They call him The Boss for a reason.
Showing there’s no need for a backing band to bring out his outsized charisma on stage, Bruce Springsteen took a rapt audience on a personal music history journey. He also gave young rockers insightful advice in an often hilarious tour-de-force keynote speech that was one of the most anticipated events at the South By Southwest Music Conference and Festival this year.
“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.”
The Boss on Thursday takes over Austin. Besides the speech, he’s putting on an exclusive show later in the evening. He got off to an often riotous start as he name-checked all the musicians that have inspired him over the years from Elvis to James Brown and Woody Guthrie to Johnny Rotten. He marveled at the unfathomable diversity at SXSW and led a sing-a-long of “This Land is Your Land.”
Springsteen is hot with his new album, Wrecking Ball, debuting at No. 1 in 14 countries after its release last week and with a world tour scheduled. It’s the first step in his career without the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died last year.
Those musicians who managed to wake up and catch the speech got a lesson in how to approach your career and a long list of influences to check out. About 1,000 SXSW attendees filled a ballroom in the Austin Convention Center for the 50-minute speech and NPR carried it live via Internet stream.
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 marveled at the diversity in 21st century pop music, almost rapping a long list of genres that would have boggled the mind of that young boy in New Jersey in the 1960s who had just 10 years of rock ‘n’ roll history to draw his influences from.
“Just add neo- and post- to everything and mention them all again. Oh, yeah,” he said as an afterthought, “and rock ‘n’ roll.”
He 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-a-long of a rare verse from “This Land is Your Land.” Though Springsteen talked of their significance both to him and American history, he stayed away from discussing the social concerns that fill his new album.
In closing, he urged all “10,000 bands” in Austin to bring it hard every night. That, he said, is the key to success.
“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. I think I’m going to go out and catch a little black death metal.”