by Andy O’Connor, special to American-Statesman
People know Wu-Tang Clan, but they don’t really know Wu-Tang Clan. Tuesday night’s South by Southwest performance at Austin City Limits Live wasn’t the heads, and most big shows where not even a badge can guarantee you entry are not for the heads. There were probably more people standing in line who could have a substantial discussion about which members’ solo records are the best than actually inside the show. It’s fun to yell “Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to f**k with!” with a bunch of people, it really is. That didn’t make the show any less artificial.
Wu-Tang is a far-ranging collective of members with different styles, and that worked against them. Method Man was absent, as he was for their Fun Fun Fun Fest appearance in 2015. Redman came on and did a couple songs, and while his energy punctured the crowd, the more modern-influenced sound didn’t jive with Wu-Tang’s jazz derived classics. RZA, whose Shaw Brothers shirt defined “on brand,” made an impassioned plea for refugees towards the end of the night. Not a second after did the raggedy piano chords of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” deceased member Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s solo track that’s a Wu-Tang staple, come on, and the transition was jarring. That’s not to say a person, or a group, can’t contain multitudes, but it felt as though RZA’s speech was tacked on, to fulfill a “political statement” quota.
Erykah Badu did a DJ set before their set, and she came back on to perform “Afro” and talk about how she was hustling during SXSW 1993 to get her demo tape out, citing Wu-Tang as an inspiration. Nothing can kill the “SXSW is where you go to make it” dream. And it probably goes without saying that “C.R.E.A.M.” is the festival’s unofficial theme song.
Some Wu-Tang members weren’t there, and some may have well not been there. In particular, GZA didn’t get much mic time. That was the opposite of his performance at the Soylent party Sunday at Whisler’s, where there was little separation and the crowd. He’d bust the Interactive badge crowd for being too timid, even they were mere feet from his face. It makes sense that GZA would perform at a Soylent function, given his futuristic focus in his lyrics (Soylent doesn’t promise an exciting future, but that’s for another day). These big parties aren’t much his thing. He’d rather be playing chess or hanging out with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and you could tell by his lack of energy on stage. It’s a bit much to expect that he’d playfully jab with a bigger crowd, but it was just one example of how Wu-Tang’s show felt less like a show than an exhibition. “Here’s something that was cool 20 years ago. If you were actually there, there’s no way you’re getting in.”