AUSTIN, TEXAS -- It was Bruce Springsteen day Thursday at the South by Southwest Music Conference, but the singer instead turned the spotlight on his fellow artists.
His keynote address was essentially a long, heart-felt thank you to his musical inspirations, none more crucial than the Animals and singer Eric Burdon. A few hours later, Springsteen was on stage with Burdon, as part of an E Street Band concert at the Moody Theater, the new home of the Austin City Limits television show.
The white-haired Animals' vocalist growled through "We Gotta Get Out of this Place," with Springsteen smiling his approval. Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello took several turns on guitar and vocals throughout the two-hour-forty-minute concert, Jimmy Cliff played a three-song mini set (that somehow did not include "Trapped," the Cliff song Springsteen once covered in the '80s) , and Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo, Garland Jeffreys and members of Arcade Fire, among others, added their voices to the encore.
Almost lost in the all-star revolving door was that the show marked a new beginning for Springsteen and the retooled E Street Band, which was gearing up to promote the singer's latest album, "Wrecking Ball," on an international stadium tour this year. The band has suffered loses of founding members Danny Federici and Springsteen foil Clarence Clemons in recent years. Springsteen has responded by expanding the band to 17 pieces, including a five-deep horn section and three backing singers.
For the last decade, E Street shows have taken on a more pronounced gospel-soul vibe, and this set took that impulse even further. With massed voices abetted by horns, this was a band (or mini-orchestra) built for raising the cathedral roof, and there was a new energy on stage that was apparent from the get-go: a stirring a cappella intro to Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home," which morphed into a string-band hymn.
Stripping away some of the sheen that deadens the studio versions of his recent songs, "We Take Care of Our Own" and "Wrecking Ball" sounded bolder, tougher, angrier than on record. "Badlands" came crashing out of the gate with no less than five guitars thrashing away. Morello joined for the Irish stomp "Death to My Hometown" and made his guitar sound like an electrified tin whistle.
The expanded lineup and the cameos helped ease the band into a new era, a strength-in-numbers strategy that echoed Springsteen's brief toast to his fallen band members: "If you're here and we're here, they're here."
With the Occupy Wall Street protests still in bloom, and a country beset by unemployment and foreclosures, the set list was appropriately hard-edged, even bleak with the dirty blues of "Seeds" and the desperation of "Jack of All Trades." There were a couple of respites -- a rare revival of the R&B-flavored "E Street Shuffle," the breezy "Waiting on a Sunny Day" -- but for the most part this was Springsteen following in the deep, populist footprints of Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash.
He couldn't have had a more able accomplice than Morello, an activist-artist heavily involved in the Occupy movement. The concert peaked with "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and a Morello guitar solo that escalated in fury and audacity. "Land of Hope and Dreams" also packed a harder punch, with Max Weinberg's atomic drum volleys underpinning thundering horns amid a panoroma of Curtis Mayfield-inspired imagery.
Cliff's high, pleading voice on "Many Rivers to Cross" and springy, ready-to-levitate dance steps on "The Harder They Come" suited the social and spiritual themes that threaded through the concert. The closing "This Land is Your Land" was the ultimate sing-along in a night full of them, Springsteen trading verses with Ely and Escovedo while paying tribute to Guthrie's 100th anniversary. It was only fitting that one of Springsteen's heroes have the last word.
Springsteen set list Thursday at South by Southwest:
1. I Ain't Got No Home (Woody Guthrie song)
2. We Take Care of Our Own
3. Wrecking Ball
5. Death to my Hometown (with Tom Morello)
6. My City of Ruins
8. E Street Shuffle