Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert 10.30.07

I could have written a short review of Springsteen live at the L.A. Sports, but "fucking awesome" doesn't begin to do this particular concert justice. So, without further ado, here is my long winded, worshipping write up of the E Street Band show from last week.

The Los Angeles Sports Arena is a sweltering old concert venue that seemed like an odd choice for a superstar rock act to perform at, what with the glittery Staples Center just up the road. But Bruce Springsteen is no ordinary rock star. He’s done Staples (back in 1999) and hated the atmosphere. With the LA Forum unavailable, Springsteen and his musical family, the trusted E. Street Band, descended down into the Sports Arena for two sold out shows to end October with a bang, not a whimper. I was lucky enough to score one ticket for the October 30th show (the second night), justifying that the steep ticket price my birthday present this year. What a great present it was. It was pretty damn close to perfection and ranks as the best I’ve ever seen the band perform live.

The scheduled start time was 7:30 pm. I arrived with a minute to spare, wearing the sweet sweat stench of a man who spent the day at work and an hour and a half on the jam packed LA freeways fighting my way to downtown L.A. Wading my way through the crowd of mostly 40 and 50 year old baby boomers, I was pleasantly surprised to see the children of so many Springsteen loyalists brought along to experience the glory and the majesty of the E Street sound.

The dingy, faded blue gymnasium seats and the enclosed feeling of the Sports Arena reminded me of the Richfield Coliseum, where I saw so many rock concerts in my formative years. With the exception of the Halloween spirited jack-o-lantern lights on the floor and amplifiers, the open-air stage was the same set up as previous tours. No frills. Why mess with something that works, right? Massive speakers hung from the rafters next to large screens for video projection. The setting is definitely old school, perfect for a tour supporting Springsteen’s current masterpiece, Magic. It is an album with lyrics that address the pointed political present but juxtaposed with melodies that hearken back to the 70’s and 80’s sounds that made the Boss famous. Unlike previous tours, I purposely avoided any reviews or online postings of the set lists. Sure, I knew there’d be plenty of the new songs, but I didn’t want to know any specific order or what classics he’s been digging up. I wanted to wonder and be amazed.

The band members wandered out on stage in no apparent order. The silhouettes of guitarist/ consigliere Little Steven Van Zandt and Big Man, saxophonist Clarence Clemons could be made out, and Max Weinberg was clearly visible in the backlight as he climbed up behind his drum kit. But the Man himself was nowhere to be found. A blue light shined down on Danny Federici sitting behind his organ as he began playing ominous chords reminiscent of an old Hammer Horror film. Fog swept out from backstage and six crew members, dressed in hooded black robes and wearing white beards carried out a casket. They set the casket down center stage and Little Steven walked over with Springsteen’s signature Telecaster guitar in hand. Van Zandt looked down, shook his head with a pursed lip and held out the guitar. Suddenly, an arm shot right out of the casket and grabbed the telecaster! The stagehands monks hoisted the casket to face the audience. There he was, not dead, but the living and breathing savior of rock and roll, Bruce Springsteen.

Dusting himself off, Springsteen Looked out at the sea of heads and shouted, “Is there anybody alive out there?”

With a roar of approval, the band exploded into “Radio Nowhere”, the first single for Magic. They sounded tight, better than any band should having only been on the road a couple of weeks. They rocked hard, making a proclamation to the sold out crowd to get ready to have their asses blown away! From “Radio Nowhere”, they went straight into “The Ties that Bind”, one of my favorites from The River (with its great lyric “It's a long dark highway and a thin white line/Connecting baby, your heart to mine”) then finished their opening volley with “Lonesome Day”, from The Rising. On the latter, I nearly broke down. The songs on The Rising are intrinsically tied to my family and that period in 2002 when we had (barely) begun to grasp Jake’s diagnosis of cystic fibrosis. I missed the kids during that song. I wanted them by my side.

Next up was “Gypsy Rider”, from the new album. It’s a song that has burrowed deep into my psyche and gets more powerful with each listen. In it, the narrator recounts the return of his fallen brother from war and the effect it has on the soldier’s family, friends and divided hometown. The despair in the last line gives me chills every time I hear it. Tonight was no exception.

