Bruce Springsteen played an epic 2-hour and 50-minutee set at Austin's ACL Live at Moody Theater (Photo: Getty Images)
Bruce Springsteen came to South By Southwest to make a speech. He wound up making history - at least by the standards of his storied live performance legacy.
His show with the E Street Band on Thursday night at ACL Live at Moody Theater was a two-hour and 50-minute barn-burner that might have had, as Springsteen said, "a story to tell" based around his socially and politically conscious new album "Wrecking Ball" - which just a day earlier debuted atop the Billboard 200. But that ultimately gave way to a high-spirited and raucous revue marked by a parade of surprise guests and one-off song selections.
Tom Morello joined in to recreate his contributions to the "Wrecking Ball" tracks "Death to My Hometown" and "Jack of All Trades," while he pulled out his bag of guitar tricks while jamming with Springsteen on "The Ghost of Tom Joad." A red-clad Jimmy Cliff joined the E Street gang for "The Harder They Come," "Time Will Tell" and "Many Rivers to Cross" - and surprisingly NOT "Trapped" - while the Animals' Eric Burdon, whose influence Springsteen chronicled during his SXSW keynote speech earlier in the day, roared through "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
The closing rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," meanwhile, was a spirited, all-hands-on-deck finale with Morello, Arcade Fire, Joe Ely and the evening's opening acts, Alejandro Escovedo and the Low Anthem.
Guthrie - who was also a major figure in the keynote speech -- was top of mind for Springsteen on Thursday, with SXSW joining in the celebration of the folk legend's centennial (and a Guthrie tribute concert ironically taking place at the same time). Springsteen opened Thursday's showing with a shout of "Happy birthday, Woody!" and a version of "I Ain't Got No Home" that began a cappella and built into a full-band arrangement.
There was no doubting Guthrie's influence on "Wrecking Ball's" sharped-tongued commentary; Springsteen and company played eight of the album's 11 songs, surrounding them with complementary older selections such as "Badlands," "My City of Ruins," "The Promised Land," "Seeds" and "The Rising." But, Springsteen told the 2,700 or so early in the show; the group - whose body count of 17 resembled an army more than a band - was "here to kick some Tex-ass," meaning the tone of the evening was not entirely serious.
"E Street Shuffle," in fact, was an epic dance party tune, while "Thunder Road" was movingly anthemic and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" included an enthusiastic acknowledgement of the late Clarence Clemons - whose nephew, Jake, has indeed stepped into his role if not necessarily his place onstage. The expanded E Street lineup was a potent unit somewhere between the original lineup and Springsteen's large Seeger Sessions Band, making the music sound more potent and providing additional visual impact, especially when the horn section paraded to the front of the stage. Springsteen, meanwhile, worked the front of the stage like a party host wanting to make sure everyone had the time of their lives, leaning deep into the front rows on a couple of occasions.
Springsteen was also quite conscious of where he was on that particular night. "It's f***ing crazy here. It's like some teenage music fan's wet dream," he said of being part of SXSW. As for his "big f***ing speech, "Springsteen playfully grumbled about having to wake up at the decidedly un-rock 'n' roll hour of 8 a.m. to prepare. "That f***ed everything up!," he declared.
Of course, that wasn't really the case. Springsteen may have referred to the show as a "test run" and told the crowd that he and the band "needed the encouragement," but it was clearly a special night for all concerned and a confidence-building precursor for the March 18 launch of the group's tour in Atlanta.
Springsteen and the E Street Band's full SXSW setlist included:
I Ain't Got No Home (Woody Guthrie)
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
Waiting 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)