Frank YangSo – did I mention that I won a ticket to see Bruce Springsteen for the Thursday night of SXSW? I did? Okay then, just checking. The show was held in conjunction with The Boss’ appearance as the keynote speaker at this year’s conference and admission being doled out via lottery open to badgeholders. The actual location of it was kept secret, but minimal sleuthing pretty much guaranteed that it would be at the almost-brand new (opened last year) Moody Theater, where they held the tapings for Austin City Limits.
The old studio on the University Of Texas campus – where I’d been fortunate enough to see a Wilco taping in 2007 – was nice enough, but very much a soundstage/studio. The new facility, located right in downtown Austin, was easily one of the nicest modern concert venues I’ve ever been to, with stadium sightlines, comfy padded seating and an amazing sound and light system yet still relatively cozy with a capacity around 2800 people. Which by Springsteen standards may as well have been a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar. Yeah, this would be pretty special.
Openers came in the form of Rhode Island’s The Low Anthem, whose last release was 2011′s Smart Flesh. I’d seen them way back in December 2008, just before their star began to rise, and recall being impressed with their musicianship and intricate folk-pop songcraft, though apparently not quite enough to keep up with their career. Now a five-piece rather than a trio, they had even more musical options and I think each song in their set featured a different instrumental configuration than the last. A bit showy, perhaps, but they were quick about it and the focus remained on their elegant and ornate Americana sound that explored and maintained the trails blazed by Bob Dylan over the course of his career, but with smoother vocals and harmonies. It was a charming set but if we’re being honest, I doubt I’ll be following them any closer than I did after the last time I saw them.
Next up was Austin roots-rock mainstay Alejandro Escovedo backed by The Sensitive Boys & Girls, and those in the audience who were complaining about The Low Anthem putting them to sleep – and there were a few within earshot – certainly would have had the cobwebs blown out of their ears by Escovedo and company. Their lean, no-frills rock’n'roll was slick yet raucous and filled with evocative songwriting and ripping guitar solos. That the man is regarded as a legend in a city that’s turned out more than its share of musical legends is saying something.
But if we’re talking legends, then Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band would have to be at the top of anyone’s list. Now I think it’s important to note that though I fancy myself appreciative of Springsteen and reasonably familiar with his work, I would not file myself as a huge fan nor have I ever seen him live; tickets for his shows are pretty damned expensive and even then, sell out about immediately. I’ve just never gone to the extra effort to secure some, and so to have this one fall into my lap – or onto my arm, as the admission wristband did – was pretty exciting. There was a bit of a wait between the end of Escovedo’s set and the start of Bruce’s but then setting up a 16-piece band is no small task, even for pros. But a little past nine, the lights went down, a roar went up and they got underway.
The show started not with any of Springsteen’s own classics, but a solemn, gospel-tinged reading of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home”, gussied up with brass and chorus to mark the centenary of the original protest singer’s birth. From there, the lights went up, the Telecaster went on and the band tore into the anthemic “We Take Care Of Our Own” and the title track of their just-released new record Wrecking Ball; I haven’t paid attention to how the album has been received but damn if these two songs didn’t sound like fiery classics in the making. They pulled out one I did know – “Badlands” – next before returning to the new material and bringing Tom Morello out to guest on “Death To My Hometown”; Morello would return a few more times through the night, including an utterly incendiary jaw-dropping duet with Springsteen and solo on “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”.
And you know what? Billboard has the set list with their writeup of the show, and running through things song by song is pointless. Hell, reviewing a Springsteen show seems pointless – its been done thousands of times and its probably safe to say that there’s rarely if ever a bad Bruce show, and if there were it wouldn’t be this one. I just stood there marvelling at the charisma of the man and the power of the band; they were really the epitome of a rock band, of which all others were just reflections and shadows, with moves and routines that would have been hokey coming from anyone else but coming from Springsteen, totally genuine and uplifting. One couldn’t help thinking back to his keynote address earlier in the day where he named off dozens of subgenres of rock and it was easy to see why he found it all so amusing – the man only dealt in the original article.
