SXSW Showcase: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Bruce Springsteen testifies at his SXSW showcase Thursday night.

by George Kovacik

In the morning at his SXSW keynote address, Bruce Springsteen played musical historian. He told the crowd how icons like Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and The Animals and got him to where he is today. Thursday night was the lab. Before a packed house of 2,500 invited guests, Springsteen and the E Street Band lit the flame under the beaker and didn’t extinguish it until we were all cooked nearly three hours later.

SXSW has been honoring Woody Guthrie on what would have been his 100th birthday, and Springsteen did his part to show great respect for one of his heroes at both ends of the show. A stirring rendition of “I Ain’t Got No Home” with nearly the entire band at the front of the stage got things started and an all-star cast featuring Tom Morello, Arcade Fire, Austin legends Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo, and opening band Low Anthem closed the night with an emotional, hootenanny version of “This Land is Your Land.”

After the “Home” opening, Springsteen hit the gas going 100 mph and never let up. “We Take Care of Our Own” blew the doors off the place. A raucous “Wrecking Ball” followed then we got to “Badlands.” I thought before the tour started he should put this tune to bed for awhile, but after last night’s unbelievably powerful renditon, featuring a spot on sax solo by Jake Clemons, this song should be played every night and twice on Sunday.

“My City of Ruins” got the full horn treatment and like he did last week at the Apollo Theater he honored the late Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici during band introductions by saying “if you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here.”  Looking at the band members when he did this, the loss of both of these guys is still fresh and painful.

Garry Tallent, left, and Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band.

Next he called up his buddy Tom Morello, who is even more unbelievable in person. An energetic version of “Death To My Hometown” brought the house down. He showed up again for his solo on “Jack of All Trades” and to duet with Springsteen on “The Ghost of Tom Joad” where he played his signature badass solo.

After running through “The Promised Land,” where he gave a kid in the front row his harmonica, a blistering version of “Seeds,” the wonderful new arrangement of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the gospel-infused “Rocky Ground,” “Waiting on A Sunny Day,” complete with a stage dive, and “The E Street Shuffle,” where he told the people in the balcony to get off their asses and dance because “this is a dance party,” it was time for the special guests.

Jimmy Cliff kicked things off with an energetic “The Harder they Come” went straight into “Only Time Will Tell,” then to the classic “Many Rivers to Cross.” I have never seen Cliff before but he looked like he was having the time of his life on stage.

Earlier in the day, Springsteen talked about his love for The Animals. He said they were ugly and cruel and that he stole the riff from “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” for “Badlands.” Apparently, the Twitter world went crazy after his speech and he found out Eric Burdon was in town. So Garry W. Tallent started the bass line and out came Burdon who absolutely nailed “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

Before the “This Land is Your Land” finish, the band kicked into “Tenth Avenue Freezeout.” When he got to the part “they made that change uptown and Big Man joined the band,” the music stopped and the crowd screams for Clarence Clemons were deafening. A great way to honor someone who has meant so much to so many.

I had an opportunity yesterday that few people get. An opportunity that will most likely never happen again. I sat 15 feet away from Springsteen at the keynote address and I was two people deep on the floor for the concert all in a 12-hour span. I was so close I could see that he actually wears a tie with that vest. I never knew. I have seen Springsteen many times over the years, but I can honestly say this was the best E Street Band show I have ever seen. The horn section brings incredible power, and the Bruce and the rest of the band seem fresh and energized after a couple of years off.

If you already have tickets for the Wrecking Ball Tour that kicks off Sunday in Atlanta, you are in for one hell of a show.

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