“Don’t ever book me this late.”
With that good-natured barb to her manager Friday night, country legend Wynonna Judd kicked off an intimate — but bless your heart, you better believe larger than life — SXSW set at St. David’s Bethel Hall shortly after 12:30 a.m. Dressed like a Dallas diva, lava-red hair teased to heaven, high heels you could strike a gusher in: Everything about Judd screamed “Amen.”
The singer, who also sat down for a SXSW interview earlier in the day, burst in the door of the church hall (fashionably late) with her guitar in her arms and her band, The Big Noise, set up and ready to rock as the rain fell outside.
“Get out of the car, get wet, run for your life,” Judd said of her journey to the gig.
The quotable moments had only begun. It would be hard to imagine another show at the festival like this one. Judd, in command of her high-octane, virtuoso voice and fiery personality, wove classic standards, unreleased songs from her forthcoming album, humble reflections and side-splitting yarns together seamlessly. Coming to SXSW, she said, was especially meaningful. She recalled visiting Austin with mother Naomi as a kid, sitting in legendary blues club Antone’s and watching the Fabulous Thunderbirds play.
On her mom: “I shared a bus with her for ten years. I ain’t scared of nothing.”
From there, Judd remembered playing “Austin City Limits” in the early days of her career, which brought her to St. David’s and SXSW at age 50.
“Started out at a bar and ended up in a church,” Judd said. “Every day’s a Saturday, every day’s a Sunday.”
Opening with “Change the World,” Judd grabbed on to each note and shook it in her teeth, and drawing out phrases like salt water taffy. Her stirring rendition of early hit “Had a Dream (For the Heart)” had one couple dancing in the back of the hall, and “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Ol’ Days)” was sung with loving, tender respect for the songs that got Judd where she is today.
Judd’s ability to both growl and purr on a dime backs up one of her many personal manifestos: She said she’s an artist, not a celebrity. And she’ll fight you on Twitter about it, she said. And speaking of celebrities, Judd had some tales to tell.
“Night before last, I watched Stevie Nicks, for two hours, spin,” Judd said. The reflection on another iconic musician brought Judd to wanting to become “better and bitter” as her career moves forward. She mused on country queen Tammy Wynette being a “stylist” and not just a singer, noting that there’s magic in being an artist who’s recognizable from the first seconds of a song. Judd’s also got love for another big star, and it’s the stuff buddy-cop comedies are made of.
“Dave Grohl says he’s a garage band,” Judd said, adding that he’s just “having a tantrum” when he’s on stage. “He’s a tenth-grader with cash.”
Judd’s stretch of new, unreleased material was a giddy highlight of the evening, and the room tittered with excitement about the new tracks. The thrill was encouraged by Judd’s husband and drummer Cactus Moser, who remarked that it was a special gift to hear new songs from an indelible voice. Of the fresh-from-the-studio tunes, Judd’s favorite from her upcoming album contained an entire country album in just one line: “Jesus and a jukebox brings comfort to a soul.”
The rollercoaster of fame recurred as a theme throughout the set, and Judd had perhaps the best line of the night with yet another namedrop.
“I wanna be Kanye,” Judd said, making a little joking gag noise. “I wanna come through here and people be talking about me. I could take him with one hand tied behind my back.”
Judd said there was one thing she had in Austin this go-around that Kanye West would not: Taco Bell.
“Next time it’ll be different, but this time it was Taco Bell,” Judd said.
One would think that joking about Kanye and Taco Bell would be the climax of a show, but Judd saved her big guns for last. She turned out a flawless, stripped-down-and-built-back-up performance of “No One Else On Earth,” letting her band shine as she lowered her eyes at them and smirked in appreciation. Then, calling Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bonnie Raitt her blues mentors — “I’m blues on the inside” — Judd brought the audience their hallelujah moment with a fiery, rafter-shaking “Give a Little Love” to end the night in rapturous cheers.
Wynonna Judd’s closing words for SXSW? “Thank you Taco Bell!”