SXSW Music Keynote: Bruce Springsteen

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Ballroom Dancing
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SXSW Music Keynote: Bruce Springsteen

Austin Convention Center, Thursday, March 15

Bruce Springsteen didn't take long during his poetic, sometimes profane, hour-long keynote speech before he asked for a guitar. It was part of the midday clinic the Boss performed, tracing his roots as well as the collective history of popular music from the Fifties onward, and though he didn't play a lot – mostly snippets to illustrate and underline key points – there was a tacit acknowledgement that the legendary rocker has done most of his best work armed with a six-string.

"Why are we up so fucking early?" Springsteen joked. "All the decent musicians are still asleep, or they will be before I'm done."

Consulting a shaggy sheaf of papers, a casually dressed Springsteen gave a speech that was energizing, and even electrifying, to his many acolytes in the jam-packed ballroom. Though he has a new album, the disquisition mostly looked backward. Inspired to pick up his first guitar at the age of 6 "by the excitement in Elvis' pants" on The Ed Sullivan Show, Springsteen said that at the time, an event like South by Southwest, with thousands of bands spanning the whole pop spectrum, would've been "a great teenage pipe dream."

"There just weren't that many guitars to go around," he mused. "We would have had to share."

But Elvis, along with Roy Orbison, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, and others, lit a fuse that a young Springsteen and his peers soon helped detonate. Those artists gave rise to a sexual revolution and civil rights, reshaping American culture, and Springsteen, on his way to stardom, soaked it up.

"If you were a kid in the Fifties and Sixties, it just felt fucked. We didn't have the words. Dylan gave us the words.

"And the first thing he asked was 'How does it feel?'"

Springsteen played the Animals' seminal "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," as well as a riff from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" that he lifted for his own composition, "Badlands," from Darkness on the Edge of Town.

"Listen up, youngsters," Springsteen hooted. "This is how successful theft is accomplished."

Springsteen closed by talking about Woody Guthrie, who would have turned 100 this year.

"He's a big, big ghost in the machine," Springsteen observed as Guthrie's daughter Nora looked on. "Things that come from the outside, they make their way in to become part of the beating heart of our nation."

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