Sometimes at SXSW, you're playing like a degenerate gambler, trading the sure thing you have for a ton of risk. I played that hand Thursday night here in Austin, leaving the hard-to-get-into Bruce Springsteen ACL Live at Moody Theater performance just as he entered his second hour to try to get into the Jesus and Mary Chain at the Belmont, an overly small club that SXSW wedged one of its biggest draws into for an official showcase.
The surprisingly-reunited Jesus and Mary Chain were literally slated for only one performance here in Texas and this was it. The line was not moving, even 45 minutes before the band played its first note of chainsaw-churning distortion heavy pop gems. These are the guys most credit for the advent of shoegaze, a sound that continues to inhabit all spheres of indie rock. Instead of cashing in my chips and trotting away to another showcase, I held fast to my position in line. However, the only movement towards the door came from line attrition, poor souls who gave up their hopes and left down West Sixth Street. What the rest of us got was sound, but no vision. The open-air venue allowed those outside to hear what was going on fairly well. For more than 30 minutes, that was enough. But eventually, I decided to slink on back to my hotel, just as the band seemingly started to wrap up its set with "Just Like Honey", a slow ballad turned anthem by its inclusion on the Lost In Translation movie soundtrack.
Now, about that Springsteen show. The tickets were dispered to official SXSW attendees by a lottery system, one that awarded tickets to only 1 in 100 entrants. I lucked out on the press list, which was also its own brand of selective. Springsteen opened with a salute to Woody Guthrie and according to other media reports, was joined by the Arcade Fire for a rendition of "This Land Is Our Land." Guthrie's most-endearing song.
Throughout the set, 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 briefly crowd surf interludes. In addition to Arcade Fire, special guests included Tom Morello, who was inoffensively present until he decided to throw in some ridiculously incongruent guitar masturbation onto the end of "The Ghost of Tom Joad".
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."
Aside from Springsteen, the day stayed light. I was very impressed by Alejandro Escovedo, an Austin legend who has flown under my radar. He was a perfect complement to the Springsteen set that followed. He plays the very brand of rock-soul-blues hybrid Americana that I absolutely love. It's bare bones, but layered and filled with passion. I will be seeking out his records once I return home. That's the highest praise I can think of for any artist I see down here.
Meanwhile, Delta Spirit still retained an essential grit to their live performance that is mostly lacking from their new self-titled album, which once again makes me hope that they return to Omaha. Cults, who still have a wave of buzz behind their 2011 debut album, played close to their recorded selves despite the terrible sonics of their tin can stage at Mess With Texas. Omaha favorites The Mynabirds brought a good crowd to their day show at the Jackalope, while offering great pop appeal on songs from their upcoming album Generals.