Lionel Richie may not be a typical SXSW buzz band, but the R&B icon used his set at ACL Live’s Moody Theater – where he anchored Billboard’s showcase – to remind the music industry just exactly who he is and where he’s been. The performance proved he’s still got some of the magic that made him one of the most successful male solo artists of the 1980s, following his stint in one of Motown’s most successful acts, the Commodores.
"Why has it taken me this long to make it to South By Southwest?" he asked at the beginning of his hit-heavy set, before launching into a series of Commodore classics including "Easy (Like Sunday Morning)" and, later, "Brick House." Shortly after coming on strong, he told the crowd that he was going to change his set around for an unplanned solo piano segment. "In fact, I think I want the band to leave the stage," he said. "Just me; just you." He then tickled the ivories for a stirring renditions of "Still" and "Oh No."
Other bits of the night appeared to be either spontaneous, or at least unexpected, such as when the band launched into a jam of Van Halen’s "Jump" in the middle of Richie’s own "Dancing on the Ceiling."
But the true highlight came when Richie invited Kenny Rogers to the stage. "I’m about to bring out one of my dearest friends and we made many records together," said Richie. Turning to Rogers, he said, "Kenny, having you up on this stage is about the best thing that could happen to either of us." He then recalled that the first time he met Rogers, he told the music legend that one day he wanted to be as big as him. "I’m still not there," he joked – kinda. The pair performed "Lady," after which they embraced.
Richie has a new album coming out later this month, Tuskegee, but didn’t perform a single selection from it. He instead chose to dig deep into his Commodores catalog, as well as pull out crowd pleasers from his solo career including an encore of "All Night Long (All Night)."
Nonetheless, he made his purpose at this relatively intimate show at his first SXSW clear: "We’re about to go on a world tour," he said. "And this is a warm-up to the warm-up to the warm-up."