At the end of his SXSW keynote address on March 15th, Bruce Springsteen left the thousands of aspiring songwriters and performers congregated in Austin, Texas for the conference and festival with this message: “Young musicians, learn to bring it live and bring it home, night after night after night. Your audience will remember you.”
Eight hours later, Springsteen hit the Austin City Limits stage at the Moody Theater with his newly expanded E Street Band and an epic demonstration of that advice in action. “We need the encouragement,” Springsteen cracked, soaking in the adoring applause after “Thunder Road,” nearly two hours into the set. “This is only our second show.” There was no cause for worry. He and the band – now 16 strong, including the late Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake on saxophone – sounded ready to kill, thrill and elevate.
Woody’s Birthday Party
A running theme at this year’s SXSW is the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. Springsteen cited Guthrie as a profound influence in his address and stopped by a Guthrie panel discussion that afternoon. He kept the celebration going by opening this show with Guthrie’s 1938 portrait of the migrant worker’s life, “I Ain’t Got No Home.” Springsteen sang it like church – armed with robust gospel harmonizing – but played it like folk-punk, banging at his acoustic guitar like he had a grudge against the strings, while the brass section blew hard and bright over drummer Max Weinberg‘s marching-army snare rolls.
The set list echoed the manic whirl of despair and bravado on Springsteen’s new record, Wrecking Ball. He followed the Guthrie song with the shaming challenge of “We Take Care of Our Own,” the delirious confrontation of the album’s title track, and a leap back to the murderous rage of “Badlands” on 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town – a blunt suggestion that nothing has changed in the stories he writes, except the state of emergency. “It’s alright!” Springsteen crowed later in “Tenth Avenue Freezeout.” But he took the audience – the smallest he’s played to in this city since he appeared at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1974 – through a whiplash of highs and hells, trials and light, along the way.
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The Wrecking Crew
Springsteen played eight of the eleven songs on Wrecking Ball, a record built with loops and overdubs then lathered with a dizzying turbulence of horns, choirs and hootenanny instrumentation. The stage treatments were at once faithful – Springsteen opened “We Are Alive” as he does on the record, alone, like a 1962 Bob Dylan – and dramatic in their deviations. Steven Van Zandt led the segue out of ” I Ain’t Got No Home” into “We Take Care of Our Own” with an extended rough-staccato guitar lick that sounded like he was scratching a key across a newly painted car door. The chain-gang gait of “Shackled and Drawn” came with percussion and a propulsion closer to the Rolling Stones’ version of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” During the driving mid-section of “Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen bent over his Telecaster and strummed it like his right hand was a jackhammer.
“My City of Ruins,” from The Rising, also got a striking overhaul – rearranged with contrary vigor as a full-blooded soul-revue descendant of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready.” “Are we missing anybody?” Springsteen asked, perched on the lip of the Moody Theater, holding his microphone over the crowd as if awaiting names. It was an obvious reference to absent comrades – Clemons, Danny Federici. You could also hear the big space Springsteen left in there for others – lost, forgotten and suffering in the America of “Jack of All Trades” and “Rocky Ground.”
The Guest List
The set included two debuts for this tour: a muscled grind through “Seeds” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” the latter featuring guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine (who also reprised his breaks in Wrecking Ball‘s “Death of My Hometown” and “Jack of All Trades”). There was no encore. That would have been anticlimactic. After wrapping up the meat of the night with “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Springsteen opened the floor to a parade of friends and idols, starting with reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. A contagiously cheerful presence all over Austin this week, Cliff sang “The Harder They Come” with warning-bell clarity and hit the high notes in “Many Rivers to Cross” with such dignified anguish that Springsteen hung back behind Cliff, in the shadows, reluctant to be a distraction.
During his keynote speech, Springsteen went on at great length about his love of the British R&B combo, the Animals, and especially their bantam singer, Eric Burdon. Springsteen even played a verse and change of the band’s 1965 hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” confessing “That’s every song I’ve ever written.” Unbeknownst to Springsteen, Burdon was in town for SXSW, heard about the complement and hit the “Twitter-verse,” as Springsteen put it in his introduction tonight. The inevitable result: Idol and disciple met on stage, to the sound of Garry Talent hammering that single’s immortal bass lick.
The night ended as it began, with Woody Guthrie, as Springsteen led the audience through a sing-along of “This Land Is Your Land,” abetted by Morello; Joe Ely (back after his appearance with Springsteen the previous evening at the Austin Music Hall); Win Butler, Will Butler and Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire; and the concert’s opening acts, Alejandro Escovedo and the Low Anthem. “I need to hear every voice in this hall,” Springsteen demanded. And he got ’em.
Springsteen’s tour formally opens in Atlanta on March 18th. But this was no warm-up. It was that lesson – bringing it live, bringing it home, every night – taught by a master.