SXSW 2012: Lionel Richie Rocks Out to Old Favorites

The singer was joined on stage by Kenny Rogers for his first performance at the Austin-based festival.
Jeff Miller

It didn't matter whether they were there ironically, or were adamantly earnest: the members of the crowd at Lionel Richie's first-ever show at South By Southwest, at the Billboard showcase at the ACL Live stage, were there to dance.

It's no surprise, then, that though Richie was ostensibly at South By to promote his just-released country-duets album, he didn't focus on the twangy reworking of songs that pepper that record, rather delivering the original arrangements of songs that made them do just that, focusing on the early part of his career (“We're gonna do all Commodores songs!” he exclaimed at one point, though that wasn't quite true) with a monster grin on his face throughout that made his cheesy energy nothing less than infectious.

Entering to a techno-house remix of “Hello” (a song that's made a comeback for a younger generation, thanks to a hilarious internet meme that includes Richie's face on a take-this-number posting -- look it up if you haven't seen it), no matter whether he was behind a piano or working the front of the room, Richie seemed fully energized and fully on-point, his vocals on “Easy” subtly re-constructing the melody and jazzing it up, while maintaining a concert-long chemistry with his young, pint-sized bassist, a woman who appeared to be half his age, and twice as fierce, pumping even his grooviest songs (“Brick House,” “Lady (You Bring Me Up)”) with a stammering backbeat that never faltered – and his guitarist, whose blonde mane never dampered his over-dramatic guitar-face heroics.

The rumor that Kenny Rogers would be joining Richie for “Lady” became reported as fact during the day before the show, so when Rogers emerged from backstage there was a roar but no surprise; after a heartfelt, warm introduction, Rogers was no chicken, singing the classic to Richie and at the audience with a bemused look on his face that could have been interpreted as, “damn, this many people still care about me and Lionel Richie?”

As Richie worked through his greatest hits -- “Dancing on the Ceiling” with an extended-outro that teased Van Halen's “Jump,” a reprise of “Hello,” and, of course, “All Night Long (All Night),” it was clear they did, with even the most hapless hipsters forced into joyous celebration. Richie at one point said that the show was a “warm up for a warm up for a warm up” for a world tour this year -- no irony necessary.