Lionel Richie performing at the Billboard SXSW showcase in Austin on Wednesday night (photo: Ben Sklar)
With thousands of bands and fans having successfully descended upon Austin, Billboard said "Hello" to the 2012 South By Southwest Festival with a showcase at ACL Live at the Moody Theater Wednesday night. The event gathered five acts -- from emerging stars to kings of the charts, including the SXSW debut of pop and R&B icon, Lionel Richie.
After warm-up performances from The-Dream, Poliça, Vintage Trouble and Wallpaper., Richie hit the stage well past midnight and launched into a modernized take on classic single "Hello." Joined by a sizable band, he launched into "Running with the Night" and spent the next hour and a half walking back through his lengthy career. He ran through Commodores hits such as "Easy," "Fancy Dancer" and "Lady (You Bring Me Up)," as well as "Brick House" -- part of a funky encore which included a version of "All Night Long (All Night)" that could've kept the audience grooving for the rest of the week.
Richie also spent several songs alone at the piano, ushering his band off stage to showcase the intimacy of the 1,300-capacity Moody Theater. He was joined by special guest Kenny Rogers for a duet on "Lady," the 1980 track that Richie wrote and produced and the country icon made a hit.
Richie's March 26-due album, "Tuskegee," will be a broader foray into the genre -- one he's likely to showcase on an upcoming world tour that Richie announced from the stage.
"This is the warm up to the warm up to the warm up," he joked. Judging by Wednesday night's performance, Richie's already bringing the heat.
The night began several hours earlier with an appearance by Billboard's own "Downtown" Julie Brown, who introduced Wallpaper., a band with more energy than a case of Red Bull. The group's genre-fusing take on dance music was propelled by three percussionists and the irreverent rapped/sung vocals of Ricky Reed, who partnered with a pink-haired female singer for sudden moments of choreography. The set drew heavily from the group's latest, "#Stupidfacedd," with the group stomping through "F***ing Best Song Everr" and "Okay." By SXSW standards, 8 p.m.'s a little early to party, but that didn't stop Wallpaper.: "It's about Four Loko," Reed explained before launching into another upbeat track.
The mood remained electric as Vintage Trouble took the stage, laying down sizzling blues riffs turned soulful by the charismatic presence of singer Ty Tyler -- a soul man classy enough to wear a suit but too enthusiastic not to sweat through it within minutes. Though his pipes never faltered, he danced hard enough to be out of breath between songs. By set's end, he was singing from among the crowd.
Poliça, a quartet of Minneapolis newcomers, followed Wallpaper.'s lead with a pair of dueling drummers. But the band's cerebral, intricate sound was less suited for party rocking, recalling the electronic fog of Radiohead's Thom Yorke's work with spin-off project Atoms for Peace as well as the moody melodies of Portishead. The band -- a favorite of Bon Iver's Justin Vernon -- released its debut album, "Give You the Ghost," in February on local indie Totally Gross National Product.
The-Dream -- A.K.A. Terius Nash, the writer behind hits including "Umbrella" and "Countdown" -- proved he didn't need a diva to get a crowd dancing to his music with an hour-long set that ranged from "Shawty is the Shit" and "My Love" to more recent efforts such as "Love King" and current single "Roc."
On one song, he was joined by "one of my protégées," the singer Casha, who he watched take the mic with a smile on his face. In a Raiders cap, dark glasses and glowing Nikes, The-Dream was in full R&B armor. But the self-proclaimed radio killer also showed his sensitive side, performing the break-up ballad "Used to Be" from his free release "1977," which dropped under his given name last year. "I'm not like the other R&B singers," he said, before admitting one common thread. "I do like to f*** all the time."
Stay tuned for video highlights from Billboard's big SXSW show.