AUSTIN, Texas -- Bruce Springsteen came to South By Southwest to do the keynote speech, but you knew he wouldn't leave town without playing a show.
And it was predictably spectacular, a two-and-a-half-hour blowout in downtown Austin's Moody Theatre (where "Austin City Limits" is filmed). Springsteen brought in an expanded 17-piece version of the E Street Band for a show that was alternately a pre-tour live showcase (you can see it yourself Monday in Greensboro) and an all-star jam with cameo guests including Jimmy Cliff, Joe Ely, Arcade Fire and other luminaries.
But more notable than those in attendance was the one missing. Saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who passed away last June, cast a long shadow over the proceedings and his absence was acknowledged several times. During "My City of Ruins," which was recast as a soul ballad, Springsteen went into preacher mode and namechecked the E Street Bandmembers onstage. And at the end, where he used to call out Clemons, The Boss asked, "Are we missing anybody?" The crowd roared in the affirmative, both for Clemmons and Danny Federici (who died in 2008).
Then during the penultimate "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," there's the line about how "the big man has joined the band." And where Clemons would played his sax solo, Springsteen led the crowd in a prolonged cheer of tribute for the departed. It was immensenely touching, and done with such humility and grace that it felt more like a celebratory wake than a funeral. Having the big man's nephew Jake Clemons filling in for him on sax elsewhere was a perfect touch.
Other highlights were a savagely angry "Seeds"; the hip-hop gospel offbeats of "Rocky Ground" from Springsteen's new "Wrecking Ball" album (which debuted at No. 1 on the charts all over the world this week); reggae legend Jimmy Cliff's three-song cameo, which somehow didn't include "Trapped" but was still fantastic; and "The Promised Land" and "Badlands," with the E Street Band blaring like a hopped-up Chevy.
Here's what's most remarkable about the show, however: It wasn't even the best thing I saw on Thursday. And what could have possibly topped it? Why, Springsteen's own keynote speech, of course. It was one for the ages, far and away the best speech I've seen anyone do in 25 years of coming to South By Southwest.
Springsteen has always been an incredible public speaker (check out his U2 Hall of Fame induction speech), because he is first and foremost a fan. And he gave a positively inspiring spiel in which that love came through, covering a half-century of pop-music through the prism of artists who influenced and inspired him -- Elvis, Roy Orbison, the Beatles, Sex Pistols, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Moore, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis and lots more.
A few times, he broke out a guitar to demonstrate. He played the opening stretch of the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," then concluded, "That's every song I've ever written." Then he strummed a bit of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," transititioning that seamlessly into "Badlands." It was an amazing display that taught you a lot about Springsteen's music and its themes of connections. At his show later, Springsteen brought out Animals frontman Eric Burdon to close the circle. It was wonderful.
Eventually, Springsteen's speech came around to Woody Guthrie as the figure who tied it all together -- the "ghost in the machine" who tried to answer Hank Williams' question about why your bucket has a hole in it. He offered wise council to youngsters about learning the craft without being imprisoned by it, or by history. And he closed with Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," the verse about trespassing that usually gets skipped:
As I was walkin', I saw a sign there
And that sign said, no tress passin'
But on the other side, it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!
He began the chorus and then paused. "This song is meant to be sung by everyone," he said. Yes, it was corny. But the man was not to be denied and the crowd of jaded South By Southwest hipsteratsi, many thousands strong, joined right in. Yours truly misted up a little. It was a beautiful thing.
I feel sorry for whoever has to try and follow this as next year's keynote speaker.