DFW Music News

North Texas' 10 Best Live Acts in 2021

Denton's symphonic punk act The Wee-Beasties are an unmissable live act.
Denton's symphonic punk act The Wee-Beasties are an unmissable live act. Carley Elsey
After over a year off, the North Texas music scene came roaring back this year to make up for lost time. From the acts we saw this year, it's clear that many artists used their extra time to build up their musicianship, add to their song catalogs, maybe change out some members and think hard about their stage shows. In the list below, we bring you North Texas artists across genres who just absolutely brought it to the stage this year. Whether playing a one-off performance, a handful of club shows or all around town with every single chance they could take, these are the acts that stood out on stage the most this year and always left the audience wanting more. As we enter a new year with promises of bigger and better shows, we hope that each of these acts will find its way onto your concert calendar.
Rakim Al-Jabbaar

Rakim Al-Jabbaar is a force. The heavy-set rapper with long braids and a booming voice started making a name for himself in the Dallas hip-hop scene about five years ago, and he has since established himself as a live act to be seen and heard. In February, the Duncanville hip-hop artist gained mainstream attention for his collaboration with legendary UGK rapper Bun B on "Picture Me Rollin'." Al-Jabbaar has played several shows around town this past year including performances at Club Dada and Front Yard Concerts. With a mission to put Dallas hip-hop on the national map, Al-Jabbaar's undeniable stage presence and impeccable word flow is captivating and invigorating. Whether laying down culturally conscious rhymes or flowing about his journey upward in the hip-hop game, Al-Jabbaar's seemingly effortless command of his craft is a call for everyone to pay attention. David Fletcher
Dome Dwellers

With a mesmerizing guitar and lilting vocals, Dome Dwellers's live show is an uplifting experience that is both entertaining to watch and exciting to participate in. Led by guitarist Michael J. Slack, Dome Dwellers released a series of three singles this year and played a handful of shows with their only headlining concert taking place at Harvest House in Denton on Dec. 10. The new songs have a heavier groove than the band's past work, resulting in a high-energy, hypnotic performance in which songs flow seamlessly from one to another. The layering of sounds, textures and emotions in a constant movement upward builds anticipation with the release coming in the form of ecstatic guitar breaks and vocalizations. It may be too far to call Dome Dwellers's stage show a religious experience, but you're sure to feel more positive afterward. DF
Ottoman Turks

Kicking up dust on the thin line separating punk rock from outlaw country, Ottoman Turks returned to the stage this year with a take-no-prisoners approach to its live show. Ottoman Turks released its second album II in the spring, filled with songs satirizing the American male ego, poking fun at conspiracy theorists and having a boozy good time. The band loves playing live and does so quite often. To say that the band's live shows are high-energy is an understatement. Ottoman Turks' shows are sweaty, breathtaking forays into honky tonk madness. Frontman Nathan Mongol Wells leads the havoc, working the stage with reckless, raspy vocals and rocking guitar. Lead guitarist Joshua Ray Walker, who is perhaps better known for his solo work, contributes much to the frenetic energy of the Turks' live performance, showing that his talents go far beyond his songwriting. DF
Helium Queens

There really is nothing like a Helium Queens show. The pick for the "Best Live Act" at the 2019 Dallas Observer Music Awards, Helium Queens defend its title this year after the power trio consisting of Poppy Xander, Chelsey Danielle and Sharla Franklin put on an epic three-night performance of Helium Queens: Space Opera at the Artstillery art space in Oak Cliff. Helium Queens has long been a favorite for local audiences for its spacey psychedelia and kaleidoscope of neon colors. Even before the opera, the Queens brought down the house headlining Rubber Gloves' Fourth of July festival in Denton. The Space Opera, however, was meant to be an epic performance, and it delivered. Together with a cast that included singer-songwriters Nicole Marxen and Sarah Ruth, the Helium Queens took audiences into another galaxy with a glowing story about a battle for authority in space. DF
Nicole Marxen

It’s rare for an artist to be able to so convincingly convey the precise sentiment intended through words, which is why Meryl Streep is nominated for an Oscar every year. But Nicole Marxen is one of those who can, a singer-songwriter who knows how to amplify her sound with the exact amount of visual drama to match. Marxen broke out as a solo artist in 2021 after spending years building a project doused in showmanship as a co-founder of Midnight Opera. And the spotlight drowns in her innate shine. Her solo debut, Tether, pulls in listeners through a seductive double punch: euphonious vocals wrapped in stirring synth-laden tracks, like angel-sung lullabies echoing through the bowels of a personal hell. In a recent Deep Ellum set accompanied on guitar by Daniel Markham, Marxen’s performance gave so much life she essentially gave birth to the crowd, moving in ways she should trademark as her own invention, banging and dropping her head to the beat and climbing and crawling on the stage’s bar. Her live performance is beyond transcendent and wholly hypnotic; there’s an exhortative quality to her own liberation, compelling those watching to forsake their own inhibitions and dare to dream to be half as cool. Eva Raggio

