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50 Best Things We Saw at SXSW 2015

Fetty Wap’s one-song knockout, T-Pain’s triumphant comeback, Willie Nelson’s awesome tour bus and more.

Fetty Wap’s one-song knockout, T-Pain’s triumphant comeback, Willie Nelson’s awesome tour bus and more.

The South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, is filled with excess: thousands of shows, thousands of music fans, an uncountable number of plates of BBQ. If something at SXSW is worth doing, it’s worth overdoing — a premise breakout star Courtney Barnett lived out by doing eight sets before flying home to Australia. This year, the festival dialed down a bit on superstar appearances — possibly out of safety concerns after last year’s tragic hit-and-run deaths — but there was still plenty of must-see action. Our team of writers and photographers fanned out across the city, finding the very best Austin had to offer. Here are 50 of our highlights, from a surprise appearance by T-Pain to avocado fries.

Best Multi-Platinum Surprise: Miley Cyrus

Miley Cyrus

Is a party truly complete before Miley Cyrus shows up? Appearing at Mike Will Made It’s Fader Fort showcase, she had the crowd in her palm from the moment she walked out and began rapping her verse from the producer’s “23.” She played her trump card next, sending the room into rowdy raptures with a performance of “We Can’t Stop” that showed off her legit impressive vocal power. It also raised the question of whether enough time has passed for us to be nostalgic for the summer of 2013, that carefree season of red cups, sweaty bodies and barely disguised drug references in pop songs. Time waits for no one, but “We Can’t Stop” is forever. Finally, she stayed onstage as Will’s young protégés Rae Sremmurd sent us off with their irresistibly catchy “Throw Sum Mo.”

Best Intimate Big Show: J. Cole


One of the few giant names in hip-hop that actually showed up this year was J. Cole, and what a set he delivered. Crowds waited in line for hours to get a chance at a ticket, with even credential holders getting turned away at the door. When Cole finally took the stage after a few short sets from his Dreamville labelmates, he more than justified fans’ efforts to see him. His conversations with the massive crowd felt like confessions, and even when amped-up audience members started crowdsurfing on the floor level, his set — which included songs from The Warm Up all the way through to 2014 Forest Hills Drive — had the personal vibe of a show in a much smaller room.

Best Motivational Speaker: Big Sean

Big Sean
Kyle Dean Reinford

The Fader Fort’s Friday lineup featured two unnamed guest sets directly following Migos, so everyone was shocked when Big Sean came out before Migos ever took the stage. The change-up, likely due to a last-minute scheduling issue, ended up making Big Sean’s appearance an actual surprise. He opened with “Paradise” and went through hits like “All Your Fault” and “GangBang” (sadly, no appearance by Wiz Khalifa) and “I Don’t Fuck With You” (awesomely, with an appearance by E-40) before telling the crowd to “make some noise if you’re a dreamer.”

“Whatever you do, get on your grind. It’s motherfuckin’ time to get it,” he said, adding, “Make your family proud, take care of your family and be happy,” before going right into “Blessings.” It was apparently a good pep talk: The crowd went nuts.

Best Arena-Ready Band: Bleachers

The Bleachers
Koury Angelo

With fun. announcing that they’re on hiatus while its members pursue solo projects, there’s a hole in the musical ecosystem for a high-energy, candy-colored pop-rock band. Who better to fill it, then, than Jack Antonoff, fun.’s lead guitarist? His side project Bleachers released their debut Strange Desire last year — and judging by a string of SXSW gigs, Antonoff is now ready to take the band to the next level.

We caught them at the tiny Uproxx House, where they powered through seven of their own songs plus a cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Although their bassist stood out by seemingly taking fashion cues from tennis star Bjorn Borg (neatly trimmed beard, headband), and Antonoff was jumping all over the place and trading riffs with his saxophonist, the star of the show was the songwriting. Antonoff’s compositions are carefully constructed like a microchip or a Holland-Dozier-Holland tune. By the time the band reached the final song, “I Wanna Get Better,” it seemed clear that Bleachers make a big enough noise to fill arenas. Resistance is futile.

