From Boss To Barroom

A week at SXSW includes some time with Bruce Springsteen

This time, there was no unexpected discovery. No band that cropped up out of nowhere to knock me back and demand my attention.

That may just be thanks to the accessibility of music these days. Any band I might want to know about, I can check out in a digital instant.

So with a schedule filled with bands that I had already heard of to check out, there was just no time to stumble upon a great new band sight unseen and sound unheard at this year's South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Tex.

That said, there were still plenty of great moments and one or two genuine revelations. Also, I got to spend some quality time with the Boss at Moody Theater, a venue that only holds about 2,700 people.

Throughout the set, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band seemed to bask in the intimacy of theater environment. The Moody's capacity is just around 2,700 people. Springsteen interacted with the front of the stage crush mob, even dropping down onto hands for very brief crowd surf interludes.Special guests included Tom Morello and the Arcade Fire.

Meanwhile, appearances by reggae legend Jimmy Cliff and Eric Burdon of the Animals were centered on the E Street Band backing them up on their own material. Springsteen sprinkled in his hits among songs from the new album Wrecking Ball. "Thunder Road" and "The E St. Shuffle" received big ovations, but the crowd sang along loudest to "The Rising", a 2002 song that by capturing the feelings of many post-Sept. 11th became his last, big tentpost song.
Springsteen, too, acknowledged the chaos of SXSW, mentioning his big keynote address as the "big f**king speech" he gave earlier that day. Earlier he also noted the kid-in-a-candy-store element to seeing all the bands at the event.

"It's f**king crazy here right now," Springsteen said. "It's like some teenage music junkie's wet dream."

I was most like the hyperactive candy-fueled kid while watching the Henry Clay People, a California quartet of bar-rockers. While I was already a fan of the band, their live show qualified as a sweat-soaked, beer-spilling revelation of rock 'n' roll.

While one set had a small, thin crowd, the band was still live-wired excitement with singer/guitarist Joey Siara jumping on speaker stacks and at one point, bouncing accidently off the side of the stage. The second set I caught placed the band in a packed room. In between the rougher, heated cuts from the yet-to-be-released new album, the band threw in "Working Part Time" and "Slow Burn" from their 2010 album Somewhere on the Golden Coast. Siara, his brother Andy and their drummer and bassist sweated out the guitar jams, while the crowd pumped fists, raised beer cans and cheered approval. The set ended with a two-song encore, as the band crushed its own beer-blurred version of "Born To Run".

There was plenty of gritty, soulful, bare-bones rock to be found during the week, highlighted by the Americana leanings of Lucero and the Heartless Bastards. The Heartless Bastards set was especially good, led by Erika Wennerstrom's beautiful, but bruised vocal style.

Indie rock also kept its infusion of dance and electronic music influence. As much as bumping dance music as taken over Top 40 pop, other elements of that world have taken root in indie. Polica, Tanlines, Gardens & Villa, Trust, Cults, Zola Jesus and more all took the stage with dancey vibes, backing beats or lap tops to build up their grooves.

Reunions and comebacks were also in ready supply with performances slated by Fiona Apple, The Jesus and Mary Chain, the dB's, the Wedding Present, Rodriguez and Paul Collins Beat.

While Fiona Apple's set was engaging, the best of the comebacks belongs to Rodriguez. Sixto Rodriguez has become a cult figure, thanks to his 1970 folk-rock album Cold Fact. Despite being nearly 70-years-old, his voice still cuts through the same, while his fingers took some warming up before they found accuracy on his acoustic guitar.

The humble set was a feel-good moment, as a packed room clapped and cheered with reverence for their rediscovered hero.
Paul Collins Beat also played to their power-pop disciples, with Peter Case in tow. Collins and Case worked together in the Nerves and other '70s projects, before splitting apart. This reunion showed their youthful vigor hadn't entirely fled them, as they played with venom not present in rock bands half their age.

The week's two biggest reunions were also underbooked by SXSW. The Jesus and Mary Chain, a band that easily could have headlined one of Austin's biggest rooms, ended up with a room that probably held under 300 people. More than another 100 fans were locked out of the band's only set of the week. The same happened to the dB's, who played in a room no bigger than a small neighborhood bar.

I still kept a foot in the garage rock world during the week, checking out sets by Apache Dropout, the art-damaged Dikes of Holland and most importantly, Thee Oh Sees. Guitarist/singer John Dwyer led a full-stage of musicians through his vision of psych-garage freakouts, while the crowd freaked out right along. Crowd surfing and heaving, dancing, crashing bodies packed the outdoor tent and culminated with one of Thee Oh Sees guitarists climbing a tent pole half-way up, hanging upside down and kicking noise out from his guitar.

posted at 09:50 am
on Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

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