Last Tuesday night kicked off the music portion of SXSW and PopBytes spent the evening at iHeartRadio‘s showcase at The Main in downtown Austin. Thanks to the folks at iHeartRadio we were treated with VIP access, complimentary high fives and awesome tunes. There was a line wrapped around the corner and the venue was already swamped with avid fans. DJ Skee was pumping out the beats in between sets by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Atlas Genius and Tegan and Sara.
I grabbed myself a Jack and Coke before weaving through the dense crowd and found a decent spot close to the stage just as Josh Baze was ending his set. DJ Skee took over the reigns while Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ gear was getting set up. The crowd was vibing along with DJ Skee’s remixes but getting more and more restless anticipating Macklemore, whose song “Thrift Shop” has been dominating pop radio for several weeks now. I even heard the song while getting dropped off at the airport on my way to Austin. I couldn’t escape Macklemore & Ryan Lewis even if I tried.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis bring it. But while “bringing it” they remain as humble as ever. Macklemore especially. He seems genuinely stoked to be playing in Austin at the iHeartRadio showcase. iHeartRadio had one of the best lineups of the festival; it was the place everyone wanted to be on Tuesday night. There were hundreds of people standing on a line that wrapped around the block. Everyone was talking about it the next morning.
“This is the song I’m most proud of,” Macklemore says before he performed “Same Love.” He chats about how “Thrift Shop” is literally about thrifting and that “Same Love” is more important to him as an artist than anything else he has written. It’s a song about equality. In a world where hip-hop (if you can call Macklemore that) disapproves of queer identities, Macklemore’s message is rather refreshing and brave. There is so much homophobia in the record industry. Things are progressing because of songs like “Same Love” and albums such as Frank Ocean‘s Channel Orange. Macklemore is aware of all of this. During Macklemore’s last song of the night, he decides to jump into the crowd and proceed to swing from the rafters and lights above. This had the crowd in a frenzy and we all seemed impressed by his monkey bar skills.
Australian rockers Atlas Genius take the stage after the energetic Macklemore set. They are a band following the footsteps of fellow rockers Imagine Dragons. Just last year the latter was here at SXSW, playing showcase after showcase. Now their songs “It’s Time” and “Radioactive” are dominating pop and rock stations all across America. Now it’s Atlas Genius’ chance to climb up the same charts. Despite a few hiccups with sound during their first song of the night, the foursome truly deliver in a live setting. Their indie rock sound is not for everyone, but they still held the audience’s undivided attention. They may have been a bit shy during their stage banter, but their loud and tight songs totally made up for their awkwardness. They started to play “Trojans,” their first single off their debut album When It Was Now and the crowd went berserk (in the best way possible).
DJ Skee picks up where Atlas Genius left off by spinning some great 90s songs. At one point he remixes Lana Del Rey‘s “Summertime Sadness” and this PopBytes writer melted. Who hears Lana Del Rey when out and about? Especially “Summertime Sadness.” Despite the criticisms, it’s good to know someone at iHeartRadio understands Lana’s brilliance. It was exhilarating to watch this crowd listen and move to a Lana song. It doesn’t happen often enough.
Tegan and Sara are up next and boy were they worth the wait! Tegan walks on stage wearing a black button-down shirt with tigers running down the front of it. She completed the look by pulling a vest over it. She looks the part of a rock and roll icon, evoking images of Elvis Presley and a hairdo reminiscent of Lyle Lovett. When she’s not strumming a guitar or playing keyboard she’s on vocal duty; she embodies the spirit of rock and roll. Sara is wearing one of those faux tuxedo shirts accompanied by a small leather jacket. Once you include her immaculate haircut and the tattoos on her arms that peek from under her sleeves, she is rock and roll chic at its best. Both of them have mastered the motions and look of a rock and roll heartthrob.
This is a complete transformation for the sister-duo. They have always been a band rooted in traditional guitar, bass, vocals and drums. To see them layering their acoustic roots with smooth electro synths and keyboards is rather compelling. But Tegan and Sara are no stranger to this synth pop sound they’ve created on their most recent album Heartthrob. They have been featured on such tracks as “Feel It in My Bones” by acclaimed trance artist Tiësto and “Body Work” by Morgan Page.
Despite the change in their sound and live show, they opened their set with “Back in Your Head” off of 2007’s The Con and it sounds great. They sound more full and lush than ever, thanks to the supporting musicians on stage with them. You can always count on Tegan and Sara to have cute stage banter too. This time around Sara talks about their first experience at SXSW ten years ago where she thought they sounded like “shit.” But Tegan would not confirm this, joking that she never sounds like “shit.” This back-and-forth had the whole crowd roaring with laughter.
Guitars are switched and tuned. Sara and Tegan share vocal duties. They play an impressive set filled with both new and old songs. “Walking with a Ghost” and “Now I’m All Messed Up” being two highlights. Surprisingly, the song that had the crowd moving more than anything was their most recent single “Closer.” It was somewhat bewildering as a longtime fan. This must have been a crowd of new fans or the Greg Kurstin produced track is just that good. I think it’s a little bit of both. After the show ends, Tegan and Sara walk off the stage, knowing they killed it. They knew not to doubt themselves this time around at SXSW. They are heartthrobs now, breaking hearts show after show. They are scheduled to play more than a few gigs this week and I can already imagine all of the hearts they will break by the end of the festival. Rock and roll.
PHOTOS | ROGER KISBY/GETTY AND MATT ELLIS FOR IHEARTRADIO