, at least on this night. With eye-grabbing graphics projected on the screen behind the stage -- an odd combination of sea creatures, explosions, Cold War-era Air Force footage and morphing flowers -- over the course of his hour-plus set he performed most of his stellar Summertime ’06 album, his Prima Donna EP and his latest single “Bagbak” (his new album, Big Fish Theory, is due “very soon,” per his label). And while the crowd clearly loves his songs and he had some strong moments, when the dude tells you to “put your hands in the air” and he’s got his back turned to the audience, it tends to dampen the mood. -- JA

9:47 p.m. -- Not long after singing a Latin-flavored, bilingual cover of "I Will Survive," Austin-based Gina Chavez announced, "This next song is for the fools in Washington who don't listen to women." Melding Texas rock with shadings of Latin folk, Chavez spit out an ode to nasty women centered around the words "nevertheless she persisted," the feminist rallying cry reclaimed from Mitch McConnell's condescending dismissal of the senator. -- JL

10:35 p.m. -- Filmmeister Leonard Maltin, in town for the SXSW Film Festival, is among the VIPs at Ray Benson's 66th birthday bash, hanging out with the musician and some of his buddies after the show, chatting and eating birthday cake. -- GG

11 p.m. -- After another dozen-block power-walk across town (during which a headphone-sporting kid on a skateboard zoomed past us loudly rapping lyrics from Staples’ “Norf Norf,” funny enough), we closed out the night early with a quick stop at the Stereogum showcase at the Mazda Studio at Empire (hey, we had to moderate a panel in the morning). Acoustic acts often have a rough go of it at SXSW -- the booze and the Spring Break contingent make crowds anything but patient -- but even by those standards, Buffalo, N.Y.-bred songstress Julie Byrne had a challenging night. She soundchecked while pulsating dance music played and some frat boys bellowed an unintelligible chant over an already loud crowd. After she and her keyboardist strode onstage at precisely 11 bells, she said, “I’m gonna warn you, it’s about to get really, really chill up here.” She gamely played a pair of her stately, folk-based acoustic songs from her latest album, Not Even Happiness, before telling the crowd, “Our flight from New York was cancelled by the snowstorm. So you know what we did? We drove -- for 24 hours. And guess when we got here? An hour ago.” (Heaven knows where they parked in the gridlocked and near-military lockdown of central Austin, where the cheapest parking during SXSW week is $20.) They launched into another song that was drowned out by the beer boys behind us, and we decided to call it a night and give Julie another shot under more forgiving circumstances. -- JA

11:23 p.m. -- Spiral Stairs, the erstwhile "other" guitarist from seminal '90s rockers Pavement, blasted through that band's deep-cut "Kennel District" (from 1995's Wowee Zowee) to a smattering of fans on the outdoor stage at Cheer Up Charlies, who are clearly shocked -- and excited -- that they got to hear any of his old stuff at all. "Dude, I haven't heard that in, like, 15 years," one guy exclaimed, as his fist pumped steadily through the air. -- JM

12:16 p.m. -- South By's made-for breakthrough moments are all about bands like Hard Proof, a nine-piece, horn-driven instrumental ensemble weaned on equal parts Femi Kuti and the soundtrack to Shaft." Their expressive, percussive funk's a welcome respite from the vocal-driven indie-pop and heavy hip-hop that are festival staples, and the packed crowd inside Cheer Up Charlies responded to every drum-pop and shreddy solo with unreserved excitement, all of which was headily deserved. Bonnaroo should book them, stat: they'll kill there, and then everywhere else, too. -- JM

1:34 a.m. -- If you first encountered Massachusetts pop-punkers Potty Mouth at their late Tuesday night SXSW show, you would have no idea if they lived up their name, as the lead vocals were buried in the mix to a nearly indecipherable point. "I know we're terrible to mix," singer Abby Weems told the sound guy at Barracuda before brushing it off entirely: "It's SXSW, fuck it, we're not supposed to even sound good." It didn't matter -- Potty Mouth's speedy fuzz-punk was a much-needed late night adrenaline rush that incited plenty of dancing and even an attempted mosh from the otherwise tired and half-sauced crowd. -- JL

1:39am: Intrepid Internet researchers may see photos emerge of a certain L.A.-based Billboard contributor being wrapped up in the SXSW vibe and ending up onstage playing guitar with the NY-via-Japan novelty rockers Peelander Z at Valhalla (and, subsequently, for a jam outside on Red River.) Sorry/not sorry. -- JM