Bruce Springsteen has seen it all. As a man who has weathered everything from early 1970s “Next Dylan” hype to divorce to superstardom with notable grace and dignity, you can’t expect him to flinch easily. Thursday night at ACL Live, he stared out at the star-struck crowd with a raised brow, offering an observation: “It’s fucking crazy here in Austin right now, right? It’s some kind of teenage music junkie’s wet dream.”
The audience roared, and the communal experience of the energy of South By Southwest (SXSW) made for a fitting beginning to a set epic in both length and reverence.
A few minutes prior, Springsteen had hit the stage with a simple “Happy birthday, Woody!” before leading off with a stomping cover of Mr. Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home.” Both the stage and the supporting band were enormous, with the 2012 version of E Street boasting 17 pieces, including stalwarts like Max Weinberg, Little Steven and Nils Lofgren alongside a large horn section and newcomer Jake Clemons, the nephew of late E Streeter Clarence Clemons.
For those wondering how the loss of both Clemons and Danny Federici might be addressed, The Boss acknowledged the pair by having the band dress in black and with a simple statement: “Are we missing a few? Yeah, we’re missing a few. But if you’re here and we’re here — then they’re here.”
The nearly three-hour set gave a lot of run to new album Wrecking Ball, with (we believe) eight selections played over the course of the evening. While new single “We Take Care Of Our Own” sounds a bit cliché on the radio, the live version was an entirely different story. As befits a man who once released a hit 5-LP (!) live boxed set, the performance quelled any unease the audience might have had have about new material, with the horns, stagecraft and warm presence of the band carrying the day and winning smiles and nods from the audience.
Some audience members even went as far as to raise their arms and sing out loud like Bruce was at the pulpit rather than the microphone. Despite Mr. Springsteen’s repeated referrals to the show as a “test run,” the band were obviously well-rehearsed and ready to head out on their lengthy world tour.
Between Wrecking Ball numbers, Springsteen laid in gems like “Badlands” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” both of which predictably brought the house down. The crew wisely brought the house lights up early and often, letting Bruce’s crowd interaction take center stage to powerful effect.
While “Bruce Springsteen in a theatre” would have made for ample bragging rights for every lucky attendee in the crowd of 1,800, what one suspects will be remembered most is how Springsteen incorporated the themes of his keynote address (reverence, power, passion and musical influence) into his set with a litany of guest appearances. First among them was Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello, who was less of a surprise than the others given that he guests on the new LP.
Morello played his parts on the Wrecking Ball numbers as you’d suspect, but returned to the stage for a semi-duet with Bruce on “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” a song Rage liked so much the band once recorded a cover of it. And then the guest star parade began. One by one, Jimmy Cliff, Eric Burdon (of The Animals), Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo and even three members of Arcade Fire all dropped in to sing a song, a verse, or (in the case of The Woodland's own Win Butler) a few harmony vocals before jumping back into the crowd to watch from the audience.
Eric Burdon was the surprise of the bunch — after Springsteen’s keynote speech repeatedly referenced The Animals’ huge influence on his work, SXSW attendees pointed out to Springsteen’s people that Burdon was in fact in town for the conference — and a guest run through the ‘60s hit “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” was arranged at the 11th hour.
In total, Springsteen delivered a 24-song set that will likely be referred to for years to come as one of the biggest things to ever happen during the festival. It should be noted that the South By Southwest staff managed a difficult situation (can you imagine the demand?) with incredible tact and skill, devising a lottery system that gave all badgeholders and wristband wearers an equal shot at attending and discouraging scalping by only distributing tickets six hours before the show.
It could have been a disaster, but the festival made it look easy. As did Springsteen. Forty years after signing his first record deal, The Boss still has energy and fire to burn, and the audience at ACL/Moody was all the better for it.