With the same kind of full-tilt, fist-in-the-air, earnest rock-concert energy that Bruce Springsteen brought to the same venue this time last year, Green Day returned from an extended sabbatical for a South by Southwest Music Conference gig Friday at the “Austin City Limits” theater. The official reason for the band being in Austin was to promote its new three-album series, “Uno!,” “Dos!,” “Tres!,” and a documentary on the making of the ambitious project. Unofficially, the show might have also been intended to simply get word out that frontman Billie Joe Armstrong is OK. In fact, he’s stellar.
Green Day’s wily frontman -- who has counted St. Paul as a part-time home (his wife is a Twin Cities native) – reemerged lion’s-den-style at SXSW after a rehab stint that postponed his band’s fall tour. A few songs into his beloved trio’s first high-profile gig since being sidelined, the 41-year-old singer/guitarist/cheerleader made only one glib reference to his troubles when he damaged a microphone that needed to be replaced. “And I wasn’t even on drugs,” he cracked after he got the new mic.
The two-hour set that ensued was an intoxicating adrenaline rush in its own right. Armstrong displayed the same kind of fireball energy and bratty charm he had at 21, and the band went that far back in the set list, too. “Christie Road” and “Welcome to Paradise” from 1992’s “Kerplunk” album were dropped in midway through the show, soon followed by the songs that broke the band in 1994, “Longview” and “Basket Case.” Two of the newest tracks, “99 Revolutions” and “Brutal Love,” were used as the opener and encore finale, respectively. A breezy overview of the three new discs peppered the show in between, with the especially heavy, Stooges-like grinder “Stop When the Red Lights Flash” proving a highlight. Best of all, familiar favorites such as “Welcome to Paradise” and “Know Your Enemy” – the latter delivered with help from a stage-diving young fan – created the kind of excited sing-alongs that are uncommon at Austin’s cool, often cynical festival.
Here’s a quick rundown of other highlights among Friday's tidal wave of performances:
SOLANGE KNOWLES: Beyonce’s hip younger sister has been regularly playing SXSW for a few years, but if feels like she’s finally coming into her own light this year. She played the Spin party Friday afternoon at Stubb’s sandwiched between Scottish buzz band Chvrches and burgeoning rap star Kendrick Lamar. Her set of lightly bouncing, atmospheric dance-pop felt like a cool blast of chilled-out calm amid the festival’s stormy pace. Dressed in a stylish, eye-pleasing soft pink shorts ensemble, she showed her true colors to the hipster audience by covering New York art-rock band the Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is the Move.”
SALLIE FORD: A vintage rockabilly singer/guitarist with a punky, modern edge, the Portland up-and-comer played a riling set at Antone’s blues club that sounded like Wanda Jackson if Wanda had grown up a Sleater-Kinney fan. Her scrappy band, the Sound Outside, was also as tight as the set list to Prince's SXSW gig on Saturday night.
CHELSEA LIGHT MOVING: With Sonic Youth on the shelf following his divorce from bandmate Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore thankfully hasn’t tried too hard to separate himself from his past. His new band – which makes its Twin Cities debut next week at the Triple Rock – displayed a natural, apple-not-far-from-the-tree charm on the Mohawk outdoor stage, with two-guitar jams and booming, hard-thumping rhythms.
HANNAH GEORGAS: No wonder Kathleen Edwards recently picked this fellow Canadian singer/songwriter for a tour opener. She sure sounds a lot like Edwards. On stage at Maggie Mae's, the Vancouver newbie also showed more of an ethereal, synth-based tone -- yes. Bon Iver-like – in lieu of Edwards’ folky twang, with songs such as “Somebody” starting out mellow and crescendoing in dramatic fashion.
GARY LOURIS: A guy who has played more South by Southwests than he can or cares to remember – yours truly caught his Jayhawks here in 1990 when the fest and I were just babies – Louris had good reason to come this year. He’s bouncing back from health troubles that forced him to cancel a solo tour last fall, plus he’s working on a new album after the Jayhawks wrapped their successful reunion run last summer. He closed Friday’s showcase from Minneapolis-based company Green Room Music Source with a grabbag of tunes. Dutifully backed Kevin Bowe & the Okemah Prophets (who also performed before him), Louris delivered several underrated gems from his 2010 solo debut “Vagabonds” and latter-day Jayhawks staples such as “Tailspin” and “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” To the delight of the crowd of faithfuls, he called up Big Star drummer and one-time Golden Smog member Jody Stephens for a revival of the Smog’s “Until You Came Along.” OK, so Green Day didn’t have the only singalong Friday night.
Read our full festival coverage and see Tony Nelson's photo galleries at www.startribune.com/sxsw.