With a little Luck Reunion, the SXSW week takes on a sun-tangled glow

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The sun was shining brightly when Kevn Kinney took the stage in the Revival Tent at the Luck Reunion a little before noon on Wednesday and sang a tune that could’ve been the theme song of this entire event on the western outskirts of Austin. “Welcome to the Sun Tangled Angel Revival,” goes the song, which Kinney wrote years ago for a record with his band Drivin’ N’ Cryin’. “You can go everywhere, you can see everything, in the world.”

The possibilities indeed seem endless when you arrive in Luck, Willie Nelson’s fictional western town in the hills around Spicewood. These all-day bashes, coinciding with all of the South by Southwest action every mid-March, consistently present quality music in an atmosphere that combines quintessential Hill Country scenery with the cultural sensory overload of SXSW week.

Micah Nelson leads Particle Kid at the Luck Reunion on March 15, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

The Luck Reunion isn’t an official SXSW event; it’s more like a big party for Spicewood locals, visiting artists, and various VIPS making a one-day escape from the downtown madness. But it does in some ways feel like the early days of SXSW, when it was still small enough to run in to everyone you wanted to see and have great conversations all day long. In that respect, it’s a social event as much as a musical one.

But the music punctuates everything from 11 a.m. till well past sundown. A fourth stage (dubbed “Music From the Source”) was added this year, similar in size to the Revival Tent which has room for 200-300 people. The World Headquarters stage is the primary gathering spot (capacity in the 500-1,000 range), but perhaps the coolest spot is the tiny, old-west-picture-perfect chapel, which holds less than 100 people yet featured some of the best performers at the reunion.

Highlights for me on this day were plentiful. Kinney and Courtney Marie Andrews stood out in a pre-noon song-swap on the Revival Stage. Poking my head through the window of the chapel, I heard just enough of Lilly Hiatt to be quite impressed. Austin singer-songwriter David Ramirez drew an overflow crowd to the Source stage a little later and might have been the day’s big winner at Luck, likely winning over a lot of fans who’d not previously heard him. Aaron Lee Tasjan played tuneful rockers on the main stage, and brought the day full-circle when he brought his former bandmate Kinney onstage for a set-closing jam.

Willie’s sons Micah, with Particle Kid, and Lukas, with Promise of the Real, played as daylight faded over now-cloudy skies, with their dad’s closing set still to come after dark (along with a last unbilled special guest in the chapel who was rumored to have been Margo Price). We had obligations back in town and thus didn’t stay till the end, but we’d already had an ultimate Willie experience: a special invite to board one of his historic buses for a sneak-preview of “Last Man Standing,” his new record due out next month on Sony Legacy.

RELATED: Willie Nelson rolls on with another new album

And yes, the boarding time was 4:20. Willie’s also launching a new “Last Man Standing” line of his Willie’s Reserve marijuana brand in California to coincide with the album’s release. Your humble Statesman scribe was on the job and thus refrained from any free samples that may or may not have been passed around. Let’s just say that when an assistant opened the bus door to come aboard at one point, I’m pretty sure the view from outside of billowing smoke pouring from the bus approximated that classic Jeff Spicoli VW van scene from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”

Welcome to the Luck Reunion, aka the Sun Tangled Angel Revival. You can go everywhere, you can do everything, in the world.

RELATED: Photos from Willie Nelson at private Farm Aid event the night before Luck Reunion

 

 

 

 

 

you can go everywhere,

you can see everything,

in the world

Drab Majesty’s alien post-punk make them SXSW’s must-see act

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Los Angeles’ Drab Majesty are a post-punk duo who dress themselves in white leather jackets and futuristic shades like intergalactic bikers, have a slew of songs about the UFO cult Heaven’s Gate, and kicked off their set by eating white roses. That may not be what you would expect for one of the most memorable performances of the fest, but their show at local electronic label Holodeck’s (founded by S U R V I V E member Adam Jones) showcase last night at Hotel Vegas proved that their unconventional approach to a well-worn genre is what makes them a must-see act.

