Monday, August 20, 2012

Bruce Springsteen Live...and Open All Night

I  saw Bruce Springsteen live for the first time in the late summer of 1988 in Montreal, the closing act in a star-studded Amnesty International show. He and the E Street Band played for 90 minutes and delivered a wonderfully tight (if abbreviated) set. I was not quite 20 years old, and around me was a range of fans that ran from middle-aged down to what appeared to be newly minted teens. Bruce Springsteen, just a few days short of his 39th birthday, appealed to as wide a swath as anyone on the scene.

I most recently saw him this past Saturday night in Foxboro, MA at Gillette Stadium. He and the E Street Band played for 3 hours and 20 minutes in a mind-bendingly diverse and surprise-laden set. I am not quite 44 years old, and around me was a range of fans running from advanced middle age down to newly minted teens. And I should know—my 13-year-old son was one of them, taking in his first of what I only hope are many, many Bruce shows.

Bruce Springsteen, a few weeks shy of his 63rd birthday—or to put it in even crazier terms, a year younger than George H.W. Bush was when he ran for President in that summer of 1988—still appeals to as wide a swath of people as any rocker who has ever lived. Growin' up? He's all growned up now. But amazingly still evolving. And he still does what he does better than anyone.

This show, this dizzying 28-song set that featured no fewer than 18 (!) songs from the Born in the U.S.A. album and earlier, was the best Bruce Springsteen show of the many I have seen. While the Boss feigned being tired at one point, taking a mock-nap on stage during "Dancing in the Dark" in one of the encores before Little Steven squeezed several sponges water over his head, he surely looked and acted the part of someone who could have stayed forever.

In fact, when he stunned the crowd by choosing the obscure Nebraska rockabilly track "Open All Night" as one of his "sign requests"—only then revisioning it (as he did on his 2006 Sessions tour with an entirely different band) as a 10-minute Dixieland horn-filled showcase—the unexpected and unrehearsed romp could have served as a theme for the night. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band...older, greyer, thinner in the ranks due to the untimely deaths of two longtime members in the last four years, yet showing no other outward signs age...were open for the business of the most diverse, energetic and faithful rock-n-roll you've ever heard. And they seemingly could have gone all night.

But you know what? Let's put "Open All Night" aside for a second.

Bruce Springsteen never takes the stage just to perform "greatest hits" shows—every time he tours, save for the epochal 1999 Reunion tour that relaunched the E Street Band after a decade on the shelves, he does so to in-part promote a new album. And he never puts aside his four decades worth of classic material to just spotlight the newer stuff. The newer stuff gets played, and fans want to hear the estimable newer tracks from his terrific Wrecking Ball album. But to expect only the hits or only the new songs is to miss the point of this artist. A Bruce Springsteen show is a holistic event, encompassing a career that has spanned the staggering totality of his 40-year run. From a young street poet once lauded (against his will) as the "New Dylan," to a strident romantic who gave the world epic stories of cars and girls and running away and finding the romance of the unknown, to a jaded observer of the darker side of the industry and of humanity and even of love, to a politically charged voice of the unheard people, to an elder statesman who still preached on all of the above (well, except maybe the New Dylan stuff), that is what you get when you go to see Bruce Springsteen these days. You want it all, and you get it all, or at least a sampling of all of it. To not hear from every corner of his stunning career, or at least most of them, would be to miss something.

These are the shows that Bruce Springsteen is giving his fans in 2012, and has largely been giving his fans since the days before Born to Run launched him in 1975 as the most exciting American musician since Elvis Presley. This is what he brought to Fenway Park in Boston last week on back to back nights, where he played seven hours of music total and performed an unreal 45 different songs.

I didn't see the Fenway shows, sadly. But I saw the Foxboro show. And it was more of the magnificent same, more of the mesmerizingly diverse setlists he's been giving fans this tour. With my son to my right, two great longtime friends to my left, and an older gentleman experiencing his first ever Springsteen show in front of me, it was quite literally a night for the ages.

