AUSTIN, TEXAS – Even though 95 percent of the crowd responded wildly to his group’s performance, A Tribe Called Quest rapper Q-Tip still wasn’t satisfied. So he singled out the people in the VIP section, whose bosses at Samsung had paid untold amounts of money for the Prince-headlined party that would turn off the lights on the South by Southwest Music Conference (SXSW) early Sunday morning.
“ ‘Oh, look at me: I work at the Samsung office in Wisconsin,’ ” he mocked, urging the velvet-ropers to dance and wave their hands in the air like they just didn’t care Prince would keep them up ’til 3 a.m.
Non-participation was not an option at the 27th edition of SXSW. The annual music industry mixer, which brings thousands of bands and 100,000-plus fans to Austin for five straight days of live music, is not known for its easily excitable audiences. Seen-it-all music professionals, critics and hipster fans often take an aloof approach to performances.
This year was different. Big-name acts, ranging from Green Day, Iggy & the Stooges, Snoop Dogg and John Fogerty to the not-so-secret “surprise” guests Prince and Justin Timberlake, played iconic songs that made it hard to stand still, prompting many an attendee to act like giddy 13-year-olds at their first concert.
The biggest sing-along gig of the fest was probably the Sound City Players concert hosted by Dave Grohl, who also retraced his career in this year’s SXSW keynote speech. He and his bandmates in the Foo Fighters and Nirvana hit the Stubb’s BBQ outdoor stage Thursday joined by Stevie Nicks, Fogerty, members of Cheap Trick and Rage Against the Machine and even ol’ Rick Springfield. That’s right, “Jessie’s Girl” played a prominent role at SXSW this year.
So did “Footloose,” as TV foodie Rachael Ray made her beloved free pork sliders a little harder to stomach this year by booking Kenny Loggins to headline her annual party.
Of course, none of these aforementioned acts have anything to do with SXSW’s greatest trait, which is discovering new talent. At least in the case of Green Day, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, those revered, indie-rooted bands went to Austin to promote ambitious new albums. Green Day actually arrived with three new records to tout, but frontman Billie Joe Armstrong also strutted his good health, making it apparent that his recent rehab stint — which forced the band to cancel a tour — did nothing to stifle his dynamic stage presence.
Cave’s set at the NPR Music showcase Wednesday stood up as the most riveting of the fest, with spacious and dark new songs such as “Jubilee Street” laced with “Mercy Seat” and other classics. Cave also mocked SXSW’s detached audience members by mimicking all the ones typing fiercely on their mobile devices (chances are they were telling their friends how great the set was, Nick).
Snoop Dogg came to Austin not only to unveil a new album, but also a new identity. His Rastafarian-wannabe alter ego Snoop Lion blew out electrifying if a bit half-baked reggae joints, including a slow-grooving remake of “Gin & Juice.” Solange Knowles — yes, Beyoncé’s sister — offered a more natural musical transition into lightly electronic, ethereal pop in her appearance at the Spin magazine party.
SXSW’s most successful musical makeover was achieved by Austin’s own Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, who returned from political controversy and a half-decade hiatus with a moody new rock sound and the same inarguably powerful voice.
Among the tunes she previewed from her upcoming album were a harrowing version of Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” plus songs by her Minnesota colleagues Dan Wilson (“Free Life”) and the Jayhawks (“I’d Run Away”).
Even some of the newbies at SXSW demanded that their audiences fully participate in the shows. Minneapolis singer/rapper Lizzo took the numerical approach to livening things up at a noontime party gig by her all-female trio the Chalice, threatening to assign numbers to the modest-sized audience.
“I’m going to be like, ‘Where you at, No. 16?’ ” she warned.
Jean-Philip Grobler of the charming, harmonious New York synth-pop band St. Lucia said to a way-hip crowd at the Consequence of Sound blogger party, “I’m going to ask you all to do something you’re probably not going to want to do: Sing.”
Wouldn’t you know it, his request actually worked, as did a lot else at SXSW this year.