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Big draw Kanye West overshadows real intent of South by Southwest

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

AUSTIN, Texas — A rare, full “super moon” shone over the Texas capital Saturday night, but only one music star was big enough to eclipse not only that but nearly all of the annual South by Southwest music conference and festival: Kanye West.

Announced via a cryptic online video weeks before SXSW, West hogged the spotlight on the festival’s final night and set up shop in an unusual venue, a decommissioned downtown power plant. By early Saturday morning, fans were already lined up for the midnight show; at showtime, a mob of ticketless fans mashed the barricades outside, hoping to get in. The venue’s capacity is under 2,000; the event guest list received more than 10,000 requests in its first hour.

From 1 to 4 a.m., West trotted much of the roster of his G.O.O.D. record label across the stage, including Mos Def (who was surprisingly basic and dull), Pusha T (his “Fear of God” mixtape is due Monday) and Kid Cudi (a crowd favorite and a snappy dancer). Most blended in, one after the next, except the arresting Cyhi Da Prince (whose crazy-fast rhymes were paired with the masked Mad Violinist for “Sideways”) and the aberrant Mr. Hudson (a bleach-blond white singer who sounds like Midge Ure and covered Alphaville’s “Forever Young”). The concert was filmed for an online broadcast scheduled for April 22 — Good Friday.

West himself slipped on stage without pomp and launched a set that swung between brilliant and boring. Fiery as he is — and certainly was in hot flashes during “Gorgeous” and “Hell of a Life” — the concert benefitted most when he added extra theater, such as the cymbal-flipping marching band that joined him (a la “Tusk”) during “All of the Lights,” John Legend leavening the mood with elegant piano playing (first during “Christian Dior Denim Flow” and “Blame Game,” then for his own “Ordinary People”), and the big-guns set of the night: Jay-Z showing up for six of the set’s 19 songs. When Jay-Z is on stage, Kanye actually looks humbled, standing there with not much to do while Hova roared through “Big Pimpin’.”

Ultimately, though, this concert merely crashed the party. Assembled and promoted by an online video service, not the festival itself, West’s parade of salesmanship only managed to draw a crowd away from aspiring bands that came to SXSW, one of the few opportunities they have to possibly be heard without the ruckus of Kanye-sized competition.

‘Idol’ hands

“American Idol” runner-up Crystal Bowersox shared her first SXSW showcase with Blues Traveler frontman John Popper after just meeting him. She’d invited the blues harmonica virtuoso to perform during one song, but they got on so well together he wound up playing the whole Friday night set, sometimes nearly overshadowing the singer-songwriter but ultimately adding to a rich performance.

Bowersox, who lives in Chicago with husband Brian Walker, sang and played like a veteran, clearly in command of her country-rock band as she fearlessly played a set that included folk-pop like “Mine All Mine” and “Mason,” as well as revved-up soul-rockers like “On the Run” and “Kiss Ya.” All original, too, thank heavens. Her “Idol” experience is well on the way to becoming a footnote in her bio.

Hip-hop rules

SXSW is not known for being a hotbed for hip-hop, but this year’s showcases included some fiery rap — including Chicago’s Cool Kids, Chuck Inglish and Mikey Rocks, showing the folks gathered for SXSW just how much the music business has changed. Since appearing in 2007, the talented rap duo has yet to record a proper album, instead building a sturdy career on blog-loved singles, mix tapes and remarkably solid performances like their stand Friday night. They’re doing well enough that Mikey Rocks can strut the stage in a red Neiman Marcus tank top and rhyme about his “new pair of shoes,” his “ATM credits,” how he swaggers around “with a little bit of gold and a pager” and, finally, snorts derisively: “You shop at the mall!”

Mac Miller made an auspicious debut. Backed by a DJ scratching actual vinyl, this 19-year-old white rapper from Pittsburgh stumbled into his set looking and acting like Bill from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Miller warmed into an engaging and most excellent set of quick rhymes, yammering about partying and generally being a good-natured doofus. Expect to see him on college campuses all year long — or, with his feisty “Nikes on My Feet” (“Lace ‘em up, lace ‘em up, lace ‘em up, lace ‘em / Blue suede shoes stay crispy like bacon”), on a shoe commercial soon.

