AUSTIN, Texas - Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band closed out a powerful run at South By Southwest with a concert that was part political protest, part moving memorial and all rock `n' roll.
Springsteen played a guest-packed socially conscious set, beginning and ending with tributes to Woody Guthrie, and heavy with songs from his new album, "Wrecking Ball," a scathing look at America in the 21st century.
He noted how the economic crisis has "put people out of their homes, taken away their retirement and split this country down the middle," before launching into the powerful new song "Jack of All Trades."
He mostly let the music do the talking, however, bringing up reggae legend Jimmy Cliff to sing "The Harder They Come," "Time Will Tell" and "Many Rivers to Cross" and Eric Burdon of The Animals to sing "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
The Boss took over Austin for 24 hours, making a surprise appearance at the Austin Music Awards to jam with Alejandro Escovedo and Joe Ely on Wednesday night, then delivering an often hilarious tour-de-force keynote speech Thursday afternoon that was one of the most anticipated events at the South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival this year.
He capped the evening with a special show that went nearly three hours at the Austin City Limits Live venue and served as a preview of his upcoming tour, which starts Sunday in Atlanta. He paid tribute to "old friends," making an allusion to late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died last year. And he pulled Clemons' nephew and new E Street horn section member Jake Clemons down to the front of the stage to play solos several times. He even crowd surfed briefly.
"I can't believe you're not dancing yet," Springsteen shouted early in the show while pointing out a section of sitting fans. "Get your asses out of those seats. This is a dance party!"
Along with new songs "Wrecking Ball," "We Take Care of Our Own" and "Shackled and Drawn" from his 17th studio album, which debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries after release last week, Springsteen played a handful of old favorites. That included a scorching version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" that featured a mind-bending solo by guest guitarist and social activist Tom Morello.
The show was the perfect distillation of Springsteen's keynote speech, during which he showed he didn't need his backing band to bring out his outsized charisma on stage. He took a rapt audience of about 1,000 on a personal music history journey and also gave young rockers salient advice.
"Good morning, good morning, good morning," Springsteen said after taking the stage at 12:30 p.m. "Why are we up so (expletive) early. How important is this speech if we're giving it at noon? Every musician in town is asleep, or they will be by the time I finish this speech."
He name-checked all the musicians that have inspired him over the years from Elvis to James Brown and Woody Guthrie to Johnny Rotten in the 50-minute speech, which was carried live via Internet stream by NPR.
Among those attending was Juanes, the Colombian rock star who saw Springsteen live for the first time just last Friday at The Apollo. He loved Springsteen's riff on creativity most of all.
"It was great," said Juanes, who sang in English in public for the first time during a tribute to Guthrie before the speech. "It was like a lesson if you go to a university. He's got the whole career. I was thinking and thinking, it's like inside me, many things that he was saying. I feel the same, how we're so connected."
Springsteen talked about first seeing Elvis and his pelvis on "The Ed Sullivan Show," the exquisite agony of Roy Orbison, the way The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Animals set music free, and the rise of punk rock and soul music as forces of change in the 1970s. He related often hilarious and poignant personal stories about each along the way.
Springsteen also talked about the profound importance of Guthrie and his personal idol Pete Seeger before leading the audience in a sing-along of a rare verse from Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," which he also used to cap the night with the help of members of Arcade Fire, The Low Anthem, Ely and Escovedo.
In closing his speech, he urged all "10,000 bands" in Austin to bring it hard every night - then he went out and did it.
"Here we are in this town, young and old, celebrating each perhaps in our own way a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," Springsteen said. "So rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears and open your hearts. Don't take yourself too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don't worry. Worry your ass off. Have ironclad confidence, but doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. ... And when you walk on stage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it's all we have. And then remember it's only rock `n' roll."