Drab Majesty (photo by Andy O’Connor for the American-Statesman)

Led by vocalist and guitarist Deb DeMure, the alter ego of Andrew Clinco, and augmented by keyboardist and backing vocalist Mona D, aka Alex Nicolaou, Drab Majesty sounds simply heavenly, with bright guitars and warm synths out lushing the lushet dream-pop group. What separates them from most post-punk bands, and why they have nowhere to go but up towards celestial heights, is that even with their left-field presentation, they know how to rock. Deb knows a hot lick at first sight, even when it’s dripping in reverb and shimmer. He would occasionally get close to the crowd and point his guitar triumphantly, bringing a whiff of 80s guitar god into their voyage. They’ve always been a mesmerizing presence just from their appearance, and this is another step towards expanding their live presence. For just coming off a massive European tour, they had energy to spare. Their set emphasized their more propulsive tracks, like “39 By Design” and “Kissing the Ground,” the latter of which has lines that would be nervous if not for all the gorgeous effects. “Cold Souls” is an anthem for life beyond death, and its driving melody making gutsy rock into something beautiful and cosmic.

RELATED: So many bands! Our music team makes some SXSW recommendations

A Drab Majesty set is a study in contrasts: it’s aggressive and will have you feeling light-footed, there are 80s sounds abound and yet they sound like they come from a world where time is void, it’s inspired by space and makes you feel closer to the Earth. Even if you killed all your idols, Deb is beyond charismatic. Hotel Vegas became not a teeming pool of garage rock and quarter-baked psych like it usually is, but a space where new possibilities flourish. It’s stupid to predict the future in music, and I’ll say it anyway: Drab Majesty have what it takes to become a much bigger act than they are now.

Drab Majesty just released “Cannibal” through Holodeck’s compilation Holodeck Vision One, which also features tracks from S U R V I V E’s Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, as well as local experimentalists like Troller, Michael C. Sharp, and Bill Converse. Austin isn’t just a hotbed for off-kilter electronic and rock, it knows how to cull from the best.

Thrasher brings metal back to SXSW

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Thrasher Death March’s absence the past two SXSWs has been the biggest loss for fans of metal and hardcore, as there wasn’t a better day party for them. This was the day party on the pulse, bringing the hottest new talent and the most righteous veterans together, and just far enough from the downtown chaos to make it worthwhile. Its return — at Weather Up, a cocktail bar that doesn’t seem like an obvious choice — heavily makes up for the anemic presence of the official lineup by bringing heat from Texas and all over the nation.

Spirit Adrift (photo by Andy O’Connor for American-Statesman)

Arizona’s Spirit Adrift made their Texas debut as people were starting to trickle in, and though the crowd was a little sparse at this point, they brought an arena gusto nonetheless. Lead vocalist and guitarist Nate Garrett was sounding fresh with his high vocals — the wear of the fest hasn’t gotten to him yet. Spirit Adrift were especially founding with the Trouble-Metallica fusion of “Curse of Conception,” Garrett’s catchy metal synthesis will get them better fest slots in the future. He was also pulling double duty playing guitar for death metal band Gatecreeper, where his bandmate Chase Mason takes over on vocals. A much larger crowd had came in by then, and when Mason ordered a circle pit for “Desperation,” a track that’s Swedish death metal gone hardcore, he got one. Despite having come through quite a few times in the past couple years, enthusiasm from them or Austin hasn’t waned. (Both groups will also play an unofficial show at Lost Well on Saturday.)

RELATED: Check out the 2018 SXSW unofficial party guide

When New Orleans sludge metal pioneers Eyehategod last came through in May, it was a bit of a disaster — vocalist Mike Williams left the stage after three songs because of exhaustion, and fans got up and sang the rest of the set. This time, he looked much healthier and got through a 30-minute set with nary an issue. He authoritatively announced they were playing a four-piece, minus guitarist Brian Patton, and jokingly called themselves “Black Flag,” a quartet that is one of their biggest influences. Not having Patton on board was no problem for guitarist and original member Jimmy Bower, who handled all the sludgy grooves himself with ease. Even with Williams in better standing, it was grim to hear him say “We’re on tour forever, and ever, and ever.” Staying on the road can take its toll, and for a guy like Williams, who’s lived Eyehategod’s lyrical themes of addiction and living on the margins, it can be especially painful.

