Patrick Higgins, Zs
Despite what’s written above about the relative unknowability of SXSW, for the sake of this article and the scope of performances seen, it wouldn’t be entirely unreasonable to name Patrick Higgins the best guitarist of the 2013 event.

By some combination of talent and a well-conceived rig, he makes breakneck playing look effortless. He’s sending two signals from his sunburst Fender Strat, each controlled by a volume pedal. One goes to a laptop with a delay he programmed in Pure Data, which sends stereo outputs that sound back and forth, and the other goes to a rack of analog pedals that he uses for pitch shifting, oscillations, and more extreme manipulations.

As for talent in style, it’s almost suspenseful how he adjusts his voicing and changes up the delay on his riffs. Drummer Greg Fox and saxophonist Sam Hillmer are skilled in issuing nearly as many tones as Higgins does. It’s a super agile band all around, and though it’s odd to say a band so busy is restrained, they certainly are. Many minutes into their compositions, Higgins does indulge in some satisfying, beefy, major-chord breaks, but they don’t feel obligatory or out of place. They take the music somewhere, and are usually good riffs themselves.

Though Higgins had an ordinary path to weird music, it was an accelerated one. He says he started playing at 9 and quickly got into blues, rock, and heavy metal, had his punk phase at 11, and then by 12 began to study and play jazz and classical, which he stayed with through college.

He’s had his chair in Zs since 2012, when he replaced another great player, Ben Greenberg. “It’s a little easier,” Higgins said of the trio’s preference for sitting while playing, “and I think the idea is also to take focus away from people roaming around stage and detract from the physical presence of the performers a little bit. Help the audience focus in on the sounds and less the performance gestures.”

Watch Zs at SXSW 2013: