I hate getting stuck down here. You show up at the spot a little early to get yourself good and situated for whoever's up last and find more often than not that every little thing's been pushed back, so that drought in the back of your throat or the crimsoning of your forearms (If you're me, that is...) in the unforgiving Texas sun will just have to wait another 45 minutes for somebody else's schedule. I'm that dude who, even back home, buys tickets for a show and intentionally gets there to avoid the openers, even when I like the openers. Impatience can be a virtue too, you know. After all, why waste one's time waiting for the Soft Pack to tear down in advance of your fave rave's soundcheck when you could be sitting under a tree in a back-alley bar somewhere watching the Vivian Girls learn by doing. Zing.
So why I volunteered myself to cover a few of the biggest shows this town put on during SXSW 2009 was—until about 9:45 p.m. last night— more than a little unclear to me. I don't discriminate between what sells and what doesn't: My favorite album thus far in 2009 is by a mall emo band who shall, for the purposes of my continued employment as a music journalist, remain nameless. But this is South by Southwest, not Lollapalooza, and it's my understanding that we journalist types are supposed to be on the lookout for the next big thing, not just a big deal shoehorned into a small spot just 'cuz somebody thought that might be fun. And when it comes to the bigger deals—I mean, the deals even bigger than the line wrapped around the corner for St. Vincent— there's even more waiting around to be done, even more of that nagging sense that you should be out there seeing stuff instead of standing around trying to angle more free waters. But Kanye West's supposedly secret set last night was worth missing a day chock full of truly excellent somewhat obscure acts and what I'm told was yet another spectacular showing from the Dirty Projectors. Sometimes, if you want to see the best thing, I guess a little patience is required.
It took about five hours in the roomy, moody, beery Fader Fort to successfully see every minute of Kanye. Two to get settled into a spot and watch birthday boy Bun B and a very dedicated (albeit wedgie-prone) Jadakiss give us their best for 30 minutes apiece, one to set up and fine-tune the sound of instrument after instrument on a stage that'd seen a lot of 1s and 2s over the course of the afternoon, and two for Kanye and a gaggle of his closest friends to put on one hell of a live revue. After a song or two of his own, Kanye took to calling it the G.O.O.D. Music showcase, which—unofficial to SXSW or not—it totally was. And damn if the G.O.O.D. family, who've seen their share of commercial floundering and stratification within the ranks, aren't living up to their name lately.
Kanye must've found a day party with free vodka Red Bulls, 'cuz I've never seen him so full of blissed-out energy.
He pounced around the stage from the first moment to the last, pausing only to beckon friends and co-workers up for their moment in the spotlight. He did a few from 808s and Heartbreak—an album that, despite all televised evidence to the contrary, sounds incredible live—before bringing up the guests: the very slept-on Consequence and GLC, awfully good sport Mr. Hudson, permamugging crooner type Kid Cudi (who must be more popular down here than he is up north), 88 Keys wearing a cartoonishly huge backpack, Diddy butler and fancy dancer Fonzworth Bentley and so on. Kanye would bring somebody out, do whatever song the two share when applicable, then let them do their thing on a track or two before showing some love and then bringing up whoever's next. For all the talk of Kanye's ego, the guy certainly ceded the microphone as much or more than he controlled it. It is his label, I suppose.
Oh, and there were surprises, too: Common's heavily rumored appearance, complete with stage dive and an uncharacteristically not-awful freestyle (he said "Keep Austin weird.") actually made me like the guy for a few minutes, but the big one for me had to have been Ms. Erykah Badu's all too brief stint onstage. She sang a bit of Common's "The Light"—which was even better than that sounds—then picked up on a bit of Common's Lil Wayne-referencing rhyme by scatting a bit of "Mrs. Officer" before launching into a superior freestyle of her own. If someone told me Erykah Badu's head contained the all-knowing brain that establishes balance in the universe or something, I would believe it. Surprising, too, was Kanye's willingness to play off how many 808s lyrics he forgot. Again, considering the perfectionist who served as the night's ringleader, there was something loose and organic and joyous about the proceedings, and Kanye rolled with everything, grinning all the while.
And why shouldn't he? The guy gathered the most devoted crowd of the week—I very much doubt even Metallica fans would've put up with so much—and gave them enough to eliminate any complaints about wait times and last-night exhaustion. The old ones—"We Major", "Gone", and especially the College Dropout's "Spaceship"—were victory laps, and the new ones were revelations, even to a dude like myself whose neighbors play 808s through the wall maybe 10 hours a day. He is, it's been said , the most fascinating star of any stripe we've had in a long while, and this is why: He can do things like turn a secret show in a big sweaty tent into an all-inclusive pop smorgasboard just by flicking through his iPhone, and not even really act like it was a thing. You know at rap shows when there's a sense from the stage that the crowd isn't feeling it like they should, which often leads to a little prodding and requests for yes-y'alling and the like? Kanye never once did anything like that. He didn't have to. We didn't need any help feeling G.O.O.D.
Sheesh, though: I just wish I'd asked one of those Chicago guys for a lift.