Taking a break from all of their other projects, the members of the new indie-rock band FIT emerged out of the pandemic with the sound and aesthetic of a fully realized band before they even played their first show. Made up of Sealion's Hunter Moehring and Alex Poulos, The Birds of Night's Hunter Cannon and Slim Lemon's Joel Bradley, FIT came together with a mission to find the through-line of each member's musical tastes and began producing music that sounds a lot like Radiohead's early work with all of Arcade Fire's brooding passion. From the band's first performances, the members of FIT don matching outfits for each show switching between all-black and all-white clothing to go with its black and white aesthetic. Although they've only released one song, "Modern Lovers," the excitement around the band and its live show can be felt at every single performance. DF

With one part rockabilly and two parts psychedelia, Phantomelo came out of the pandemic with two professionally polished videos and a live performance to match. Fronted by guitarist Will Rakkar, Phantomelo makes environmentally friendly indie rock with an aquatic sound that can flow and crash like a  body of water. Phantomelo always comes packing its own stage lights, which create a dazzling effect when taken together with the engaging guitar work and crafty lyrics. Making the stage show more delightful is the stage banter between Rakkar and bass player Panda Cuenca, and their relationship is clearly strengthened by virtue of being in a band and on stage together. Phantomelo's music and live show recently caught the attention of Austin's Fox 7, which invited the band to play "Space Prom" on its Music in the Morning segment. CBS Austin followed soon after. DF
King Clam

King Clam seemed to just come out of nowhere this year, but it certainly made its presence known in a very big way. Even without a single or video (save for a couple of live performances on YouTube) to promote themselves, King Clam made a name for themselves the old-fashioned way — by word of mouth. King Clam began its year making appearances at open mic nights but quickly started making the rounds opening for established bands like Loyal Sally and The Infamists. The group soon was on its way into headlining spots in the hottest clubs around North Texas. This meteoric rise in local attention would be a lot for most bands, but they aren't like King Clam. Fronted by singer Scarlett Mcpherson, whose voice has drawn comparisons to Janis Joplin, King Clam plays psychedelic blues-rock from another planet. The next chance you get, you really need to see what all the buzz is about. DF
Wooden Earth

For some time, stoner metal act Wooden Earth had a reputation for not making it to shows they had booked. The band shed some members, dwindling down to a two-piece in 2019. The band remained a two-piece throughout 2020 before announcing their return in March 2021. With some new members who are more reliable, Wooden Earth came roaring back to life this past spring playing a series of live shows through the summer to build interest for their September release of their Sun City EP. Part of what makes Wooden Earth's live show so intriguing is that its lead singer Griffin Thomas is also the band's drummer. Drummer-lead singers, while rare, often have the advantage of knowing exactly how and when the vocals should pair with the beat. In the context of a heavy metal band, Thomas' dual role brings a surprising amount of melodicism to the pounding and screaming. DF
The Wee-Beasties

For two decades, Denton's symphonic punk collective The Wee-Beasties have been a lightning rod for controversy. From his onstage antics to his stint in jail for an attempted bank robbery, frontman Richard Haskins has a reputation for extreme behavior that has earned him and his band as much hate as it has love. Whatever the facts, allegations or rumors may be, the one thing that is for certain is Haskins' ability to assemble a who's-who of local talent to provide the soundtrack for his demented punk show. Boasting a lineup that includes members and former members of Hen and the Cocks, Midnight Murder Show, Electric Vengeance, Brave Combo and many other jazz outfits, The Wee-Beasties are a spectacle that has to be seen to be believed. The band could easily be a cacophonous mess (or a ska band) with a horn section, two guitars, a bass, a drum and a second vocalist/burlesque performer — especially with the heroic consumption of alcohol the band partakes in on and off stage. However, The Wee-Beasties run a surprisingly tight ship that is always on point with every live show. DF
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David Fletcher writes about music, arts and culture for the Dallas Observer. You can usually find him at a show in Deep Ellum whether he's writing about it or not. A punk scholar and local music enthusiast, David focuses his attention on the artists screaming in the margins of Dallas' music scene.
Contact: David Fletcher
Eva Raggio is the Dallas Observer's music and arts editor, a job she took after several years of writing about local culture and music for the paper. Eva supports the arts by rarely asking to be put on "the list" and always replies to emails, unless the word "pimp" makes up part of the artist's name.
Contact: Eva Raggio