Lionel Richie (left), who headlined Billboard's SXSW showcase at Austin's ACL LIve Theater, with The-Dream, who also performed. (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)
At first, Lionel Richie thought he'd be playing an outdoor venue.
The headliner of Billboard's South By Southwest showcase Wednesday night wasn't sure what to expect when he stepped onstage for his first performance at the music festival. Having seen the expansive backstage area of Austin's freshly renovated ACL Live Theater, Richie told Billboard executives last night after his hour-long set he was expecting to walk out to an amphitheater. "But then I looked up and I saw there was a roof and all these people, so I thought, 'OK. This is a shed. Cool.'"
From left: Richie's manager, Michael Richardson of In-House Management; Mercury Nashville President David Massey; Doc McGhee, Chairman, McGhee Entertainment (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)
Richie filled the 3,000 capacity venue with loyal and newfound fans alike, including executives like Mercury Nashville President David Massey; Doc McGee of McGee Entertainment; Ken Levitan of Vector Management; Island Def Jam's Laura Swanson, Jon Vanhala and Eric Wong; Justin Shukat, general manager of Primary Wave; Jonathan Cohen, music booker for "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon"; Liana Farnham, senior VP of partnerships and events at Fuse; Seth Goldstein, co-founder of Turntable.FM; Steve Jang, co-founder and CEO of Schematic Labs and Soundtracking; Nikki Wheeler, music agent at United Talent Agency and Brian Nolan, senior director at Columbia Records Creative Agency.
Ultimately, the venue's median age was young enough to impress Richie's manager Michael Richardson. "I was looking at the crowd and thought, 'This is not the audience we normally get," Richardson said. Richie himself was pleasantly confused. "If it's an indie crowd, why do they know all the words to my songs?"
PepsiCo's Bozoma Saint John (left) with TMI's Julie Brown (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)
Such a warm reception bodes well for the upcoming chart performance of Richie's comeback album, "Tuskegee," a revisiting of Richie's biggest hits from his solo career and Commodores period with an all-star lineup of country vocalists ranging from Shania Twain ("Endless Love") and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles ("Hello") to Tim McGraw ("Sail On") and his Billboard duet partner Kenny Rogers, who came out onstage to join Richie on their 1980 hit "Lady." The album is released March 26, the same day as Madonna's own comeback album "MDNA," which naturally has Richardson in a competitive yet humble mindset. "If we get even top 5 I think we'll be happy," he said.
Richie was an engaging, grateful presence backstage, posing for photos with anyone who asked (including Pepsi's music marketer Bozoma Saint John) and sitting down for a candid 2 a.m. interview with Billboard's "TMI" host Julie Brown about the making of "Tuskegee." Even The-Dream, Billboard's second-billed act who stuck around for the duration of the showcase, got to pose for a few photos with him and his crew, which included manager Courtney Carter.
Billboard.com Editor Tye Comer (left) with Lionel Richie. (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)
Although the venue was packed, Richie's caliber appears to have kept at least a few hardcore fans from attending out of assumed over-crowding - or worse, hipster irony. "Saw 'Lionel Richie' listed on the #sxsw schedule & just automatically assumed it was some UK band of teenagers I hadn't heard of ;(," tweeted New York indie-poppers Tanlines, one of SXSW's most buzzed-about bands of 2012. Comedian Eugene Mirman also saw the surreal nature of having Richie headline a SXSW showcase. "Just saw Kenny Rogers sing with Lionel Richie. It was awesome. Hope they get a record deal," he tweeted.
The great Kenny Rogers was the night's surprise guest and joined Richie onstage. (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)
From left: Michael Richardson with Beverly Keel, Senior VP, Universal Music Nashville (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)
Guggenheim Partners' Dottie Mattison with Lionel Richie. (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)
L.A. soul troubadors Vintage Trouble (Richard Danielson, Rick Barrio Dill, Ty Taylor, Nalle Colt) who were also on the night's bill, with Billboard Editorial Director Bill Werde (Center). (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)
Time Out New York's Julia Keefe-Chamberlain with Billboard's Tommy Page. (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)
Island Def Jam's Eric Wong with Michael Richardson. (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)
Billboard's Tye Comer with Universal Music Nashville's Beverly Keel (Photo: Misha Vladimirskiy)