“What a trip to be here during South by Southwest accidentally,” Stevie Nicks enthused to a near-full house at the Erwin Center on Sunday night, just blocks away from where tens of thousands were gathered downtown for Austin’s massive annual event. Big names in town at this time of year almost always are SXSW-related, but this double bill featuring the Fleetwood Mac singer and her eight-piece band plus fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Pretenders was a rare exception.
There were close connections. Mick Fleetwood wasn’t there, but the namesake drummer for the band that launched Nicks to superstardom will be at SXSW on Wednesday for a Convention Center conversation. And Pretenders leader Chrissie Hynde, who gave a shoutout to Austin musical brothers Charlie and Will Sexton during her set, later headed downtown to sit in with Charlie at the SXSW-connected Austin Music Awards at ACL Live Sunday night.
For the most part, though, this concert was all about playing to die-hard fans of both bands, beyond the scope of music industry connections. When Nicks last visited Austin with Fleetwood Mac two years ago, she and the band addressed the crowd with a sense of finality, knowing it might well be the last time those five members would play together in Austin. But that didn’t mean Nicks wouldn’t come back on her own.
At 68, she now seems as interested in talking at length about her life memories as she is in playing her music. How much did Nicks ramble? Here’s the best gauge: In 2 hours and 24 minutes onstage, she played 18 songs, whereas the Pretenders got through 15 songs in just an hour and 6 minutes.
If it was too much at times (and it was), her fans were too polite or adoring to object. An extended recollection of writing “New Orleans” in 2005 while watching scenes from Hurricane Katrina on TV from her Los Angeles home seemed as ill-advised as the tune itself. It’s not a bad song, but Nicks went on as if it were a cultural-touchstone tribute to that city’s resilience in the face of disaster. Such perspectives are best heard from the Crescent City’s own great musicians, of which there are plenty.
When her stories were more personal, they resonated more deeply. An account of how her hit “Stand Back” was inspired by Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” and ended up featuring him as a guest musician was great live-memoir material, as was the show-closing vignette about how she holed up in a Colorado cabin one day in the early ’70s and came out with the timeless classic “Landslide.” It seemed an opportune moment to bring out locals Emily Strayer and Martie Seidel of the Dixie Chicks, whose 2002 cover version further immortalized the song, but perhaps they weren’t around this weekend.
While Nicks touched on a couple other Fleetwood Mac highlights (“Rhiannon,” “Gypsy,” “Gold Dust Woman”) as well as most of her solo hits (“Edge of Seventeen,” “Wild Heart,” “If Anyone Falls”), she explained early on that the set would include a lot of personal favorites that she hasn’t played often. This was a nice touch, one that might also serve Fleetwood Mac well if they ever do reconvene.
Nicks’ band was on-point throughout, especially guitarist Waddy Wachtel, her right-hand man since she began her solo career in the early ’80s. Among the other storytelling high points were several recollections of her collaborations with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and while Petty wasn’t around to take his duet role on “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” bringing Hynde back out to do the honors made the song feel all the more special.
Indeed, Hynde and the Pretenders got the night off to a “special (so special)” start, with her iconic “Brass in Pocket” capping a set that also included favorites such as “Back on the Chain Gang,” “Stop Your Sobbing,” “My City Was Gone” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong.” Some of the strongest moments came on quieter numbers that allowed Hynde’s voice, still radiant at 65, to fill up the Erwin Center, including “Hymn for Her” and “I’ll Stand By You.”
Only Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers remain from the band’s original late-’70s lineup. But comparatively younger guns James Walbourne (guitar), Nick Wilkinson (bass) and Eric Heywood (pedal steel) — all three of whom showed up at Austin’s Continental Club on Saturday night to catch Bay Area rocker Chuck Prophet — have been in the mix for nearly 10 years, making the present Pretenders a tightly bonded unit that’s still relevant to the here and now.
The band will stick around one more night: They’re booked to tape an episode of “Austin City Limits” on Monday at ACL Live for what will be the Pretenders’ first-ever appearance on the renowned music television program.