Early Friday night, Kimmel wrapped a week of taping his late-night show at Austin's Long Center for the Performing Arts, an upscale 2,400-seat theater across the Colorado River from the club-jammed downtown district that hosts most of the festival's action. The program is just one of several large-scale TV productions that piggybacked on SXSW this year; MTV held its annual Woodie Awards on Thursday, and last week Seth Myers turned up during the interactive portion of the conference to plug his new NBC show.
As eager as any entertainer here to appear down with the locals, Kimmel peppered his monologue Friday (for an episode that aired that night) with jokes about tacos and ribs and Gov. Rick Perry; he even made a show of pardoning a cow from being eaten for dinner.
But nothing pleased the audience in which I sat like his choice of musical guest: Willie Nelson, the 80-year-old country-music legend whom Kimmel described to enthusiastic approval as "possibly our greatest living Texan."
For Kimmel's show, Nelson, who's scheduled to play SXSW on Saturday night as part of the iTunes Festival, did a perfectly spirited rendition of his song "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die," with backing by a seven-piece band that included his sister Bobbie on piano and his son Micah on guitar.
But he didn't really start cooking until after the cameras turned off and he revved up a killer 20-minute jam that strung together classics such as "Funny How Time Slips Away," "Crazy" and "Night Life." His guitar playing here -- on Trigger, of course, the beat-up Martin acoustic he's been using for decades -- was a thing of wonder, melodic but rhythmic, silky yet not without rough edges. It was a sound you could keep listening to for hours.
Which may have been Nelson's idea. After asking the crowd if he could play one more -- it was Tom T. Hall's "Shoeshine Man" -- he evidently changed his mind and ran through what he described as a new song, with words about how "I know you love me, 'cause I love you too / But you can't tell me what to do."
Wouldn't dream of it, Willie.