Best R&B Comeback: T-Pain

Kyle Dean Reinford

The second surprise guest at Friday night’s Fader Fort was T-Pain, who played an astonishing 42 songs to close out the evening. “The reason I’m here is to remind you motherfuckers who I am,” he said. “We’ll start off easy, but I’m gonna put some pressure on that ass.” The set was nonstop energy, with constant dancing and lightning-fast medleys of his considerable hits. He didn’t stop for the entire set, which ended up running long after his supposed curfew. One highlight — and there were many — was a breakneck mash-up of parts of Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” with aspects of the T-Pain-featured Rick Ross joint “The Boss.” 

Best Country Comeback: Wynonna Judd

Wynonna Judd
Amy E. Price/Getty

At age 50, Judd is incredibly famous, but suffers from some of the cheesy sheen that remains on many mainstream country stars of the Eighties and Nineties. She provided the antidote at her show at the intimate Bethel Hall in St. David’s Church on Friday, playing with a stripped-down three-piece band of stone Nashville pros and telling stories about her own life. The audience, a mix of superfans and skeptics, watched Judd reinvent herself. Without overblown production, the emphasis was on her big, bluesy voice — she said that at an early age, she wanted to be known as “Shelvis,” and her Presley roots came through.

Best Mental Image: Snoop Dogg Weeping Before One of His Own Paintings

Lorne Thomson/Getty

We know Snoop Dogg as a rapper, singer, movie star and football coach. There were also those times that he appeared at WrestleMania. Now, at the behest of his fans, the 43-year-old has taken up art. “They were like, ‘Man, you should paint,'” Snoop said at his overflowing Friday-morning keynote. “I was like, ‘For real?'” He made his first piece while staying at Australia’s Versace Hotel and knew it was finished when he sprinkled weed ashes onto the canvas. Such work has since become a cathartic experience. “I’m in a whole ‘nother galaxy,” he rhapsodized. “I’m smiling, I’m laughing, I’m crying. I’m everywhere.”

Best Knockout: Fetty Wap

Fetty Wap
Andy Pareti/Getty

New Jersey rapper Fetty Wap currently has the 10th-biggest song in the country with his ride-or-die love song “Trap Queen.” So when he showed up as a highly touted guest at Fool’s Gold’s party on Friday night, that’s what he performed: “Trap Queen”…and only “Trap Queen.” Fetty bounced immediately after doing his one hit, like a mirage in the night. But, hey, at least he gave us that much!

Best Act of Redemption: Chance the Rapper

Chance the Rapper

Chance’s band, the Social Experiment, arrived to the Fader Fort stage on time; the rapper, on the other hand, didn’t appear until minutes after he was scheduled to leave, leading fickle festivalgoers to yell lines like “You suck!” and “You’re not Kanye!” His giddy, colorful, easy-going set proved that they were at least right about the latter: Buoyed by life-affirming organ lines and the kind of trumpets Yeezy hasn’t used since “Touch the Sky,” Chance leaped, danced and spit through some of the best tracks from 2013’s Acid Rap. By the time he reached “Favorite Song,” he had practically turned into a soca artist, engaging the crowd in some call-and-response and ordering everyone to jump in unison.

Best Hope for a Genre-Free Future: Sam Hunt

Sam Hunt

Sam Hunt will be touring with Lady Antebellum this summer, but on Wednesday afternoon he closed down winter by taking on the cool kids at Fader Fort. After Houston chopped-and-screwed disciple OG Ron C warmed the crowd with tracks like “Coco” and Lil Wayne’s “O Let’s Do It” remix, the Georgia-via-Nashville sweetie (dressed in Drizzy-esque all-black) proved himself with a professional, exuberant half-hour set of rowdy pop-country and snippets of tunes like “Jesus Walks” and “Bump N’ Grind.” Those unfamiliar with his work — all but a few scattered fans, identified by their screams — might have wondered if he were pandering. He wasn’t.

