SPIN and AXE returned to Austin and took over the Belmont for this year’s AXE Collective + Crew event at SXSW. The downtown venue was packed with folks soaking up some southern sunshine and saw stellar sets from John Legend, AlunaGeorge, Rae Sremmurd, Gallant, and Alex Newell. Legend also took the opportunity to introduce fans to the five lucky artists that make up this year’s AXE Collective, and they all made the best of performing in front of a packed house on 6th Street.
Igniting the event was house vocalist supreme Alex Newell. You may remember Newell from his stint on G?lee? where he played a transgender teen expressing his identity through music, but be assured that will be a small footnote in his career. Newell is equal parts Sam Smith and Jody Watley, a mixture of modern electronic sensibilities with a considerable nod to the best parts of disco and Chicago house. Soaring vocals were a theme of the day as Gallant took the stage as the sun just began to peek through the clouds over the Belmont. He began his set with a spectral cover of the Foo Fighter’s hit “Learning to Fly,” an intense rendition that stripped the soaring guitars from the original and made it into a soulful, pleading ballad. But it was the young R&B impresario’s hit “Weight in Gold” that brought the house down in the afternoon Austin sun.
Following Gallant, the man himself John Legend hit the stage to introduce this year’s AXE Collective members: I AM Action, Korbyn Rachel, Jack Freeman, SPEC, and Roni Marsalis. (SPIN introduced you to all five AXE Collective members last week but in case you need a refresh this is where you can find parts one and two.) Each member of the Collective brought their own magic to the AXE stage: I AM Action got the crowd bouncing with his signature blend of Miami synth and hyphy funk; Korbyn Rachel brought the sort of sonic self-possession that artists twice her senior struggle to conjure; Jack Freeman did his damnedest to channel the gravely soul of Anthony Hamilton and Cody Chestnutt with breathtaking results; SPEC reflected the tropical afternoon through his Hawaiian-inflected riffs and upbeat vocals; and Roni Marsalis brought the crowd on a lyrical journey using her own life as a cathartic backdrop.
After the AXE Collective wrapped up their showcase, Legend hit the stage with a stirring cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and the entirety of the Belmont went silent as he belted out every line in a subdued patois. He rolled through familiar hits from the last decade-and-a-half but it was “All of Me,” the ubiquitous 2013 ballad, that had everyone in the audience squeezing each other tight and swaying in the gentle Austin breeze.
The tempo picked up when AlunaGeorge took the stage and brought their sultry electronic sensibilities with them. The British duo got the crowd bouncing when they rolled out their jungly hit “You Know You Like It” and didn’t let the energy level drop an inch through their five-song set. Speaking of high energy performances, Rae Sremmurd got the entire Belmont hype when they took over the stage with other members of the Sremmlife crew. The duo from Tupelo brought out the big guns with “No Flex Zone” and “No Type” — both songs turned the marble-lined venue into a rowdy spring break rager before either even spit a bar.