The show seemed to mostly be made up of selections from Wrecking Ball and The Rising, which might not have been ideal for one like me who really only knew the hits – or at least the 20th century material – but it was understandable. Despite having a career spanning four decades, Springsteen remains creative and vital and the furthest thing from a nostalgia act – I didn’t expect to hear many or even any of the hits, so there was no sense of disappointment. And how could I be? I was finally seeing one of the great artists and entertainers in the history of rock music and in a setting that others would give their eye teeth for. It was amazing.
And so of course I left early.
Well actually I stayed for almost the entirety of the two-hour main set, though I kick myself for missing “Thunder Road”, but I also really wanted to catch the Jesus & Mary Chain and at that point it seemed like I was allowing enough time for that to happen. Of course it didn’t. I ended up standing in a line outside The Belmont for almost 90 minutes, eventually ceasing to move with 40 or so people ahead of me, while Bruce played on and was joined by Jimmy Cliff and Eric Burdon for the encore and Arcade Fire (and a slew of others) for the show-closing reading of “This Land Is Your Land”. But hey, I heard “Head Down” from the street, so not a total loss…
And maybe things really did land butter-side up considering that I managed to get over to St. David’s Historic Sanctuary for a good portion of Patrick Watson’s set. Now I’ve never been much of a Watson fan, but have slowly been warming to him over time and based on this performance, his new one Adventures In Your Own Backyard may be the one to get me fully onboard. Beyond the songs, which sounded great, and the setting, which with shifting and pulsing strings of lights draped around the church was rather magical if a nightmare photographically, there was the fact that I think I finally begin to get what Watson is about. The same way that band treated the stage more like a playground than a performance space, Watson’s compositions are lovely little things that exist simply from the desire to create something beautiful. It sounds a bit silly but it was a real mental shift for me with respect to him – hey, not every artist has to be exorcising demons in their work – and sent me back into the night feeling pretty damn good. And needing a hot dog.
Rolling Stone reports that a new Neil Young & Crazy Horse record not only exists, as rumoured, but that it will be called Americana, consist of reinterpretations of classic folk and protest songs and be coming out on June 5.
The Victoria Times Colonist, The Province, and Jambands profile Plants & Animals, in town at Lee’s Palace on April 21.
NOW, The Toronto Star, Boston Phoenix, The Telegraph, and Loud & Quiet talk to Grimes, whose show at The Horseshoe Monday night was cancelled due to illness and rescheduled for next Tuesday, but is still sold the fuck out.
Rolling Stone is streaming the new Zeus record Busting Visions ahead of its release next week; they play The Horseshoe March 23 for Canadian Musicfest and The Phoenix on June 9.
MP3: Zeus – “Anything You Want Dear”
Stream: Zeus / Busting Visions
On that bill with Zeus at The Horseshoe will be Snowblink, who are officially labelmates as of their second album, due out later this year. To mark the occasion, the band have uploaded a bunch of covers of dead artists – well, Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse – to Soundcloud. Don’t worry, they’re respectful.
DIY chats with Kathleen Edwards, who has been announced as one of the performers at this year’s LuminaTO arts festival in June.
Rae Spoon has put out a new video from I Can’t Keep All Of Our Secrets.
Video: Rae Spoon – “Ocean Blue”
The Waterloo Record talks to Al Spx of Cold Specks, who has made a track from her debut album I Predict A Graceful Explosion available to stream; it’s out May 22 and she plays The Music Gallery for Canadian Musicfest on Thursday, followed by an appearance opening for Great Lake Swimmers at The Music Hall on June 2.
Stream: Cold Specks – “Winter Solstice”
An unexpected but wholly welcome entrant in the ’90s Can-rock reunion ring? Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet. Exclaim reports that the instrumental and influential surf-rock legends are getting back together for a couple shows to mark the reissue of their catalog on vinyl; 1988′s Savvy Show Stoppers comes out in June and the other two will follow at approximately six month intervals. As for those shows, the Toronto date is July 14 at Lee’s Palace and as for the fact that bassist Reid Diamond passed away in 2001, they’ve got a pretty good ringer lined up – Dallas Good of The Sadies. Fun fact – my band in high school would cover “Having An Average Weekend” in our sets. It did not make us popular.
Stream: Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet – “Having An Average Weekend”
And here’s your Osheaga 2012 lineup. Not. Bad. At. All.