The circus came to town and for one bizarre night, Bruce Springsteen was the ringleader of all that makes the South by Southwest Music Festival abundantly bloated and Austin weird. “Happy Birthday Woody!” bellowed Springsteen as the expanded E Street Band took the stage, eight hours after he delivered a personal keynote speech at the 25th edition of the annual music conference.
Buoyed by accordion, tuba and violin, Springsteen and company lined end-to-end to open with Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home”, the old folk song that Guthrie fashioned to parody a Baptist hymn. A fitting tribute in Guthrie’s 100th birthday year and an unexpected counterpoint to “Wrecking Ball”, Springsteen’s album that is as much a gospel record in tribute to Clarence Clemons as a statement on our economic morass.
Earlier as the SXSW keynote speaker, Springsteen advised to “be able to keep two completely and contradictory ideas alive… in your head and heart at all times,” because “if it doesn’t drive you crazy, it will make you strong”.
The show could not be called a typical tour stop but included eight songs from the new album, including “We Take Care of Our Own”, a clarion call espousing a politically hazy message (is it a democratic call for compassion or something related to patriotism?) that is at least a sonic assault embodying muscle and bone rock. The other new songs are more concise, however, from “Wrecking Ball’s” metaphor about the demolition of Giants Stadium that resonates in a grander way, to the righteous anger of “Shackled and Drawn” and the hopeful resignation of “Jack of All Trades”.
The first step down memory lane was “Badlands”, which propelled Steven Van Zandt up close with his Boss on the “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” verse, but musical redemption came via Jake Clemons who has taken over the pivotal saxophone role left vacant by the death of his uncle Clarence. In his keynote, Springsteen demonstrated on an acoustic guitar how the melody of “Badlands” rips off the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and before the night was over, a gray haired Eric Burdon was coaxed out to sing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Burdon rose to the task of matching the fury of the E Street Band whose original members know the anti-war song cold. In a rare move for Springsteen, he virtually ceded the stage to Jimmy Cliff, who he called out to perform a trifecta of his greatest songs: “The Harder They Come”, “Time Will Tell” and “Many Rivers to Cross” that had many in the theatre singing along.
Meanwhile, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine reprised his role as album guest by adding guitar on “Death to My Hometown” and “Jack of All Trades”, and also offered blistering leads with Springsteen on the “Ghost of Tom Joad”, a natural addition to the set premiered at the Apollo Theatre last week. A bigger surprise may have been the tour premiere of “Seeds” which is more harrowing now than when it was first performed in the “Born in the USA” stadium days.
Springsteen works well with grand thematic gestures and that is what he offers on this tour, but he is able to successfully revisit past glory on “Thunder Road” and a heartfelt “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” (the autobiographical rave up about meeting the Big Man), due to his five-man horn section of trumpets, trombones and sax. Sadly, the loose funky vibe of the “E Street Shuffle” is lost in the 2012 turbo version, but it’s a nice gesture. He might be better served by including a couple tracks from last year’s “The Promise” in the set.
The end of the evening was book ended with Guthrie’s anthem “This Land s Your Land” and without fanfare, the E Street Band was casually supplanted by indie bands Arcade Fire and the Low Anthem; Texas legends Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo; and stalwarts Garland Jeffreys and Morello (now in a Willie Nelson T-shirt). Ely, Escovedo, Win Butler of the Arcade Fire, and Morello traded lead verses, but Springsteen insisted (“I need to hear every voice”) that the audience take the lead as those on stage stood silent. Few performers could pull that trick off, and since there were plenty of musicians in the audience (Ben Kweller was beaming during “Thunder Road”), we didn’t sound half bad.