SXSW 2012: Nas, Tom Morello, Alice Smith, the Heavy

[caption id="attachment_30578" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Nas performs during the VEVO showcase at ACL Live at Moody Theatre in Austin, Texas, March 2012. Photo: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images"]Nas at 2012 SXSW[/caption]

Sure there were photo ops and food trucks and many disturbing hookups at SXSW, but there also were actual musicians -- many of them veterans reconnecting with their fans before their next albums -- performing live in Austin. Read on to check some highlights from the very packed final days of SXSW 2012.

The Heavy at Hard Rock Hotel Lounge Party (Cedar Door), March 16 at 5:30 p.m.

After “How You Like Me Now?” made the Heavy downright ubiquitous -- if you don’t know their name, you know that horn riff from countless commercials/movies/Newt Gingrich campaign rallies --– it’s fair to wonder where they’re headed. An early evening performance at the Hard Rock Hotel Lounge at SXSW offered a good preview of what the band’s forthcoming The Glorious Dead (due out in the States in September, according to the band’s stage banter) will sound like. The band’s signature “Curtis-Mayfield-fronting-Led-Zeppelin-but-with-a-killer-horn-section” sound is still intact on songs like “Can’t Play Dead” and “What Makes A Good Man.” But there’s more to the band than just punctuating brass and fuzzy guitar this time out: The relaxed “Curse Me Good” is less a hard-hitting funk jam and more of a laid-back '70s, er, jam (think Doobie Brothers),  and the ballad “Blood Dirt Love Stop” goes for a bluesy slow-dance feel, with some psych elements. If that one ever ends being used at a Republican primary rally, the world will have flipped completely inside out.

[caption id="attachment_30549" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Alice Smith performs at the Fader Ford during SXSW, Austin, Texas, March 2012. Photo: Roger Kisby/Getty Images"]Alice Smith[/caption]

Alice Smith at Vice (IFC House), March 16 at 10:00 p.m.

It’s been six years since Alice Smith released her sole album, For Lovers, Dreamers & Me, and it was fair to wonder if she’d ever put out a follow-up to her guitar-based, rock-oriented debut. The answer, based on her SXSW showcase at the IFC House at Vibe on Friday night is: “kinda.” She does have a new EP due out later this month, but fans of her previous album better hope that their favorite part of her sound was her (spectacular) voice -- the new material she played at SXSW eschewed guitars and rock and roll for a more traditional neo-soul sound, with accompaniment sometimes limited to keys and drums. Still, after a six-year break (during which she married Citizen Cope and had a baby), the fact that she’s recording anything at all is good news. And she’s definitely got the voice to transition away from rock and roll if that’s where she’s headed.

[caption id="attachment_30552" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Tom Morello plas on the street in Austin, Texas, March 2012. Photo: Gary Miller/FilmMagic"]Tom Morello[/caption]

Tom Morello/Occupy SXSW (Swan Dive), March 17 at 12:30 a.m.

SXSW showcases are often chaotic affairs, but Tom Morello’s performance at Swan Dive on Friday night was kinda wild even by that standard. The erstwhile Rage Against the Machine guitarist, now d/b/a the Nightwatchman, deemed the performance the official Occupy SXSW showcase, and members of the Occupy Southby group set up a livestream of the performance to project onto a white banner hanging on the side of the club, along with a rolling speaker deck so the assembled occupiers on Red River St. could hear the performance -- all this before the Nightwatchman came out to lead everyone on the street (occupiers and relatively-large-number-of-police, if they wanted to join -- okay, just occupiers) in a rousing rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

So how did this all come about? According to Maryann Philbrook, the media magnet for Occupy Southby, Morello tracked down the members of the organization and asked them if they wanted to party. “We received an email in the inbox, and he told us that he had one performance open that was his alone, and that he could make it the Occupy show. It was his idea. It was pretty wild getting an email that said, ‘This is Tom Morello…’”

At the actual event, things were about as drama-free as they could possibly be, given the presence of a dozen or more police, the hordes of SXSW revelers, the unaffiliated masses of a Friday night in Austin, and -- at its highest point -- roughly 150 Occupiers. Even when those Occupiers turned to the police line and stood tall with a banner that read “Fuck The Police,” things were relatively calm. Occupiers would hear sirens and occasionally get jumpy (“Is that for us?” “No, somebody’s passed out on Sixth Street…”) but for the most part, the conflict was limited to an Occupier holding an intense, and fruitless, ten minute conversation with a police officer to convince him to let Morello plug in when he took the show outside.

Even the SXSW organization seemed to take the whole thing in stride. Philbrook says that Morello’s influence was a big help there. “We were communicating with the SXSW organizers, and they were aware of what we were doing,” she says. “Tom Morello really communicated that this is what he wanted to do with the show, and that helped a lot. Their main concern was that people not try to rush into the venue.”

Nobody did – after all, it was being streamed onto the side of the building. Across the street, on the other side of Red River, Vevo was beaming a set from Jay-Z onto a wall, and other branded lightshows and livestreams were all over the block. The Swan Dive stream, free of marketing or branding, stood out by comparison. And, in the end, “livestream” became just plain “live,” as Morello took his guitar (along with fellow radical guitarist Wayne Kramer) to the street. The police finally did get involved and pull the plug, and Morello continued on without amplification. It seemed to go pretty much exactly as everyone expected.

[caption id="attachment_30551" align="aligncenter" width="640" caption="Nas performs at ACL Live at Moody Theatre, Austin, Texas, March 2012. Photo: Roger Kisby/Getty Images"]Nas[/caption]

Nas (ACL Live/Moody Theatre), March 17 at 10:15 p.m.

Just because Nas’ SXSW show at ACL Live on Saturday night was billed as a 20th anniversary performance of Illmatic (which the emcee delivered, with assists from DJ Premier, Pete Rock, and AZ) doesn’t mean there weren’t clues about the rapper’s future. It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at, as they say, and where Nas is at involves Life Is Good, his upcoming album. And after blazing through Illmatic’s tracklisting, he turned to Premier and said, “I want to do something new.” The DJ scratched a sample of a voice saying, “World premiere,” and dropped the beat for the brand new track, “The Don.” Maybe it was the context of the show (and the tribute to Heavy D on the giant LED screen behind the stage), but the song’s 808-styled drums, hook (with Premier and Nas intoning the words “I’m from New York Ci-tee”) and Nas’ flow had an old-school feel to them. Life is good for Nas, who confirmed the album is due this summer.

Nikka Costa (Buca Lounge), March 18 at 12:00 a.m.

There are dozens of ways to close out SXSW, but the tiny basement of the Buca Lounge kept one of the best – Nikka Costa, fronting her full five-piece band. She brought the full funk of her early work to the venue’s stage. It was noteworthy, because her most recent release – last year’s Pro*Whoa! EP – had left the low-end as an afterthought in favor of a more traditional pop sound. So it was refreshing to hear new songs through the full-on funk lens (“There some funk in here!” she appropriately declared at one point), as Pro*Whoa’s “Nylons in a Rip” turned into a loud-quiet-loud explosion of bass. She didn’t say when her long-awaited new full-length was due out, but if the way she’s performing her recent material is any indication, we should be able to expect a return to her full, tiny-white-woman-as-James-Brown persona on that record when it finally drops.