One of reggae's founding fathers seemed to be challenging himself to tone down his set on Wednesday night. Accompanied by only an acoustic guitarist and a drummer, the singer wore a simple red shirt and backwards baseball cap, and for much of the set, strummed a right-handed acoustic guitar that looked enormous on him in the left-handed position. Though the arrangement was basic, Cliff's performance was anything but. The 63-year-old Jamaican's high, elastic voice still sounds so sweet and strong. His set was filled with songs that spanned his career and almost served as a testament that his catalog should be required listening for any self-respecting songwriter. When he belted out "Many Rivers to Cross," it was a true moment of transcendence; when he updated his anti-war song, "Vietnam," by changing the chorus to "Afghanistan," it was a poignant reminder that although the place where we're fighting is different, the situation remains the same. The only complaint with this set was that he finished on a song called "One More," where he engaged the audience in a frenzied call-and-response that continued after he left the stage. With a title like "One More" and that kind of reaction from the crowd, one would think it was an obvious reason to come back for an encore. But no such luck.
Mostly centered around the warm voice of singer Michael Nau, Cotton Jones is a six-piece from Maryland. From the stage of a bar called Swan Dive, Nau announced at one point that the band had a few more songs left. But after turning in a performance of "Somehow to Keep It Going" from the band's 2010 album, "Tall Hours in the Glowstream," he must have realized that it wouldn't be possible to top it, so he said, "I guess that was our last song." Instead of feeling like a bow of defeat or an excuse of time constraints, it felt like an acknowledgment that magic had happened in the way the sing-along chorus of "Come on, baby let the river roll" resounded.
Kicking off NPR's showcase, Fiona Apple made it easy to forget this was the same musician who had an infamous onstage meltdown in 2005. Vacillating between a low croon and a hoarse primal scream, she spent most of the set hunched forward with her arms at her side, as if she were possessed by her songs. Her band expertly executed the loud-to-soft and soft-to-loud dynamic shifts that Apple's songs demand. There were even a few times when the band wandered into jam-band territory. But where that can sometimes feel frivolous, when anchored by a truly commanding singer like Apple, it works. She ended the set with a seething rendition of her 1996 breakout hit, "Criminal." If Apple truly did "need to be redeemed," she certainly was on this night.
Boss by Southwest
In a disarmingly funny and candid keynote address on Thursday, Bruce Springsteen talked about the state of modern music and shared a heartfelt history of his own journey. For more than an hour, he detailed personal politics, imparted words of wisdom on young musicians, discussed a host of artists across all genres that he felt indebted to (from the Elvis to Public Enemy) and even revealed that he still plays guitar in the mirror. "Don't you?" he asked the amused crowd of 3,000. "C'mon! You've gotta check out your moves!" At one point he picked up a guitar and demonstrated how with The Animals' song "We've Gotta Get Outta This Place" he built his entire career. "That's every song I've ever written," he said. Later that night the Boss and the E Street Band tore through more than two hours of tunes, including "We've Gotta Get Outta This Place." Animals singer (and Austin resident) Eric Burden, through the magic of Twitter had gotten wind out Springsteen's flattering words, and joined the band onstage. Burden wasn't the only special guest. Jimmy Cliff came out to perform three songs, strangely though, "Trapped," the Cliff song that Springsteen has been known to cover, was not one of those songs. Openers Alejandro Escovedo and the Low Anthem joined the band onstage for a rousing rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land." Also onstage for this performance were Joe Ely and The Arcade Fire. Though the set was very similar to last week's Apollo show (see review here) there was an energetic sense of possibility that anything could happen (which it did!). I usually construct my SXSW experience with seeking out new music at the beginning of the week and falling back upon one "treat" towards the end of the week. The treat of course is a band that I already know and love. But in this instance, I didn't feel bad spending valuable SXSW time watching Springsteen, as at 62 the guy really is still able to prove it all night.
Bands with buzz
The long lines for shows at SXSW can be a good resource for what to see next. And with many bands performing multiple times, you can always find out what's worth the wait. Here are the ones who have been earning enough rave reviews that I'm going to try to check them out this weekend: Santigold, Alabama Shakes, I Am Oak, Henry Clay People, John Fullbright, Capsula, The Ettes, Dent May and JD McPherson.
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SXSW at home
You don't have to fly all the way to Texas to get in on the SXSW magic. Several websites are streaming live from the Lone Star State. Check out sites www.npr.org and www.kut.org and, of course, www.sxsw.com.