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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Life + Arts

Houston rocks oft-forgotten alternative scene at South by Southwest

Houston’s historic influence on Southern rap often overshadows the city’s contributions to indie alternative and EDM. In part, it’s for good reason — the introduction of chopped and screwed in the ’90s happened in The H, and it’s since had a prolific influence on hip hop and rap across the nation.

But despite the long list of Bayou City rappers performing at this year’s South by Southwest festival, including Trae tha Truth, Slim Thug and Riff Raff, Houston’s lesser-known indie acts left a mark on the international music festival.

The Surprise Hit: Wrestlers


Houston’s chill-wave quartet Wrestlers gave a bombastic performance to an all-too small audience on Wednesday night at SXSW. | Cara Smith/The Cougar

The surprising part of Wrestlers’ stellar set at SXSW wasn’t that it was unprecedented — the Houston-based dance-rockers have played the likes of Lollapalooza and Free Press Summer Fest (admittedly, that last booking makes some sense). The real shock came from the fact that their crowd was undeservingly small, with only forty or fifty people scattered across the East Sixth Street bar during the band’s set. Despite the lackluster turnout, the band formerly known as Bagheera delivered an energetic, ’70s-influenced set that highlighted their proclivity for chill-wave remixes and groovy, original house tracks.


The Mystic: Night Drive

night drive

When Rodney Connell left the stage for the audience, the emotion of his performance became palpable. | Cara Smith/The Cougar

Right off the bat, Night Drive brought an entrancing, almost uncomfortably intimate performance. Lead vocalist Rodney Connell opted to take advantage of the small space by singing much of the set off the stage, walking around the standing audience and singling out members of it. If Night Drive’s dark, surprisingly sensual electro-pop wasn’t heavy enough, the emotional investment of Connell in his music was palpable when he sang (literally) right in your face, refusing to break eye contact. It was uncomfortable, refreshingly memorable and arguably the best performance of the day. And that’s saying something, considering that Night Drive took the stage before one of Houston’s larger namesakes, The Tontons.


The Hometown Favorite: The Tontons 


The Tontons, one of Houston’s well-known indie acts, gave an expectedly energetic performance at SXSW. | Cara Smith/The Cougar

These guys (and gal) are well-known for a reason — they’re consistent and catchy, and they’ve been making waves in the indie-rock pop scene since 2007. They’ve got a big following and have received even larger praise, with The New York Times calling their singles “smart and hookie” and Houston’s own Bun-B calling them “the best band in Houston.” So it was no surprise that The Tontons gave one of the day’s best performances in terms of sound quality and comfortability stage — they’ve been on hundreds of them, and they knew how to work an audience. But there was something uniquely impressive by Night Drive’s vocalist wearing his heart on his sleeve and shoving it in the face of an unsuspecting audience, or Wrestlers dominating the stage despite a lackluster turnout. Sure, The Tontons were great. But they didn’t defy expectation.

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