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SXSW Transcends Tragedy With Music

03/16/2014 07:41 EDT | Updated 05/16/2014 05:59 EDT

SXSW 2014 will forever be marked by tragedy -- the senseless deaths of two festival goers and 23 injured by a drunk driver now facing the death penalty won't soon be forgotten, nor will Tyler the Creator's arrest for inciting a riot.

But the silver lining surrounding that dark cloud was that so much astounding music was still there to be found throughout the 28th annual music festival in Austin, Texas.

South by Southwest may have been occupied by crass corporate brands and drunken spring breakers -- a couple hundred thousand people descend on Austin, though only 20,000 are SXSW delegates -- but there were also about 2,300 musical acts from every conceivable genre playing at every conceivable space.

And what other festival could be highlighted by local legend Willie Nelson, transgender punk Laura Jane Grace's group Against Me!, a Gorillaz reunion, and Blondie covering the Beastie Boys?

Nelson's impressive performance Saturday night was hardly surprising -- there's a reason that the ACL Live at the Moody Theatre venue, where iTunes was staging its side-festival during SXSW, is on Willie Nelson Blvd and boasts a statue of the country icon.

But never having seen him live before, Nelson's incorporation of blues and jazz into his old-world country proved inspiring, as was his inclusion of my favourite song "Me and Paul" since he has hundreds of potential tracks to choose from. He even played "Crazy" (which he wrote but is most famous for the Patsy Cline version) and then solo'd his popular Toby Keith duet "Beer for my Horses."

His only official special guest was Lily Meola, a young woman with an old voice, who lent her smoky croon to their duet "Will You Remember Mine." The 80-year-old also let his son Lukas take lead on the Stevie Ray Vaughn tune, "Texas Flood." The younger Nelson ably proved his father's selection was no act of nepotism, delivering blistering electric blues guitar work and solidly-gruff vocals that brought the crowd to its feet in the middle of the song.

Nelson the elder then introduced a "new gospel tune" called, "Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die," which inspired the festival's most amusing sing-along.

That is, not counting when Blondie diverged from their own classics -- and pretty great new songs -- to play the Beastie Boys' "Fight For Your Right (To Party)" which saw the crowd at Rachael Ray's insanely popular Feedback party (people began lining up at 3 a.m.) pumping their fists, while rapping along with Debbie Harry.

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SXSW Photos

Against Me! delivered another standout performance while playing Spin's annual Friday afternoon party the previous day, at Stubbs. The longstanding punk group released the year's best and boldest album "Transgender Dysmorphia Blues," a politics-is-personal collection inspired by lead singer Laura Jane Grace's experience.

Against Me! have played SXSW before, but this was Grace's first chance to do so as her true self. Her joy was infectious throughout the loud, melodic set as the band dropped old gems like "I Was a Teenage Anarchist" and new soon-to-be-classics like "True Trans Soul Rebel."

Later that evening, Britpop icon Damon Albarn (of Blur fame) held court at the Fader Fort, where he performed a number of solid if sleepy songs from his forthcoming new album, "Everyday Robots."

Some in the crowd, drunk off too many free beers, filtered out, which meant they missed Albarn's special guests. First, he brought out hip-hop legends De La Soul to perform their Gorillaz collab "Feel Good Inc." to the remaining crowd's unbridled excitement. Then, he further upped the ante by bringing out his Gorillaz mates, Dan the Automator and Del the Funkee Homosapien, for the first-ever proper live performance of their smash, "Clint Eastwood." In case that was not enough, Snoop Dogg came out to seal the deal with a bonus verse.

Of course, SXSW was originally a showcase for emerging bands, and plenty of those were in attendance, too.

Eagulls delivered a terrifyingly loud and intense set that aurally encapsulated up SXSW's decadent overstimulation as well as this year's darkness. English electro-soul singer Sohn, signed to 4AD and prepping his debut full-length "Tremors" for an April release, mixed cutting-edge electronics with timeless vocal prowess, an emotional falsetto and songwriting that has him poised for international success. Similarly poised is Toronto's Lowell, who played an AOL party earlier in the week at the Mohawk during the festival's interactive stream. The Arts & Crafts-signed artist's songs may not be all there quite yet, but she's got her indie pop sound down and her live show has become rather electrifying.

Even more electrifying was the K-Pop showcase, which featured arena-size Korean superstars in tiny Austin venue Elysium, much to the delight of the genre's American fan base who went wild for the hard-edged EDM of Idiotape, the Justin Bieber-esque R&B of Jay Park, who also proved himself a capable rapper, and HyunA, a Britney Spears-type pop star who somehow crammed a raft of backup dancers onto the small stage.

Schoolboy Q, part of Kendrick Lamar's Top Dawg Entertainment crew, followed up his recent and unexpected number one album a series of performances -- he played the Spin party, iTunes Festival and a bunch of other gigs and surprise appearances -- that proved he really has graduated to the big time.

SZA, a 23-year-old avant-R&B singer also affiliated with Top Dawg, delivered a sombre set that was impressive no matter how out of place it was at the Vice/AT&T party earlier in the week. (But no biggie, as DJ Shadow later amped the crowd, which at one point included Lady Gaga, right back up).

Speaking of Gaga, this year's SXSW keynote speaker delivered the year's most talked-about performance, for good or ill. Putting together a special set purpose-built for Austin, she emerged on a BBQ spit and performed in front of a neon Lady Gaga's BBQ Haus of Swine sign. Relegating her singles to the end of the show -- only including "Bad Romance" and new track "Applause" -- she focused on new songs from her underperforming latest album "ARTPOP."

The set itself left a lot to be desired but all that anyone will remember is that during the song swine, performance artist Millie Brown, known as a vomit painter, chugged a bottle of green liquid and then puked it all over Gaga as the two scissored on a mechanical bull.

Hopefully the same won't be true for SXSW itself this year, which may have suffered a singular tragedy but also transcended it with music.