It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was closing night of SXSW 2013 and the dividing line between the two was whether you could get into any one of the last night’s big-name shows — Justin Timberlake, Prince, Vampire Weekend, Kendrick Lamar and Smashing Pumpkins were among the luminaries who helped close the music festival.
As always, the festival provided music lovers the chance to see bands, big and small, legendary and unsigned, over four days at venues spread across the city of Austin. Whether it was Depeche Mode playing a packed, hit-filled set at an intimate venue, rapper Flatbush Zombie getting the crowd moving, eletro-pop newbie Kitten climbing the rafters, Marnie Stern bringing down the house, or Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty slow jamming with Dave Grohl, SXSW music had something for everyone.
Here are a few highlights from my past week in Austin:
Best Surprise: The Afghan Whigs put on an amazing show. So did Usher. When the R&B star walked on stage — in the middle of the Whigs set — to add his vocal stylings a few songs, the unlikely and unexpected combination was like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of a music-lovers’ dream. If they had played “Same Girl” (Usher’s duet with R. Kelly) there may have been fainting in the crowd.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot: “Austin, don’t let me hurt you!” Prince warned, adding, “You know how many hits I got?” His epic two-and-a-half hour set, which featured a mere six(!) encores (including a cover of Michael Jackson‘s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”), skipped the mega-hits for the most part, but the lucky fans who made it into the show didn’t seem to mind at all.
But Wait, There’s More: Not only did the Purple One make an incredible SXSW debut, but A Tribe Called Quest kicked off the show with their original four-man lineup including Jarobi, Phife, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Q-Tip. Even the Tribe was surprised by their appearance at the show. “They called us at the last minute,” explained Q-Tip, between songs.
Crowd Sourcing: Grumpy Cat may have lured the crowds during the interactive portion of the festival, but when the music rolled around, the Smashing Pumpkins won the prize for longest line. While the queue, which stretched for blocks, may not have been the absolute longest of the festival, it felt like the longest due to the improbably high number of fans eager to see the band, despite the fact that the only original member still in the act is frontman Billy Corgan.
Best Stunt Casting: Rapper French Montana had P. Diddy as a special guest, but when Riff Raff — the rapper who may have inspired James Franco’s character in Spring Breakers — made a two-minute appearance on the stage with Action Bronson, the crowd went wild. And when Odd Future collective member Earl Sweatshirt swung by for a few verses, the decibels reached Beatlemania levels.
Buzziest Band: Icona Pop drew huge dance-ready crowds to each of their many many shows. That’s what happens when you head to SXSW just a few weeks after your song (the impeccable “I Love It” featuring Charli XCX) is featured in the hit HBO series Girls.
Best Band To Drink Beer To: Bleached. The rough-around-the-edges garage punk sister act out of California, delivered a series of sloppy, spirited shows that were some of the best of the festival.
Best Band You Need To See Live: Death Grips. The duo never fails to deliver an intense show with MC Ride’s rantings and ravings and gruff vocals paired with drummer Zach Hill’s wild, driving beats. They bring a rarified chaos to their live performances that should not be missed.
Most Deserving of a Sell-Out Crowd: Waxahatchee. Katie Crutchfield’s new album, Cerulean Salt, was already a favorite, but seeing the songs performed live made them even more poignant, powerful and memorable.
Most Rock ‘n’ Roll Sentiment: Brooklyn band DIIV denounced SXSW as “a glorified corporate networking party” via Tumblr. Later, the band’s frontman and founder Zachary Cole Smith tweeted, “For the record I’m actually having a blast at SXSW”
Band You Are Happiest To See Back From The Dead: The Zombies. The ‘60s icons who bridged pop, psychedelia and prog rock, reunited for a blissful and nostalgic set, including their one-time-hit-turned-classic, “Time of the Season.”
Strangest Duet That Really Worked: Aside from the aforementioned mind-blowing Usher and Afghan Whigs performance, watching Major Lazer and Dirty Projectors’ Amber Coffman perform “Get Free” live was worth suffering through a crowd filled with (approximately) a million large men in backwards baseball caps double fisting Lone Star beers.
Comeback Kid: Justin Timberlake. For the past few weeks, JT was the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Not only did he perform on the Grammys, but he released The 20/20 Experience, his first new album in six years; hosted and performed on Saturday Night Live, and delivered a full week of performances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Then he reportedly dazzled crowds with a solid set of new and old material. Reportedly. Wasn’t there to see it.
Best/Worst Rumor: That I might get into the Justin Timberlake show.
Show We Regret Missing: Haim, the California sister act with bulldozing percussion and brilliant songwriting, and Vampire Weekend, who are getting to release their new album, Modern Vampires of the City, in early May. Vampire Weekend introduced two new songs during their set: “Diane Young” and the fantastic “Ya Hey.”
Most Green Day Thing: Green Day bass player Mike Dirnt introducing the band’s two documentaries Broadway Idiot and Cuatro! with a sardonic, “Welcome to our nightmare,” which was almost the only thing the band said to the audience.
Best Reincarnation: Snoop Lion. While Snoop Dogg may have been gangsta, Snoop Lion is rasta. His show at Viceland was filled with peace, love, a lot of weed references, and a few hundred fans happily pogoing to his cover of House of Pain’s “Jump Around.”
So Who Won SXSW? Dave Grohl. The Nirvana drummer–turned–Foo Fighter frontman delivered a keynote address that really resonated with the crowd. The hour-long speech, which centered around the theme that “The musician comes first,” included anecdotal wisdom collected through the years Washington D.C. punk in the ‘80s, his rise to rock stardom in Nirvana and rebirth with Foo Fighters. Grohl surprised the audience by mentioning that, “I can honestly say that ‘Gangnam Style’ is one of my favorite songs of the last 10 years.” While that could mean that PSY won SXSW, the K-Pop star didn’t stroll over to Stubb’s to deliver a bewilderingly blisteringly good set with the Sound City Players. Go home! Dave Grohl won.