AUSTIN -- For a man with so many famous friends, it's a wonder that Bruce Springsteen hasn't taken advantage of the talent saturation at the South By Southwest Music Conference before. The Boss not only delivered the festival's keynote address Thursday day, but performed for just shy of two-and-a-half hours with his E Street Band at night, along with a few pals from his collection. Arcade Fire, Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmy Cliff, Tom Morello, Joe Ely, Eric Burdon and more all took the stage at ACL Live, most notably and abundantly on the Boss' frequent cover and closer "This Land Is Your Land."
This Austin stop was only his second on the newly launched "Wrecking Ball" tour, but alone was a companion piece to Springsteen's keynote speech from earlier in the day. At the convention center, the songwriter articulated his own artistic journey as he unfurled a general genealogy of American popular music, in delectable poetry, in bits of song and -- at times -- sexually charged metaphor. At 62, he still expressed some teenaged glee and wonderment of SXSW's abundance and the dizzying multitude of subgenres for every palate. He advised, "Rumble, young bands, rumble... stay hungry. Stay alive. When you walk on stage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it's all we have. And then remember, it's only rock n roll."
And he spoke of how just about every one of his songs, including those on "Wrecking Ball," were really just revamped versions of The Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
And wouldn't you know it, The Animals' Eric Burdon showed up, to perform just that. He'd been contacted via "the Tweeterverse" during the keynote, and -- who wouldn't miss the opportunity to crash a Bruce Springsteen show? Jimmy Cliff, a subject of Springsteen's admiration in the '70s, gave a trio of spirited reggae performances, even on subdued "Many Rivers to Cross." Springsteen's friend and fellow activist Tom Morello gave an injection of hard-rock to "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (which his band Rage Against the Machine did previously with their take in 1997), morphing and throwing himself behind a billion-bar solo.
Springsteen's 16-piece backers stuck closely to dense blues-gospel arrangements that prominently feature on his most recent efforts. While some styles diverged like those on Irish-hued "Death to My Hometown" or dirge-to-Dixie "Jack of All of Trades," the labor-loving latter which culled strong reaction from the crowd on the line "If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight." The vet entertainer assuredly threw himself into the crowd for a stage dive and hopping high up on monitors and the teleprompters, conquering their necessity with punk-ish, punishing defiance.
"This is a teenage music junkies' wet dream," he declared of the festivities in Austin.
But then the band would step back in and take us to church, even with Springsteen as its restless kid kicking the back pew. When backing singer Michelle Moore rapped (!) for a verse on "Rocky Ground," it's oddness only circle back to the spiritual suite, paired with religiously themed "Land of Hope and Dreams."
The song selection would also point at all points of Springsteen's career, as indicated by his earlier speech. New "Shackled and Drawn" is like the result of ill-fated traverse "The Promised Land." "My City of Ruins" frequently intermingled with its origin "People Get Ready" by Curtis Mayfield, and his vamps, yelps and false endings resonated with James Brown; both were artists he'd exalted at the convention center. The gladness of "being alive" from "Badlands" is lyrically resurrected in "We Are Alive," with all its dirt and worms and sunshine. His line in "Wrecking Ball" about "Youth and Beauty" met its maker in "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and, thank goodness, the clarion call of the late E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons reverberated throughout, played through the able bleats of Jake Clemons.
The past and departed were always with him, as Springsteen the Entertainer turned to preach: "If you're here, and we're here, they're here."
He'd inflate the mood whenever it got too misty eyed, with classics like "Thunder Road," bright-eyed "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" and easy throwbacks "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and "The E Street Shuffle."
So, appropriately, just as he started the show with Woodie Guthrie ("I Ain't Got No Home"), he similarly shined it off with "This Land Is Your Land," with his friends and influencers like Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo and Burdon; and his influenced, like Win Butler and Regine Chassagne from Arcade Fire, the Low Anthem (who also opened) and Morello. Anybody who was on the night in-person was there; all those who are dead and gone were also there too.