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SXSW Day 2: Bruce Springsteen, Alabama Shakes, the dB's and more...

for Journal Register Newspapers

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Bruce Springsteen got an early start on his first-ever South By Southwest experience.

The New Jersey rocker, who’s delivering the conference’s keynote speech on Thursday, March 15, as well as performing an “intimate” show, was the special guest at the Austin Music Awards on Wednesday, March 14. Springsteen joined Alejandro Escovedo – with whom he shares a manager – Joe Ely and Garland Jefferys for a set that included Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s “Midnight Train” with a bit of Escovedo’s “Always a Friend,” the Woody Guthrie co-written “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” and the Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.” The appearance was widely rumored throughout the day on Wednesday, but with its lineup of more than 2,000 bands, SXSW doesn’t always deliver on those expectations.

This time it did, however, much to the delight of those assembled at the Austin Music Hall.

Another of this year’s buzz bands, the soul-rock troupe Alabama Shakes, showed why the hype was justified with a 40-minute afternoon set at the Austin Convention Center. The quintet delivered nine songs from its forthcoming debut album “Boys & Girls,” due out April 9, and singer-guitarist Brittany Howard had the industry crowd open-mouthed as it gave standing ovations for her torchy powerhouse renditions of “Be Mine” and “You Ain’t Alone,” as well as the album’s title track and more upbeat fare such as “Goin’ to the Party,” “Hold On” and “Hang Loose.”

An older favorite, the dB’s, showcased some new songs, too – from “Falling Off the Sky” which due out June 12, is the group’s first in nearly 30 years. Singer guitarist Peter Holsapple told the crowd that “some of you weren’t born yet” before playing 1984’s “Love is for Lovers,” but fans young and old greeted songs such as “Happenstance” and “Neverland” like long-lost friends and were equally warm to new fare like “That Time is Gone,” “Before We Were Born” and “I Didn’t Mean to Say That.”

Detroit’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. was part of a genre-hopping Wednesday night set at La Zona Rosa, where blues met bluegrass and a variety of pop styles. The duo closed this year’s SXSW run with a spirited set featured a bubble-making machine, fluourescent jackets and covers of of Gil Scot-Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” Dr. John was the real start of the night, however, swaggering on stage with his ornamented walking stick as he band started “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and he mixed older favorites – “Loup Garou,” an extended “Walk on Gilded Splinters” and “Big Chief” – with songs from his politically charged new album, “Locked Down,” which was produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach.

Austin’s Gary Clark, Jr., a hometown favorite, played nimble, flashy guitar during his set, not breaking much ground but ending nicely with the tortured blues of “My Baby’s Gone” and his grooving signature “Bright Lights, Big City.” The Punch Brothers were their typically sublime self, focusing on songs from their experimental new album “Who’s Feeling Young Now,” while the youthful British troubadour Ed Sheeran galvanized the audience with his lengthy vamp “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.” New York’s LP, meanwhile, scored with a set of ukulele-driven cabaret pop, while New Zealand’s Kimbra looked like a Katy Perry stunt double in her party dress but had more of an edge than the outfit led us to believe.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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