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South by Southwest: the good, the bad and the tragic

Posted 10:15am on Thursday, Mar. 20, 2014

This year’s South by Southwest will likely be remembered more for the bad — a drunken driver killing three attendees and injuring 20 more; corporate saturation; a surfeit of superstars trampling into town — than the good, which is to say, the festival’s ostensible reason for being.

The soul-searching had already begun by Sunday morning (the Austin American-Statesman’s front page that day wondered “Does Austin have a drinking problem?”), and will likely continue for weeks to come. SXSW as it has existed for the last 27 years is no more. What comes next will be interesting — does the festival capitulate to the companies pumping millions into the city, or does SXSW scale back, and try to retrench itself as a proving ground for hungry young (and unknown) bands?

My highlights, admittedly, were some of the splashy corporate parties, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t ambivalent about covering them. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t — it’s not a choice you want to face, and one that hopefully, going forward, SXSW won’t keep forcing attendees to make.

Jay Z and Kanye West

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 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, 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, and the two rappers took 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.

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 rather than later.

Sam Smith

I hustled over to one of my favorite SXSW venues, St. David’s Episcopal Church, to hear one of my most anticipated artists of this year’s fest: Sam Smith.

The British vocalist did not disappoint. Although his set was cruelly short at about 20 minutes and five songs, Smith was flat-out dazzling. His voice hung in the still, silent air of the intimate room — a supple, weightless falsetto pouring forth with scarcely any effort. His debut LP, In the Lonely Hour, is out later this spring, and if there’s any justice, Smith will become an enormous star. He’s been tagged as the “male Adele,” but that comparison doesn’t quite stick. (The two artists have little in common beyond Britain and a facility with pouring analog soul into the modern, digital world.)

All you need to know is this: Smith finished his final song, Stay With Me, and I found myself exhaling sharply as the applause filled the room. I’d been holding my breath as he sang and not even realized it. Mark my words: Sam Smith is an incredible talent, one deserving of massive success.

Janelle Monae

The club formerly known as Antone’s (it had no name Thursday), which sits at the corner of Fifth 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 was reminiscent of the one Prince dominated at last year’s SXSW.

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 hourlong set, Monae had already ordered the room to drop to the floor as the song built toward 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 Fifth. It was exhilarating and bewildering — the police didn’t exactly stop Monae and her minions from leading this impromptu mob almost all the way down Fifth to Colorado — and unlike anything I’ve ever seen and/or participated in more than 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: Monae seemed inspired by the moment, and didn’t appear to be making any grand statement.

The music moved her to lead us all outside, and we followed. It sounds cheesy in this hipster-eat-hipster environment, but, if being seized by the moment and the music doesn’t sum up the spirit of SXSW, I don’t know what does.

Toadies

I arrived at Stubb’s, pleasantly shocked that such a crowd had amassed to hear Fort Worth’s Toadies tear through their 20-year-old debut album, Rubberneck. If Vaden Todd Lewis and his bandmates felt any jitters — Saturday marked the first time, ever, the band had played the record through front to back — it wasn’t evident as they leaned into modern classics like Possum Kingdom, Away and Tyler, and provided muscular readings of fan favorites like Backslider and I Come From the Water.

Lewis can still scream like a scalded cat, and the band was locked in tight from the first notes. The crowd sang along to nearly every track, and if you closed your eyes, you would’ve sworn you had traveled back in time to 1994. “Thanks for sticking with us,” said a visibly grateful Lewis midway through, before rearing back and giving the audience more of what it had lined up for.

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

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