AUSTIN The show must go on.
The day after a horrific night in which a drunken driver plowed into a crowd on Red River, killing two people and injuring 23 others, there was determination to continue with South by Southwest as planned.
I began the day 45 minutes west of downtown Austin, on the scenic parcel of land in Spicewood, belonging to Willie Nelson. The invite-only Heartbreaker Banquet is a low-key affair, with two stages and a soothing vibe, particularly compared with the madness of Sixth Street. Out in the sprawl of the Hill Country, it’s almost possible to forget that SXSW is even transpiring.
As head-clearing excursions go, this one was rich with memorable music, including a tour de force set from Oklahoma troubadour John Fullbright, in a chapel that holds 49 people, as well as strong sets from Nashville singer-songwriter Nikki Lane and Nashville-via-Brooklyn rockers Clear Plastic Masks.
And as great as it would have been to spend the rest of my Thursday wandering between the general store, the saloon and the chapel, the bright lights of downtown Austin beckoned.
While the night’s big draw was Lady Gaga, holding court at Stubb’s (and sponsored by Doritos!), I stayed away from that insanity — and besides, Mother Monster will be in DFW come July anyway.
The club formerly known as Antone’s (it had no name Thursday), which sits at the corner of 5th and Lavaca, was where I planted myself, for my second Samsung-sponsored showcase of the week. Thursday’s show was an even more intimate affair than the previous night’s Jay Z and Kanye West blow-out, with only a few hundred bodies crammed in to see Gary Clark Jr. and Janelle Monae perform on a stage that looked very reminiscent of the one Prince dominated at last year’s SXSW.
Austin native Clark was up first, with an hour-long set soaked in sultry blues. (If he was at all jazzed to be playing in the club where got his start, it wasn’t immediately evident.)Fingers dancing along the frets and sweat dripping from beneath his knit cap, Clark had the audience swaying along with every bent note and soulful lyric. Backed by a trio, the effect was hypnotic, albeit over far too soon.
Monae took the stage in her customary fashion — bound in a straitjacket and wheeled in on a dolly — before tearing loose and ... immediately confronting some technical difficulties. (Prior to her arrival, a member of her entourage asked the room to observe a moment of silence, to memorialize the two people killed on Red River early Thursday morning.) The first two songs of her set were mostly inaudible, thanks to some sound issues, but the problem was resolved and she didn’t miss a beat, delivering large chunks of her sterling sophomore album, The Electric Lady.
But it was the finale that put her over the top.
During Come Alive, the final song of her hour-long set, Monae had already ordered the room to drop to the floor as the song built towards its climax. Everyone did, but then she darted off the stage and toward a side exit. There was some confusion and then someone shouted “Come on!”
Before anyone knew it, we were out — on the sidewalk, in the street, turning from Lavaca onto 5th. It was exhilarating and a little bewildering — the police didn’t exactly stop Monae and her minions from leading this impromptu mob almost all the way down 5th to Colorado — and unlike anything I’ve ever seen and/or participated in over 10 years of going to shows. When it was over, and the audience was piling back inside the club as the band finished the song and unplugged its instruments, there was a dizzying sense of “What just happened?”
Granted, pulling such a stunt (which, from everything I could tell, seemed spontaneous) 24 hours after a horrific car accident involving crowds of people on the street might call into question Monae’s judgment. To that, I can only say this: Monae seemed inspired by the moment, and didn’t appear to be making any grand statement, and I certainly don’t think she was trying anything on the level of what Tyler, the Creator did earlier that day.
The music moved her to lead us all outside, and we all followed. It sounds totally cheesy in this hipster-eat-hipster environment to say this, but, if being seized by the moment and the music doesn’t sum up the spirit of SXSW, I don’t know what does.