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Beck rambles his way to a sweet Daniel Johnston finale at epic SXSW show

"Jesus, I just looked at a clock. I've been playing for a LONG time."

It was 10 minutes till midnight when Beck realized just how far he'd extended his Saturday acoustic show at ACL Live on the last night of South by Southwest showcases around town. The crowd was already well aware: Around an hour earlier, when he kept forgetting the words to his song "Hollow Log" and started making up new ones, we'd realized that this footloose performance was also becoming an endurance test.

Not that anyone really minded. Some folks did start leaving when Beck went a few songs beyond the scheduled 11:15 p.m. ending time, but the 80 percent or so who stayed just kept soaking in a moment that'll be remembered at SXSW — if, perhaps, not quite as much as that time Johnny Cash opened for him at Emo's in 1994.

Beck performs Saturday at ACL Live during SXSW. His acoustic performance started around 10:15 p.m. and stretched into early Sunday morning.

Beck retold that story, as he'd done the day before during his SXSW keynote at the Austin Convention Center, early in the show. It set the tone for a chatty performance that would be like an open conversation with the crowd, mixing two dozen songs with a seemingly endless river of rambles, reflections and ruminations.

More SXSW:Things we learned at Beck's keynote conversation

The show had been billed as solo acoustic, but when Beck walked out onstage at 10:15 p.m., he was joined by Jesse Ebaugh, formerly of Austin band Heartless Bastards, on pedal steel. Beck explained that he'd met Ebaugh the night before, while out club-hopping along Red River Street. "I hung out on that street all night," he said. "I saw so many good bands, and I met Jesse."

Beck's set was rife with references to Austin, including an observation that "it's a freaky place, but it's changing a little bit. Is that an Hermès store?" he asked, referencing the French luxury-goods outlet that recently opened on South Congress.

Between the career recollections and philosophical musings, Beck served up a wide variety of songs, with no real pattern or plan. He didn't play "Loser," his 1994 breakthrough smash, but he did roll out "Pay No Mind (Snoozer)" from that same "Mellow Gold" album, and he dug up early favorites such as "Rowboat," "Sissyneck" and the harmonica-stomper "One Foot in the Grave." He played a new song, improvised most of another on the spot, and generally just played whatever he felt like playing.

See photos:Beck gives keynote address at SXSW

He and Ebaugh had apparently worked up around a dozen songs together, but Ebaugh departed mid-set and didn't return till near the end. That led to a more free-form section in which Beck had the house crew adjust the stage lighting, sang a noble but ultimately unsatisfying rendition of Chris Bell's classic "I Am the Cosmos," and remarked about Dolly Parton playing this same stage the night before. (Beck's thoughts on Dolly being in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: He's in favor.)

Beck performs with pedal steel player Jesse Ebaugh on Saturday at ACL Live during SXSW. Beck said during the show that he met Ebaugh while out and about seeing bands on Red River Street the night before.

More SXSW:Dolly Parton rhinestoned the blockchain and gave Austin an eternal memory

The best stuff of the night was the material most suited to an acoustic show — notably show-opener "The Golden Age," "Guess I'm Doing Fine" and "Lost Cause," a trio of selections from the melancholy, country-tinged 2002 album "Sea Change." Taking advantage of Ebaugh's accompaniment, Beck also wandered down a few country paths, digging up the twangy "Canceled Check" from 1998's "Mutations" and covering Hank Williams' "I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow."

Things got a little TOO loose toward the end, and by 11:30 p.m., the crowd began to thin out a little, perhaps with some SXSW attendees heading to other late-night showcases. But Beck kept on playing, even as he noted that "I think this is the longest acoustic show I've played in years."

He finally departed at 11:50 p.m. but quickly returned for a ramshackle two-song encore. After giving a shoutout to opening act Kristin Hersh for her exquisite half-hour set (Beck mentioned he'd been a fan of her 1980s band Throwing Muses), he trotted out "Debra," a hidden track from 1999's "Midnite Vultures," freestyling a few lines including one about Willie Nelson hopping in the back seat of his car.

And then he was finally done, at 11:59 p.m. — or was he? The crowd had started to leave en masse, and the house lights began to come up … but there was Beck, trotting back out onstage again, determined to push this Saturday night marathon into Sunday morning.

The final return was worth it. Beck had spoken about being a fan of the late, great Daniel Johnston's music at Friday's keynote, and he made good on it by playing Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End," which he described as "probably my favorite song written in Austin." It was a long and winding path to get there, but that was a perfect way to close out South by Southwest.