In interviews to promote his new album, “Working on a Dream” and the subsequent tour, Bruce Springsteen has stressed that the E Street Band “is built for hard times.”
Their foundation held steady and true over a two-night run at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, April 15-16. The WOAD tour is only a few weeks old, but it is already a sure-footed exercise.
One of the things Springsteen does better than any other artist is acknowledge the outside world; while at the same time provide an immersive escape from its trials and tribulations. On this tour, he deliberately sends some musical relief in response to our collective economic SOS. Much of the song selection—even though the tunes were written long before the current mess–focus on characters who are crying uncle, but aren’t going down without a fight.
Thursday night’s show featured a killer triptych of the driving “Seeds” (a rare track from “Live 1975-85”), a hopped-up “Johnny 99” (which includes the never more relevant line, “I had debts no honest man could pay/The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they was takin’ my house away,” even though it was first recorded for 1982’s “Nebraska”) and “Youngstown.” The latter featured a Nil Lofgren guitar solo so sharp, razor perfect and ferocious that it, as my former Billboard editor Timothy White used to say, could put a new part in your hair. (On the first night, “Youngstown” was dropped for “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” which featured an electrifying guitar solo from Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello that seemed to breathe life directly into Springsteen’s lungs. I’ve seen all three times Morello has played the tune with Springsteen and it’s never been less than incendiary).
Springsteen’s set lists are always living, breathing organisms and while there are opening and closing songs that are usually adhered to and a few anchor songs in between, everything else is up for grabs. That means the second night of the L.A. run featured 11 tunes not played the night before. He’s opening this tour with “Badlands,” which is a risky move–even for the Boss. That train leaves the station at 100 mph, which means he has to keep that energy going as opposed to building up to it. It’s a Herculean effort, but for the most part, he succeeds.
Just to expand here since this is a blog and doesn’t have to be confined to a straight reportorial review, I could write more about the highlights and lowlights of each show, but I’d rather talk about what it means to see a Springsteen show and be a Springsteen fan.
(In brief, Wednesday night’s soulful, mournful version of “Racing in the Streets” was the most transcendent performance of the song I’ve ever witnessed and Roy Bittan’s piano work was a sorrowful, beautiful elegy. With the exception of “The Wrestler,” the “WOAD” material slows the show down. Despite that, he really should think about adding in “My Lucky Day.” Both nights prominently featured tunes from “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” which makes me think Springsteen is nearing completion on the slightly late 30th anniversary edition of the classic 1978 album that his manager, Jon Landau, told Billboard is definitely coming. No songs from 2007’s “Magic,” Springsteen’s best album since “Tunnel of Love” are being played. What on earth is that all about? Jay Weinberg, Max’s son, filled in for a few songs in prep for when the elder Weinerg has to fulfill his contractual obligations to Conan O’Brien and the younger Weinberg takes over the drum kit. He’s a chip off the old block: he has all of Max’s passion and, with time, he’ll gain more of Max’s steadiness and restraint.)
I’ve seen more than 30 Springsteen shows in my life. There’s really no such thing as a bad Springsteen concert (It’s like the old joke about sex and pizza–even when they’re bad, they’re good), there are just degrees of greatness.
For me, there is simply no greater bliss than being in the pit for a Springsteen concert. For the uninitiated, that’s the front section of the general admission floor with admission determined by a lottery system. The luckiest ones have their elbows on the stage and are usually baptized in Springsteen sweat before the night is over. (I’ve only been on the front row once, but, and I don’t say this in jest, I literally felt like it altered my DNA it was so intense an experience).
To be that close to Springsteen-and surrounded by your fellow Springsteen fanatics– is to witness something beyond spectacular. A Springsteen show is one of the few things in my life–if not the only thing– that has never let me down. Sure, there have been performances that have fallen slightly short or set lists that didn’t include my favorites, but there is something holy about a Springsteen show that surpasses any experience I’ve ever had in church. It’s about the beauty of communion, the power of connection-both collective and individual–and the unadulterated joy that music can provide for all of us. There has always been a point at a Springsteen show where I felt like my heart was cracking wide open and for some moment–no matter how brief–everything that had ever been broken in me was healed. It is literally the feeling of your life and soul being saved.
That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone, but Springsteen clings to the notion that people see him that way and it is what propels him night after night to put on a show where he is playing as if it’s his last night not just on stage, but on earth.
At 59, he’s a physical specimen to behold. He is in the best shape of his life. After playing close to three hours Wednesday night, he was still bouncing up and down like he was on a pogo stick for show closer, the exuberant “Rosalita.” Both nights, he opened “Tenth Avenue. Freeze -Out” with the now-expected, but no less miraculous, knee drop straight into a back bend and closed it with the knee slide. He’s also eager to show off his underrated guitar chops, slicing off muscular, downright feral solos on several songs and then proudly prowling around the stage as if he could take on anyone and anything.
On the last part of the” Magic” tour, Springsteen started taking requests from the audience. It’s a mixed party trick as it can stop a show’s flow in its tracks. That can be a huge sticking point given the emotional journey upon which many Springsteen shows are built. On the other hand, it is one more way to connect with his fans and that’s what any Springsteen show is about. On Wednesday, he played the Eddie Floyd ’60s rave-up “Raise Your Hand” from a sign request. It injected such a playful spirit into the show, that it was set listed for Thursday night.
There are moments when I watch Springsteen now and can see the wear and tear, and much has been written about saxophonist Clarence Clemons’ deteriorating mobility. Lofgren had both hips replaced between the last tour and this one. But somehow, Springsteen still conjures up our collective eternal youth. To be at a Springsteen show isn’t so much a way of turning back the hands of time as a way to poetically escape its ravages, if only for three hours.