Even though this year was my first time at South By Southwest, I had a fair idea of what to expect from the accounts of my colleagues over the last few years. Their two key bits of advice were 1) don’t worry if you miss a new band, because they’ll be playing another 12 times, so you’ll see them at some point; and 2) keep your ear to the ground, because there are tonnes of last minute secret sets going down all the time.
Both of these were true, but the second piece of advice was particularly pertinent in 2012, because lordy, there were a truly headache-inducing number of secret shows this year. Too many, in fact, to the extent that you could sense people watching bands worrying about what they were missing. It was easy to start rumours: I was told at one point that Kanye West was doing a set with just him and an acoustic guitar, and it seemed feasible.
To be honest, just like at Glastonbury, the whole secret thing is starting to lose its charm a bit. The big acts have realised that the best way of securing column inches is not to headline, but to turn up “unannounced” in some tiny little venue, which is coincidentally half full of photographers from the world’s media. Trust me: if you worked in the music press and were at Glasto 2011, you knew EXACTLY when and where Radiohead were playing. And they ended up with more column inches than any of the headliners.
Still, at SXSW, littered amongst the “SURPRISE!” of seeing a band even the aliens knew were going to turn up, were some genuine, spontaneous acts that made the week. Here’s ten that I took note of.
1Arcade Fire showing up
They were officially in town to lecture at the University Of Austin on the Monday just after SXSW… the timing, most assumed, not a coincidence. Sure enough, they joined Bruce Springsteen’s choir (with many others) to help chant ‘This Land Is Your Land’ at the end of his triumphant Moody Theatre show on Thursday night. It seemed only a matter of time before they popped up onstage somewhere playing their own tunes, but it was not to be. Unless you count spinning some records at Nigel Godrich’s post-Jack White party on Friday night.
OK, this was probably the worst kept secret in Austin, or at least the most easily sussed out. There was a Shady Records showcase on the Friday night; 50 Cent was announced as headliner; he was billed as performing his debut album ‘Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ in full; song number two on said album features a guest rap from Eminem. So it happened, and everyone went as ballistic as they would have had it been a genuine surprise. Of course, it would have been bonkers if he’d come on for track two of the show, then naffed off, so come the encore he was out again – although a lukewarm crowd response nearly put paid to that, which was a huge surprise. Watch it below: looks pretty tame, right?
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Now THIS is more what a genuine SXSW surprise is all about. Having shown up to play his parts on Springsteen’s ‘Wrecking Ball’, Morello took to the streets… literally. No-one knew about this, no-one was tipped off, it was ragged as fuck, and he had to keep telling the assembled throng – who just happened to walk past him– to stop whooping so that he could actually be heard.
A good spot to rest one’s feet at SXSW after a hard day’s night is the bar at the Driscoll Hotel, where I ended up late on the Saturday night with the rest of the NME contingent. As we walked in, about 1am, I hear this whiteboy soul guy who looks a bit like Olly Murs with a beard singing The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’. Thought nothing of it – pretty standard hotel bar-type singer dude – went and sat down. About half an hour later, he starts singing ‘Gotta Get Thru This’, at which point it dawns on me: “Hang on a minute, that’s THE Daniel Bedingfield!” No-one I was with believed me, but we sneaked over, and stared into his eyes. It really was him!
Hip hop royalty was well represented in Austin this year, what with Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Eminem, RZA, Nas, Timbaland, BOB, Wale, TI, Snoop, Lil Wayne and others all showing up to do a turn. Most of them were brazen about why they were there – for the coin – and Jay’s American Express showcase seemed likely to end up as the most nauseatingly shameless cash cow… until, that is, Snoop played a set in a giant Doritos vending machine the next night. Unlike the others, though, he did redeem himself the next day, however: playing a more low-key for-the-hell-of-it set at the Vibe House at 4am. He also commented of his first show: “That was a vending machine? I was high as a motherfucker – I didn’t know that was a vending machine!”
Everyone’s fave reclusive eccentric actor is something of a SXSW legend, what with his spot of bartending back in 2010, and crashing a party in a cave in 2006 (100% TRUE). This year The Huffington Post even set up a liveblog entitled ‘MURRAYWATCH’, and they were not be disappointed: he was out and about in force, dancing on the bar at Jack White’s gig, and later jumped up onstage to introduce power-pop legends The Nerves at the Spiderhouse. Even more incredibly, the only photo of this was taken by bloody Kid Congo Powers. Yep, he of Gun Club/Cramps/Bad Seeds fame.
The fact that Lionel Richie was even at SXSW was bizarre and when his army of roadies (we counted 30 at one point) carried a grand piano onto the Moody theatre stage, it was clear he wasn’t exactly entering into the spirit of the occasion. He did, however, bring an arsenal of irresistible mega-hits (‘Easy’, ‘Hello’, ‘All Night Long’ and ‘Stuck On You’) at 1am, at which point even the most dark-hearted indie snob was powerless to resist. And then he brought on a bona fide country music legend in the shape of Kenny Rogers, to sing ‘Lady’. Truly great.
Traditionally, the biggest secret set of SXSW comes in a Saturday night slot at the Fader Fort, and this year, stature-wise at least, was no exception. Names I’d head whispered all afternoon included Jay-Z, Arcade Fire and Lady Gaga, but neither of them could have topped Rick Ross’s show.
The Boss owned Austin in the way everyone knew he would, delivering a truly mighty keynote speech and an even better show at the Moody theatre, at which he brought on both Jimmy Cliff and Arcade Fire, as well as Tom Morello. But his most heartwarming collaboration came with the arrival of The Animals’ singer Eric Burdon. In the keynote, he played ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place’ to illustrate how it was “the route of every song I’ve ever written”. Completely by chance, Eric Burdon was across town, and tweeted at Bruce that he was “truly honoured”. Next thing he knew, his phone rang and he was in a taxi…
Of course, he did about 6,712,203 sets from Friday onwards, and we couldn’t get into any of them. At one point, I was queuing up at Hype Machine party, and overheard a guy saying that Skrill was setting up at a bar around the corner. He was, but by the time I got there – maybe because you could hear the bass five blocks away – it was impossible to get anywhere near it. I did see him getting into a blacked out people carrier, though, to a soundtrack of bigger screams than anyone else had over the course of this week. Props to him for entering into the spirit of the occasion, although his life seems to be one long South By Southwest anyway.