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.
Ari Lennox: “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
Vince Staples: — 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
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