Austin, Texas -- Amid all the lyrics about desperation, frustration, falling in and out of love and “heaven waiting down the tracks,” three words during Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s set at the South by Southwest annual festival and convention captured what the singer-guitarist was getting at the whole night.
“We are alive!” he bellowed during his song of the same name.
If music is about celebrating the wonder of life, capturing its ups and downs, then on Thursday a wide-eyed and sometimes-winded Springsteen embodied that spirit. The 62-year-old did it through physical momentum, keen timing and a near-unparalleled talent for translating the human condition through music.
The Boss and his E Street Band -- 17 strong, including a five-man horn section -- not only captivated a few thousand giddy fans at ACL-Live at the Moody Theater in Austin, but also won over a fair number of hipster skeptics. Most in the audience had gained entry only after entering and winning a SXSW lottery for tickets.
Springsteen plays shows April 26 and 27 at the L.A. Memorial Sports Arena, the first of which is already sold out.
Touring in support of his raucous though uneven new album, “Wrecking Ball,” it's Springsteen's first tour without E Street Band tenor saxophone player Clarence Clemons, who died last year of a heart attack. His soaring saxophone runs were a key component to many Springsteen songs, and the question of who would fill Clemons' shoes after his sudden passing loomed large.
The answer was saxman Jake Clemons, nephew of Clarence, and it appears nepotism had little to do with his appointment. Jake blew through the iconic solo from “Thunder Road” with the confidence, precision and soul of a seasoned player. He did the same, most exuberantly, as part of the brass section behind a bevy of guests who graced the stage during the 2 1/2-half hour set.
The guests transformed what was already a great Boss show into something truly remarkable: legendary reggae singer Jimmy Cliff, '60's icon Eric Burdon of the Animals, Texas twang king Joe Ely, the socially conscious Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, members of indie-rock's Arcade Fire and Rhode Island roots rock band the Low Anthem.
Earlier in the day, Springsteen had delivered the music festival’s keynote speech and spent nearly an hour telling the story of his musical life. He tried to verbalize the wonder he felt as a kid hearing Elvis Presley for the first time, coming to terms with heartbreak via Roy Orbison, understanding the social messages in Woody Guthrie's work.
But it wasn't all about the deep meanings in music, he said. Springsteen admitted that as a teen he posed with a guitar in front of a mirror -- and that, yes, he confessed, he still does.
He spoke in warm tones of hearing the message of Burdon’s Animals -- “We gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do” -- before declaring that those lyrics embody every song Springsteen has ever written. In short, he talked about hearing music and feeling alive.
That vitality has been embodied throughout the festival. It’s what L.A. rapper Busdriver conveyed on the roof of 512 on 6th Street, where, donning a raccoon cap and working his own beat box, he uplifted the crowd with tracks from his new album, “Beau$Eros.” Bogota, Colombia, duo Il Abanico translated that vigor in its beguiling beat music, and breakout British singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka showered it over a rapt crowd, when he sang with strained longing that “one day I’ll be home again.”
Channeling a similar sentiment, Springsteen and his band opened with Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.” But the Boss focused much of his set on new music from “Wrecking Ball,” and the material sounded fantastic live, especially “Death to My Hometown,” an Irish-tinged banger about robber barons and small-town depression.
“Shackled and Drawn” was more anthemic live than on record, and “Rocky Ground” felt like a gospel hymn. He augmented this new music with classics such as “The Promised Land,” “Thunder Road” and “Badlands,” each as powerful as the last.
The E Street Band, of course, propelled the sound. It featured regulars “Miami” Steve van Zandt, Roy Bittan, Garry Tallent, Patti Scialfa, Nils Lofgren and Max Weinberg and was augmented by violin, extra percussion, backing singers and, most prominently, a big, beefy brass section -- an addition that added even more power to an already combustible machine.
Guests also added to the excitement. Wearing all red amid the dozens onstage dressed in black, Cliff sang, among others, his classic song of rebellion, “The Harder They Come,” and in the process confirmed that the E Street Band has a future as a reggae backing band if it so chooses.
Burdon came onstage for “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” and Springsteen backed the singer whose creative life has so profoundly influenced his own work. Given the affection and reverence Springsteen directed toward Burden during his earlier keynote speech, the pairing entranced the crowd with the sight of two renegades swapping lines.
And then came the requisite fireworks, in the form of a rendition of Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” For the song, Springsteen invited Ely, Arcade Fire, the Low Anthem and Morello onto the stage. The lights went up, and the mass of singers onstage converged with the thousands in the room who were singing along. We were alive, indeed.
-- Randall Roberts, reporting from Austin
Photo: Bruce Springsteen performs Friday during the 2012 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at ACL Live at Moody Theatre in Austin, Texas. Credit: Michael Buckner / Getty Images for SXSW