Bruce Springsteen is a man of many talents, and it’s often forgotten that he’s a world-class talker. He’s proven it on many a night with his long introductions to his songs, and he proved it again with his keynote address for the South by Southwest Music Conference last Thursday. It was announced that he would be interviewed by his biographer Dave Marsh—and there were even two bar stools with water bottles waiting for them; Springsteen was obviously nervous enough about writing and delivering an hour-long speech that he needed a fallback position. He began by complaining about the early hour (it was 12:30 in the afternoon), saying, “Every decent musician in town is still asleep—or they will be by the time I’m done with this.” But he went ahead and delivered his long written text—with numerous digressions—without help from Marsh or anyone else.
He overcame his early jitters and cited rock critic Lester Bangs’ famous quote that pop music’s unity died with Elvis Presley. Springsteen spent the rest of his speech trying to refute that claim by telling stories about the very different musical influences he absorbed as a teenager and twentysomething and how he found the connecting thread through all of them. Yeah, he admitted, there are a lot more genres and sub-genres now—and proved it by reciting a funny list of every genre ever invented by a rock critic—but what difference does it matter if there are a hundred genres rather than 20? The possibility of stitching together a unified vision remains the same.
Springsteen told stories—sometimes hilarious, sometimes moving—about his early discoveries of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, doo-wop, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield and Phil Spector. Perhaps his most surprising revelation was that his favorite British Invasion was not the Beatles, the Stones or the Who but the Animals. Their singles, he said, were “the first records with full-blown class-consciousness I’d ever heard.” He pulled out an acoustic guitar and played a bit of the Animals “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (composed by Brill Building greats Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann). “That’s every song I’ve ever written,” Springsteen confessed, “‘Born To Run,’ ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ all of them.” He then played the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and his own “Badlands,” to show how one influenced the other.
His most telling anecdote was of listening to Hank Williams’ greatest hits over and over again, trying to crack the code of a bare-bones honky-tonk music so foreign to a New Jersey kid. When he finally did, he realized that Williams’ song, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” was workingman’s music at its most elemental. As much as he was mesmerized by Williams’ voice and lyrics, though, Springsteen couldn’t accept Williams’ fatalism. The Jersey kid wanted to know, “Why’s my bucket got a hole in it?” The answer, he soon discovered came from Woody Guthrie, who was able to make visible the hidden forces in a society that threw families out of work and out of their homes—the system that put a hole in everyone’s bucket.
Nine hours later Springsteen was standing on stage at the Moody Theatre, home of Austin City Limits. It was only the second show of his tour with an expanded E Street Band—and almost certainly the smallest venue he’ll play this year. The first words out of the singer’s mouth were, “Happy Birthday, Woody,” and the first number was Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home,” a song that explains the roles of the banker and cops in homelessness. “This world is such a great and a funny place to be,” Springsteen sang over his band’s stately stomp and churchy harmonies. “Oh, the gambling man is rich and the working man is poor, and I ain’t got a home in this world anymore.”
He followed that up with his new single, “We Take Care of Our Own,” a response to the callous class warfare described in Guthrie’s song. The new tune became a rollicking, secular hymn powered by all nine members of the E Street Band, plus five horns and three gospel singers—many of them from the Seeger Sessions Band. That was followed by the title track of Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, which began with Springsteen’s unaccompanied voice and guitar and then built, slowly but surely, into a horn-blasting, guitar-roaring, hand-clapping revival service. That was followed by “Badlands.” It was almost as if the evening show were a deliberate illustration of all the points Springsteen had made in his afternoon talk.
As if to illustrate his speech’s point about the continuing possibility of weaving different genres together into a unified pop vision, he invited Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello on stage to play guitar on songs such as “Death to My Hometown,” “Jack of All Trades” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” He brought out Jamaica’s Jimmy Cliff to sing “The Harder They Come,” “Time Will Tell” and “Many Rivers To Cross” (but not “Trapped,” the Cliff song that Springsteen has recorded). Most telling of all, he brought out the Animals’ Eric Burdon to sing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Springsteen admitted that he hadn’t even known Burdon was in town when he made his speech, but afterward “the Twitterverse started buzzing” (he used the word “Twitter” with the same bewilderment as any 62 year old) and arrangements were made.
It wasn’t a perfect show. There was no camouflaging that some of the new songs—especially “Jack of All Trades” and “Rocky Ground”—are not very good, and even recent songs such as “The Rising” and “Waiting on a Sunny Day” can’t hold their own next to “Promised Land” and “Thunder Road.” On the other hand, some of the newer songs—most notably “We Are Alive,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Wrecking Ball”—sounded even better on stage than they did on the new record and should remain in the set lists for years to come.
In the end, though, it all came back to the speech and Woody Guthrie. For the grand finale of “This Land Is Your Land,” Springsteen’s 17-member ensemble was joined by the two opening acts, Low Anthem and Alejandro Escovedo, as well as Morello, Arcade Fire members Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, Garland Jeffreys and Joe Ely. Such finales are usually unfocused affairs, but this one was given surprising unity by the E Street Band’s thump and by the evangelical fervor of that great secular preacher, Bruce Springsteen.