Best Pop Exhibitionist: Tove Lo

Tove Lo
Laura Barisonzi

Swedish pop star Tove Lo recovered from her recent throat surgery in time to headline the Rolling Stone party on Tuesday (held in Lance Armstrong’s bicycle shop, with his yellow jerseys still on the wall). She led her band (one keyboardist, two drummers) through irresistible singles such as “Habits (Stay High)” and “Talking Body,” and worked the crowd into a sweaty froth. Before playing “Heroes,” she told the audience, “It’s really fucking hot up here. I’m not wearing a bra, so if I get a nip slip, you have to tell me.” Then, delivering on her foreshadowing, she flashed a nipple to the crowd. She also convinced some of the audience to take off their own shirts: “That would make me feel a lot better.” Over lunch with RS earlier that day, Tove Lo discussed drunken behavior with her band and tour staff (whom she collectively calls “my five husbands”). While her tour manager is fond of throwing food when he gets inebriated, attempting to toss almonds and gummy bears into people’s mouths, she prefers to get up on a table and flash her butt to whoever’s around. Then, she said with a smile, her tour manager “has to grab me and pull my pants up.”

Best Hustle: Migos


Migos played eight shows on Friday and Saturday (and a ninth on Thursday). In the three that we witnessed, the Atlanta trio casually appeared at the venue looking placid and stoned, then bum-rushed the stage with an energy unmatched by anyone else on the bill. From there, on to the next one.

Best Reason to Get Out of Austin: The Heartbreaker Banquet at Willie Nelson’s Ranch

Willie Nelson
Nicole Fara Silver

Here’s Willie Nelson — a contemporary of James Brown, a songwriter for Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison — not just playing South by Southwest but throwing a rival ranch party so fun that it draws people 35 miles west of town on a loaded Thursday night. Openers like Nikki Lane and Hurray for the Riff Raff were superb, but the host and headliner was untouchable, playing hits, leading sing-alongs and moving nimbly across the fretboard as he jumped into a handful of aggressive acoustic guitar solos. Both his hat and his bandana ended up in the crowd — a diverse bunch that cheered for Waylon but knew more of “Beer for My Horses” than “Good Hearted Woman” — and he closed the show by packing the stage with “friends, family and neighbors” who helped him through an upbeat “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and a smirking “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.” Still, the entire trip — the trip to Texas, even — was worth it just to hear the way the 81-year-old’s voice lilts into the title line of “Always on My Mind.”

Best Alternative to Uber: Willie Nelson’s Tour Bus

Honeysuckle Rose tour bus
Nicole Fara Silver

Sure, the show was great fun — but for a few lucky guests, the 45-minute ride out of Austin was a highlight, too. Nelson’s famed Me and Paul tour bus — recently renovated, complete with Marshall headphones and amps — took a handful of revelers for a ride out into Hill Country. Between the leather ceilings and the crushed red velvet seats, it definitely beat taking a cab.

Best Living Up to the Hype: Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett
Nicole Fara Silver

Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett’s excellent debut LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, has made her one of 2015’s official Next Big Things, and SXSW definitely got the memo. She drew a jam-packed crowd to Stubb’s for an NPR showcase on Wednesday night — “Nobody told me how many of you there would be,” she said at one point. “There’s a fuckload!” She and her band fully earned the buzz with a riotous performance featuring plenty of her mean guitar and sardonic wit. Naturally, Barnett is as deadpan onstage as she is in her songs: After a rousing run of a song about a swimming-pool crush, she exclaimed, “That was ‘Aqua Profunda.’ What a stupid song!”

Best Mentor-Protégé Tag-Team: Tink and Timbaland


Tink came to Austin with one of the world’s best hypemen. Timbaland, who also happens to be one of the world’s best producers, warmed the crowd by shouting over past hits like “Big Pimpin’,” then introduced the Chicago rapper and declared her the future. “I don’t touch none of my sister’s records,” Tim said as Tink spit over a beat that sampled Aaliyah’s “One in a Million.” “But she spoke to me in my sleep and said she is the one.” Even so, some of the set’s best moments came when the younger artist, rocking a Williams-sisters visor-and-braids combo, playfully pushed her elder out of the way and claimed the stage as her own.