Texas had an especially strong presence at Thrasher. In between sets on the West Stage, chopped and screwed music played over the PA. Punks and metalheads sure do love their DJ Screw, a contrast to the familiar fast and loud. Army are a new hardcore band from Austin, abundant with youthful energy and rage. It’s a simple name you’ll see on a lot after this week is over. Total Abuse blasted through a set of noisy hardcore, and the claustrophobia they bring surprisingly worked well outdoors. Dallas’ Mothership were a total 180 from both, opting for boogie-heavy stoner metal that careened towards Motorhead speed and scuzz. Thrasher knows how to bring variety in addition to quality, and that’s why its return bodes well for the state of heavy music at SXSW. It may be still close to the edge, but it hasn’t fallen off.

SXSW 2018: Speedy Ortiz shows who’s boss at Clive Bar

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Sadie Dupuis is tired.

Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. The self-proclaimed “frontdemon” of Massachusetts indie rock band Speedy Ortiz is tired of “people who say they’re allies, but you end up having to do a lot of emotional labor for them”; tired of people “not respecting other people’s space or agency”; and extremely tired of people who have not seen Frankie Shaw’s Golden Globe-nominated comedy “SMILF,” but still have the audacity to attend its SXSW showcase.

Andy Molholt and Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz also performed at The Fader Fort during SXSW on Wednesday March 14, 2018. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Dupuis aired her grievances between songs at Speezy Ortiz’s Clive Bar set on Thursday night. It made for some heady stage banter, but the singer, guitarist and former University of Massachusetts writing teacher isn’t one for small talk. She mixes her ruminations on sexism, addiction and music industry sleaze in a cocktail of buzzsaw guitar riffs and cymbal crashes, which she chases with snide, singsong vocal hooks. Oh, and the band brought a saxophonist on the road this time, because why not?

The audience at Clive Bar eagerly lapped up Speedy Ortiz’s grunge-pop concoction, watching and listening intently so as to not miss any of Dupuis’ knotty lamentations or threats, both figurative and literal. That proved a challenge on the bar’s humble outdoor stage, which was ill equipped for such a visceral performance and suffered from painfully loud feedback in spots. Noticeably frustrated, the band soldiered through the set, refusing to let sound problems halt their momentum.

RELATED: Check out the 2018 SXSW unofficial party guide

Did Speedy Ortiz deliver a joyful set? Maybe not in the conventional sense. But they delivered an empowering set, establishing their mission statement with their opening song, “Raising the Skate.” “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss / Shooter, not the shot / On the tip an fit to execute / I’m chief, not the overthrown / Captain, not a crony,” Dupuis sang in the anthemic chorus, a concise tell-off to people who try to dismiss or oppress powerful women because they’re intimidated by their talent.

Nobody challenged Dupuis’ proclamation on Thursday night. Nobody dared to even try.

Flatstock finds: SXSW’s gig poster show includes Robert Mueller art, Texas pride prints

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If you haven’t already blown through your SXSW budget on bar tabs and street food, Flatstock returns to the Austin Convention Center today with a three-day run destined to drain your remaining funds as you adorn your walls and body with finest in rock-show screen prints, cat and coffee-inspired enamel pins, Texas-themed postcards, and all other manners of pop-culture art.

Sonny Sanchez, of Austin, looks at rock posters at Flatstock at the Austin Convention Center during South by Southwest on Friday March 18, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

While the annual poster fest predominately features gig posters, other art available ranges from material for the politically minded (Bernie Sanders screen prints and Robert Mueller pins, shirts, and posters are available at multiple vendors between skull-covered punk pieces) to the preschool set (from train prints to playful dinosaur posters).

SXSW: Maneuver the festival with our guide to the best unofficial parties

The show is free and open Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. to all badge types and the general public. Though the show technically requires a free SXSW Guest Pass for the general public/credential-less masses, security seemed to be allowing folks in without them Thursday afternoon.

