Springsteen & E Street do SXSW. / Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media

Springsteen & E Street do SXSW. / Photo courtesy Shore Fire Media

After insisting that most of his songs are stolen from the Animals during his keynote speech earlier in the day, Bruce Springsteen invited the band’s singer Eric Burdon up for a surprise appearance in his first-ever South by Southwest gig Thursday night. Oh, and he also brought up another Rock and Roll Hall of Famer: reggae hitmaker Jimmy Cliff. Oh, and three future Hall of Famers: Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of the Arcade Fire. Oh, and two Austin music legend, Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo.

In other words, the Boss didn’t skimp on the show just because nobody in the crowd paid for tickets. Held in the new Austin City Limits Theater – the three-tiered,2700-capacity, hi-fi home of the PBS series of the same name — the SXSW concert really was a concert, and then some. Bruce went 2½ hours and took advantage of having so many friends and heroes in town at one time for the conference, the spirit of which he seemed to relish.

“Nice to be back in Austin, a town that has been warm to us since the ‘70s,” he said, adding, “It’s [expletive] crazy here right now, though. Glad to be a part of it.”

Morello had the biggest role among the guests, playing electric guitar for several tunes on the new Boss’ new album, “Wrecking Ball” (which he also plays on), and then going hog-wild with his Rage-style effects in a stormy “Ghost of Tom Joad.” Cliff came out late in the set for a medley of his hits (“The Harder They Come,” “Many Rivers to Cross”), followed by Burdon with “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Everyone else joined in on the finale of “This Land Is Your Land.”

The real excitement in the show, though, was seeing the E Street Band get past the death last year of saxophonist Clarence Clemons in only their second show without him. His nephew Jake Clemons sweetly (and capably) played the Big Man’s solos. But the spirit of Clarence also seemed to be oozing out of the entire four extra horn players and gospel-trained backup singers added to the new lineup, resulting in holy rave-up versions of the new songs “Shackled and Drawn” and “Wrecking Ball” as well as “E Street Shuffle” and “My City of Ruins.” Other oldies included “Badlands,” “Promised Land,” “Thunder Road” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

As is often the case at SXSW, the crowd was more cool and reserved than a typical, reverential E Street affair, which offset some of the thrill of the show's relative intimacy. Bruce himself seemed to think that he was somewhat to blame for being a little off in the set. Or actually, he blamed it more on SXSW, saying, “I had to give a big speech and wake up at 8 o’clock today. Why?!” The hard work he put into both the speech and the gig pretty well answered that one for him. 

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