Justin Timberlake's not-so-secret Myspace show at SXSW had many attendees of the 27-year-old South-by-Southwest music festival wondering if its indie-centric soul had finally been crushed -- as if Public Enemy performing inside a gigantic Doritos vending machine earlier in the week hadn't already done that.
But it takes more than a nation of nachos to hold JT back.
If any other young soul singer fronting a 15-piece band had delivered the fiery performance that Timberlake did, it wouldn't have even been an issue. Certainly nobody was similarly slighting Prince, who also alighted in Austin on Saturday night to bring this year's SXSW to an all-star close. (Oh, plus Smashing Pumpkins performed a "secret" gig at a Red Bull party while P. Diddy was the special guest over at Fader Fort, following up Usher's surprise appearance with the Afghan Whigs the night before.)
So no, Timberlake didn't need SXSW to be "discovered," but after a lukewarm critical reception to his new single "Suit & Tie" his nigh impossible-to-get-into show certainly quieted any doubts that one of the world's biggest pop stars also boasts serious artistic chops. (Maybe that's why instead of an actual suit and tie, he wore a tuxedo T-shirt.)
After an eclectic opening DJ set from Questlove, Timberlake emerged onto the stage to a frenzied response from the 800 folks who made it inside, and especially the 200 or so who actually had decent sight lines in the tiny space.
Backed by the sprawling Tennessee Kids band, which included four back-up singers, a horn section, percussionist, drummer, rock guitarist aand a giant dreadlocked dude who impressively switched from flute to tuba, Timberlake tested out his new live show, which is essentially a soul revue.
That choice neatly connected classics like "My Love," "Senorita" and an epic, hard-rocking "Cry Me a River" to new songs songs from "The 20/20 Experience" like slow-jam "That Girl," "Suit & Tie" and the love-as-narcotics tune "Push Love." (Amusingly, while playing acoustic guitar later he also boasted "I'm on drugs," followed with an "I'm just... serious." Based on the smell in the room, JT wasn't the only one.) Oh, and for a little Internet moment, he also covered INXS' "Need You Tonight" which was as amazing as it sounds.
The new songs sounded a lot better in a full soul-band setup, but the big hits were what brought down the house. "SexyBack" closed the show out, reimagining the electro-R&B tune as a soul scorcher, but it was Timberlake's greatest song, "What Goes Around," that was the highlight of the show and, for me, the festival itself. It was a perfect combination of an incredibly well-written song, an ecstatic singalong from the crowd, an endlessly charismatic performer and a wildly talented band showing off their skills.
The previous night's highlight was another not-new artist -- Depeche Mode. Much like JT, DM were here to prove themselves as a (still potent) live act and demonstrated that their new songs could live up to their beloved classics. This was done in an even smaller room, about 600 capacity, and Depeche Mode have a fanbase dating back to the 1980s. Could they still pull it off?
Yes. Yes, they could. Dave Gahan's voice sounded exactly like you imagined it should sound, and when he stripped down to a tank top, causing the ladies in the crowd to swoon, he looked far fitter than a man who has lived his life has any right to. The new Martin Gore-written songs sounded like proper Depeche Mode songs, but with more modern production backing up Gore's inimitable vocals.
Still, the few classics they played were what proved transcendent, particularly the slow acoustic buildup to the monstrous "Personal Jesus" and the epic singalong closer "Enjoy the Silence," which sent everyone out the door eagerly awaiting their upcoming arena tour.
Is that the point of SXSW? It didn't used to be, but as Wayne Coyne told us earlier in the week, "I don't think people need to congregate anymore to find out about what is even considered an unsigned band now, I don't think bands are waiting to be signed. With the Internet, you don't really have to wait for someone to give you a showcase, to say 'hey look at us.' There's so much access to music now, I don't know if SXSW or any place really needs that anymore."
Which, fair enough, was what happened this year. While past years have boasted about-to-blow acts from Amy Winehhouse to A$AP Rocky, this year's biggest up-and-comers, Solange and Kendrick Lamar, have already pretty much proven themselves. Which is not to say I didn't see cool new acts, ranging from electro-pop singers Charlie XCX and Sky Ferreira to Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt and Tampa space-rockers Merchandise, but they felt like appetizers rather than main courses.
So SXSW may no longer be the place to break, but it is still the place to be. And, to once again quote Coyne, "That has it's own gravity to it."