Bun B for governor? He’s one of Texas’ best ambassadors

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If there was such a thing as an Official Ambassador of Texas, Bun B would be it, and he made his case closing out Fader Fort on Wednesday night.

Bun B performs at The Fader Fort during SXSW on Wednesday March 14, 2018. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Despite delays that pushed his set back by 45 minutes, he wasted no time launching into a bevy of Houston classics, starting with “Draped Up,” with its video as a backdrop rife with classic SLABs and grills like it was the 2000s all over again. South by Southwest is often the first exposure to Austin and Texas in general for many, and Houston rap itself predicated many rap trends, especially the chopped and screwed sound that set the template for today’s slow, moody rap. He sold Texas cool effortlessly, blazing through “Get Throwed” and “You’re Everything” and looking genuinely glad to perform and be the face of Texas.

MORE SXSW: Check out all our coverage

If you’re a Texas native, or got here as fast as you could, you’ve likely heard these songs coming out from legions of cars, and yet they never grow old. Bun B also debuted his new song “Know I’m Saying” to Austin, though its guests Slim Thug and Lil Keke sadly were not present. Frankly, it’s amazing it took him this long to pen a song named after such an integral part of Houston speech. Trinidad James of “All Gold Everything” fame was watching from the side of the stage, and he could use a lesson in longevity.

Bun B shows are always a blast, but death is predominant in them, too — there were many shout outs to Pimp C, his fallen UGK comrade, Houston rap originator DJ Screw, and Fat Pat. Texas never forgets, and it never stops eulogizing. He dedicated “One Day,” UGK’s somber classic, to teenagers protesting gun violence in the wake of Parkland. Its slowed funk is already one of the most moving songs in his catalog, and it gained new life as a protest anthem. He should be governor already, frankly. No matter how strong your credentials are, you didn’t have a hand in “International Players Anthem.” And given how SXSW sometimes overlooks artists in its home state, Bun B made sure you didn’t leave him out of the conversation.

WHERE’S THE PARTY? In our SXSW 2018 Unofficial Party Guide. Use it!

SXSW 2018: Tinashe flourishes and Smokepurpp flops at Pandora showcase

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There are two ways to look at Lil Xan’s last-minute cancellation of his Wednesday night Pandora House headlining set (and the rest of his SXSW shows) due to an illness. On one hand, Xan’s a flashy, young up-and-comer with a few genuinely hot singles, and it would’ve been nice to see how he handled such a high-production environment (and if he could earn back the good graces of hip-hop purists after he blasphemed the name of Tupac last week). On the other hand, his absence cut the showcase by an hour, which, after the wave of talentless MCs that closed out the night, proved the greatest gift of all.

Kelela preforms at The Gatsby during SXSW, Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Even without the Xan Man rounding out the bill, the Pandora showcase was still a scheduling disaster, as sound checks ran long and artists took the stage late. Under better circumstances, Atlanta’s YFN Lucci might have impressed with slick, pop-friendly tracks like “Everyday We Lit” and “Key to the Streets.” Instead, he performed for approximately 13 minutes and left the stage seemingly mid-song, much to the audience’s confusion.

Still, even Lucci’s set sounded like high art compared to Louisiana teen JayDaYoungan. It’s difficult to comment on his actual artistry or lyricism, because he can’t rap. No, literally. He proved physically incapable of stringing actual words together into any sort of tangible rhyme scheme or melody to accompany his bargain-bin trap songs. Half the time he didn’t bother trying, lazily signaling to the audience to sing and letting his backing tracks do the work. It was better that way.

RELATED: So many bands! Our music team makes some SXSW recommendations

After the scheduling shake-up, Wednesday’s headlining slot went to Smokepurpp, a 20-year-old SoundCloud rapper from Miami who sounds like every other 20-year-old SoundCloud rapper from Miami. His beats are distorted and bone-rattling, and his lyrics are mostly unprintable, though they usually involve promiscuous women, illicit substances and expensive vehicles — sometimes two or three at a time! That was best heard on his breakout hit “Audi,” which commanded a respectable mosh pit among the sparse 1 a.m. crowd.