By this time, I’d been on my feet singing every word, pumping my fist at every chorus. I’m sure I looked like a raving lunatic, or worse, one of those freaks you always see at rock concerts. The mood came down as the band played the title track from the new album. Bruce addressed the crowd about the meaning behind the song, that it isn’t a song about hocus pocus, but about tricking people. This clear allegory for our country’s leaders had a couple of musical miscues, including some awkward harmonies between Bruce and his wife, Patti Scialfa. Something must have been off technically because I’ve never heard them mess up their singing like that before. Still, Nils Lofgren’s acoustic flourishes and Soozie Tyrell’s violin playing more than made up for the false notes.

After “Magic” ended, Little Steven began a swamp boogie guitar lick that sounded very familiar. I turned to my neighbor and shouted, “The hell? Are they playing ‘La Grange’?” I expected Bruce to start saying “A how how how” at any moment, but I was way off base. Out came the harmonica and a bullet mic. When that harp began the cry, I suddenly knew what song it was. “Reason to Believe”, the closing track from Nebraska. I imagine this may have been what Bruce wanted the song to sound like way back in ’82. This arrangement transformed the dark, bluesy number into a roadhouse rocker. I half expected Steven Tyler to come out and join in the fun. The show was in full force now. I had no clue what to expect next and I was fucking thrilled.

With a youthful force, the band played “Night,” the first of several songs I have never heard live before. The guy next to me leaned over, asking if the song was “She’s the One”, that other classic from the seminal album, Born to Run. I shook my head “no”. He shrugged, as if to say, “this still kicks ass.” Much to our surprise, the very next song was, you guessed it “She’s the One”. With Max pounding that Bo Diddley beat (dum-dum-dum-dumdum), everyone in the house clapped along with him. On any given night, this song would be a showstopper and the band could consider their job done. But, come on people, this is Springsteen, and we had just reached quarter mark of this marathon.

“Livin' In The Future” followed. This new track is one of the most upbeat, spirited songs Springsteen has recorded in nearly 30 years. Seriously. The lyrics, though, are heavy, man, an examination of the way our government has trounced on our constitution in the past six years. Springsteen took the opportunity to explain the meaning behind the lyrics before actually singing the song. As the band vamped behind him, Bruce did some of the speechifying he’s known for. It didn’t work. Sorry, Boss, I love to hear what you have to say, but you should have chosen one of the other tunes from Magic to teach a civics lesson. The dialogue drained the life out of the beginning of the song and it took until halfway through for the energy to rebuild. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many of the concertgoers on their feet, singing “Na na na na” at the end. If that brief lapse in attention lost some of the crowd, as soon as “The Promised Land” began, all was forgotten.

Of the hundreds of songs in Springsteen’s catalog, I feel like this one, from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, best captures what he has been trying to say since the 70’s and it still says it best. With the crowd still cheering, Bruce called Nils and Little Steven over and called an audible. The two guitarists spread the word through the band. “All right,” Springsteen told us, “we need some woman power.” Then, the band began one of Patti’s songs from her recent solo record, Play It As It Lays. If you think this was some kind of charity gesture for Bruce’s wife, you’d be wrong. The band has played this song on numerous tour stops and by that night, whatever bugs there must have been are gone. Patti and Bruce sang duet on the sultry number. Nils and Danny once again shine and this track sounded like it was written for the E Street Band all along.

“Town Called Heartbreak”, with it’s chorus “You gotta work, baby, baby” is a nice compliment to the next song, a stellar “Tunnel of Love”. This song was the highlight of show. Bruce and Patti sang side by side and shared a mic, inches apart. It’s remarkable to see. They are the new century’s Johnny Cash and June Carter. They were pitch perfect. And Nils. Christ, that man is a god on guitar. He brought more soul and passion to that six-minute song than Eddie Van Halen brings to two hour of pyrotechnics. When the song ended, I was freakin' drained. But guess what, I didn’t have time to rest because “Working On The Highway” was the next song. No time to sit.

“Devil’s Arcade”, a heart wrenching new song from Magic was next. This song has grown on me with each listen and through the performance, as I sat there, I could feel my emotions welling to the surface. The song ended with three strong spotlights literally shooting through Max as he pounded out the final heartbeats of the song. Powerful.

Quickly, Bruce called out a quick dedication and they began “The Rising”. More than “Lonesome Day”, this song pulls my heart apart. Besides the subject matter, it’s the first song Jake and Sophie learned. I can still see them running around in Hawaii with their new ukuleles, singing “Come on up for the rising!” I sang every word, wiped my eyes and nose and missed Sophie and Jake even more.

