The massive South by Southwest music festival (SXSW) has been held in Austin, Texas in the spring of every year since 1987. Dave Marsh reports on this year’s shindig.
I know something about SXSW keynote addresses. Little Richard and Smokey Robinson both did theirs as, in part, dialogues with me—sitting live in front of several hundred people, Richard being Richard, Smokey being serious, sincere, smart, and as handsome as seventy will allow.
To a certain extent, it's a setup: All the attendees who don't care find other things to do and most of the rest come to have expectations affirmed. But it's not that simple either. I had the best fun of the last twenty years just asking four questions, sitting and watching Little Richard rave for (I timed it) 17 and a half minutes without pausing for breath. Then he turned to me, clearly winded, and said breathlessly, "Ohhh, Dave! You're still here. I bet you want to ask me some more questions."
But it's not that simple either. The best moments can also be absolutely pedagogical: Smokey ended with a seven minute spiel telling people how to find and deal with stardom, beginning with an admonition ("Thicken your skin") and ending with a parable about the invention of show business. Since 2010 that last part's gotten almost half a million hits on YouTube. Richard, who appeared in '08, seemed to just rant but in reality he was preaching a sermon on the same theme as Smokey, offering all kinds of nuggets but coming back to the main point over and over again: "Sign your own checks!...Sign your own checks!" Afterwards, a young woman came up to me, eyes a brimful of tears, and said, "Thank you, thank you, that was everything I came here to learn."
Steve Earle began by lecturing his audience: "Let me make something extremely clear. Kiss is not cool, Kiss was never cool, Kiss will never be cool."
But Bruce Springsteen, this year, was something else again. He offered career advice wrapped in biography, history complete with instructive examples of where he'd swiped a couple of his classics: the doo-wop crooning that led to "Backstreets," the way the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" provided the core of "Badlands," and how and why "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" is "every song I've ever written including the new ones." Rocker he may be, but not rockist: "The elements you're using don't matter. Purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing it. There's just doing it." Bruce wrestled with Lester Bangs and Woody Guthrie, post-authenticity, the transformative self, Roy Orbison's paranoia, Phil Spector's musical violence, the cover of Meet the Beatles as "the silent gods of Olympus," the barely comprehensible existence of Nintendo-core, black death metal, and the yearning needs of soul. It was as if someone had managed to translate "A wop bop a loo bop a wop bam boom tutti frutti" into a comprehensive treatise on the development and meaning (or lack thereof) of the past sixty years of Anglo-American popular music.
He avoided the hard political realities at the core of his new album, Wrecking Ball, in favor of talking eye to eye with an audience he assumed (correctly) consisted of people who either knew these things or needed to find them out. It was a practical speech, aimed at a specific group of people. He didn't even know it was being broadcast live or, as far as I can tell, imagine that it would wind up all over the Internet, words stuck in the heads of millions of listeners. (The full audio's at npr.org. It's also worth looking at the segments posted on YouTube, particularly the stuff about the Animals.)
Raves arrived immediately, but I don't think anyone's used the term that best describes it for me: Generosity. The speech gave far more than it took and it held back on self-promotion (granted that the entire speech was wrapped in Bruce's persona, but I've already quoted the only reference to his new album.)
Springsteen never has opening acts. That day he had five. Before the SXSW speech, Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, and Juanes sang Woody Guthrie songs (plus one original by Juanes). It was beautiful and loving, and all the things that a tribute to a great artist on his centenary ought to be. The highlight for me wasn't Juanes singing a verse from "This Land Is Your Land," which he told me later was the first time he'd ever sung in English onstage, but Juanes stepping up to challenge the audience when it didn't sing along heartily enough. LaFave sang wonderfully as he always does, his Oklahoma roots deliberately on display, and his commentary on Woody's music and life more trenchant than ever. And Eliza, firebrand that she is, kept the music contemporary, insisting on its relevance—or rather, insisting on her listeners paying attention to its continuing relation to the world descended from the one Guthrie described. Eliza has been the best female singer-songwriter for several years now, LaFave has been the best interpreter of Guthrie, Dylan and Springsteen for longer than that, and maybe this performance will help the news spread from Austin. Juanes, of course, is a rock star of Springsteen's magnitude throughout Latin America and much of Europe; imagine John Lennon in Spanish.
That evening at the Moody Theater Springsteen had two openers—Low Anthem and Alejandro Escovedo with his full band each did about 45 minutes. (Springsteen had done a couple of numbers with Alejandro the night before at the Austin Music Awards show.)
