Is SXSW a proving ground for thousands of starter bands trying to make a name for themselves, or a launch pad for marquee superstars aiming to promote their brands in tandem with corporate marketeers desperate to portray themselves as hip?
Both. Mega acts have parachuted into Austin in March before - Metallica and R.E.M. were here in recent years. But nobody's ever done it with as much ostentatiously grandiose entertainment value as Kanye West did on Saturday night.
That's a surprise, right?
At an unoffical SXSW event guaranteed to be the most talked about performance of the festival's 25th year, West and guests including Jay-Z, John Legend, Mos Def, Kid Cudi, Pusha T and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver commandeered the derelict Seaholm power plant (which has been nicely rehabbed as an Electric Factory-sized performance space and, this being Austin, is planned to be turned into condos) for a three hour plus free fashioned as showcase for West's GOOD music label that finally began at one in the morning, after fans who packed the 2000 capacity room waited outside in an inexcusably disorganized line for a minimum of two more hours.
(Sean "Diddy" Combs, however, who had made an appearance earlier in the day the Fiat sponsored Fader Fort, did not have to wait. He was whisked in past the gawking throngs to a V.I.P. area where he was the most recognizable celebrity cited aside from bounteously bearded TV on the Radio guitarist Kyp Malone.)
So let's see, five hours of your SXSW life spent waiting for, and then watching, Kanye and friends at a show organized to promote VEVO, the advertisement heavy video service owned by Universal Music: How many scuffling SXSW bands who need the exposure much more than West performed during those same hours? Hundreds.
Not that anyone fortunate enough to have gotten in to the "VEVO Power Station" was complaining. Because once the shot-in-HD-for-Internet-broadcast proceedings got under way, it turned out to be a sharply brought off, briskly paced, action packed event that drove the crowd into escalating epsiodes of delirium, which peaked near the end with Jay-Z and West teaming up for "Big Pimpin'."
The evening started out with Mos Def, with the veteran conscious rapper's tightly wound verses giving way to the feral Pusha T, playful Kid Cudi and weirdly wimpy British R & B singer Mr. Hudson.
Everybody did a handful of their hits as the buildup to the main event, with West hitting the stage at 2:30. Except for a costume change - from black leather to blood red - he pretty much stayed there for the next hour and a half, energetically prowling the stage and spitting his rhymes with relish. The King in his castle, appropriately located on West street.
Legend sang his lush ballad "Ordinary People" solo, as just one of many examples that West likes it soft and subtle as well as over the top and in your face. Legend also sang the hook to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's ""Blame Game," Bon Iver's Vernon did the same with the mournful, soul searching "Lost In The World," which was the penultimate number, before the all hands on deck (rxcept for Jay-Z) "The Good Life." The spoiled crowd's two complaints? No Rihanna or Nicki Minaj. (Though the former was replaced on "All Of The Lights" by an entire marching band.) How about that Mr. West? Where were they? Maybe you don't have "all that power," after all.
The highlight was "Runaway" - that's the one with the "here's to the doucebags" line - which West sang as much as rapped, his voice sometimes Auto-Tuned, sometimes not. Stretching out the coda, in a lonely soul conclusion to the song, it melded the maximalist attributes of Fantasy with the minimalist power of 2008's 808's & Heartbreak.
It's also the song in which West freely admits to his lovers (and haters) that "you been putting up with my s- for way to long." Indeed, we have, and SXSW got a big dose of it this week. But there was another lyric in "Power" the T-Rex sampling song just before that, that explained why we continue to take it. "I got the power," he stated as a plain fact, "to make your life so exciting." That too.
Previously: SXSW: Kurt Vile Stands Tall