Best SXSW Debut: Dej Loaf

Dej Loaf

Dej Loaf’s Sell Soul mixtape was one of the strongest of 2014, but many still know the rapper only for “Try Me,” the shadowy hit that introduced her to fans outside Detroit. Playing a full week of shows, Dej continually convinced the people in the back of the room that the people in the front were onto something. And as a little reminder, she and her hypeman — who was twice her size — ended gigs by tossing copies of Sell Soul into the crowd. It might have been the only physical CD that festivalgoers were actually excited to receive.

Best Interstate Love Song: Best Coast

Best Coast
Jim Bennett

Turns out Texas evenings and California Nights go together splendidly — as Best Coast proved when they previewed their upcoming album of that name (due out in May) with a set at the Hype Hotel. Singer Bethany Cosentino’s lyrical themes have long fallen into three main categories: the virtues of California, the pleasures of getting stoned, and romance and its travails. On the new LP’s title track, she combined those themes into one mega-psychedelic package.

Best Escape: Rae Sremmurd

Rae Sremmurd
Nicole Fara Silver

After an insane set at House of Vans on Wednesday afternoon, Tupelo, Mississippi duo Rae Sremmurd attempted to exit the venue by meeting their SUV on the street outside. The only problem? Hundreds of fans were already waiting on the sidewalks and streets that surrounded the venue. By the time the brothers Sremmurd were in the car, dozens of young die-hards had piled up around the doors, trying to take iPhone pictures and touch them through the windows. Finally, security got the crowd to dissipate enough to get the car rolling.

Best Display of Perseverance: Run the Jewels

Run The Jewels

When Run the Jewels performed “Banana Clipper” on Monday afternoon, a marauder crashed the stage and attacked the duo. “Last time we did this song it got interrupted,” El-P told their the crowd at Stubb’s, four days later. “It’s not gonna get interrupted again.” Killer Mike was even clearer: “If you interrupt this song, we’re gonna beat the fuckin’ shit out of you.” No beatdowns were necessary then or later that night at their Cedar Street Courtyard gig, although the latter performance turned into one of the rowdiest of the festival. A handful of security guards were needed to reinforce the barricade that separated the pit from the rappers; the guards dodged an onslaught of bodies, drinks and keys. At one point, someone threw a gold watch onto the stage.

Best Way to Eat an Avocado: As French Fries

Avocado Fries

The avocado is a near-perfect food, held back only by the way that a slimy piece of one slips in your fingers if you try to eat the fruit by hand. The geniuses at the Tailgate Bistro food solve this problem by deep-frying each slice, then covering those slices in cheese, bacon, onion and cilantro. It’s still healthy, right?

Best Loop Duo: Tunde Adebimpe and Morgan Sorne

Tunde Adebimpe
Laura Barisonzi

Three hours later, singer Tunde Adebimpe would lead his band TV on the Radio through a triumphant headlining slot at the NPR showcase at Stubb’s. But at this moment, he was sitting on the stage (no chair or stool, on the actual stage) at the tiny 405 Club with his friend Morgan Sorne, experimenting with looping equipment. “Thank you for showing up,” he told the crowd of about 80 people. “We’re pretty much going to fuck around. You can do stuff.”

The audience followed his lead and sat cross-legged on the club’s wooden floor. They were then treated to Adebimpe and Sorne constructing songs in real time, hypnotically layering one sound on top of another into slow grooves, with Sorne’s high-pitched keening contrasting with Adebimpe’s rumbling voice. They patched together improvised percussion and snatches from their own songs, and when Adebimpe chanted a line like “there is life in it still,” all ears were attuned to the nuances of repetition. By the end of the set, Adebimpe was reclining on one side: relaxed in posture, but at a high pitch of creativity.

