South by Southwest Music Festival organizers couldn’t have asked for better weather for the biggest free show they’ve ever presented at Auditorium Shores. On Saturday, Garth Brooks, who swiftly sells out arenas around the world, was scheduled to take the stage at 8 p.m. in the South Austin park after a daylong country music showcase under clear skies amid temperatures in the low 80s. .
SXSW representatives said 80 percent of tickets, which were distributed online and disappeared in less than five minutes, went to the Austin public. Capacity at Auditorium Shores is 20,000, although reps did not confirm how many tickets were allotted for the show, which was sponsored by Amazon.
At his SXSW Music keynote address Friday, Brooks, who recently signed a deal with Amazon Music, talked about shrinking revenue and the pressure on songwriters in the age of streaming music. Later in the evening, the country superstar scooted his boots over to the classic Austin dance hall the Broken Spoke for a surprise show, thrilling a few hundred of our “Friends in Low Places” with an intimate 17-song set.
“If the honky-tonks were like this that I was in, I never would’ve left them,” he said from the stage of the more than 50-year-old joint.
Brooks wasn’t the only big name at the fest. Mopey pop star Lana del Rey made a pop-up appearance Friday, and ’90s rock bands Weezer, Smash Mouth and Jimmy Eat World drew capacity crowds. Overall, the number of celebrity performances was down this year, and with SXSW surprises on the decline, Twitter warriors spent days dissecting opaque clues to a rumored appearance by R&B star Frank Ocean that never happened.
Hip-hop did continue to boast serious star power at SXSW. Rappers Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross and Lil’ Wayne all performed. Wu-Tang Clan headlined a showcase at ACL Live on Tuesday, and the mighty Roots crew was set to host a jam session Saturday night. An unofficial Swisha House reunion show featuring Houston rap heavyweights Mike Jones and Paul Wall drew huge crowds Thursday to Vulcan Gas Company on Sixth Street and Atlanta rap star 2Chainz was a surprise guest Saturday at the Fader Fort.
Austin’s largest downtown music venue, the Austin Music Hall, closed shortly after SXSW 2016, and several shows that could have filled the 4,000-plus capacity room crowded into smaller venues such as Stubb’s, Empire Garage and the Mohawk. These shows were packed shortly after the doors opened and were difficult to access even for badge-holders.
Several prominent venues, including the Scoot Inn, Vulcan Gas Company, the Headhunter’s space on Red River and the old Antone’s on Fifth Street, went dark or hosted unofficial shows, and large event spaces such as Brazos Hall and Fair Market saw less action than they have in previous years.
There were still plenty of parties, but several large branded events, including the Fader Fort, Spotify House and Hype Hotel, either scaled back or skipped the fest, cutting down on the boozy free-for-all vibe.
Political discussion didn’t dominate, but hot-button issues did come up at the festival. Puerto Rican rapper Residente railed against President Trump’s immigration policies, and buzzy glitter punk band Pwr Bttm spoke out against the transgender bathroom bill moving through the Texas Legislature. Official SXSW signs in the convention center bathrooms proclaimed the fest a safe space for all, and many artists spoke generally about the importance of love and respect. Despite several high-profile incidents of international artists being denied entry to the U.S. at the border, SXSW organizers said the number of artists who encountered problems was not a lot higher than in past years.
Peter Blackstock, Eric Webb, Eric Pulsifer, Chad Swiatecki, Jake Harris, Katey Psencik and Nancy Flores contributed to this report.
STATESMAN AT SXSW
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