The Bruce Springsteen portion of SXSW came to a rousing conclusion at Austin's Moody Theater on Thursday night.
The 2 1/2 show served as a preview of the coming Wrecking Ball tour that will play Philadelphia with the E Street Band on March 28 and 29. "Thanks for being part of our test run," the Boss said to the more than willing crowd of 1800 gathered in the state of the art venue on Willie Nelson Boulevard where the PBS series Austin City Limits is taped.
The hardest ticket of the fest was also an only-at-SXSW experience that brought together a gaggle of guests, including reggae great Jimmy Cliff and singer Eric Burdon of The Animals, who were in town for the sprawling music confab, which Springsteen called "a teenage music fan's wet dream."
The 26 song set kicked off with a cover of Woody Guthrie's "Ain't Got No Home" in honor of the folk singer's 100th birthday. It showcased the vocal power of the current edition of the E Street Band, with a five man horn section featuring Jake Clemons, whose uncle used to man that post, plus two new back-up vocalists and a percussionist, swelling the band's size to sixteen members, if I'm counting correctly.
Seeking strength in numbers as he strove to "put a whooping session on the recession" and "kick some Tex-ass in Texas," the community that the Boss gathered in Austin kept getting bigger and bigger. Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who has attained favorite guest status, joined in on "Wrecking Ball's "Death To My Hometown" and a "Jack Of All Trades" on which Springsteen solemnly pounded a marching band bass drum. But it was on a complete-with-hip-hop-scratching-effects solo on "The Ghost Of Tom Joad" that Morello really tore the roof off the building.
The guest that showed up later in the set were more surprising. The first mind-blower was Cliff, resplendently dressed in red from head to toe, in contast to the slimming black favored on E Street. Bruce fans might have thought they were going to get "Trapped," the Cliff song that Springsteen has often played live. Instead, Cliff, who at 63 is a year older than his host, sang three other songs of his own in a keening, undiminshed voice, with a Jersey reggae band behind him. The song titles, come to think of it, fit right in with Springsteen's redemption seeking thematics: "The Harder They Come," "Time Will Tell" and "Many Rivers To Cross."
Earlier in the day in his keynote address, Springsteen had talked about the influence the 1960s British Invasion band The Animals had on his work. In part that was because of the working class rage in identity-seeking songs like "It's My Life," but it was also, he said, because he found it inspirational that The Animals weren't good looking, "and I was feeling pretty hideous at the time." In his speech, he said Eric Burdon "looked like your shrunken Daddy in a wig."
Well, lo and behold, Burden himself turned out to be in Austin for SXSW. The next thing you know, the 70 year old singer was on stage with Springsteen, after having been introduced as "the man I stole all my songs from, including my entire new album." The gray haired bull stalked the stage with focused intensity and sang "We Gotta Get Out Of This Place" while Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt smiled at each other like they couldn't believe this was really happening.
Both of those guest spots came during the encores, and were followed by a "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" with an extended stoppage, mid-song after the line "the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band," in tribute to the late Clarence Clemons. (Earlier in the show, Springsteen had hit on the theme that the souls of the departed are still with us when he told the crowd in reference to Clemons and late keyboardist Danny Federici: "As long as you're here and we're here, they're here."
That seemed to be it. But no, it was not enough. One more song turned out to be Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," with Morello, gospel singer Michelle Moore (who sang and rapped on a "Rocky Ground" earlier that needs smoothing out), Alejandro Escovedo and his band (who opened), Joe Ely, Garland Jeffreys, Win Butler and Renee Chassagne of Bruce-loving indie heroes Arcade Fire, and posibly mmbers of The Low Anthem (who also opened). There were a lot of people on stage. It was a stirring reading of the song, with all the often omitted angry populist verses included.
So that covers the out-of-the-blue highlights. How about the rest of the show? It seems like this tour is going to immerse itself in gospel music on the road to Springsteenian salvation like never before. The going-to-church vibe was present in the opening "Ain't Got No Home," and also "My City Of Ruins," "The Rising," "Land Of Hope and Dreams," and elsewhere. Darkness On The Edge of Town touchstones like "Badlands" and "Promised Land" did their fist-pumping duty. The fired up "Seeds," written about the Texas oil industry going bust in the 1980s, made a surprise appearance, and there were Springsteen crowd surfing moments in "Waitin' On A Sunny Day."
It's early days in the tour, which doesn't even officially start until Sunday in Atlanta. Everything wasn't seamless. "E Street Shuffle" didn't take it off as effortlessly as it might, and some of the horn playing was tentative, as if not everybody is sure yet of what their roles are.
But those are quibbles, and to say that Springsteen slayed Austin during his two-day first-ever stopover at SXSW would be an understatement. He left them swooning. This Lone Star State capital city prides itself on its claim to be "The Live Music Capital of the World" but at the bar and on the street afterwards, many Texans and out-of-towners were overheard singing overheated praises of the guy from Jersey who had just blown into town and blown them away.
Dan Keen, my new pal from Nashville who was sitting next to me at the show and had never seen Springsteen before, pretty much stated the in-the moment consensus.
"I've seen some big acts, like The Rolling Stones and Earth, Wind and Fire," Keen, who teaches in the music business school at Belmont University, turned to me and said about half way through. "But this is the best show I've ever seen. There's no big production, no special effects. No pyro. It's just a guy and his band. Just a guy, and his band."