AUSTIN, Texas -- There's no shortage of grizzled veterans at South by Southwest this year, from Depeche Mode to Iggy and the Stooges to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, the last of whom opened NPR Music's jam-packed showcase Wednesday night at Stubb's. For a good 45 minutes, in fact, Cave and his not-so-merry men were playing at the same time as the Stooges, right across Red River Street at the Mohawk. Alas, an old-dude bro-down never took place. Maybe next year.
Wearing his customary slim-fit dark suit, black hair swept back from his high forehead, Cave sauntered onstage at Stubb's before sundown, which as you can imagine was not ideal. "We're gonna do a long song to start with," he said, "and hopefully by the end it'll be dark." The song was "Higgs Boson Blues," from the Bad Seeds' new "Push the Sky Away," and indeed it was long. And slow. And rather gloomy, although Cave's references to Hannah Montana and -- even better -- "Miley Cyrus float[ing] in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake" sparked snickers from the crowd.
Yet if the band's punk-blues crawl seemed at first like an ill fit for the rowdy festival atmosphere, Cave (who repeatedly mocked a guy near the front for typing on his phone) slowly ratcheted up the intensity until all eyes were locked on the seven nicely dressed men onstage. And once he had us, he switched gears, reaching back to the Bad Seeds' 1984 debut for a thunderously brutal rendition of "From Her to Eternity." By then it was dark.
The band kept it up for the rest of its hourlong set, slinking with predatory menace through "Red Right Hand" (which nonetheless featured a sweet flute solo from Warren Ellis) and bringing a deranged garage-rock energy to "Deeana." The highlight, though, was the Bad Seeds' delightfully profane take on the age-old murder ballad "Stagger Lee," not a single line of which can be quoted here -- or, one presumes, on NPR -- but which suggested that Cave may well end up the most imposing rapper at SXSW. Watch out, Action Bronson.
Following the Bad Seeds, I caught some of Natalie Maines' set at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater, where the now-short-haired Dixie Chick previewed tunes from her upcoming solo album, "Mother," due out in May. A collaboration with Ben Harper (who played lap steel in Maines' band here), the album features covers of tunes by Eddie Vedder, Pink Floyd and Jeff Buckley, among others, and on Wednesday she brought a professional roots-rock polish to the material. Yet Maines sounded better the looser she got, as in her rowdy, Rolling Stones-style rendition of Patty Griffin's "Silver Bell."
The opposite was true when Yeah Yeah Yeahs took over the NPR showcase later at Stubb's: Though the New York trio (rounded out onstage by David Pajo on bass) blazed through old tunes such as "Art Star" and "Cold Light," it seemed to get lost in a haze of guitar atmospherics doing stuff from "Mosquito," which comes out next month. An exception was the new disc's lead single, "Sacrilege," which throbbed with gospel-fired fervor despite frontwoman Karen O's admission that the band had never played it live before. And the singer's wardrobe Wednesday -- canary-yellow pantsuit, miner's headlamp, studded leather jacket emblazoned with a giant "KO" -- was a knockout for sure.
I finished Wednesday night with a 1 a.m. set at the Belmont by Paramore, which also has an album coming in April. ("Grizzled" may not describe Paramore or Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but both acts have been around long enough to know that SXSW provides a useful launching pad for new projects.) The emo-rock outfit has been through big changes since the release of its last record, 2009's excellent "Brand New Eyes"; in 2010 Josh and Zac Farro, the band's founding guitarist and drummer, quit in a very public squabble over Paramore's direction.
"Thanks for sticking around for the soap opera that was Paramore," frontwoman Hayley Williams told the full room at the Belmont. "It's been canceled, though, and this was the theme song." That was the cue for "Ignorance," which details what guitarist Taylor York told me earlier Wednesday was the "dysfunction" that used to rule the band. But judging by its powerful performance here -- which included the band's current single "Now" and the debut of another new song, "Still Into You" -- Paramore has figured out how to work again.
Follow Mikael Wood on Twitter: @mikaelwood