When SXSW announced that Bruce Springsteen would serve as industry keynote, speculation quickly turned to the likelihood of a local appearance in Austin. Last night, the E Street band performed one of the most stirring and inspired shows in SXSW history, a concert that will reenergize the band and its fans. Emerging in a semicircle, the E-Street band kicked off the two-and-a-half-hour show with a reverent, faithful version of Woody Guthrie song “I Ain’t Got No Home” on the occasion of his 100th birthday. The band proceeded to rip the doors off the theater with the rousing anthem “We Take Care of Our Own”, and a setlist that represented a fundamental redirection for fans who may have grown accustomed to anthem friendly tours of the past, in favor of a bold set that featured seven songs off of Wrecking Ball, the band’s hard hitting release that represents a sign of the tough times.
Coming on the heels of his keynote address, Bruce was in a jovial mood, but the band’s second show with a new lineup, following the passing away of the beloved big man Clarence Clemons, was one of the most emotional shows in band history, rivaling the Rising shows in the wake of 9/11. Clarence’s loss hung over the crowd, and his memory would be brought to life any time his solos were featured, as when Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, stepped up and aced his uncle’s signature sax riff on “Badlands”. Bruce chose a roll call of band members during “My City in Ruins” to alert the world to the band’s determination to press forward with conviction, turning to the audience and bellowing: “Is there anyone missing?” Acknowledging the audience’s pain, he repeated a refrain that should serve as the guide for heartbroken fans mourning the loss of Clarence and organist Danny Federici: “If we’re here, and you’re here, then they’re here.”
Bruce seemed energized by playing before a small house, the 2,700-seat Moody Theater with its high ceiling, great acoustics, and an audience seemingly within arm’s reach from the stage. What made the evening more magical was its placement during SXSW, affording Bruce the opportunity to weave his magic before a crowd full of many first-time attendees to a Bruce show, who infused the band with energy, taking the band nearly 40 years to their club days. Bruce seemed to be reliving his youth, not only taking his signature stroll through the audience on “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”, but also throwing his guitar offstage with gusto between songs, crowd surfing, and at one point, stage diving into a reclining position atop the crowd.
There was plenty of bonding between Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, and Little Steven; the all hands on stage march to the front of the stage on the raucous E Street Shuffle, and a full sound of the large ensemble augmented by a five piece horn section. Bruce shows a continued openness to draw energy and inspiration from younger, like-minded artists such as Tom Morello, from Rage Against the Machine, featured on several songs, including a face-melting guitar solo on “Ghost of Tom Joad”, and a soulful duet with Michelle Moore, who even rapped out a few phrases on “Rocky Ground”. Continued on a theme of his keynote, Bruce called up a range of his influences including Jimmy Cliff and Eric Burdon, and leading the entire ensemble, along with openers Alejandro Escovedo and the Low Anthem, and surprise guests Jerry Lee Lewis, Joe Ely, and Arcade Fire for the full version of “This Land is Your Land”.
In an evening full of unbridled energy and numerous emotional highs, he saved the best for the penultimate number, crowd-favorite “Tenth Avenue Freezeout”. Recounting simpler times, when he reached the point “when the change was made uptown and the big man joined the band” he stopped the song in its track, holding back tears as he allowed the fans to give Clarence an extended curtain call. For fans who were concerned that the band’s recent losses would be an irreparable setback for the band, rest assured: they are still here.
I Ain’t Got No Home
We Take Care of Our Own
Death to My Hometown (with Tom Morello)
My City of Ruins
E Street Shuffle
Jack of All Trades (with Morello)
Shackled & Drawn
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
The Ghost of Tom Joad (with Morello)
We Are Alive
Rocky Ground (with Michelle Moore)
Land of Hope and Dreams
The Harder They Come (with Jimmy Cliff)
Time With Tell (with Cliff)
Many Rivers to Cross (with Cliff)
We Gotta Get Out of This Place (with Eric Burdon)
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
This Land is Your Land (with Morello, Arcade Fire, Alejandro Escovedo, Joe Ely, Low Anthem)