The Austin show was only Springsteen's second since the release of Wrecking Ball and, like its predecessor—an Apollo Theater benefit in honor of SiriusXM's tenth anniversary—it contained some beautiful one-off wrinkles. Instead of invoking Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett and Smokey Robinson (and James Brown by way of a lunatic climb into the rigging), this time Woody Guthrie framed the action. Bruce opened with his now-17 member E Street Band doing "I Ain't Got No Home" a cappella and closed with "This Land is Your Land" with Escovedo, Low Anthem, Joe Ely, and a couple members of Arcade Fire helping out.
Is there another performer in our culture who operates in both the folk-rock and soul-gospel traditions? It's as fashionable lately to evoke Springsteen as a literary figure as it once was to display him as an articulate pseudo-gas station attendant. But what's most remarkable is the ability to move smoothly among soul and gospel music and the folk and country tradition in the way that Springsteen does. He has reached the point now that on Wrecking Ball's "Land of Hope and Dreams" he does both in the same song. Generally, one is lurking in the background of the other in any of his songs, especially live. (Which can't be discerned if all your attention is on the lyrics which is where, I suppose, the shade of the Great American Poem lurks in the minds of the critics who think it's mostly about the words.) Yet in pulling these sounds together, Springsteen is capable of convincing more than a few that the beloved community truly could be in our future.
The Wrecking Ball songs (at the Moody he played eight of the eleven) have the strongest connecting thread of any Springsteen album since The River—from the furious social questions of "We Take Care of Our Own," through the economic despair and determination of "Jack of All Trades" and "Death to My Hometown" to the glorious anthem of hope "Rocky Ground"—with its invocation of God, who does not answer—to the final, unambiguous call to action, "We Are Alive."
I don't suppose Bruce Springsteen has a much clearer vision of where, exactly, that action must lead to prevent the "hard times come and hard times go" cycle that he pounds away at six consecutive times in the song "Wrecking Ball." But you can glimpse what it might feel like in any great musical performance, not just one of his. And, from my perspective, that is the real purpose of SXSW. Truth is, there hasn't been a commercially important act that broke out of the conference since Hanson, fifteen years ago. But so what? It's still the biggest, best music school in the United States, maybe the world.
And while Bruce's show couldn't offer the kind of community that he evokes in songs like "Land of Hope and Dreams," it did evoke a sense of musician solidarity that's essential to what happens with SXSW at its best. It's a glimpse, but even a full-on Bruce and the E Street Band show is just a glimpse of what it would be like to live with equality and justice every day.
SXSW is as imperfect as any other human project. The sheer size of it has outstripped Austin's transportation infrastructure and its deficit is ever-widening. The business panels are just the record industry trying to talk itself into believing it still exists. Hip-hop, dance, and ethnic music never get an equal shot in the press coverage and Austin's local Mexican/Chicano community is invisible.
What SXSW offers is a chance to attend that music school not only as student but as teacher. Not to study music but to observe and participate in the stewing mess of it. I have gone to Austin for this peculiar rite of March madness for the past, I think, nineteen years. I went to speak, I went back to listen. I keep going back not because I think I'm going to find any next big thing, but because I might run into musical glory.
This year, I got it in half a dozen ways—from Bruce, of course, but also from Eric Burdon, whose surprise (even to him and Springsteen) appearance to sing "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" at the Moody was a fiery proof of every accolade heaped upon the Animals' frontman earlier that day. Where else could I interview, in the space of forty-eight hours both Juanes and Eric Burdon? Where else could I see old Austin friends like LaFave, Gilkyson, Michael Ramos, Michael Fracasso, Joe Ely and the Krayolas? Where else could I spend an afternoon and evening at a taqueria with Alejandro, Jesse Malin, Lenny Kaye, Rosie Flores, and new favorites like Maren Parusel?
Where else could I (with massive help from David Alvarez at KUT-FM and my producer Jim Rotolo) put on a live Sunday radio show, from nine to eleven AM, with seven musical guests? None of them played a record or sang a song I'd ever heard before. And all of them were flat-out great. None of them got paid—at SXSW no artist at an official gig ever gets paid, and very few get paid at any of the others, either. It is, most of the time, music for the love of music.
I go to SXSW to recharge, to remember why I love music, why we've still got a chance. And this year, like that young woman said, I got everything I came to learn.