Both the grandiose and intimate sides of South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival were seen Saturday night, as the festival ended with anticipated performances from Justin Timberlake, Prince and the Smashing Pumpkins, while hundreds of lesser-known acts filled smaller stages, and rumors of other surprise shows continued to swirl.
The size of the event — five days of showcases and parties with sets from more than 2,000 acts, from the well-known such as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds or Iggy and the Stooges, to the just-discovered such as rapper Kendrick Lamar and Los Angeles soul act Rhye — also served as a somber reminder of the loss of one of its key organizers, longtime SXSW creative director Brent Grulke, who died suddenly in August. Grulke played a major role in expanding the number of bands from about 500 in the mid-1990s and expanding the festival’s international reach.
Saturday afternoon, SXSW music general manager James Minor, a former festival booker who was named to his job last fall after Grulke’s death, seemed tired but in good spirits. He said that this year’s festival has gone well. “It’s intense, looking at the festival in a different way, but it’s been manageable,” he said of his new position.
SXSW expanded the ticket lottery system to manage demand for bigger shows. The festival used the system to distribute tickets to sets from Green Day, Dave Grohl’s Sound City Players, Depeche Mode and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Despite complaints that the lottery unfairly excluded people who had purchased a festival wristband, Minor said the system worked. “We were able to manage expectations,” he said.
Former Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman Grohl served as torchbearer on the conference side of the event. Grohl was also in town to promote his new documentary “Sound City,” which chronicles the history of the now-closed California recording studio where Nirvana and several other bands, including Fleetwood Mac, recorded. It screened as part of SXSW Film.
“The musician comes first,” Grohl said in his talk Thursday at the Austin Convention Center. During his speech, he discussed the evolution of his musical taste, played air guitar to Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” and touched on the difficulties Nirvana faced as they unexpectedly found mainstream success with their album “Nevermind.”
Grohl later was the maestro of a three-hour set at Stubb’s by the Sound City Players, a rock revue featuring musicians who recorded at the studio. Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks (who sat for a conference interview earlier in the day), Rick Springfield and former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty, among others, took turns running through a sampling of their hits, with Grohl and the rest of the Foo Fighters serving as the backing band.
On Friday, younger acts, including indie rock trio Unknown Mortal Orchestra, buzzy New York/Texas group Parquet Courts and Solange Knowles (Beyoncé’s sister), performed on the same stage for the annual Spin magazine party.
Later Friday, a group of metal bands from Cuba performed for the first time in the United States in the space once occupied by Emo’s on Red River Street. “It’s a dream to have the opportunity to be at such an event,” said Justo Valdes, guitarist for Escape, who set foot outside his home country for the first time last week, just one example of how SXSW brings the world to Austin.
Longtime pop punks Green Day offered one of Friday’s higher profile performances. In town for SXSW Film to promote a pair of new documentaries, the band performed to a full house at the 3,000-capacity ACL Live.
Saturday night, lines of fans who had won the lottery to see Prince wrapped around La Zona Rosa hours before the doors opened. Elsewhere, fans were eagerly awaiting Justin Timberlake at the Myspace Secret Shows stage. Those who hadn’t won that lottery were still trying to talk their way in. People were also scouting out where the latest rumored superstar might be playing. At least one rumor proved true when P. Diddy showed up at Fader Fort to rap with French Montana.
Amid the excitement of the week, the loss of Grulke was on many people’s minds, especially Wednesday night at the Austin Music Awards, when the Wild Seeds, Alejandro Escovedo, Britt Daniel and others paid tribute to their late friend. Then, before Grohl’s keynote Thursday, several SXSW staff members, including Roland Swenson and Minor, took the stage before a short film on Grulke’s life. “People who knew Grulke will remember him as a lover of music,” Minor said.
This week, Grulke’s legacy endured with something for fans of music in all its forms.
Find all the reviews, scene reports, videos and photos from SXSW at austin360.com. Plus look for more highlights, Monday in Life & Arts.