After Jay-Z, Snoop, 50 Cent (with guest Eminem), Lil Wayne and T.I. all made appearances at this year’s South by Southwest, I figured by Saturday night I needed to catch at least one famous rap star or else my coverage would not properly reflect this year’s festival. I’m glad the one I caught also happened to be the best one here.
Nas took over the Moody Theater/“Austin City Limits” studio and reiterated his place atop the heap on closing night of the music conference, a showcase sponsored by Vevo. Unlike last year’s Vevo-funded mega-finale with Kanye West, this one was a sanctioned SXSW showcase in a real venue (the best venue in town, actually). It was also the kickoff to Nas’ “Illmatic” 20th anniversary.
Backed by a full-scale stage production with a giant video screen and faux Brooklyn street-scene props (streetlights, subway stalls), Nasir Jones played up how young and broke he was when he made his debut album. His DJ and hype man, Premier, recounted hearing him perform when the rapper was only 16. Photos and videos from those days scrolled across the video screen. It was a rare case of nostalgia actually freshening up the record and putting it into better context.
Unlike Nas’ obvious abilities, though – “Life’s a Bitch” with AZ and “The World Is Yours” were especially on fire -- the show lacked a steady flow. He stopped between every song to talk, dropped the Firm track “Phone Tap” in the middle, and then he let Premier and old cohort Pete Rock spin off into a lengthy DJ battle. During one of those stops, Nas became the only one of these multi-platinum rappers to admit that SXSW is an odd place for them to be. “I never thought I’d be here,” he said. In his case, I’m glad he made it.
Other highlights from Saturday:
HELLISH BELLS : Coolly scheduled before Nas at the “ACL” studio, this month’s Spin cover story Sleigh Bells also made the most of the hi-fi space. The theater’s TV-geared lighting system was turned up as hyperactively as singer Alexis Krauss, who surfed over the crowd twice with microphone in hand and worked the large stage like a master showwoman. In fact, she ran around so much (without sounding breathless) it sure did raise suspicion about there being some vocal augmentation going on along with all the pre-recorded drums and keyboards.
New York’s electro-metal pop duo – which includes a second male guitarist on stage – could add all the live musicians in the world and still not make musical sense of such overcooked, sonically grating tunes “Riot Rhythm” and “Comeback Kid.” When the group got to its slowest, best-known (and best) song, “Rill Rill,” the two fellas left the stage, rather fittingly. Krauss is a star, but her band is pretty much a joke.
FEEDBACK: Hearing Jamaican superstar Jimmy Cliff playing acoustic versions of “The Harder They Come” and "I Can See Clearly Now" was the sort of beautiful, cleansing performance you want to hear on the last day of SXSW. That had to suffice for a lot of the partygoers at Ms. Ray’s annual bash at Stubb’s, though since the line to her famous free food stretched all the way to the back of the Stubb’s yard like some sort of desperate bread line. So it goes when everyone has been eating from greasy food trucks all week. I also caught electronic R&B/hip-hop up-and-comer Theophilus London’s set there and thought it better live than on record, with a sexy energy and London’s fun, cocky charm.
COVER BAND: Winning Rolling Stone’s “Choose the Cover” contest last year was a blessing and a curse for the Sheepdogs, who were cursed to wear clothes in a subsequent, hilarious “Project Runway” episode but showed great style on stage in the upstairs ballroom space Trinity Hall. You would never know the quartet is from Saskatoon, Ontario, as they sounded like a mighty Southern band with its bleeding two-guitar boogie and boisterous, singalong tunes. I could see these guys going over well at the Cabooze back home, and I’d want to be there.
CHINESE ROCKS: After first hitting Beach Fossils’ 1 a.m. closing set and realizing I had seen them in Austin last year (and tellingly forgot all about them), I crossed over to the all-China showcase at the bar 512. One of the best moves I made all week. Beijing power trio Carsick Cars – not sure if their name makes more or less sense in Chinese – blew me away with their wall-of-whir guitarwork and the singer’s Mark E. Smith-like repetitious, rhythmic spattering. A fitting way to end the fest: A band I had never heard of and will probably never see again, and all the Doritos logos or puking frat boys oh-so temporarily out of sight.
Look for SXSW recap pieces in Tuesday's and Friday's newspaper and all of last week's coverage at www.startribune.com/sxsw.