Three days in to SXSW Music 2015 and the real meat of the festival’s talent started to show its face. At a high-demand YouTube showcase at Copperbank, indie R&B champion The Weeknd played one of the few superstar showcases of the night. Skyrocketing to fame behind a trio of free albums House of Balloons, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, later renamed The Trilogy as a collective unit, the artist become a phenomenon in a little more than a year’s time. Here at SXSW he seemed excited to perform, and performed well in front of a ravenous crowd. Songs “High For This,” “Drinks on Us” and “The Morning” were filled out by a full live band and took on an impressive scale of dynamic range.
Abel Tesfaye (his real name) commanded the audience storming back-and-forth on the stage, crooning in an artfully controlled upper register. The backdrop of his music melded the lines between discordant quasi rock of industrial and futuristic hip-hop electro that has become the staple of the PBR&B movement. “Belong to the World” and “The Birds” played with enrapturing melodies punctuated by his stellar vocals. While the crowd ate it up—and their was no less than 30 cell phones in the air at any given time—this would be polarizing to some people not familiar with the lyrical content. The Weeknd revels in sex-addicted pillow talk, and lines like, “Make the pussy pop and do it how I want it,” were common in nearly every song.
Earlier on at the Under the Radar party, Danish band Mew immaculately displayed the power of precision musicianship. Touring for the first time in nearly six years behind their upcoming album + -, this set was a rare treat. Lead singer Jonas Bjerre renders his vocals almost entirely in an ultra high-pitch falsetto, but does so with a stunning command of inflection and variation. Guitarist Bo Madsen and bassist Johan Wohlert wove elaborate yet delicate interlocking melodies. When the whole band comes together unifying their sound, it’s a bit jaw-dropping how skilled they are. Simply put, as high a bar as SXSW sets each year, there are simply few bands here even this year that come close to their level of expert craftsmanship.
And lastly, Doomtree did what they do best, practically bring a crowd to ecstatic frenzy at Karma Lounge. The seven-member collective capped off a night where each of them played solo leading up to the full unit closing out the event. P.O.S., Cecil Otter, Sims, Mike Mictlan, Dessa, Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger take hip-hop and flip it like a turtle on its back and then kick it across the room. Eschewing convention, determinedly insisting on positive messaging, equal rights and a balance of elaborate proportions between the seven members. The chemistry between them, and the energy they get feeding off each other is what pushes this to unparalleled heights. The ending chant of final number “Bangarang” where the crowd shouts in unison “Bangarang” becomes the rallying cry for all that is why they are excellent. A defiant notion that rap as a genre does not have to pander to the worst of human instincts and can be uplifting and rewarding.