It opened with the splendid Tracks number "My Love Will Not Let You Down" and quickly exploded into probably the most obscure track from Born to Run, "Night."  Two songs from 1980's The River (the band staple "Out in the Street" and the long-discarded...until this tour anyway...first Top 10 hit he ever had, "Hungry Heart") followed. Then it was time for a troika of fine tunes from Wrecking Ball—call to arms "We Take Care of Our Own," the title track (which drew good-natured boos from the crowd for the mention of the Meadowlands and the Giants) and the dirge-like anthem of anger and fighting back, "Death to My Hometown." Seven songs in, sweat pouring off him, Bruce was just getting started.

The band roll call came next with "My City of Ruins," a disarmingly lovely testament to the very essence of "rising up," and included a fitting tribute to fallen E Streeters Dan Federici (a spotlight shining down on his empty organ made for an indelible image) and the Big Man himself whose absence can never be overstated, Clarence Clemons. Bruce called it a time to remember ghosts, no longer the spooky spectres that scared us as children, but the ones who walk among us and beside us, whom we come to collect and need as time goes on. The crowd of 60,000 strong understood the sentiment, to be sure.

From that moment on, there was no telling what came next. In a musical sense, all hell broke loose.

Has any fan ever imagined he/she would see a back-to-back of "Growin' Up" and "Lost in the Flood" again? In 2012? Both of which followed a splendidly hedonistic "Spirit in the Night" (which made it an unbelievable three songs from Bruce's debut 1973 album, and it was during "Spirit" where he told Clarence's nephew Jake, now playing saxophone for the band, "I wrote this song before you were born") and the aforementioned "Open All Night?" How about following that four song run with "Because the Night" (featuring Nils Lofgren's blistering, spinning solo that would make anyone forget the man is working with artificial hips) going into the sexed-up Bo Diddley smoke of "She's the One"?

"Working on the Highway" bopped its way into a heartfelt song from 2002 Bruce clearly enjoys serenading the crowd with, "Waiting on a Sunny Day." "The Rising" gave way to a searing "Radio Nowhere" (which delighted my son, who longed to hear the 2007 song but was convinced he wouldn't.) "Badlands" closed the main set out sounding as victoriously defiant as it did when Bruce debuted it on Darkness on the Edge of Town 34 years ago.

But amazingly, those weren't the biggest highlights. Nor was the greatest song he will ever write, "Born to Run," which customarily brought the houselights on early in the encore. Nor was its companion piece "10th Avenue Freeze Out," the only song Bruce ever wrote overtly about Clarence and which on this night featured the now-customary (but no less breathtaking) three-minute video tribute to the Big Man at the song's apex. Nor was, on a sheerly personal level, "Bobby Jean," one of my very very favorite Bruce songs which followed "Born to Run" and caused me to jump and and shout like a kid on Christmas morning. Nor, even, was an improvised cover of  Dobie Gray's "Drift Away" that followed "10th Avenue," which Bruce and the band performed with letter precision.

No, in an evening of astounding highlights, three still stood out above all others.

The first was "Open All Night," performed with a baroque New Orleans flair we couldn't have imagined the E Street Band had in them. It was a sign request, as I said, and Bruce pulled it out admitting he wanted a "challenge." He got one, and the band offered an out-of-this-world musical jambalaya one would have sworn they've spent months rehearsing, with literally every member of the band (most notably the amazing horn section) seizing center stage for a moment before giving it back to their leader. It was, well...see for yourself.

The next highlight came towards the end of the first set with "Racing in the Street." Unexpected and singularly perfect. Scott and I have discussed this before—if "Born to Run" is the greatest song Bruce ever did (and it kinda has to be), "Racing in the Street" has an excellent chance of occupying the number 2 spot. It is a picture of tragic, understated beauty—a tale of losers who may not have giving up living, as the song cautions, but sure as hell aren't working too hard to create something truly worthwhile. As romantic and hopeful as the songs of Born to Run were, that's how lonely and lost the songs of Darkness on the Edge of Town are. And none moreso than "Racing in the Street."

Roy's dreamlike opening chords announced to a shocked crowd what was coming, and Bruce soon was delivering the story in the weary, worldly way only he can. "I got a '69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hearst on the floor."

