There weren’t any great revelations that emerged from Bruce Springsteen’s Thursday afternoon keynote address at the music portion of the South by Southwest Festival. The Boss didn’t have a whole lot of clear ideas to impart, and even he agreed with that estimate (“I gave a big speech this morning, f—ed the whole thing up,” he joked from the stage later).
Mostly, he just got across the idea that he loves rock music, and that it still holds some sort of undefinable power — and later that night he got the chance to prove it where it counts: on stage, in an epic three-hour set at Moody’s Theater in Austin.
The big headlines will probably belong to Springsteen’s giant list of collaborators, which ranged from Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who sat in on a trio of tunes, including a raucous, metaled-up version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” that split the difference between Springsteen’s acoustic original and Rage’s aggro cover, to Jimmy Cliff, who came out to do a mini set of his own during the encore, including an effervescent “The Harder They Come.”
The Animals’ Eric Burdon also stopped by to blast through “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (according to Springsteen, he happened to realize Burdon was in town thanks to Twitter, and noted that he has stolen from him more than anyone else in his career), and the night closed with an overwhelming spin through Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” featuring Morello, Burdon, Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo (who also opened the show), and members of Arcade Fire.
Of the guest spots, Cliff won the crowd over easily, but the MVP award probably goes to Morello. He struggled a bit in the beginning, but he delivered the musical highlight of the night with an incredible six-string pyrotechnical display during the breakdown of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” He busted out the old DJ-guitar schtick (like the solo in “Bulls On Parade”) but also tore through a hot series of licks that made him sound like the bastard son of Slash and Steve Vai. Springsteen could do little else but look on in awe, amazed at the talent and ingenuity joining him on this special night.
But for all those guest stars, legends, and re-imagined covers, the real story of the night lay within Springsteen’s own songs, played with his own band. Reactions to his latest album Wrecking Ball have been mixed, and it’s easy to hear why: It’s an album that puts pomp ahead of songcraft, melody, or lyrics. Sonically, every song strains to be a revelatory anthem, which can make Wrecking Ball sound both forced and exhausting.
It turns out, though, that those songs sound way better when given the room to shift and twist in a live setting. Springsteen is nothing if not a master of dynamics—how else would he able to go for three hours night after night? So while the studio version of “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Jack of All Trades” veer dangerously into self-parody, the live versions are far better balanced and allow the highlights to really burst out (the beautifully simple central melody of the former, the cutting narrative of the latter).
It doesn’t quite work with every song: Though “Rocky Ground” has a lovely refrain, that rap interlude still sounds pretty goofy, and the best case scenario for “We Are Alive” is still that it reminds you of how good a song “Ring of Fire” is. But the breathing room largely made Wrecking Ball sound more in tune with Bruce’s best-executed stuff, and the title track stood up especially well under the live lights—expect the line “Bring on your wrecking ball” to inspire the same sort of crowd outbursts that follow Bruce’s most classic lines.
Springsteen began his night in hushed reverie mode, with a rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.” It started as an a cappella hymn, then slowly built into an all-hands-on-deck climax that easily segued into “We Take Care of Our Own” (which seems like it could open Springsteen shows for years to come). There were plenty of classics in the mix (“Badlands,” “Thunder Road” et al), but Bruce rarely strayed from his new material (except when a fellow legend happened to be on the microphone next to him).
Actually, the stone-cold hits may have been the weakest link of the evening. “Thunder Road” remains an astonishing accomplishment, but it’s also pretty old, and the performance of it hasn’t shifted all that much in a few decades. The rendition on Thursday night was pitch perfect—perhaps even too perfect, as though Bruce mastered all the tricks long ago and there are no surprises left. Those moments can make Springsteen feel like a nostalgia act rather than a restless forward-thinker.
The biggest climaxes of the evening came during the numerous tributes to late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons. The upcoming tour for Wrecking Ball will the the first ever with the Big Man’s sax stylings, and it’s clear that the group misses him dearly. Springsteen took every opportunity to give him a shout-out and call attention to his greatness, reminding everyone during the band roll call that though both Clemons and multi-instrumentalist Danny Federici were missing in action, “If you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here.”
He often handed the center of the stage to Clemons’ nephew and new E Street sax man Jake Clemons, turning each solo into a robust sonic exorcism. When the time came to invoke Clemons in the lyrics to “10th Avenue Freeze-Out,” the entire group paused and pointed upwards, inspiring a lengthy and loud ovation.
Strangely, for a show so overrun with names from the ’70s and late icons (Guthrie’s name was invoked multiple times as well), Thursday night’s show didn’t feel like a tribute to the best days gone by. Like all of his folk-music heroes, Springsteen only gets more restless as he ages, and his insatiable thirst for new things sometimes gets the best of him but often yields exceptional results.
Thursday night’s show wasn’t perfect—Bruce definitely lost the crowd once or twice, and the new material doesn’t sound as comfortably broken in as even the songs from The Rising. But he is willing to experiment, and he knows that failure always provides a new lesson to learn. After four decades, Springsteen still has the ability to surprise us—precisely because he is still able to surprise himself.
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