To his credit, Smokepurpp seemed at least mildly engaged throughout his performance and at times even rapped on beat. But forgive me if I’m hesitant to celebrate an artist with millions of Spotify streams, headlining one of the biggest brand showcases at one of the biggest festivals in the world, for doing the bare minimum.

RELATED: Check out the 2018 SXSW unofficial party guide

That’s not to say the whole showcase was a bust. Kelela captivated the audience with her gloomy, alternative R&B, switching between a low, sensuous croon and breathy falsetto atop cavernous, frigid beats. Tinashe dominated the stage immediately afterward, winning several audible gasps for the sheer athleticism — and sensuality — of her performance. Her sultry pop-R&B bangers might not win any awards for originality, and even she sounded a little embarrassed by her canned stage banter, but it was hard to deny her massive hooks and masterful choreography, which she and four backup dancers delivered without breaking a sweat.

These back-to-back R&B powerhouses were the obvious highlights of Wednesday’s Pandora showcase, and the audience knew it, as the at-capacity venue immediately cleared out once Tinashe left the stage. Unless those people read this review, they may never know what they missed in the showcase’s final two hours. Lucky them.

Looking for the heart of Wednesday night at smaller SXSW venues

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In our South by Southwest preview coverage, we focused a bit on how fewer huge names were heading here compared to recent years. That doesn’t mean SXSW isn’t rife with talent, including some acts that might be big draws relatively soon.

We spent Wednesday evening on a hunt for some of those, based on pre-festival scouting of the SXSW schedule. A downtown stroll took us to four venues for acts from three different countries, plus a local favorite we know well but think the rest of the world should hear.

Canadian band Dizzy performs at the Blackheart during SXSW on Wednesday, March 18, 2018. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

8 p.m.: Dizzy (Canada) at the Blackheart. From the suburban Toronto town of Oshawa, this young foursome caught our eye in part because their recent debut single came out on Royal Mountain, home of fellow Canadian indie-pop darlings Alvvays. Singer Katie Munshaw has a magnetic stage presence, and brothers Charlie, Alex and Mackenzie Spencer lay down dreamy soundscapes behind her. A sizable yet still comfortable early crowd at the Blackheart seemed to appreciate the group’s music. Just how far Dizzy may go remains to be seen, but this is the kind of promising young band upon which SXSW’s long reputation for discovery has been built.

Catch them again: 2:05 p.m. Thursday at Whole Foods Downtown Rooftop Plaza (free, no badge required).

9 p.m.: Jade Bird (England) at Latitude 30. The smallish venue long used as the British Music Embassy was too intimate for the demand on this night, as a sizable line stretched down the block of badgeholders wanting to get in to see Bird, Frank Turner (who followed) and others. And with good reason. Alternating between guitar and piano, Bird played immediately engaging pop songs, sometimes quiet and pensive, sometimes forceful and bubbly. At 20, she has the confidence and stage presence of someone who’s been doing this for a decade. Her three-piece backing band provided just the right steady support while keeping her vocals clearly out front. Her new single “Lottery” (275,000 YouTube views) was the highlight of a great 40-minute set.

Catch her again: 8 p.m. Thursday at Mohawk outdoor (official SXSW show); 4 p.m. Friday at Waterloo Records (free, no badge required); 4 p.m. Saturday at Cheer Up Charlie’s (free, no badge required).

RELATED: Our Austin360 guide to unofficial SXSW day parties

10 p.m.: Field Report (Wisconsin) at Swan Dive. Leader Chris Porterfield worked early on with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon in the group DeYarmond Edison, but his music sounds less akin to Vernon’s than to that of California rock-pop band Dawes. Their set stressed material from a new album, “Summertime Songs,” due out next week on Verve Forecast. Tunes such as “Blind Spot” and “So Far Yet to Go” were forceful but melodic, easy to know and like even on first listen.