Best Case for Nostalgia: The Zombies

The Zombies
Laura Barisonzi

Singer Colin Blunstone and organist Rod Argent, who started making music together well over 50 years ago, were in particularly fine form in an early-evening Thursday set at Stubb’s, where they took care to include a generous helping of songs from 1968’s Odessey and Oracle and the obscurity “I Want You Back Again,” covered in recent years by Tom Petty. (“If it’s good enough for Tom Petty, it’s good enough for us,” Blunstone declared.) One new song, “Maybe Tomorrow,” made an explicit argument for the value of nostalgia, in a manner that felt both self-serving and charming. The song sounded like a lost B-side from 1966, and concluded, “We should forget about today/Just like the Beatles used to say/I believe in yesterday.”

Best Zombies (Non-Zombies Edition): The Pop Group

The Pop Group
Lorne Thomson/Getty

The post-punk pioneers recently released Citizen Zombie, their first new album in 35 years, and, at Red 7 on Saturday afternoon, their scabrous sarcasm and jagged funk were as charged as they were in the old days — arguably even crankier and noisier. Of note: Their bassist wore a T-shirt with the band’s own name onstage, which could have been a party foul or an ironic masterstroke. Who’s to say, really?

Best High Fructose Rave Syrup: The PC Music Showcase


The U.K. dance label’s super-packed Thursday night showcase at Empire Garage was more fun than binging on a gigantic bag of candy — all the dizzy sugar rush with no crash afterward. Each of the 11 artists on the bill staked out a unique piece of PC Music’s hyperactive sound, from GFOTY’s Spice-Girls-gone-punk tantrums to label architect A. G. Cook’s sped-up house heaven (“Beautiful” was divine) to Hannah Diamond’s teen heartbreak anthems to the blissed-out infomercial-core of QT’s “Hey QT.” The 1:30 a.m. closing spot went to Sophie (who isn’t formally part of PC Music, but has worked closely with its artists). His relentless set featured the hardest rhythms of the night.

Best Multitasking: The Unicycling Rapper

Raz Simone
Nicole Fara Silver

We ran into Raz Simone on Waller Street, riding through traffic on his one-wheeled scooter and rapping like a madman. It was a SXSW street performance, elevated on every level.

Best Rap Snacks: Action Bronson

Action Bronson
Nicole Fara Silver

It was the “impromptu” South by Southwest moment that Big Home Bron’s whole career has been building toward. After debuting his new album, Mr. Wonderful, on a private double-decker bus traveling through Austin (“There were a lot of low-hanging branches,” noted one passenger), the former professional chef streamed the album for the public while serving empanadas from his own food truck. “Play it loud!” he ordered, winking at a girl who was taking his photo. A small crowd waited their turn, thinning slightly — maybe by two or three people — when an oblivious Riff Raff approached a nearby vendor looking for some lunch of his own.

Best Triumph Over Nerves: Angel Olsen

Angel Olsen
Nicole Fara Silver

While artists like Hooray for the Riff Raff were stomping and clapping at the Heartbreaker Banquet’s main stage, a much more reflective kind of set was going on in a small tent by the back chapel. Last year’s Burn Your Fire for No Witness catapulted Angel Olsen into the kind of indie fandom that can repeatedly sell out mid-sized New York venues. Her performance on Thursday evening was somber and meditative: Staying fixed in a single spot for most of the set, she made very little banter with the audience. “I’m gonna try to do some covers,” she said by way of closing out. “But I don’t know if I’m gonna remember any of them because I’m nervous up here. Y’all make me nervous.” When she launched into a gorgeous cover of Emmylou Harris’ “Born to Run,” her tremulous voice soaring at the chorus, and followed it with a sweetly subdued take on Waylon Jennings’ “Rainy Day Woman,” it seemed like she got over her jitters.

Best Serenade: Tobias Jesso Jr.

