Right before Bruce Springsteen took the stage at 12:30 p.m. CDT Thursday for his keynote speech at South By Southwest, a half-hour later than expected, conference co-founder Roland Swanson joked, “That’s why they call him the boss.”
As Springsteen himself later said, when referencing a Danny & The Juniors hit, “Rock & Roll Is Here To Stay,” “They had no idea how terrifyingly fucking right they were.”
Working the crowd like a master performer who’s spent well more than half his life on stage, Springsteen delivered what a few audience members on the way out called the greatest keynote they’d ever seen.
Dressed in jeans and a button down shirt, holding his speech like your coolest professor, Springsteen began with a comment about the hour of the speech. “Good morning, why are we up so fucking early? How important can this speech be if we’re getting up at noon,” he joked to loud laughter. “Every decent musician in town is asleep, or they will be before I’m done with this.”
As Springsteen also demonstrated during his recent Jimmy Fallon performance of LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy And I Know It,” the guy has shown a deft sense of humor on stage for years, with his cheerfulness and wit being a big part of the revival feeling of the live shows.
He used that very well during the keynote, poking fun at the dissension among music fans by pointing out you can take any band and having the following disagreement: “Bruce Springsteen – natural born voice of the common man, the future of rock and roll,” or, “He sucks.”
But like his Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame induction speeches, Springsteen used the occasion to celebrate the music he loves and school everyone in the crowd on rock history, often tying it into his own music.
For example, he explained how the music of the Animals infused his own Darkness On The Edge Of Town. “Youngsters watch this one,” he said, playing a riff from “Don’t Let Be Misunderstood,” then immediately following with “Badlands.” “It’s the same fucking riff, man.”
He found a guitar and played several snippets of songs, including “Backstreets.” But his full version of “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” eyes closed, guitar held almost straight in the air, was transfixing.
And afterwards he again broke the place up. “That’s every song I’ve ever written,” he said, “I’m not kidding, that’s all of ‘em.”
Most of his revelations, though, were in talking about other musicians. “Underrated, still underrated,” he said of James Brown, then shared a story of being brought on stage with Brown, which he animated by mimicking running.
When he wrapped up at 1:30 p.m., he took a bow, waved to the crowd and walked off stage to a deserved standing ovation.