SXSW Day 4 report: When Kanye West came to Austin
After four days and 1,900 acts on 88 stages, the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference and festival in Austin, Texas, came to an end early Sunday morning. On the final night of the industry event, there was one showcase that towered over the entire happening, and it wasn't even affiliated with SXSW.
Rap superstar Kanye West came to Austin and took over the spotlight. Though his performance was staged at the Fader Fort, a corporate mecca sponsored by Levi's and Fader magazine, West got into the true spirit of SXSW, sharing the stage with lesser-known acts on his G.O.O.D. Music label roster.
There were heavy hitters as well. Chi-Town pal Common and R&B star Erykah Badu each joined West on stage and helped turn his G.O.O.D. Music showcase into Austin's must-see event. Give West credit here. Plenty of major artists make the trek to Austin to hype new releases or to try to regain the eye of the media. West was eager to turn the attention elsewhere and stepped aside to let promising up-and-coming rappers such as Kid Cudi and Consequence take center stage.
West went to work for the artists on his label, playing the the role of emcee and never straying too far from the stage to ensure the audience's attention wouldn't waver. While parading out a host of unknown artists -- electro-soul singer Mr. Hudson and rapper GLC among them -- West kept the crowd's interest in the concert high by mixing in his own songs, "The College Dropout," "Spaceship," "Late Registration" and "Crack Music" among them.
Yet the true stars of the night? The songs of West's heart-wrenchingly personal 2009 album, "808s & Heartbreak." Performing here with a live band -- at least seven people were on stage at any given time -- West transformed the songs from thoughtfully moody, snyth-heavy orchestrations into more positive statements.
"Love Lockdown" became a crowd singalong, turning from a song of desperation to a tale of survival. West didn't need any electronically modified vocal effects here, instead pulling from the frantically powerful rhythm.
Stripped down and raw, "Heartless" was absolutely gripping, with West on the vocal attack over an understated groove and a brief burst of guitar in the final seconds. Should West tour for "808s," the live treatments were exciting news, as they were evidence that West is going to continue to let the songs evolve.
Common arrived a little more than halfway through the night, trouncing onto the stage for a rather lively rendition of "Universal Mind Control" and then keeping the energy up by segueing into his "The Light." His ex, Badu, showed up mid-song, and her jazzy vocals lightly chafed the verses. A crowd-pleasing freestyle among Common, West and Badu followed, with Common poking a little fun at Lil Wayne.
As for the newcomers, GLC and Consequence each held their own, but it was Kid Cudi who proved most ready to step into the limelight. The spacious, downbeat "Day 'N' Nite" transformed multiple times on stage, morphing with ease from a somber number into a rousing techno club cut.
The night ended with everyone on stage singing along to West's songs from "808s." The label chief also revealed that he's in the studio with Common and assured fans that despite the emotional "808s," he'll soon be returning to rap. But he still justified his artistic decisions: "Everybody want to be so ... hard, but that's played out."
When the music is this good, who's going to argue with him?
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Associated Press