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The 10 best things we saw at SXSW 2018

Lyndsey Parker
Max Richter performs “Sleep” at the Bass Concert Hall during SXSW on March 12, 2018, in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Getty Images)

The South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, made a noticeable effort to scale back this year: Gone were the zany days when Lady Gaga performed on a stage shaped like a Dorito’s vending machine, Kanye West ‘n’ Friends headlined a Vevo megaparty, or Justin Timberlake shilled for Myspace. And this was not an unwelcome development. Without all the crowding, endless queuing, and obnoxious, in-your-face marketeering, there were now new opportunities to see rising bands, unusual bands, bedtime bands … and even puppet bands.

Thanks, SXSW, for keeping Austin weird in 2018. These were the best acts we caught at the fest.

Max Richter puts spectators to sleep

Usually when audience members doze off at a gig, that’s a bad sign. But when it came to post-minimalist German-British composer Max Richter’s performance at the Bass Concert Hall, that was the whole idea. At 11 p.m., 150 lucky, drowsy fans — some in pajamas — showed up and tucked themselves into the venue’s fluffy beds for the North American premiere of Richter’s Guinness World Record-setting, eight-hour, overnight orchestral lullaby, “Sleep.” The unique event ended the next day at 8:30 a.m.

Max Richter performs “Sleep” at the Bass Concert Hall during SXSW on March 12, 2018, in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Getty Images)

“One of the reasons I wanted to make ‘Sleep’ was a dissatisfaction with the limitations of music performance,” Richter explained to the Austin Chronicle. “Live music performances are very ritualized. You go to a certain place, the band or orchestra comes on, they play, everyone behaves in a certain way, there are rules. I wanted to create a piece that was more open, more environmental, I think of it as more of a gallery work or installation.”

Our only complaint about “Sleep”? It should have taken place not on SXSW Music’s first night, Monday, but on the final night — when we were truly exhausted after a week of gig-going, and all we wanted to do was crawl into bed.

Another angle on Max Richter’s “Sleep” at the Bass Concert Hall during SXSW on March 12, 2018, in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Getty Images)

Fragile Rock bring the #puppetpain

Perhaps not since the ’80s double bill of “Puppet Show with Spinal Tap” — or at least since Dr. Teeth & The Mayhem played San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival in 2016 — has there been as monumentally felt-tastic a music act as Austin’s own brilliantly named puppet emo band. Fresh off their recent Tiny Desk Concert for NPR, the hyperemotional collective thrilled human fans with heart-on-felt-sleeve songs like “My Journal Is Blank,” “Stay Felt,” “I Am Sad and So Am I,” the rallying cry “Socks Are Murder,” and an ode to elusive ’90s screen goddess Fairuza Balk. Check out that last track, plus a classic interview with two of the band’s coquettish backup singers, the Cocteau Triplets, below.

Todd Rundgren freaks out Chris Price with impromptu duet

During a songwriters’ discussion at the Convention Center, powerpop/soul musician Chris Price was asked to perform a song by the panel’s star speaker, Todd Rundgren … and when Rundgren unexpectedly joined him on backing vocals, Price understandably (and adorably) did his “best to keep it together.”

“So I did a panel at SXSW today about songwriting with Todd Rundgren. And I was asked on the spot to cover a Todd song in front of him. And I was nervous as hell, but I decided to do this number off of Ballad of Todd Rundgren called ‘Bleeding’ because I covered it once like 10 years ago,” a giddy Price later wrote on Facebook. “And Todd started singing along in the chorus and I started forgetting lyrics. But it was a huge joy and I had a total blast.”

Andrew WK parties hard

It didn’t get more fun, or more literal, than the Hotel Vegas Patio set by the most earnest man in rock. The international party ambassador was a vision of pure white light/white heat as he lumbered about the tiny stage looking like a rock ’n’ roll version of the Incredible Hulk with all the green body paint bleached away — his steroidal muscles straining the seams of his trademark soiled white jeans, his lank mane of sweat-slicked hair and brawny Popeye arms whirling in all directions. He started his set with what should be SXSW’s unofficial anthem, the new single “Music Is Worth Living For,” and ended it with what should be SXSW’s official anthem, “Party Hard.” And every song in between sounded like an ’80s Shiner Bock commercial jingle — in the best possible way.

Dr. Pepper’s Jaded Hearts Club Band bring Liverpool to Austin

This all-star Beatles cover band — featuring Muse’s Matthew Bellamy on bass, the Last Shadow Puppets’ Miles Kane and Jet’s Chris Cester on shared lead vocals, and members of Nine Inch Nails and the Zutons — transformed Stubb’s BBQ into the Cavern Club during Rachael Ray’s annual Feedback bash. Absolutely no one in the crowd was jaded — in fact, at the end of the set, the 3,000 people in attendance even chanted Ray’s name over and over with gratitude. All you need is love, indeed.

DYGL are a stroke of genius

These Tokyo garage-rockers (whose name is pronounced “day-glo”) have been dubbed the “Japanese Strokes” — which makes sense, since their debut album, Say Goodbye to Memory Den, was co-produced by Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. These guys had the swagger, the style, and the groovy hooks to answer the musical question “Is this it?” with a resounding YES all over again.

Kitten perform a dreamy Cranberries cover

This ’80s-damaged L.A. electro-rock band may usually sound like the missing link between Patty Smythe and Teena Marie, but during their set at the Mohawk, they paid tribute to a female rock legend from the ’90s: recently departed Cranberries singer Dolores O’Riordan. Frontgoddess Chloe Chaidez’s strident, soaring vocals did “Dreams” justice.

Bat Fangs get dirty

And here’s a very different cover song! The lo-fi indie duo comprising Ex Hex’s Betsy Wright and Flesh Wounds’ Laura King took an old favorite from the misogynistic ’80s hair-metal era, Poison’s “Talk Dirty to Me,” flipped it, and turned it into a short/short/shocked punk blitz. Betsy, pick up that guitar and-uh … TALK to me!

Shopping are open for business

Imagine a British, much more serious B-52s. Now multiply that imagined awesomeness by about 1,000. The co-ed London trio’s Edwyn Collins-endorsed, arty, angular post-punk — spiky/slashing guitars, deadpan half-spoken vocals, political sloganeering — was the soundtrack to the best dance-this-mess-around party in Austin.

Shame should be proud

Shame on you if you attended SXSW this year and missed one of the seemingly dozen gigs by this attitudinal South London gang of shirtless, snot-nosed rabble-rousers. Pairing surprisingly perfect pop sensibilities with manic guitars and snarling, terrace-chanty vocals, Shame electrified every stage they set their engineer-booted feet upon, and they were one of the buzziest breakout acts of the entire festival.

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