Wiz Khalifa, whose “Rolling Papers” CD, due March 29, is one of the year’s most anticipated, moseyed on stage with a hazy set of party raps. Hardly polished, this sub-Snoop Dogg rambled about surrounded by members of the Taylor Gang, Khalifa ping-ponging back and forth, laughing to himself and transmitting a generally baked vibe.

Brooklyn’s Yelawolf juiced the crowd Thursday night, spewing his redneck raps. Born in Alabama, Yelawolf is signed to Eminem’s Shady Records; he sounds like a Southern Shady, but with much less to say. He got introspective for the briefest moment, stalking the stage and talking about a girl who left him “for some Abercrombie motherf---er.” Then he started singing, soft and fluttery, “Love is not enough” — before shrieking, “F--- that bitch! I just wanna party!”

The buzz bands

London’s Yuck topped the list of most-hyped bands at this year’s festival, playing multiple shows, each one with long lines of badge holders waiting to get in. It’s not really worth all that, but Yuck’s mix of no-wave and shoegaze should make for a harmless summer ’90s revival. Sometimes, as on “Holing Out,” the guitars from Yuck’s Daniel Blumberg and Max Bloom are wonderfully lush and streamlined. Sometimes, as on “Get Away,” the melodies take sharper turns. In all, it’s a pleasant sound that washes over you without leaving much behind.

Denmark’s Oh Land, a k a Nanna Oland Fabricius, also popped up at numerous venues throughout the week, playing each one as if it were an enormous European nightclub in the ’80s. She’s peddling a dance-pop similar to Robyn, but even with her band banging on keyboards and synth-drums she’s not as tough.

Rock lives

Wild Flag was finally unfurled, a supergroup spearheaded by Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and currently a fixture on IFC’s comedy show “Portlandia.” Wild Flag features singer-guitarist Mary Timony (ex-Helium), keyboardist Rebecca Cole (ex-Minders) and Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss. Their rollicking set Friday night was more fun than a Sleater-Kinney gig. Pop hooks rule, with girl-group ooh’s and ahh’s, and only occasionally (but thankfully) does a darker S-K undertone surface, particularly in Brownstein’s thrashing guitar breaks. A debut disc is due later this year.

They certainly brought more ferocity than did the Strokes. In the early stages of a tour that appears to be dreadfully duty-bound, supporting the band’s first new record in five years, “Angles,” these once refreshing rock revivalists played a free outdoor concert for a capacity crowd Thursday. Opening the static show with a wink-wink choice for this “comeback,” singer Julian Casablancas slumped onto his microphone and wheezed, “I want to be forgotten / and I don’t want to be reminded / You say, ‘Please don’t make this harder’ / No, I won’t yet.” But it’s not easy listening to a band that sounds so talented and proficient — and so bored. The Strokes’ show sounded like “Angles” does — labored, merely capable, not completely forced but close.

Chicago highlights

Chicago’s A Lull crammed onto a closet-sized stage Friday night for a pummeling performance. With two drummers, a bassist also occasionally hitting drums and a bongo, a guitarist with drums and a xylophone, and a singer lurching over repeating keyboard whims, A Lull was hardly a pause in anything. But the pounding compositions possess shape and texture and bode well for their full-length album, “Confetti,” due April 12.

Chicago’s the Kickback is a fierce power trio within a quintet — singer-guitarist Billy Yost, his brother Danny Yost on drums and bassist Zach Verdoorn. Tighter than a flea’s undies, they plow through every dynamic, from sweetly tuneful to apoplectic fury, buttressed by Billy Yost’s apparent natural edginess (his stage banter was taut, nervous, like he was spoiling for a dust-up) and a vein in his neck that bulged whenever things got really good and really loud.

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