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SXSW: Kimmel, Jay Z and Kanye West wow crowds, while tragedy strikes across town

Posted 1:09pm on Thursday, Mar. 13, 2014

Normally, this is where the raving would begin — about the music I saw yesterday, the experiences I had as part of my first full day on the ground at the 28th annual South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival.

It was a day of big events: I attended a taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live at the Long Center, and that night, got into the coveted Jay Z and Kanye West performance at the Austin Music Hall.

But at 12:45 a.m., the giddiness dissipated, and turned into something else.

Reports began rippling across Twitter at about that time, just as the superstar rappers were entering the home stretch of a terrific show, an alleged drunk driver had plowed into a crowd of people on the traditionally jam-packed street of Red River, where numerous clubs host SXSW showcases late into the night.

That awful news took the wind out of my sails, and replaced my surging adrenaline with sadness. Watching Twitter in that moment was strange and sobering, as people unaware of what happened were gushing about whatever musical acts they were seeing, up against terse updates from the scene, where two people died and over 20 more were injured, some critically.

In the light of morning, SXSW has said the festival will continue — “We will be making schedule and venue changes for programming in the surrounding area of last night’s events. All other programming will continue as previously scheduled,” according to a spokesperson — and the Austin Police Department is pursuing its investigation of the as-yet-unnamed driver, who was subdued and arrested last night, and reports indicate he will be charged with two counts of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault. (There’s also the possibility that Thursday’s events may be moved around, per the Austin Chronicle. For now, the night’s big event, Lady Gaga’s performance at Stubb’s, which is located on Red River, is scheduled to go on as planned.)

So, while my experiences yesterday certainly seem far less significant in light of the tragedy — the first such occurrence in all of SXSW’s 27-year existence — I’ll provide a brief recounting of what I saw and heard on Wednesday.

The lines to get into the Long Center were lengthy, but moved quickly, and before too much time had passed, an audience of roughly 2,400 was seated and ready to watch the late night host poke gentle fun at Austin. The stage was an eye-popping tribute to many of the city’s iconic businesses (Alamo Drafthouse; the Austin Motel) and the guest list was impressive: Robert Duvall, who was joined briefly by Matthew McConaughey’s brother Rooster; Rachael Ray and British rocker Damon Albarn. (In the spirit of keeping Austin weird, the Geto Boys’ Bushwick Bill was randomly in the audience, and he came up to rap a few bars prior to the taping, backed by the house band.) Sitting in the third row and watching it all unfold was a highlight, and while I couldn’t shoot any video of my own, you can see Albarn’s performance, as captured by Kimmel’s cameras, below.

From one monstrous line to another: the line of people waiting to gain entry to the Austin Music Hall for the Samsung-sponsored performance, in honor of its new Milk Music service, by Jay Z and Kanye West (again, the company made a splash, as they did last year with Prince) wrapped all the way around an entire city block. With a capacity of about 4,000, the Hall hit its limit about 15 minutes before the pair took the stage. Thankfully, however, the atmosphere inside wasn’t crazed, and there was actually ample elbow room around the perimeter of the room.

Set up much like the masterful Watch the Throne tour from three years ago, the two superstars rapped atop cubed stages wrapped in video screens, alternating solo sequences and mixing in material from albums each has released since their joint collaboration in 2011. Taking an arena show and jamming it into a room a quarter of the size brings with it an almost overwhelming energy, which was only exacerbated by the crowd’s response and the two rappers taking turns whipping the Austin Music Hall into a frenzy. New Jay Z cuts like Tom Ford and Drunk in Love were electric, and the tracks from Yeezus, like New Slaves and Black Skinhead, nearly ripped the roof off.

It was potent and exhilarating, watching the two friends and collaborators attack their songs with enthusiasm. There are rumblings a sequel to Watch the Throne may emerge at some point in the future, and given how well Jay Z and Kanye West complement each other as performers, I can only hope that record shows up sooner than later.

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Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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