Midway through the showcase for the hip-hop publicity company Audible Treats, the event’s MC took the stage to request a moment of silence for those who had perished in the previous evening’s unthinkable accident. It was a jarring moment — a night of reverie interrupted by a somber reminder of reality — but a necessary one. At a festival as enormous and all-encompassing as South by Southwest, it’s easy to quickly construct a different reality, one defined by a feeling of euphoria and escape. The acknowledgement of sad events that had taken place just 24 hours earlier punctured that illusion — like someone suddenly switching on the lights at a bar at last call. It was a reminder of the world that exists outside Austin’s rolling party, and of the awful things that often occur there.
The third day of South by Southwest began tentatively, overshadowed by a sense of uncertainty over how to proceed just a few hours after tragedy, but it eventually resumed its usual, frantic pace. This year more than any other, access to day parties — unofficial shows where festival badges are rendered useless — has been close to impossible. Staggering, block-long afternoon lines have been surprisingly typical, and to abandon a show early is to risk seeing nothing else until nightfall.
This is mostly because the daytime offerings have been particularly rich. One of Thursday’s strongest sets came courtesy of Kelela, the Los Angeles singer whose mixtape Cut 4 Me was one of last year’s most rewarding records. Her set was warm and buoyant, full of songs casually informed by mid-’90s R&B, but reconfigured in new and surprising ways. Dusky, soulful arrangements are interrupted by stuttering rhythms; synthetic strings swell, only to be punctured by firecracker drums and soothing, quiet-storm keyboards are sunk by bone-rattling bass drops. The songs work because, no matter how hectic the arrangements, the focus remains on Kelela’s voice. A lithe, flexible instrument, it arched and somersaulted over the mechanized clatter, a beaming beacon in the center of an electrical storm. On stage, Kelela comes off as endlessly approachable. She shared a story about an unsuccessful attempt to hail a cab the night before and shouted out, by name, the audience member who’d given her a ride. She cracked wry jokes about the casual nature of her set, forgoing a soundcheck in order to save precious performance time and wryly informing the crowd, “I only have time for the hits.” There was a palpable sense of joy to her performance — the way she emphatically bounced and leapt, the wide, gleaming grin she wore as she sang. The whole thing felt like a tonic, a sudden blast of sunshine to help lift some of the clouds.
Kelela’s genuine emotion stood in stark contrast to the somewhat manufactured pathos of the Orlando band You Blew It! The group takes its cues from late-’90s emo — specifically, the moments before the ragged strain derived from hardcore gave way to the polished pop variant that rose to commercial prominence in the early ’00s. That the group is derivative is without question. Their chosen formula — tense, brittle verses that give way to cathartic, howling choruses — has roots in groups like Cap’n Jazz and Mineral. But they delivered them with a sense of awareness that made it hard to begrudge them much. They filled the dead space between songs with in-jokes, and grinned through each punishing crescendo, which made the songs feel less self-pitying, more triumphant. If their predecessors often came off like self-pitying, self-loathing sad-sacks, You Blew It! seemed more like high school smartasses, replacing the awkwardness and abrasiveness that once defined emo with a kind of high-caliber cockiness while keeping all of its familiar sonic elements firmly in place.
If You Blew It! are class clowns, San Francisco’s Burnt Ones are the parking-lot stoners. Their 2013 album You’ll Never Walk Alone contained one of the year’s greatest opening lyrics — “Tell all of your friends that this is the end of all their stupid trends” — and was full of grizzled psych rock as wavy as a mirage. They were thornier live; the guitars were louder and caked in distortion, and the rhythms were more forceful and more visceral. But they retained much of the music’s acid-fed wooziness, keeping the guitars loud and clanging and letting the vocal melodies drift somewhere above them like a band of pink sunlight over a choppy sea. At one point, vocalist Mark Tester hunched over a tiny keyboard and sent a string of wheezing notes trudging through the sonic morass, adding to the music’s dreamlike bleariness.
The songs of the Bay Area rapper ISSUE were bleary, too, but where Burnt Ones relied on layers of distortion to curdle their sound, ISSUE accomplished the same feat with just his voice alone. His story is a curious one. The son of the iconic West Coast rapper E-40, he has largely spurned his father’s populist style in favor of obtuse rhymes that engage as often as they alienate. The fact that he dons a metal mask onstage could be read as a tribute to — or, if you’re being less generous, a mimicry of — MF Doom. ISSUE clearly shares that rapper’s fondness for absurdity, if not his gift for wordplay. In fact, ISSUE’s songs seem almost completely lyric-agnostic. Rather than construct dense, multi-syllabic runs, ISSUE instead latches on to a key phrase, usually involving tea, (on Thursday, it was “Hot water mix it up/ tea bag, brew it up”) and repeats it until its devoid of meaning. He does this over productions that drip down slow as maple syrup, the perfect complement to his relaxed drawl. His style is not for everyone (indeed, his set at Thursday’s Southern Hospitality showcase met with more than a few boos) but there’s something about its sheer strangeness that makes ISSUE’s music oddly riveting.
The songs of Cincinnati/Brooklyn trio Tanya Morgan are far more linear. The group’s strength is in their lyricism. Their albums are full of dense, funny narratives, usually about the music industry and its hypocrisies, and the group’s three members hand off verses to one another nimbly, like a couple of high school friends tossing a ball around. They recall no one so much as De La Soul, offsetting pointed observations about social ills with goofball humor, which prevents them from ever feeling pious or joyless. On Thursday they were in fine form, staying in motion for the majority of their brief set, and rattling through their rhymes with breathless urgency, making them feel nervy and palpably alive.
Black Milk, a rapper from Detroit, has a few things in common with Tanya Morgan. Both of them crib ably from the past, nicking old soul and gospel tracks for their musical backdrops and scuffing them up with the proper amount of dust and grain. But where Tanya Morgan often play they savvy observers, Black Milk’s music is more openly autobiographical. He narrates chapters from his life with force and conviction, chopping up lines into split-second syllables and bouncing them between the beats at a rate that swings from loose and conversational to almost blindingly fast. As a performer, he’s almost instantly relatable, his relaxed gait suggesting he’s not so much rapping for an audience as he is talking to a friend. At the end of a day that still felt halting and uncertain, there was a comfort that came with hearing Black Milk’s songs of everyday victories, a reminder that there can be bright and frequent glimmers of hope, even when things seem at their darkest.