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Two hours and 18 minutes passed in their Thursday night set at South By Southwest before Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band sang about the time the big man joined the band. The band—and the audience—went silent.
It was Springsteen’s way of paying tribute to Clarence Clemons at that point in “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” when the late sax player’s solo would normally take over. Some in the audience cried, some yelled, but everyone in Austin’s Moody Theater missed the big man.
On a night of remembrance and experimentation, the band had to adjust to the reality of not having Clemons on stage while integrating a steady dose of songs from the new album, “Wrecking Ball,” into its performance. It was just the band’s second official show in support of the new material.
From his rousing keynote speech in the morning to an instant classic of a show last night, Springsteen mingled the serious, political overtones of the new album with tributes to influences like Woody Guthrie and lost friends such as Clemons. Springsteen rocked for more than two and a half hours despite the keynote speech, which, he joked, “[expletive] everything up.”
“It’s like some teen music junkie’s wet dream,” Springsteen said of the festival in between songs. “I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
A significant part of the night was dedicated to testing the new material. Springsteen performed seven of the 13 songs from “Wrecking Ball” on Thursday to mostly enthusiastic feedback from the nearly 2,700 South By Southwest attendees inside Moody Theater. The “Wrecking Ball”-heavy show delivered clues of things to come as Springsteen and the E Street Band kicked off an initial 20-date U.S. run. During “We Take Care Of Our Own,” fans took notice of the newly formed five-piece brass section, the E Street Horns. The horns feature Jake Clemons, Clarence Clemons’s nephew, who was cheered as he took on his late uncle’s classic solos in “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Thunder Road.”
The show was filled with special guests. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine offered a jaw-dropping guitar solo in “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Reggae star Jimmy Cliff and Eric Burden of the Animals also got into the act, as did Texas music heroes Alejandro Escovedo and Joe Ely, among others. The show ended just like it began, paying tribute to Guthrie with nearly 30 musicians on the stage performing “This Land Is Your Land.”
But the most emotional moment came during Springsteen’s ritual roll call of the band members. The delivery was toned down, which may indicate how roll call will be handled throughout the tour. Clemons, who died in June after a massive stroke, was traditionally the last person to be introduced by Springsteen. The moment was impossible to avoid.
“Are we missing anybody?” Springsteen asked. “Yeah, we’re missing a few people.”
Fighting back tears during “My City of Ruins,” Springsteen made it clear: If the fans are there, then whoever is remaining in the E Street Band will be there, too.