By Craig Hlavaty

Bruce Springsteen's Thursday started with a keynote speech in one of the big ballrooms at the Austin Convention Center, and ended with a mythic three-hour set at ACL Live across town, in front of a few thousand people cooing “Bruce”.

The keynote and the show went hand in hand. If you weren't there this morning at the crack of noon, then the show wouldn't have affected you the way it did those of us who dragged ourselves out of bed — hey, it's SXSW — to listen to the Boss speak.

Touching on his influences, his craft, and only glancing at the state of the industry, his hearty, hilarious and playfully profane speech was the promise and the show nine hours later was the fulfillment of that promise.

Three hours and more than two dozen songs still wasn't enough for any of us in the crowd. And the special guests were the proverbial icing on the cake, or using the preferred attitude of the event, a little whiskey in your coffee.

Opening with Woody Guthrie's “I Ain't Got No Home” on the late folk hero's would-be centennial birthday, the tone was set for Thursday night: Stern, sturdy and totally Springsteen. “We Take Care Of Our Own” from the recently released Billboard No. 1 Wrecking Ball lifted us off directly after.


The title track of Ball fits all too nicely among other Springsteen live bursts, leading us into a pile-driving “Badlands” which made me leap out of my seat and nearly over the railing in front of me.

My earlier misgivings about Ball melted away once I heard the tunes in a live setting. The Boss' cringe-worthy Irish lilt on the studio cut of “Death To My Hometown” wasn't there live, and all that remained was the barroom brawler that I hoped it would be in person.

“This Depression” and “Jack of All Trades” are also way better in the flesh, with the latter a haunting showcase for Springsteen's bare-bones Nebraska -era voice.

Guest guitarist Tom Morello ratcheted up the volume of the E Street Band, standing out on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a song he previously covered with his own Rage Against The Machine a decade or so ago. His metallic coda to the song, half Neil Young rage and his own trademark fretwork was what laymen call a “face melter”.

Reggae great Jimmy Cliff arrived during ended up being the encore for three of his own essentials, including “The Harder They Come” and “Many Rivers to Cross” which gave all of us the opportunity to hear the E Streeters tackle a ska beat. They pulled it off. So when is the Boss roots-reggae album coming?

Earlier the day at the keynote, Springsteen sang — literally, actually — the praises of The Animals and lead singer Eric Burdon. As luck would have it, Burdon was in town and came up to the mike to “We've Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Springsteen had said that garage standard was the template for his whole career. Burdon's pipes are still willing and able.

Live dynamo “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” featured a minute-long moment of tribute to the late Clarence Clemons, with the crowd clapping and howling for 60 seconds to honor the fallen saxophonist. Jake Clemons, the nephew of the late Big Man, has fit himself nicely into the mix, handling his uncle's solos. Close your eyes, and you see the Big Man.

The night ended with the return of Guthrie's ghost for his “This Land Is Your Land,” featuring Texas troubadour Joe Ely, members of Arcade Fire, openers the Low Anthem and Alejandro Escovedo, plus Morello and Garland Jeffreys. We were all expecting Guthrie's own specter to appear onstage, but maybe he was just being shy last night.

Or he was at a showcase across town.

Photos Courtesy of SXSW

Personal Bias: I got a “Born To Run”-inspired tattoo on my leg earlier in the day, so maybe I am not the most unbiased person to have been covering this one. But I did give Wrecking Ball a good beating last week upon its release so I think I can give the Boss an evenhanded shake.

The Crowd: The press gang and lucky-ass raffle winners. The mezzanine was mostly media types. I was in a row with Paste and NPR staff.

Overheard In the Crowd: “Bruuuuuuuuuuce,” of course.

Set list below.

Set list:

I Ain't Got No Home (Woody Guthrie cover)

We Take Care Of Our Own

Wrecking Ball


Death to My Hometown (With Tom Morello)

My City of Ruins


The E Street Shuffle

This Depression

Jack of All Trades (With Tom Morello)

Easy Money

Shackled and Drawn

Waitin' on a Sunny Day

The Promised Land

The Ghost of Tom Joad (With Tom Morello)

The Rising

We Are Alive

Thunder Road


Rocky Ground (With Michelle Moore)

Land of Hope and Dreams

The Harder They Come (With Jimmy Cliff)

Time Will Tell (With Jimmy Cliff)

Many Rivers to Cross (With Jimmy Cliff)

We've Gotta Get Out of This Place (With Eric Burdon)

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

This Land Is Your Land (Woody Guthrie cover) (with Joe Ely, Arcade Fire, Alejandro Escovedo, Tom Morello and Garland Jeffreys)

See also:

*SXSW: Ten things your outfit says about you

*The Best of SXSW Music: Thursday 3/15/2012

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