Austin, Texas — My notes for SXSW 2013 on Saturday morning started very simply: “SX day 4, THANK GOD.” The festival remains the best place to see music that I’ve ever experienced, but it’s also a soul-killer. The hangovers and greasy food are tough; The sheer stamina of all that walking and all those hours on your feet and all that loud music is something else entirely.
That said, hell yes I’ll be back in 2014.
For me, Saturday was more about quality than quantity. And that’s another way of saying, “Yes, I waited in line and got into Justin Timberlake’s intimate show.”
Why see Timberlake at a festival that focuses on artist discovery? Well, we saw plenty of new bands we were psyched about earlier in the fest – see our reviews of Wednesday, Thursday and Friday right here.
JT is at the top of his game, in front of a mammoth record and one of the biggest tours of 2013. When JT (along with tourmate Jay-Z) already has a date planned at the Rose Bowl, capacity 90,000-plus, we’d be crazy to pass on seeing him in a makeshift venue that barely holds 800 people.
And yes, it was that good.
Roots drummer Questlove started the night at Timberlake’s Myspace Secret Show with an hour-plus DJ set that favored Jay-Z (three times?) and moved deftly from the ’50s classic “Shout” to the ’13 classic “Harlem Shake.” He bended the pitch during Michael Jackson’s “PYT” and rocked a beat-heavy version of Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo,” a nod to the night’s other big, private show, which had Tribe opening for Prince.
JT opened his set with a funked-out “Like I Love You,” fitting since it was his first single as a solo artist. A jittery “My Love” followed, but he really caught fire when he dropped into a glitchy “Cry Me a River,” which had him teasing some of the Throne’s “Niggas in Paris.” We wondered if that Jay-Z nod meant that we might see Hova when JT played his latest single “Suit & Tie” later on … But we had to wait to find out. And then JT had some call-and-response fun with the crowd with the “damage is done” bridge.
The new “Pusher Love Girl” followed, as did the throwback tune “Seniorita.” And it was during that Latin-tinged pop jam that I realized that the crowd simply wasn’t into the show.
The majority of the crowd won entrance to the show via the new Myspace. (Timberlake is an investor in the reworked social media platform.) But if you’re a Timberlake fan, seeing him at an intimate festival showcase with an open bar, and he plays an old-school jam with a lively, full band, and he approaches that closing call-and-response section where the guys sing one thing and the ladies sing back with another thing … you’re going to sing along, right?
Wrong. I couldn’t help but dance and sing and give into the moment, while also remembering those 2002-2003 dance parties with “Justified” as their soundtrack.
But when I looked around, I was mostly alone. People craned their necks to see the celebrity. They nodded heads as if they were at a care-less L.A. rock club. They texted, took video, chatted with the strangers next to them. What a waste. But it didn’t stop me (and a few others, mostly in the way front and way back) from dancing.
Another new song followed, “That Girl,” and the album track had JT doing his best Bruno Mars impersonation. (It was meh.) And then Timberlake thanked the crowd and the “wonderful, weird city of Austin for having me.” He told stories about hitting Amy’s Ice Cream earlier in the day and ordering a chocolate chip dip:
“Sorry, I’m on drugs,” Timberlake said candidly. “I’m just being serious.”
After somebody in the crowd pretended to be the Amy’s employee who’d helped him earlier that day, Timberlake nodded no: “It wasn’t you. I’m not that high.”
Then he grabbed an acoustic guitar and dropped a subtle but stunning “What Goes Around … Comes Around,” cementing his catalog as one of the best for revenge jams. His falsetto is ridiculously powerful, and hearing it from that insane proximity was a powerful musical experience – one that the fans in the house will always remember.
He brought back the funk with “FutureSex/LoveSound” and his latest single “Suit & Tie” – sans Jay-Z, sadly. And this combo worked for me: Before this set, I wasn’t getting “Suit & Tie” after multiple listens and seeing it on the Grammys and “SNL.” But as soon as the band chopped through the slowed-down intro and kicked into the glittering body of the song, it clicked for me. And the dance party started anew.
SXSW Saturday had a few other highlights, but here are two that stuck out for me:
Chicago’s Wild Belle thoroughly won over a packed room inside the Mohawk earlier that afternoon with a set that curiously straddled the line between indie rock and dub. And while that line is a tough one to navigate (just ask Santigold), brother-sister duo Natalie and Elliot Bergman (and three others) made it happen. Everything about Natalie is stunning, from her comfortable stage presence to her unusual vocal timbre, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see them truly break out to larger audiences in 2013.
Denver band In the Whale has long been a favorite of ours, and their show at our very own showcase at the Dirty Dog was a memorable blast of rock. The two-piece is ferocious – stylistically and apparently in marketing themselves, too. In between songs they’d shower the healthy-sized crowd with CDs, and to the band’s credit, the audience actually wanted them – picking them up off the bar’s sticky-icky floor. (On SXSW Saturday, it would take the right band for me to pick up a band’s CD from a bar floor – but In the Whale is one of those bands.)