The next two songs came from Magic, “Last to Die” and the anthem “Long Way Home”. Most of the crowd sat down and absorbed the music. I did not object and sat with them. On these songs, as with the entire evening, the harmonies between the large group were near perfect. I couldn’t get over how in sync all nine members of the band throughout the whole night. It may sound easy, but spread out across that large stage, there could easily be a slip here or there. The final song of the “1st set” was “Badlands”. Not much more can be said about this song. It’s a classic and the crowd knows it by heart. Springsteen was having a blast entertaining a young girl sitting on her dad’s shoulders at the front of the stage. At one point, he leaned down and let her strum his famous guitar. What a memory for that girl! Springsteen, perhaps energized by seeing second and third generation fans in the audience wore a huge smile the rest of the night.

After the lights went down and the band left the stage, something wonderful happened. The crowd continued singing the harmony part from the bridge of “Badlands”. Over and over again, everyone was singing, “Whoa oh oh oh oh whoa!” The only time I had ever heard something so in sync and beautiful was the end of the 1987 U2 concert at old Municipal Stadium, when the crowd of 70,000 continued singing the end of “40” as they left for their cars.

It must have been no more than five minutes when the band returned to stage for the finale. First up was “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”, a song so catchy that even those unfamiliar with the new album were singing along by the second verse. This tune should be a radio hit, it’s that wonderful. But Bruce Springsteen’s new songs don’t get played on the radio. “He’s too old,” the corporate executives say, “kids won’t listen.” I say those executives are out of touch. I say that kids are listening and you can hear the Springsteen influence in artists as varied as The Hold Steady, Jason Marz, The Killers and The Arcade Fire (who came onstage at a recent show in Canada). In addition, Springsteen’s work ethic should be celebrated and held up as the standard and not the exception. All night long, the 50-something E Street Band mates performed longer and harder than musicians half their age. And there was no better example of their stamina than the very next song. “Here’s a pre Halloween treat for Los Angeles”, the Boss said just before he started 1973’s epic, “Kitty’s Back”. Like he’d done throughout the evening, Springsteen controlled his voice, making it sound younger to better match how it was originally recorded. And the Big Man, Clarence Clemons hit every damn note as if his life depended on it. Danny and the Professor shined in extended solos, and even the backbone to the band, the venerable Gary Tallent on bass, stepped up to the microphone to sing backup alongside Little Steven. This may have been a run down sports arena in the heart of Los Angeles, but it might as well have been some firetrap dive club in Jersey, Philly or Cleveland. Springsteen proved once and for all why he earned the nickname “The Boss”. He twisted and bent his guitar strings making them wail and moan. This was the biggest surprise of the night and it left everyone speechless.

After that 10-minute frenzy, Kitty left town again and the band played its two biggest hits, “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark”. During “Born to Run”, which we’ve all heard a thousand times, what could have been a plodding, methodical run through still sounded fresh and vibrant. Maybe it was because I was singing along with my compadre beside me, pumping my fist with each “whoaaa!” Or perhaps it was because I was thinking of Julie, but I loved hearing this song. The final verse, when Bruce sang “Together Wendy we'll live with the sadness/I'll love you with all the madness in my soul/Someday girl I don't know when we're gonna get to that place/Where we really want to go and we'll walk in the sun…” That’s Julie and me. Whatever sadness we have in our lives, it’s countered by our love for each other and our love for our family.

The show concluded with every member of the E Street Band joining Bruce out front to play the raucous “American Land”. This song was born during Springsteen’s last tour with his Seeger Sessions band and can be found on the Live in Dublin cd. For the first time ever, Springsteen scrolled the lyrics on the video monitor for the audience to sing along to. One would think that adapting this folk song to the sound of the E Street Band might not work, but it fit right in. The Big Man played penny whistle, Danny and the Professor played dueling accordions, Little Steven pulled out his trusty mandolin, while Bruce, Patti and Nils tore it up on guitar. With the entire band lined up on stage, it was the perfect ending.

After the show, I wiped my face and plopped down in my seat to wait out the crowd to clear out. I was covered with sweat, tears and snot and felt like I’d run a marathon. My hands throbbed from the constant clapping and drumming on my thighs; my throat was raw and aching for water. I reached for the small notebook I had carried in my back pocket and to my surprise a small fraying spot in the denim near that pocket had given way. A large hole, the size of a quarter, was clearly visible to anyone watching me walk by. I wasn’t worried; I had on clean boxers. And if anyone were to ask what happened to the back of my Levi’s, I could tell them that I had my ass blown away by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

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