“It’s f–king craaaaaaaazy here right now,” shouted Bruce Springsteen, onstage at ACL Live at the Moody Theater Thursday night at SXSW. “It’s like some teenage music junkie’s wet dream!”
He was referencing the Austin experience itself – the stale beer, the crowds on 6th Street, and mostly the thought that somewhere, out there in the ether, some band is changing music at some random bar on some random street, just waiting to be discovered. But if that band wanted to see the absolute peak of what can happen after that – well, they should have been inside the theater for Springsteen’s absolutely incendiary show, full of emotional peaks and valleys, and resonant with the lost sound of Clarence Clemons‘ saxophone playing, filled at only the second true E Street band show since the Big Man’s death by a five piece horn section that includes his nephew Jake Clemons, who captures the sound of his uncle’s massive musical heart every time he steps off the stage-right riser, leaning back and letting the tenor sing, rasp and howl.
Jake may have had many the emotional highlights (including a moment during “10th Avenue Freezeout,” after Springsteen sang “the big man join the band,” where the music stopped, and they let the audience pay homage by cheering for Clarence in a near-teary remembrance), but it’d be a slight to say that Springsteen himself were performing at anything less than absolute top-tier. Some fans may have had a problem with the setlist (which leaned heavily not just on his new album, Wrecking Ball, but included a myriad of selections from The Rising, including a gospel-laden take on “My City Of Ruins” and “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” whose shuffle’s becoming a Springsteen staple) but they’d be fooling themselves: from Springsteen’s insistence that the upper decks dance to his admirable attempt at a stagedive and crowdsurf, this was vintage Boss all the way: celebratory, revelatory and near-religious.
So it’s even more amazing that the cavalcade of guests he brought out almost seemed like an afterthought. On three songs scattered through the set, Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello nearly got lost in the band (it wouldn’t be hard – there were 17 musicians on stage at all times), but when he got to the solo section of “Ghost of Tom Joad,” he unleashed, adeptly attacking his guitar with a slide while volume-swelling concurrently, a static blast of sonic squall that came close to toppling everyone in the room over. Jimmy Cliff – whom Springsteen introduced as someone he’d admired since the ’70s – played “The Harder They Come” in a backwards baseball cap, doing calisthenics onstage while sporting a smile that’d only grow through “Time Will Tell” and the hustle-driven “Many Rivers To Cross.”
Animal Eric Burdon – whom Springsteen said he’d only connected with that day via Twitter after mentioning him in his afternoon keynote – re-emerged for an initially-shaky, eventually wholly confident “We’ve Got To Get Out of This Place,” with the audience appreciatively roaring along. An audience-singalong version of “This Land is Your Land” (the second of two Woody Guthrie covers, after a set-opening “I Ain’t Got No Home”) was comprised of an ultra-supergroup that included nearly all the above, as well as country-slinger Joe Ely, openers Alejandro Escovedo and the Low Anthem, and members of The Arcade Fire, including frontman Win Butler, who decided to watch from the audience himself after the first verse, jumping offstage to take it all in.
But the most touching moment of the show came during “Thunder Road.” Mid-song, before a chorus, Springsteen glanced at his guitar-playing wife, Patty Scialfa, and motioned for her to move right. He then did it again. And eventually, they were sharing a mic, kissing distance from each other, singing the chorus of one of Springsteen’s most famous songs at each other. Though Scialfa wasn’t in the band when Springsteen himself was just a kid working his way up, in that moment you could see them sharing their history together, a pair of music-obsessed teenagers with a dream they never thought could become this real a reality.
Here’s a clip of Springsteen and Burdon dueting on “We’ve Got To Get Out of This Place”: