Bruce Springsteen opened his SXSW blitz a night early, making a surprise appearance on lead guitar and occasional vocals during Alejandro Escovedo's closing set at the 30th annual Austin Music Awards, at the Austin Music Hall on March 14th. "We need one more guitar player," Texas singer-songwriter Joe Ely declared after performing "The Highway Is My Home" with Escovedo and his band the Sensitive Boys. Springsteen – scheduled to own the town the next day, with a highly anticipated keynote speech and an evening concert with the E Street Band – walked on in a black-and-white checked shirt, with a modest grin, to a roar of delight from the audience. Ely immediately kicked into "The Midnight Train," a song by his Flatlanders bandmate Jimmie Dale Gilmore, with Springsteen taking a pair of meaty feedback-laden guitar solos.
Escovedo told a story about his own guest shot at a Springsteen gig, in Houston a couple of years ago, and "how it changed my life," before reprising the song the two played at that show, "Always a Friend," from Escovedo's 2010 album, Street Songs of Love. Ely, Escovedo and Springsteen then alternated verses and harmonized in the traditional pilgrim's song, "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad," with Springsteen firing dirty-metal lead-guitar breaks.
Springsteen was about to leave the stage when Escovedo called, "One more!", and brought out one of his earlier guests, New York singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys, for a version of the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden." Jeffreys handled lead vocals, but Springsteen played tart fills, like a New Jersey-born Keith Richards, and took a howling turn in the song's signature litany: "Am I hard enough/Am I rough enough/Am I rich enough/I'm not to blind to see."
Reggae Meets Zeppelin
Springsteen was not the only superstar on the prowl. At a private party, under the stars at the Hotel St. Cecilia, reggae singer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jimmy Cliff was introduced by ex-Led Zeppelin vocalist and current Austin resident Robert Plant. Before Cliff's set, the two reminisced in one of the hotel rooms about their first encounters in Britain, during one of Cliff's early tours there. Cliff's show was a magical, low-key affair: the singer on acoustic guitar, with a second guitarist and conga player, performing on a lawn, with bare-minimum lighting at their feet, as if they were seated at a fire in the Jamaican hills. Cliff, in undiminished voice, performed almost nothing but hits, including "The Harder They Come," "Many Rivers to Cross," Sitting in Limbo" and a repurposed version of his 1970 anti-war single "Vietnam," now titled "Afghanistan" with timely references to Syria, Libya, Israel and Iraq. Cliff also sang his opening track from the 1972 soundtrack, The Harder They Come, "You Can Get It If You Really Want," which could easily double as a new anthem for SXSW hopefuls. "You must try, try and try/Try and try," Cliff warned, before finishing the chorus with the good news: "You'll succeed at last."
The Doctor is In
Dr. John's current renaissance – fueled by his new album, Locked Down, produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys – hit another high with his March 14th set at La Zona Rosa, during which he previewed much of that record's heated sticky gumbo – including "Locked Down," "Revolution" and the Afro-beat of "Ice Age" – with his road band. Dr. John also played guitar, a rarity, and reached back into his catalog for "Loop Garoo," from 1970's Remedies, and the acid-era voodoo of "I Walk on Guilded Splinters" on 1968's Gris-Gris. He finished with Professor Longhair's "Big Chief," notably playing it on organ instead of piano. It was a typical New Orleans finish, rendered with fresh relish.
SXSW has another three evenings to run, with thousands of acts appearing at more than 90 venues. But the first big night belonged to the veterans and experts.