Catch them again: noon Thursday at Austin Convention Center Radio Day Stage (official SXSW show); 5 p.m. Friday at Banger’s (free, no badge required); 8 p.m. Thursday at Continental Club (official SXSW show); 6 a.m. Friday at W Hotel (broadcast live on KGSR).

10:20 p.m.: Bonnie Whitmore (Austin) at Victoria Room at the Driskill. We’ve seen Whitmore a lot; her Thursday late-night residency at the Continental was a finalist in our inaugural Austin360 Music Awards last year, and lots of folks have heard her from the duet she did with Hayes Carll on his song “Another Like You” a few years ago. A singer, songwriter and bassist, Whitmore does all three things well, and on this night received solid support from a three-piece band including another accomplished local singer-songwriter, Bonnie Whitmore, on guitar. “I’m Not Your Baby” anymore recalls Bonnie Raitt’s R&B sass, “Time to Shoot” digs deeper and darker, and she hits immediate pop with “I’ll Be Fine” (co-written with Austin’s Jaimee Harris).

Catch her again: Several more SXSW shows, but also most every Thursday at 10:30 p.m. at the Continental Gallery.

SXSW 2018: Low provide sanctuary from festival chaos — mostly

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Even on the Tuesday of SXSW, it’s easy to get already overwhelmed by the chaos of chatter, lines, and clashing smells of street food. You would think a church would be as good of sanctuary as any, especially with St. David’s Church hosting Duluth, Minn. group Low.

Low, from Minnesota, perform at St. David’s Church. (Andy O’Connor / for American-Statesman)

Mere seconds into their set, a barrage of horns came in, and Low doesn’t have a horn section. Someone forgot to put their phone on silent. Even in a church, we were not free from the outside madness creeping in. The audience laughed it off, proving that fans of very serious, very sad music aren’t humorless in the least. Or that SXSW hadn’t totally crushed their souls yet.

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That hiccup aside, their performance was sublime, an early contender for one of the most special performances of the week. Befitting the church setting, Low stripped their already minimalist arrangement down to just organ and vocals — no drums, no guitars. Low’s core, vocalists Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, stood at the podium and soared over low, soft drones. Even with a confident and authoritative pose, they were a balm, becoming one with the ambient organ. Not only did they seem unbothered by the early disturbance, they rose above it. The music demanded focus, yet the room allowed for space and meditation. For so little input, there was a lot going on inside the church.

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Low’s music has been thrown in with the “slowcore” movement from the 90s for its downbeat and downtrodden nature, but this didn’t feel dour. This was not their usual setup, yet it made the church feel even smaller and intimate than it already was. For a little while, it felt like a room to ourselves, not part of the moving and shuffling going on in the streets. Low provided a dreamy, comforting isolation.

“Peace be with you” were Sparhawk’s last words to the crowd. We’ll need all the peace we can get over the next few days.

SXSW 2018: Billie Eilish is about to be very famous

Look, we all knew Billie Eilish was going to be one of this year’s South by Southwest breakouts. The 16-yr-old singer’s debut single “Ocean Eyes” was just certified gold with over 350 million streams worldwide and she comes into the fest off a string of sold out shows and heads out on the next leg as soon as the fest is over.

Billie Ellish performs at the VEVO House during South by Southwest on March 14, 2018. (Photo by Erika Rich)

An eager crowd pressed into the small stage area at the VEVO House to see her, and by the time she finished her first song, a powerful rendition of “Bellyache,” in which she moved from belting a hook while wildly jumping around the stage to standing in place, reaching inside and allowing her voice to lift into a plaintive piccolo whisper, we knew exactly why we were there.

LET’S PARTY: Check out our guide to the best unofficial parties at SXSW 2018

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Clad in what looked like a pair of jammies, covered in unprintable expletives, her set was an impressive demonstration of range. She delved deep on “Six Feet Under,” she made us dance with “Copycat” and she was the picture of ingenue cool on a ukulele cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”

In all, she proved she has the depth and range to be way more than a flash in the pan. She’s a genuine pop phenomenon who is about to be very, very famous. And mainstream American radio is probably better for it.

RELATED: So many bands! Our music team makes some SXSW recommendations