The show amounted to Bruce’s second keynote of the day, this time with a full band, a raft of very special guests and a fire in his gut as he aims to make a mark in a week of endless music.
Jeff Leven Is Having a Ball in Austin
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN!!!!!! So my email buzzes at a super-early hour this morning, and rather than the work onslaught starting early (although it did a few minutes later), it’s perhaps the best email I’ve gotten all week—notice that I won a golden ticket to see Bruce Springsteen at the ACL Moody venue tonight. Fresh, new and extremely intimate by Springsteen standards, it’s the perfect place to catch what amounts to Bruce’s second keynote of the day, this time with a full band, a raft of very special guests and a fire in his gut as he aims to make a mark in a week of endless music.
You could obviously write a book about Springsteen, and in fact people have. My friend Dave Marsh wrote the best one, but every twist and turn of Springsteen’s career elicits a couple thousand pages of text from disciples, pundits and the general press. How heartwarmingly direct, then, to have the man himself address SXSW with his own half-philosophical, half-autobiographical take on his personal history with music and the state of music now. Walking through his own stages of musical discovery (pausing to demonstrate certain points on an acoustic guitar), Bruce’s keynote was riveting a disarming mix of modesty and humor, a devotees’ awareness of musical history and a charismatic star’s sense of presentation. Humbly copping to ripping off the Animals, humanizing the then-contemporary teen reaction to Roy Orbison and admitting the challenge of punk rock to non-punks in 1977, Springsteen presented himself as an articulate mirror for the generation that bridged rock’s first decade and its current sprawl. It was charming and relatable, even as the enormity of his career retrospectively hangs incredulously over his self-effacing projections of his teenage self.
For my part, I took a circuitous path to committed Springsteen fandom. While “I’m on Fire” bored its way into the more vivid corners of my brain at a very young age (and to this day I think Born in the U.S.A. is an underappreciated mega-classic hiding in plain sight—start with “I’m on Fire,” and “Downbound Train” before you even get to the hits), in the punk rock phases of my life I found the basic bombast of Springsteen’s earlier work off-putting until gradually the soul of his ethos found its way to me and refused to let go. Among the handful of artists who’ve built an internal mythology, Springsteen’s canon is also one of the key gospels of the would-be religion of popular music a half-sacrilegious, half-holy leap of faith that the promised land might be a few chords away. Springsteen exalted teens, workers and other underdogs as heroes in romantic sagas tinged with more mystery than the small towns of the American hinterland seemingly has any right to secret within its bones. Springsteen is love and striving and hope and faith and all the things that bring so many of us so deep into music to begin with.
I won’t lie there were moments in the show tonight where I was on the verge of tearing up with the sheer power and spirit of all that he and the band put out there. In a set list mostly built around Wrecking Ball with other recent fare largely commanding the nearly three hours of music, it wasn’t a night to hear “Dancing in the Dark,” but rather a night to let the Boss drive and bare whatever currently sits on his soul. The results were searing, stunning and just frankly mind-blowing. Spending a night within thirty yards of him with that band veering in utter tandem with his every gesture, the show was amazing before he sprinkled in “Badlands,” or “Thunder Road.” The crowd was electric throughout and, in a particularly moving moment,” joined Bruce in a moment of thunderous naked applause at the point in “10th Avenue Freeze Out” where the Big Man joined the band. With his nephew commandingly sitting in the chair he once filled, the late Clarence Clemons was deeply present even in his absence. On the second show of the first full tour without him, the band seemed wistful but clearly sought the joy of the music as the best balm available. And then there were the guests. Several songs with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello (who is featured on a few songs on Wrecking Ball) including an utterly shredding version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (with a Morello solo so scorching it was almost silly) and a three song set with Jimmy Cliff. Completing the day’s circle he brought out the Animals’ Eric Burdon for a live demonstration of his earlier comments about “We’ve Got to Get Out of This Place.” And then the finale—a full stage of stars featuring Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo (who played right before Bruce), Low Anthem (who opened the show), three members of the Arcade Fire and Morello all doing a rousing version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” (also referenced in the keynote). What better way to bring his comments to life than proving them all night, then and there.
After that, it was almost tempting to just go home and call it a night, but my cup runneth over. I made a bee-line to the Paste party where the Jesus and Mary Chain played a nearly perfect set loaded with classics from Psychocandy and Automatic. While Springsteen turbo-charged classic American folk and bebop, JAMC absorbed girl group pop and then cloaked it in a squall of post-punk distortion a beautiful pinned butterfly under scratched glass. Having reviewed the entirety of their catalog reissues over the years for Paste itself, it was amazing to see them honor one of America’s best music publications with an earnest and packed set. I capped the night with a triumphant set by the Silent Comedy, who turned the Velveeta Room into a big tent revival, crashing into the crowd, testifying in a roar of adrenaline and making converts of every soul in the room. Cool like the Arcade Fire but unrelenting like Springsteen they were the perfect capstone to an astounding day of music (the earlier stages of which also included great sets from Built to Spill, the Kaiser Chiefs and Alabama Shakes). A truly perfect night.

Just the beginning. (4/2a)
Uncertainty from coast to coast (4/2a)
Deadlocks in the top tiers of the standings (4/2a)
MVP frontunner of 2020 (4/2a)
Giving home entertainment new meaning (4/2a)
Also known as back issues of HITS.
We turn out to be pioneers.
The music doc shows new muscle.
Not postponed yet.

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