Rumors fly faster than pedicabs on the streets of Austin during South by Southwest, and the first one was a doozy: the Black Eyed Peas were doing a surprise set at the Levi’s/Fader Fort at sundown! No, wait — it’s Justin Timberlake! Hold on — my pedicab driver just told me it’s Radiohead! Run!
After booking it under I-35 to the sprawling Levi’s/Fader complex — an outpost of swag and corrugated metal where one can (and many people do) stay and play all day long, enjoying sets from bands, DJs, and what looked to be a nearly endless supply of Budweiser — I discovered our mystery guest was Nas, with new bestie Damian Marley, in town supporting Distant Relatives, their album-length collaboration (tentatively scheduled for a May 18 release, though it was also scheduled to come out last year). They’ve got great chemistry — Marley’s able to trill his classic reggae voice at the exact same speed Nas raps — and as they weave together hip-hop and the Marley family legacy (samples of “One Love” and “Exodus”), it’s more compelling than it reads on paper. “Made You Look” (with much crowd participation on the “Brave hearts!” chorus) bled into Marley’s “Welcome to Jamrock” (“Out in the streets, they call it murrrrrrder!” the crowd called out). The backing band’s female dancers and joyous conga player bounced energy back to the fired-up fans. “This feels like a family reunion out here, Austin, Texas!” crowed Nas.
The short set wrapped up with two blazing collabos: New track “Strong Will Continue,” a passionate exhortation in which Marley asks, “Do ya have it in ya?”; and a lighter-and-cell-phone-fueled rip through “Road to Zion,” the song that sparked their partnership back in 2005. They killed both — but it wasn’t enough for the L/FF kids, who booed heartily when the lights came on and security kicked them out. Still, it was only 8pm on St. Patty’s Day in Austin on the first night of SXSW. There’s a lot of party left, rock kiddos. Don’t you fret.