Nicole Fara Silver

Newcomer Tobias Jesso Jr. has gotten serious buzz on the heels of his debut, Goon, and the 29-year-old, extremely tall Canadian — who only learned how to play piano a couple of years ago — has been performing some of his first-ever live shows around the States. At the Spotify House on an excessively humid Thursday afternoon, clad in a dark long-sleeve shirt and white Nike trainers, Jesso began an intimate set full of mellow piano ballads from the new record. “Get ready for some piano faces,” Jesso, who makes some serious piano faces, cracked before going into “Can We Still Be Friends.” His style onstage was easy and conversational, and he’s not ashamed to admit he’s still getting proficient at piano: At one point after hitting a sour note, he joked, “Oops, first mistake. It was bound to happen!”

Best Case of Schizophrenia: Mitski

Nicole Fara Silver

Twenty-four-year-old Mitski Miyawaki wrings magic out of contrasts: Her incredible vocal range hits crystalline, sonorous highs that often recall Mazzy Star, while the music she’s playing has a gritty, metallic brashness. Her 2014 LP, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, hits gut-punching lows of sadness and then face-melting rage-filled blackouts. During her set at Thursday’s Brooklyn Vegan showcase, she demonstrated both sides of her sonic personality. With a hot-pink bass guitar and a shirt that read “She Shreds,” Mitski and her two bandmates launched into songs like “Drunk Walk Home” — a song off the new record in which, naturally, she lilts in the intro then breaks into hardcore metal howls in the outro. Also of note? She managed to do it over and over again. When RS caught up with her on Friday, Mitski tried to explain how many shows she would be playing. “It’s been crazy,” she said. “I’m doing three shows tomorrow.” She paused. “Wait, no — three today! Oh my fucking God!”

Best Youthful Aggression (Non-Migos Edition): The Districts

The Districts
Kyle Dean Reinford

The Districts have been making raw, jittery rock since they were in high school — which actually wasn’t that long ago, since most of the Philadelphia four-piece are 19 and 20 years old. But what they lack in years they make up for in ferocity — their 2 p.m. Friday set at the Fader Fort was all raw energy, as they played tracks off their recent debut full-length, A Flourish and a Spoil.

Best Buzzer-Beater: Machel Montano

Machel Montano

At stateside soca parties, even the genre’s biggest names will often play no more than their three most popular hits, creating a frenzy and moving on to the next fête. At Friday’s LargeUp “Sounds of the Caribbean” showcase, headliner Machel Montano performed for a full hour, jumping, waving and dancing so hard that even on a 57-degree night, you could see the steam rising off his body. The venue closed at 2:00 a.m., and the Trinidadian star was supposed to be offstage at 1:50, but at 1:48 he pleaded for one more song. He then delivered a 15-minute sprint that began with a medley of reggae hits, transitioned into Major Lazer’s “Sound Bang,” turned to his own massive “Ministry of Road” and closed with Destra’s “This Is Carnival.” Still, the crowd wanted more.

Best Public Display of Adorkable: Alvvays

Amy E. Price/Getty

“Hi, we’re Alvvays!” said Alvvays lead singer Molly Rankin, whose every utterance seemed to come with an exclamation point. Her band was playing in front of a giant stone wall in the parking lot of Cheer Up Charlie’s. “I feel like we’re in the Flintstones movie!” They played a set that covered the distance from jangly to jaunty — but made up for their lack of range with melodies and charm to spare. Rankin even tried to get tall people to trade places with “tiny people” to improve the sightlines, exhorting, “It’ll be great! Participate!”

Best Recovery From an Injury: Viet Cong

Viet Cong
Nicole Fara Silver

Though Viet Cong drummer Mike Wallace came onstage with one arm in a sling, he played a formidable set with just one hand. On Friday, the band brought in reinforcements to the Fader Fort in the form of Thor Harris, the drummer for Swans and Shearwater, who showed up with just an hour’s notice. Standing to the side of Wallace, who was seated behind the kit, Harris beat the living hell out of the half of the drum kit that Wallace couldn’t access, returning the band to its characteristic in-your-face insanity and then some.

