SXSW music festival: Solange, Death Grips and Kendrick Lamar

In our final report from Austin, Texas, we load up on brisket buns and head off for some slick pop and thrillingly abrasive hip-hop

If my first few days of SXSW were characterised by a slight unease about the endless corporate sponsorship, that seems to have washed away on the gentle tides of free mojitos and BBQ sauce. I've also reassessed my view that this is a free festival open to anyone. Even at 3pm, there are queues snaking round the block to see Peace, the B-Town buzz band who seem to be playing about nine times a day in Austin. A few months ago their live show was sloppy and indulgent, with trippy wig-outs taking precedence over the big melodies of their record. Now, at the Vans showcase, they're blasting huge indie choruses with the professionalism of a stadium outfit. The progress they've made in performance, however, is matched by a further deterioration of their sense of style. Lead singer Harrison has taken to wearing highwaisted, circus trousers with a maroon fur coat.

Perhaps they share a stylist with Charli XCX, who is outside at the same venue jiving around on stage in some baggy pyjamas and neon yellow sports bra. Her spritely pop has come on a bit since she tried to become the poster girl for Witch House in 2010, but it still feels a bit second division compared with recent blog-pop releases from Sky Ferreira and Chloe Howl. After her, it's Disclosure, who manage a stunning sunset show full of big garage beats. It's an unusual set up, with vocals being played from a backing track while the lads fill in the beats with drum pads and analogue synths, but they make it work. You can't help thinking about how good they're going to be playing to 100 times as many people at the summer festivals.

Most of the week is dominated by turns from big names in hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar's show at Stubb's is one of the hottest tickets of the festival but for all the hype, it feels a little directionless, relying on a basic DJ and MC set-up that feels a bit hollow for an artist so focused on big atmospheric production. Still, he's got the best songs of pretty much anyone at the festival, and when he turns the crowd into a foul-mouthed gospel chorus for Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe it's hard to find fault. More impressive is Earl Sweatshirt's late-night show in some kind of Mountain Dew-sponsored back garden. With members of Odd Future and heavy clouds of smoke flanking the stage, he switches between cheeky bon mots about John Cusack and aggressive tirades about having sex with strangers while smoking.

There's tonnes more I saw: Angel Haze spitting "odes to dickheads" at the Perez Hilton party, Swedish singer MO providing some genuine competition to Grimes in the bonkers dance stakes and Chvrches telling the crowd to think twice about buying Converse while playing the, er, Converse stage. But two performances stand way, way out.

The first is Solange at Fader Fort. Her live band are jaw-droppingly slick, perfectly tailored and musically in sync with west-coast 70s soul and 2013 cutting-edge production. Solange is a consumate popstar, never simply running through the set. In every song she engages in impressive vocal acrobatics with her backing singers and some slinky synchronised choreography with her guitarist Dev Hynes. The crowd screams for a good minute and a half between songs, reserving their biggest cheer for her understated cover of Dirty Projectors' Stillness in the Move – a song she has reworked as an Erykah Badu neo-soul slow jam. Solange doesn't have a big arsenal of hits yet, but as a live pop performer she is peerless.

The other is the Boiler Room party on the final night. The British promoters are used to putting on tiny, exclusive shows in east London cupboard venues, so they could have been out of their depth holding a closing night bash at a huge warehouse on the outskirts of town. Their decision massively pays off when Californian hip-hop trio Death Grips arrive in the middle of the venue for what is the most abrasive live performance this writer has ever seen. Vocalist MC Ride's flow is more gutteral deranged hollering than what you might call "rap". He's underscored by piercing Trap hi-hats, two giant inflatable ecstasy pills being suckerpunched across the venue and a panoramic projection of digital distortion on every wall. It leaves me awestruck.

SXSW is like stepping into music's future. Part of that is seeing the uncomfortable truth that record labels and DIY aesthetic are going to slowly be replaced by sport-style sponsorship. But it does also prove there are still acts that can excel beyond expectation to make music that feels like it comes from somewhere entirely new. The trip to Texas was worth it just for Solange and Death Grips, although all those brisket buns certainly didn't harm things.


Sam Wolfson

The GuardianTramp

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