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Kelis loses SXSW, then wins SXSW, then gets shut down

Deborah Sengupta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published March 14, 2014

On Thursday night, the Clive Bar in the Rainey St. district felt far more than the mile or so away from Red River that it actually is.

Following an excellent set by righteous soul warrior Cody Chesnutt, a capacity crowd buzzed with excitement for Kelis’ headline set. The R&B singer has an excellent new album produced by TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek that is racking up rave reviews a month before it’s scheduled to drop.

Kelis was scheduled to go on at midnight. Chesnutt left the stage at 11:40 p.m. It was chilly on the bar’s back patio with temperatures dipping down to the fifties. As the sound guys scurried around the stage trying to set up for Kelis the set’s start time came and went. At 12:15 a.m. a staffer took the stage and reminded the crowd of the terrible events of the night before and asked the bar to observe the moment of silence that most of the festival observed at midnight. Around 12:30 a.m. the crowd was starting to get cold and cranky. People began to debate the value of staying for Kelis’ set. Some people left. Around 12:45 a.m. the crowd turned hostile, heckling the sound man and booing loudly. More people left.

Shortly after 1 a.m. Kelis finally took the stage. Backed by an eleven-piece ensemble that included two back-up singers and a horn section. She looked ravishing, and she was unfalteringly upbeat.

“I heard a lot of good things about South by Southwest, but I think it’s even better,” she said effusively to wild applause, “The eating’s good, the drinking is good, it’s just all good.” She was awfully charming, but considering the horrific events of Wednesday night it seemed terribly tone deaf. There might be plenty of magical moments at SXSW 2014, but the one thing it’s not is “all good.”

Nonetheless, as Kelis and the band kicked into the first song a rich and smoky full-throated r&b number the crowd immediately forgave her. As the set continued, debuting beautiful, grandiose renditions of the lushly arranged songs from the new album, many of which the majority of the crowd didn’t even know, she was absolutely living up to the hype. The pop and r&b mixed with elements of ska and funk and yes, she did play a big band tribal rendition of her 2003 hit “Milkshake.”

Just when it seemed like the set couldn’t get better, Kelis’ mic cut out, ironically enough, in the middle of the track “A Capella” off her 2010 release “Flesh Tone.” The crowd let out a collective groan. After a few moments of trying to go on, the band stopped. Kelis turned and conferred with them. At first it seemed like that was the end. It was almost 2 a.m. and no one was trying to go through another agonizing sound check. But then something kind of amazing happened. Kelis stepped out in front of her mic, beckoning for the crowd to be quiet, she began to sing un-mic’d. Gradually the crowd caught on and fell silent. The back-up singers joined her and the band kicked in with a very hushed accopaniment. And it was a beautiful, magical moment.

At the end of the track the crowd went wild. Then just as Kelis was about to start singing again, coffee house style to a completely enamored audience, a surly bar staffer burst through the crowd demanding that she shut the set down. Granted, it was after curfew, but the crowd was thoroughly confused as was the band who regarded him with disbelief.

“We’ve been working hard all week, it’s time to go home,” he yelled, motioning that it was time to cut the set off.

With a bewildered shrug to the none-too-pleased audience, a reluctant Kelis left the stage to a final cheer from the crowd. And thus ended a night full of beauty, frustration and crazy emotional ricochets.