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Kanye West, Jay-Z, Justin Vernon and More Overwhelm in SXSW's Crowning Blowout

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Kanye West, Jay-Z, Justin Vernon and More Overwhelm in SXSW's Crowning Blowout
Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for VEVO

So hey, here's something  that might deflate Kanye West's ego just a little bit: Of the main rap artists billed on his overblown South By Southwest-ending G.O.O.D. Music extravaganza at Austin's ad-hoc VEVO Power Station venue very early in the morning of March 20, Mos Def proved the most rhythmically dexterous, Pusha T of the Clipse had the richest voice, and Jay- Z the hardest stomp, which partly explains why he got the crowd the most pumped up. Which left Kanye merely the artiest and most conceptual.

But first, everybody had to get in. Or at least the so-called "lucky 2000" that actually got badges or VIP passes did; the lower caste horde left pushing outside – which around half past midnight felt like it was about to turn into a 1979 Who audience in Cincinnati – will have to watch a filmed version later. This writer actually had to be personally pulled up through the middle of the crowd by a helpful security agent and to jump over a barrier fence in the process, after circling his badge high in the air to signal his location, and he apparently wasn't alone. And days before that, it was necessary to repeatedly text a cryptic phrase to a secret number, and repeatedly receive texted rejections in return stating capacity had already been reached, then eventually get an email indicating otherwise and from there pick up a secret badge in the bar lobby of a secret hotel – hence hyping up an oddly elitist sense of exclusivity and scarcity that naïfs might foolishlessly think is the antithesis of a festival once meant to democratically showcase not-yet-rockstar talent. And once one got in and the show finally started, one found some of the most impossible sight lines of one's concert-going career, and sonics not a whole lot more useful. That there was compelling music scheduled not far down the street in Austin at the time (Pentagram! Katey Red! Seventies Detroit funk-metal guitar god Dennis Coffey for God's sake! Doctor Krápula of Bogatá, Colombia for all you know!) only added to the excitement.  

That said, it should be noted that the venue was really cool – If not so much as a venue, per sé, then at least as a wonder of urban architecture. To get to the decades-dormant Seaholm Power Plant, you had to stroll into this No Man's Land where 3rd Street disappears, and walk across an old train bridge onto a large open field. Four giant smokestacks (on this night lighted with the word "VEVO") beckon you in; you follow retired railroad tracks into the building. Once inside, the factory atmosphere of the place is fairly magnificent: grey metal pipes and staircases along the walls climbing up and down into presumed super-ceilings and sub-basements and other possible hidden compartments and hiding spaces. Those, sadly, were off limits to concert goers. Though dancing girls did shimmy for show on the stairs themselves, at least when they thought somebody might be watching.

Anyway, the show itself. Around 1 a.m., a big sign proclaiming "G.O.O.D." – probably not the most boring record label name ever, but possibly in the running – lit up on stage. About 15 minutes later, Mos Def emerged to old-school 1981 Grandmaster Flash beats, rapped about being a Boogie Man, and interpolated the Beatles' "Getting Better." Pusha T came next, sounding gruffer (his voice) and fuzzier (the acoustics). Mr. Hudson covered Alphaville's high school commencement ceremony classic "Forever Young," Kid Cudi freed his lonely-stoner mind at night. Interesting people walked around with Devo T-shirts or Expos caps or dressed up as cowboys and Indians (one of each); somebody held up an iPad above his head to photograph famous people, which probably annoyed whoever was standing behind him.

Around 2:25 or so (much earlier than widely rumored), Kanye came out and for the most part offered an abridged version of last year's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy -- a/k/a the Sgt. Pepper's  of prog-emo rap, with all the overpraise that implies – plus occasional side dishes, complete with guest spots from rappers like Cyhi Da Prince and singers like John Legend (who also did a piano croon about taking it slow) and Bon Iver indie-folker Justin Vernon. During "Power," the sample machine seemed to mess up. He did do something passing for minimal avant-garde plinks on what appeared to be a synthesized keyboard for a minute or two at one point. He brought out a great big marching band for "All Of The Lights," and after a while you could even hear the horns a little. And then at around half past three, we got Jay-Z, for a half-dozen or so songs with and without Kanye, including "H.A.M.," "Monster," and a triumphant "Big Pimpin'" – not exactly a surprise, since pretty much everybody expected he would show up, but probably more of him than most would have predicted. Then a couple more group pieces; then just after 4 a.m., after hours of proving "bigger is better" a fallacy once again, they let us go home.

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