SXSW Late Night Dispatch: Thursday
Day two for NPR Music's team at South By Southwest started on a high note and hardly ever flagged. After the Wednesday night showcase ran to the wee hours of the morning, Thursday's opening event, a keynote address by Bruce Springsteen, didn't start until after noon, local time.
But Springsteen must have been out late too: His first words upon taking the stage were, "Good morning, good morning, good morning. Why are we up so early?" Except he added an expletive that had crowd in the palm of his hand.
He kept them there over the course of a wide-ranging talk that lasted nearly an hour and covered half his life and dozens of musical influences (you can listen to audio of the complete speech here and find all of our coverage, including audio from concerts at our Main SXSW page).
Meeting up with Robin Hilton, Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson after a jam-packed Thursday, Ann Powers says that Professor Bruce, spoke mostly "about his songwriting process and the artists who inspired him," including Eric Burdon of the Animals, Roy Orbison and Woody Guthrie. He mentioned KISS multiple times. He sang snippets of his own songs and songs he loved as a kid.
The start of NPR Music's day party at The Parish overlapped with the end of Springsteen's speech, so while Ann was watching the Boss, Stephen, Robin and Bob were taking in the dance party thrown by La Vida Boheme. Bob heard elements of The Clash and Pink Floyd in the Venezuelan band's performance. "It wasn't the musicality of what they were doing on stage, but the power and the originality of it," he said.
Atlanta rapper Sugar Tongue Slim kept the party going, picking up on La Vida Boheme's energy and Springsteen's salty language: "There was a sense of playfulness about him that was very winning. He kind of had this wink with the audience where, 'I'm going to make you work as hard as I do,'" Stephen said.
Polica was Robin's "oh wow" band of the day. "Just in terms of pure surprise." The Minneapolis band arrived in Austin with a bunch of buzz after an endorsement by Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, and they're making good on that promise (Bob has seen the band play three times already). Lower Dens, another favorite of Robin's, played a set of all-new material from its forthcoming album, Nootropics.
After that, the deluge. People were weeping in the audience as The Magnetic Fields played droll, melancholy love songs, including a certain NPR Music editor: "We actually had to take out an extra rider on our insurance to cover any slippage that occurred on the puddles of my tears," Stephen said. The band's new album, Love At The Bottom Of The Sea, returns to its earlier synth-based sound, but this set was warm, and mostly acoustic.
From there, the team split up. Ann returned to the church of Springsteen for a performance she compared to "every ritual you ever love" and reports that Bruce brought out Jimmy Cliff, Eric Burdon and members of The Low Anthem and Arcade Fire and even crowd surfed at one point.
Stephen tried Bob's game plan: never stay in one place for too long. "I was trying to do three bands an hour. You lower the chances that you're going to be hypnotized, but you want to catch a moment." Here were a few: ZZ Ward, a "compelling" Oregon hippie chick "with a great band." We Are Augustines, who played "maritime anthems." Sarah Siskind, who has "a gorgeous, piercing voice." The Barr Brothers "reminded me of Josh Ritter with interesting, atmospheric instrumentation." Nada Surf, after 20 years, is still "one of the most heartwarming, lovable bands on Earth.
Stephen closed the night by jumping into the mosh pit at a show by another "spiritual obligation," Andrew W.K.
Bob's highlights included a set by the South African group Spoek Mathambo, who dressed in "Sgt. Pepper outfits" and sounded "almost Hendrix-like at times, not at all like the record." Taken By Trees, the project of Swedish singer Victoria Bergsman, whose last album, East of Eden, came out in 2009, returned to SXSW with a sound that approached reggae. Bam Bam, a Mexican rock band, played "pop songs with biting guitar" and sounded a bit like Television.
Robin caught many personal favorites who he had never seen live, including Little Scream, Hospitality and Exit Music, but his "most profound moment of the day" came at a show that also drew Bob and Stephen. Patrick Watson managed to get Bob Boilen to sit still for an entire set, and when he moved into the crowd to lead a sing-along, brought Robin to tears. "It was magical. ... That's the world that I want my kid to inherit."
It was a perfect note to end on. As Bruce Springsteen said (to Ann, personally, there was no one else around, she swears), "Have a little faith, there's magic in the night."