The fact that Kanye West was gracing Austin with his presence was no surprise. Even the fact that he'd brought Jay-Z with him wasn't a total surprise, given the spontaneous "Ho-va! Ho-va!" chant an hour into West's festival-capping set at a converted power plant downtown, sponsored by Vevo. (I bet that locale sounded a lot more enticing and exotic a week or so ago.) The marching band, though -- that was a surprise.
Kanye is no stranger to SXSW -- he played here two years ago and clearly relishes the notion of going up against the greatest possible number of other artists and still being able to command the spotlight. Not that this is a solely selfish motive -- as in 2009, the event was actually a showcase for his label G.O.O.D. Music, and much of the roster served as both warmup acts and sidekicks.
Curtains dropped revealing the name of the label in giant light-up letters, accompanied by a benediction of sorts by a chorus line of black-clad bodies wearing gold masks. So far, so Eyes Wide Shut.
The center figure turned out to be Mos Def, who opened with a 20-minute solo set that established the night's round-robin format, followed in quick succession by Pusha T (joined at one point by a violinist), Mr. Hudson, Kid Cudi, and John Legend, while go-go dancers gyrated on stairwells lining the venue, kind of like in Texas Stadium.
The main course arrived with the opening bars of "Dark Fantasy," and West ran through much of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy along with the occasional G.O.O.D. Friday track ("Christian Dior Denim Flow") and catalogue track ("Say You Will" from 808s and Heartbreak). Conveniently in town for Gayngs and DeYarmond Edison sets, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon did what he does on the MBDTF tracks, including the album-closing "Lost in the World." But with the long-gestating collaborative record Watch the Throne allegedly due this spring, there was new business to attend to.
Jay-Z popped out for "H.A.M." to a fairly batshit reception and a sea of aloft cellphone cameras, and, idiotically, one iPad. (Let's end this trend before it begins, and before these cool, expensive gizmos are ritually destroyed by irritated concertgoers.) A subsequent new song featuring the refrain, "Swag! Swag!" may have been intended as a tribute to SXSW breakout maniacs Odd Future, but it's hard to say for sure as it fell apart completely after a couple bars.
The two MCs bounced off each other perfectly, though, during "Monster" and "So Appalled," and by the time "Big Pimpin'" was done, the entire place was approaching exhaustion. Then, finally, a full-cast curtain call for "The Good Life," and everyone was free to go, just barely past four in the morning.
Oh, right: A full marching band crowded onstage for a truly epic "All of the Lights," a perversely regal flourish that couldn't have been a more fitting grace note for a weekend of can-you-top-this excess and overload. And a reminder that even with Jay-Z sharing his stage, Kanye West will not let his own show get stolen.