AUSTIN – First off, our apologies today for all the up-and-coming acts that we were supposed to spotlight – Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference, the big names took over.
Everywhere we looked, there seemed to be one superstar or another under foot. We couldn’t help but stumble into a show with a familiar voice or two.
We started the day in a parking lot: namely the front lot of the great independent record store Waterloo Records, celebrating its 3oth anniversary this year by hosting 30 acts for SXSW. First up was Blitzen Trapper, a Portland-based quintet led by the potent combination of frontman/songwriter Eric Earley and keyboardist/guitarist Marty Marquis. Touring behind their latest album American Goldwing, the Trappers offered a mellow Grateful Dead vibe that threatened to become the Dead’s “St. Stephen” on at least four of their songs.
At roughly the same time, Mississippi-born-and-bred Bass Drum of Death commanded one of the four stages at the Spider House, a coffeehouse/night spot near the University of Texas campus. This trio launches a blowtorch rock sound that blows the hair back; they had an awful lot of energy for a bleary-eyed SXSW morning.
And then, it just seemed the familiar and the famous took over. Back at Waterloo Records, the accomplished chamber country act The Little Willies tuned up their acoustics. In the land of the “Big Willie” (that’s Nelson to you non-Texans) the Little Willies are as adept and entertaining as they come – led by singer/guitarist Richard Julian and guitarist Jim Campilongo, these Willies kick it up a notch with their “chick singer”: Norah Jones.
Jones’ clear-as-tequila vocals, with a hint of Texas twang, poured honey all over country standards like Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City,” as well as Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues.” Then they infused “Jolene,” the Dolly Parton classic, with a ton of smoldering sensuality. Just sublime. In 2002 we saw a still unknown Jones perform in a Starbucks parking lot; a few years and a shelf-load of Grammys later she has traded up her SXSW venue to one with a little more car space. But seriously, Jones gives the Willies a rest Saturday as she previews her newest solo album Little Broken Hearts, a collaboration with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton.
Then we traded up venues ourselves, this time to Threadgills’ restaurant which stands on the hallowed ground of the beloved Armadillo World Headquarters. The Armadillo was razed in 1980 but Threadgills offers a cozy little beer garden which hosted a private party for New West Records, the indie/Americana label based in L.A., Austin and Athens, Ga.
We caught part of a set by The Mastersons, the Texas duo that’s been backing Steve Earle, and a spacey set by Ponderosa, whose music reminds me of a cowboy riding his horse off a precipice and floating off into space. Then came the headliner, Tom Morello in his guise as the Nightwatchman, who packed an electrifying jolt of jagged rock and militant populism.
Fists pumped along to his aggressive anthems “Whatever It Takes” and “Union Town,” then Morello unleashed his guitar pyrotechnics on a fiery version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad.” Citing the 100th birth year of folk pioneer Woody Guthrie, Morello invited a shy Shooter Jennings onstage to romp through an acoustic singalong of “This Land Is Your Land.”
Caught for a few minutes before his set, Morello explained how “This Land Is Your Land” is more relevant than ever as the Occupy movement has given people in this country a new voice. “I got in last night, checked in to my hotel and was actually in bed when I got a phone call,” he said. “They were going to have a flash mob for Occupy Austin and they wanted me to be a part of it.” So Morello jumped out of bed and within minutes was out on the street.
“Put your cameras and phones away,” he shouted from Threadgills’ stage, “and live in the moment!” He then invited everyone to join him onstage and so we did – for a rousing singalong of “World Wide Rebel Songs.” Leaving the crowd rocked and sated, he hopped into a car for his next gig about a mile away.
That would be the big Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show at brand-new ACL Live at the Moody Theater. Earlier in the day, Springsteen gave a classroom lecture on the history and the inspiration of rock and roll; last night he gave a demonstration that was so epic that the lucky few who witnessed it in person are still in disbelief.
Thundering into “We Take Care Of Our Own,’ Springsteen leaned heavily on tunes from his new album Wrecking Ball before wheeling out a dazzling list of guest performers: Morello for “Death To My Hometown” and “Jack Of All Trades,” as well as yet another awesome version of “Ghost Of Tom Joad.” Reggae great Jimmy Cliff joined Bruce for “Many Rivers To Cross” and two more, other guests who crossed the stage included Texas music legends Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo, New York boy Garland Jeffreys and three members of Arcade Fire.
But the greatest guest spot, and a towering highlight among many, was a guest appearance by the Animals’ Eric Burdon. Where Springsteen only talked about the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” at his keynote, Burdon tore into the song with a ferocity that belied his age (70 years old).
Meanwhile, out in the streets, the young and the hopeful were lugging their instruments from gig to gig, one band even played on a school bus while it tooled around in the traffic. Inside the ACL Live theater, Bruce Springsteen gave life to a brilliant past while just steps away many others were breathing life and fire into a new future.
We’re editing our photos as fast as we can, and posting them to our special SXSW Flickr account. Go there and take a look! And we have a more detailed review of Springsteen’s all-star showcase at our home blog 30 Days Out.