Proving again that he’s in the running for the title of “hippest sexagenerian in America,” the Boss-curated lineup for Bruce Springsteen’s SXSW Showcase at the Moody Theater at ACL Live last night featured an opening slot by the Low Anthem. And those guys were psyched. “We want to thank Bruce for inviting us to play this show,” singer Ben Knox Miller said from the stage toward the middle of their set. “It’s the honor of our career.”
“The Soft Season’s Glen Hansard, meanwhile, appeared to have too much to drink and spent the final two hours of the band’s three-hour set holding his head in his hands and staring at his own crotch.”
Don’t call them out for getting chummy — everybody is on a first-name basis with Springsteen, and it’s kind of amazing that the crowd was respectful enough to hold their calls of “Bruuuuuuuuce!” until between sets by the indie opener and the Austin-based warm-up (and longtime pal o’ Bruce) Alejandro Escovedo. But during the set changes, boy, were they constant.
The ticket was as hot as they come, the most exciting thing to happen to SXSW since at least the Jay-Z show at the same venue three days earlier. Security was even more tight — for Jay, you could at least scalp your ticket if you were the enterprising sort. For Bruce, if you were lucky enough to win the ticket lottery open to badgeholders, you had to accept a wristband when you picked up your ticket, and it would take both of those to get you in. Ned Elliott, owner of fancypants Austin restaurant Foreign & Domestic, offered to prepare a private meal for 12 — wine included! — in the kitchen of anyone who could get him in. It was that sort of thing.
So, who did get in? Tickets were reserved for the SXSW Badgerati, but that encompasses a diverse sort of crowd. There were publicists and label people; there were lucky SXSW volunteers and members of largely-unknown Texas bands who were sure to spend the next year talking about the best show ever they saw at the festival; there were journalists, all frantically scribbling and/or Tweeting variations on the same notes (“Is that Tom Morello’s guitar I see on the side of the stage?”); and there were A-list musicians whose artist’s wristbands came with an invitation to see Springsteen.
Some of them were the ones who got into it the hardest. The be-vested Englishmen in Mumford & Sons spent the show on the mezzanine level, crowding the aisle to get as good a glimpse of the Boss’s 17-piece band (eighteen when Morello, who joined the band on a handful of songs, appeared) as they could, joyfully singing along with “Thunder Road” and “The Rising.” The Soft Season’s Glen Hansard, meanwhile, appeared to have too much to drink and spent the final two hours of the band’s three-hour set holding his head in his hands and staring at his own crotch. Springsteen seems to inspire extremes in people.
And he also seemed to find extremes in his surroundings. Acknowledging the weirdness that is SXSW, he caught his breath a few songs into the set to address the state of the festival. “It’s fucking crazy here right now,” he said. “Like some teenage music junkie’s wet dream.” Well, yeah — and, based on the number of guests who joined him on the stage, maybe the Boss’s blue jeans were a little sticky, too. In addition to Morello, the band devoted three songs to Jimmy Cliff, who was every bit as spry as Springsteen, showing off his dance moves and decked head-to-toe in bright red; Escovedo and Austin legend Joe Ely made appearances; and, after mentioning the Animals in his keynote address that morning, Bruce gave a meandering introduction to Eric Burdon –– “Somewhere out there in the Tweeterverse,” he announced, sounding very much like your grandpa, “Messages came through that the man I stole every song I ever wrote, including my new fuckin’ album, was in Austin, Texas tonight!” — and the band played “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” with Burdon on vocals; finally, to wrap things up, all of those people, plus the members of the Low Anthem and, why not, the Arcade Fire jumped up to celebrate Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday by singing “This Land Is Your Land” in an epic jam/singalong. Frankly, we’re kind of surprised that Kendrick Lamar and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire didn’t end up on that stage at some point.
But that’s what happens when you build up a show the way that the Bruce Springsteen SXSW Showcase was built up – you have to deliver. Luckily, The Boss has almost four decades of practice at making these things special.