Best First Impression: Mickey Guyton

Mickey Guyton

When Mickey Guyton took the stage at YouTube’s Thursday afternoon showcase, few in the crowd seemed to know much about her. No matter: The rising country singer won them over with an endearing combination of vocal excellence, sturdy songwriting and sassy shots at an ex-boyfriend. A late-set bluegrass track slowed things down, but it also proved that she can mix it up. “Cool Ya,” the one she introduced as her “sexy song,” lived up to its billing, highlighting a set that people will remember even after returning to their colder hometowns — convenient because this summer she’ll be visiting many of them while touring with Brad Paisley.

Best Rainy-Day Rock: Torres

Nicole Fara Silver

Wet weather put a damper on much of Friday (especially the outdoor shows), but singer-guitarist Torres drove away any rainy-day blahs with a cathartic set at a Dr. Martens-sponsored showcase at Bar 96. Ranging from a throaty whisper to a full howl over grungy distortion, she turned songs like 2013’s “Honey,” 2014’s “New Skin” and this year’s “Strange Hellos” into emotional sledgehammers. It was a short but powerful performance that solidified her upcoming LP, Sprinter, as one of the year’s most anticipated indie-rock releases.

Best Dressed: Nikki Lane

Nikki Lane
Nicole Fara Silver

Rowdy Nashville songwriter Nikki Lane has become almost as well-known for her impeccable style as she has for her debaucherous, tongue-in-cheek country jams. The outfit she wore during her set on Thursday was one for the record books: a long, translucent white lace dress with very visible white briefs underneath and a giant white cowboy hat to match. “Who feels extremely lucky to be up here on Willie Nelson’s ranch instead of down in little old Austin?” she asked the crowd before launching into “700,000 Rednecks,” adding, “You all look fucking good doin’ it, too.”

Best Imaginary Special Guests: Alex G

Alex G

“Are you guys excited for the surprise guests?” Alex G asked the crowd at his late-afternoon Fader Fort set on Saturday. “If you like Space Jam, you’ll like the special guest,” he said. “If you like basketball and the Chicago Bulls, you’ll like the special guest.” Of course, the special guest didn’t actually end up being Michael Jordan, but it didn’t stop Alex G, the 22-year-old songwriting virtuoso, and his band from having a little fun in the meantime. For good measure, he later added that the special guest’s “initials are M.M. and he was a detective on the last season of True Detective.” (The special guest was not Matthew McConaughey either.)

Best Shredding: Screaming Females

Nicole Fara Silver

Singer-guitarist Marissa Paternoster punctuated the New Jersey trio’s Sabbath-style thunder with lightning-quick solos that Eddie Van Halen wouldn’t be mad at.

Best Warning Sign (Visual Edition): The Hype Hotel

Strobe and Smoke
Gavin Edwards

Spotted at the Hype Hotel during a set by singer-songwriter Ryn Weaver: “STROBE AND SMOKE EFFECTS WILL BE USED DURING THIS PERFORMANCE AND IT WILL BE SICK AS FUCK.”

Best Warning Sign (Audio Edition): Wand

"We play very loud"
Simon Vozick-Levinson

The sound guy at Hotel Vegas peered intently at a tip sheet provided by eardrum-blasting L.A. rockers Wand: “WE PLAY VERY LOUD, AND WILL NOT PLAY ANY OTHER WAY. PLEASE DO NOT TELL US TO TURN DOWN.”

Best Confession: Mac McCaughan

Mac McCaughan
Robert A Tobiansky/Getty

At the hugely entertaining “I Wrote That Song” panel discussion, Superchunk leader Mac McCaughan had a confession about the band’s most enduring song, the 1989 post-punk quit-your-job anthem “Slack Motherfucker”: “I have the demo for ‘Slack Motherfucker,’ and it sounds like a Tom Petty song.” He was making a point about how a band inevitably puts its own stamp on any composition, but given how Petty recently snagged a slice of Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me,” it seemed like a dangerous admission. “Bring it on, Tom!” McCaughan said with a shrug. 

Best Rolling Stones Cover: Della Mae

Della Mae

Della Mae, a five-woman country band, kicked off the Americana Music Association’s showcase at Pandora’s Discovery Den at the Gatsby with a set heavy on the bluegrass. The highlight came with a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations”: slow, rootsy, sung with feeling by Celia Woodsmith, a quiet prayer for a closing door.

Best Garage Rock en Espanol: Hinds

Nicole Fara Silver

Shows at 5 p.m. are the Bermuda Triangle of SXSW: too early for the looming insanity of the night, but a little too late for a happy-go-lucky day party. Hinds (a.k.a. Deers), the Madrid-based all-female four-piece, made the best of their time slot at Cheer Up Charlie’s on Wednesday, combining the sweaty energy of a riot-grrrl happening with catchy, pretty Sixties girl group harmonies. The band did plenty of jumping around, and soon so did the crowd. Hinds are already big in Europe, and they feel poised for a U.S. breakthrough.

Best Bluegrass Who: The HillBenders

The HillBenders
Nicole Fara Silver

You haven’t heard “Acid Queen” until you’ve seen it sung by a bearded man with a mandolin. Covering the Who’s Tommy in its entirety as a “bluegrass opry” for an enthusiastic rain-soaked crowd in the backyard of Threadgill’s on Saturday was a genius move (and a much better idea than having Ken Russell direct 1975’s Tommymovie). They faithfully replicated the songs, even giving short synopses of the plot at key points, but embellished them with banjo, mandolin and dobro to give the music an extra moonshine kick. The HillBenders, a talented five-piece band from Missouri, proved to be the perfect group to execute this “Whograss” concept — although their absence of a fiddle player was felt on “Fiddle About.

Best Venue: Austin Roller Rink

The Austin Roller Rink
Nicole Fara Silver

For 200 costumed skaters, SXSW ended at the Austin Roller Rink, a suburban venue that became Saturday night’s most fun after-hours spot. DJs and local bands with names like Wonderbitch (purveyors of a spot-on cover of Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”) soundtracked some great moves and a few spectacular falls, playing from a makeshift stage built so as not to obstruct the all-important arcade games. In the back, children’s party rooms were transformed by trippy visuals and experimental electronic music. Vendors offered homemade jewelry and Mexican crystals. Legs: more tired than ever; chakra: slightly less blocked.

Best Mother-Son Act: Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear

Madisen Ward & The Mama-Bear

There are lots of family acts in music history, most often consisting of brothers, who frequently seem to be feuding. Relatively uncommon is the mother-and-son partnership, with a few one-off exceptions, such as Ben Harper with his mom Ellen, Blake Shelton with his mom Dorothy, and Barbra Streisand with her son, Jason Gould. But Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear are a happy exception: a genuine, tightly knit band playing acoustic blues together. Performing at the Pandora Discovery Den at the Gatsby, the duo made the crowd feel like they were gathered around the family kitchen table. Madisen took most of the lead vocals, while his mother, Ruth, laid down a steady guitar groove — they traded musical phrases with the confidence that comes from decades of playing together, creating something beautiful and homemade.

Best Space Odyssey: Ultimate Painting

Ultimate Painting

The two guitarists in London’s Ultimate Painting spun their sun-kissed psychedelia far out into the stars, landing on an astral plane where Velvet-y drone met Kinks-y melody. Best of all was the swirling, feedback-warped solo that closed out their set.

Best Modern Country Murder Ballad: Lindi Ortega’s “Murder of Crows”

Linda Ortega
Suzanne Cordeiro/Corbis

Country singer Lindi Ortega (from Toronto by way of Nashville) updated the old tradition of the murder ballad during a fine set at the Continental Club, singing without remorse about burying her man in the backyard: “Everyone’s asking me all over town, if he ran away or if he drowned.”

Best Jacket: Airbrushed Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton
Nicole Fara Silver

This tough guy was on point with his clothing decisions, rocking a jacket with Dolly Parton’s airbrushed face on the back. Sure, it might have been a little balmy for outerwear on Wednesday night in Austin, but any chance to wear this masterwork is worth minor discomfort.