At 12:45 a.m. Friday morning, the Wu-Tang Clan were an hour late, and there was little sign the Staten Island rap juggernauts would take the stage anytime soon. The Austin Music Hall was packed with SXSW fans wearing Wu shirts, throwing up their best W's, and chanting at the slightest provocation.
The restless crowd was already censured once for pushing -- further delays were promised if they kept it up -- and had responded in the only manner that made any sense: by screaming, "Wu-Tang Clan ain't nothing to fuck with!" over and over again.
Their dedication was rewarded -- eventually. But first, they had to listen to 20 minutes of other people's songs no doubt chosen for their inherent hype-ability. As M.O.P.'s "Ante Up," Dr. Dre's "The Next Episode" and The Luniz' "I Got 5 on It" blasted forth and the dance floor bumped and writhed, at least one heckler let his discontent be known:
"This sucks!" he shrieked in a Texan drawl. "What is this, dammit? Wu-Tang!"
But at long last, the Clan produced. U-God was the first to show, delivering an apropos verse and chorus of "Winter Warz" (as in, "Wu-Tang's back for more"), before Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck and the GZA joined in time for three 36 Chambers classics: "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'," "Clan in Da Front" and "Bring da Ruckus," which also brought out Ghostface Killah.
The charismatic rapper was instantly the crowd favorite. He lurched across the stage, mic in one hand while the other hung straight and low, seemingly channeling King Kong. True enough, his presence was larger than life, and he consistently outshined his sufficiently hyped crewmates.
Of course, not all of the competition was on hand -- three of the Wu's biggest stars weren't there. The estranged RZA's absence wasn't a surprise, but the lack of Raekwon and Method Man was never explained. Instead, the group covered "Method Man" en masse, and later did the same for "Shimmy Shimmy Ya" by the late, great Ol' Dirty Bastard.
Overall, they stuck with the classics -- virtually all '90s output hailing from seminal albums like GZA's Liquid Swords ("Cold World," "Legend of the Liquid Sword"), Ghostface's Ironman ("Fish"), and Wu-Tang Forever ("Reunited," "For Heaven's Sake").
They broke from the program for a DJ solo from longtime affiliate Mathematics -- who climaxed by climbing onto a chair and working the fader with his foot -- and delivered a big surprise toward the end of the night. Erykah Badu, who was scheduled to DJ as Lo Down Loretta Brown afterward, came out early to sing on Ghostface's "Chechez la Ghost."
Unfortunately, Cappadonna interrupted a good thing too soon in order to play sides with the crowd. But in a set where nearly every song was cut short with a blast of air horn (including "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing ta Fuck Wit"), where mic feedback was a near constant and false starts weren't uncommon, this was par for the course.
The audience didn't seem to mind though. Ultimately, a Wu-Tang Clan show isn't about the performance. It's about being there, seeing legends in the flesh, and partying in the same place.
After the crew knocked "Triumph" out of the park, Deck got on the mic for a moment of genuine humility: "It's 20 years later," he said, referencing the group's formation in 1992. "I want to thank you for giving me a life away from the street. That's real shit. Take that home with you."
It was a nice sentiment. Maybe in another 20, they'll be able to make it out on time.