When the band kicked in for the bridge and middle verses, the subtle way they slowly built off of one another was exquisite, and came in a way that only people who have been playing together for so long can.  They knew their next moves, they anticipated them, they became one great functioning being onstage. Always hard to do, but maybe a mite easier when performing a balls-out rocker. When doing a ballad as tender and terrifyingly downbeat as "Racing in the Street," the degree of difficulty increases substantially. The audience hung on ever note of Roy's extended coda, of Max's metronone-like backing, of Garry's delicate foundation, and for a tiny solitary moment before the song ended and the thunderous, appreciative cheers reigned, there was something seldom heard at a rock concert: silence.

That Bruce Springsteen takes pride in his performances is the understatement of the year. But this was different. This was an audience that was proud of the performer, and when the nanosecond of silence finished and the applause shook the stadium, it was a sound not unlike 60,000 prideful parents cheering their children on.

"Racing in the Street" does not "rock" like millions of songs do. It is slow, it is sad, and sometimes it is almost too painful to really consider the words being sung. But while it may not have rocked, it was the very essence of rock-n-roll. Bruce and the E Street Band saw to that.

Along with my son, I came to this show with pals Davey G. and Jason; we have been friends for 20+ years, and I've had the pleasure of seeing several Bruce shows with them. As everyone cheered, I turned to them and said, "That may be the greatest thing I have ever seen him do."

And then I turned to my son, who himself was cheering wildly, and said, "That is not something you'll see every day!"

"I know it!" he said, beaming, clapping, and fighting his very-real fatigue to invest every inch he had of himself in a show that just kept going and going.

Lastly, among the highlights of the highlights, there was the song I never thought I would hear. Only because I never thought Bruce would play it again, with Clarence's passing. Even when word came that he'd performed "Jungleland" once on the European leg of the tour, it seemed aberrational, maybe a one-shot deal to prove that he could still play it.

But no. For the first encore, he whispered something in Jake's ear, and then stood in a near-offertory pose facing a blackened back of the stage, arms outstretched, pensive. And then one of the most unique sounds in the history of modern music—the violin/piano combination that starts the track off, told us we were not imagining it. "Jungleland" was about to be performed.

As you can see the rendition was as pretty much every live telling of this grandiose street opera has been; emotional, divergent, eclectic and put together with gorgeous, meticulous care. The piano solo Roy added before the final verse was a beautiful, redemptive treat, the power chords at the height of the verses were as jarring and explosive as they've been in the song's 37 years of existence. And Jake Clemons' spot-on and mystifying take on the most famous saxophone solo in history was something to behold. Yes, it was on the nose. But that he was performing a solo made legendary by a beloved uncle, no longer with him on earth, added a layer of pathos and passion to it. Jake's horn soared far beyond the 60,000, far past the stadium and the parking lots and the highways and the road signs and the building and the trees and up into the wind and beyond, to a far away place, where his uncle may very well have smiled as he listened in.

Jake and Bruce briefly touched hands as "Jungleland" finished, and for anyone who was there to see it on this humid August night, it will not soon be forgotten.

Bruce may play longer, he may even play better on this tour and in tours to com. There will surely be some who will argue Fenway Night 2 was better, or who will  say that their show that they see later this summer or fall in their hometown will be superior. I will not argue with any of it, and I hope they do think that way. I want them to. Because I hope people leave a show by Bruce Springsteen later this year feeling the way I felt just after 11:30 last Saturday night in Foxboro. Everyone deserves to feel that way.

But for me, this was the best I have ever seen. Ballads and anthems, rockers and sing-a-longs, epics and newfangled pleas of conscience, it all added up to one thing—the magic of music, music as close and familiar as memory. That I got to watch it with longtime friends with whom I have shared Bruce stories and discussions for decades made it all the more worth it. And most of all, that I got to share it with my son, with someone who is seeing Bruce for the first time through the new teenage eyes I never got to, is best of all. Because this was a moment for family.

"Hey ho rock-n-roll," Bruce sang with triumph at the end of "Open All Night," "deliver me from nowhere."

We were all delivered, though nowhere is a place that doesn't exist on E Street. When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band plays and the audience listens, everyone is in the same place. Wherever that may be, we're all somewhere together, and as far from nowhere as possible.

To paraphrase the man himself, it was a night that busted open. And remained open. Open all night.

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