AUSTIN, TEXAS — For veteran artists, staging a triumphant return at South by Southwest has become almost as challenging as making a memorable toast in Times Square on New Year's Eve. The streets and bars teem with humanity, everyone is bent on having the best night ever and the thousand of artists playing are like so much confetti, scattered everywhere, turning the whole scene into a blur.
Yet appearances by seasoned acts, especially of the alternative rock and hip-hop variety, have become as integral to the festival as are hot newcomers and peaking indie rock stars.
On the festival's second night alone, well-known performers included Peter Murphy, the former singer for goth-rock patriarchs Bauhaus who chuckled and posed his way through a 7 p.m. show full of moody new stuff; Southland sons Jane's Addiction, scheduled for a Playboy magazine party in an old supermarket; frequently reconfigured Scottish group Primal Scream, whose latest lineup appeared at the Cedar Street Courtyard; and the soul-funk band the Bar-Kays, who participated in a Memphis music night at the Dirty Dog Bar.
Two others appeared a block away from each other on Wednesday, at the westernmost edge of Austin's nightclub zone. Tori Amos, the singer-songwriter and piano mistress whose passionate music first earned a rabid following in the early 1990s, played a 45-minute solo show at La Zona Rosa, while Big Boi, the rapid-fire rhymer whose group with Andre "3000" Benjamin, OutKast, helped redefine hip-hop a few years later, performed a set of about the same length a few hours later at the Austin Music Hall.
I don't often write about Amos, because I cowrote a book with her, "Tori Amos: Piece by Piece," in 2005, and am not entirely objective. But my notoriously free-thinking former collaborator rarely plays festivals, so I was curious how she would do in this one's zoo-like atmosphere. And it was her first date since 2007, with material promised from her upcoming album and DVD, "Abnormally Attracted to Sin."
In my view from the side of the stage, Amos played South by Southwest just right, taking a simple approach that re-established her intense bond with her fans and succinctly integrated new work with a sampler of favorites. Introduced by tastemaker and self-described Tori fanatic Perez Hilton and basking in the glow of joy from young women (and a few men) pressing toward the stage, Amos -- in a light beige gown, straw-straight red hair and killer heels -- was confident, focused and in stunning voice.
Of the new songs, "Lady in Blue" stood out for its unadorned loveliness, but "Mary Jane" was the crowd-pleaser -- a double entendre-flecked account of a teenage boy's attempt to cajole his mother to let him indulge, not in sex with a girlfriend but in an illegal smoke. These new works complemented the older material, which included her breakthrough, "Silent All These Years," and a rousing "Take to the Sky."
Amos carved a quiet and commanding little space for herself within this overwhelming fest, but Big Boi staked his claim by being loud and loose. At the Austin Music Hall, the rapper filled a big stage with band members and friends, including opener Janelle Monae, who stood in the background looking sharp.
Big Boi offered just a pinch of the new music he's recorded for the long-anticipated "Sir Luscious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty," which he claimed would be out by June or July. What he did present showed off his startlingly fleet-tongued rhyming and knack for gritty but accessible hooks. Mostly, though, he satisfied the rowdy audience with such hits as "The Way You Move" and "Bombs Over Baghdad."
It wasn't always easy to hear the band, sometimes the mixed-gender group seemed like eye candy, with DJ Cutmaster Swift really running the show. But having a band is key to Big Boi's funk-grounded virtuosity and casual cool. OutKast's music represents community, the comfortable vibe shared by the Atlanta-based "ATLiens" who've helped the duo throughout its career. A packed stage and a party mood is Big Boi's favorite setting in which to show off.
Swagger he did, spinning hard, fast verses without missing a beat. It was slightly strange when the DJ played OutKast cuts dominated by Benjamin, but Big Boi pushed aside thoughts of his absent partner when he unleashed his tricky elocution.
The set ended with Big Boi's crew taking over the stage and having a dance party. Monae and her band let forth some synchronized moves stage left, while newly formed couples danced stage right. Big Boi kept his flow going, until the sound man abruptly cut him off. It was 2 a.m.
This evening had to conclude, to make room for South by Southwest's many other happy returns.