Thursday, December 11, 2014

You Never Can Tell

Once upon a time, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were one of the great bar bands of all time—only the Beatles were clearly better (although The Band themselves, back in their gin mill days, when they were known as The Hawks, might very well have given both a run for their money, but as far as I can tell, few if any recordings from those days have survived). In the 1970s, Springsteen would pepper his shows with covers, even after he had three or four or even five albums out, so it clearly wasn't for want of material. And his choice of covers tended towards the unusual: rather than obvious crowd-pleasers like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or the Who, Springsteen tended towards 1950s early rock, like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly or Elvis, or 1960s frat rock, such as "Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)" by The Swingin' Medallions or proto-soul like "Cupid" or raucous pop such as "Do You Love Me" by  The Contours.

He continued adding covers to his concerts for the rest of his career, many of which—his transformation of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped," for instance, or his cover of The Byrds' cover of Bob Dylan's "The Chimes of Freedom"—were transcendent. But he tended to add fewer covers as the years went on, and he had more and more original material to sift through. So for a long time, covers tended to be many of the same early rock songs he'd first covered in the 1970s, and largely relegated to the encores.

But a few years back, Springsteen started a new feature called "Stump the Band," where audience members could bring signs with requests. Springsteen would grab a half dozen or so, shuffle them around, maybe consult with Steve Van Zandt, and then play a couple. The results were almost uniformly well-done—no surprise, given the level of talent and experience on stage—and the entire thing was a lot of fun.

But every once in a while, it was more than that. This July 2013 concert in Leipzig, for instance. He and Steve try to figure out a good key for it—they never do seem to quite agree—and then Springsteen gives the horn section a rough arrangement, which they pick up on remarkably rapidly; impressive in any context, but in front of 75,000 or so fans? Insanity. The look in the eyes of the horn section as he's giving them their cues seem to indicate they're aware of the pressure.

Meanwhile, the casualness of Springsteen as he runs through a brief semi-rehearsal and then just kicks into the thing is slightly surreal. This is a guy who's very comfortable being one of the largest rock stars in the world for 35 years. The open rehearsal just suddenly ends with a "are you ready band? Here we go!" and boom. They're off to the races and, rock and roll veterans or no, you'd swear they'd practiced the damn thing dozens of times.

It's a first-rate cover, with lots and lots of room for each member of the horn section, and the redoubtable Professor Roy Bittan to let loose—in fact, one of the biggest "are you kidding me?" moments comes at the end of the very first line, when the professor kicks in with some amazing piano riffing, followed moments later by Nils on some smooth slide guitar (balanced later by some stinging leads courtesy of Steve).

But as Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin pointed out, one of the very coolest bits of the entire experience comes towards the very end, when Bruce holds up four fingers, indicating they should all go to the IV chord, rather than the expected I, a slightly usual move harmonically. Not surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a single misstep.

And you can tell Springsteen's feelin' the spirit. They've been going for eight minutes, but he's not done. After a remarkably successful outing, he decides to go one more round, and yells at everyone to kick back in. Which they do, perfectly. Another quick run and they're out, for good this time.

It all seems so effortless, which it is, if you're blessed with mind-boggling levels of talent, superhuman drive, and put in tens of thousands of hours of practice. Perhaps the only sign that it's not quite as easy as it seems, are the pit stains on Springsteen's shirt, although calling them that is deceptive, as by the end, his shoulders, ribs and a third of pectorals are also soaking wet. The price you pay.

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