Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bruce, the real American idol

The last time I saw Bruce Springsteen was on the last M&M visit to the New Orleans Jazz & Hertiage Festival, in 2006, the first Jazzfest following Hurricane Katrina. That was also Bruce's first concert with his Seeger Sessions Band, the rootsy big band he put together to play the folk-blues-gospel music of his new album at the time. Combined with the fresh horror of Katrina, there was something about the sound of that music, plaintive yet uplifting, filled out with horns to give it a New Orleans feel, that was overwhelming. By the time he got to the encore on that sunny late-April day -- as I remember it, "My City of Ruins," "We Shall Overcome" and a dirge-like "When the Saints Go Marching In" -- the show had become a giant emotional release, another levee breaking. I looked around and literally couldn't see one person who wasn't crying.

Hard to top a concert like that, and so when tickets went on sale for a Springsteen show here I wasn't all that surprised that Michelle passed: No huge fan in the first place, she said she felt like she'd already seen him at his best.

But this Seattle gig figured to be no ordinary show; it was the reunion tour of the E Street Band, the hard-rocking group that helped put Springsteen on the map back in the 1970s. I wanted to go, and I knew that my sister Michele, who would happily renounce country, career and family for an evening with Bruce, would be hovering over her keyboard the minute Ticketmaster opened the lines.

"Screen door slams, I'm there," was her line last night.

So I ended up tagging along with Mich and Manuel last night to KeyArena. On the way into town Mich recounted her many previous Springsteen concerts, including one she attended alone a couple of years ago. Going solo "is my favorite way to go," she said, because you can score a ticket up close to the stage. Manuel and I looked at each other. I guess I wasn't the tag-along after all. We were co-third wheels.

Although the concert was supposed to start at 7:30 Bruce and the band didn't take the stage until about 8:40. But they had the audience enthralled from the start. The second song, "Radio Nowhere," the hit of last year's "Magic" CD, has a chorus that seemed to announce the return of the E Streeters and the theme of the night: "I just want to feel some rhythm."

There was plenty of it, too, rocking through much of "Magic," "The Rising" album and several older hits over the next two and a half hours, with three or four down-tempo tunes just to let everyone catch their breath. Except for once or twice, when Bruce introduced a song with a quasi-political speech, most of the songs segued immediately into the next, without so much as a space between chords. They're a hard-working crew, for sure. No need for the fake sweat that Springsteen has been caught applying in years past.

At 58, Springsteen looked great in a black t-shirt, black suit vest and jeans. It's weird to see the aging of the E Street Band though, and as strange as it is fun to see them back together. I mean, drummer Max Weinberg spends most nights these days supplying rim shots for Conan O'Brien. You can't look at guitarist "Little Steven" Van Zandt without seeing his "Sopranos" character, Silvio. And Clarence "The Big Man" Clemons, is more like "The Old Man"; 66 years old now, he had trouble walking to the center of the stage, didn't have much energy for his signature sax lines and sat in a big chair onstage between abbreviated solos.

A lot of the audience at any Springsteen concert are Bruce fanatics (Mich comes pretty close) who can cite set lists from their favorite shows and quote lyrics from any recording. I'm nowhere near that level of fandom, although I own and enjoy several Springsteen albums.

What struck me last night was how reciprocal the relationship was. The fans love him, sure, but he seemed to feel the same. You could fake that, I suppose, as easily as you could spray on a layer of sweat, but if you're as rich and successful and accomplished as Bruce, why would you bother? He doesn't need to tour, or even to make records, if he doesn't want to. He likes it.

Unlike a lot of great artists -- my favorite, Dylan, comes to mind -- Bruce doesn't reinterpret his music for his own enjoyment or to make his audience listen anew. No, he plays the songs like his fans expect to hear them, with every grunt or sax line or tambourine clang coming in exactly on cue. The joy of attending an E Street Band show is in appreciating the power of Springsteen's voice, or seeing Bruce and Little Steven share a mic on a familiar chorus, or listening to Nils Lofgren tear through a guitar solo, as he did on "Because the Night," or just waiting to see which favorite songs will make the set and which won't.

Last night's song choices were interesting to me too, because while it was clearly a big arena show (the Key holds about 17,000 people), Bruce stayed away from the big, arena anthems of his pandering "Born in the USA" era. But what happened was that darker, more personal songs of longing, like "Lonesome Day" or "Your Own Worst Enemy," grew to fill the space. They became anthems of yearning.

Our seats, hobbled by coming in a group of three, weren't the best. Maybe the worst, in fact -- behind the rear-left corner of the stage, and four rows from the top of the arena -- but big video screens pointed in our direction helped, and in a way it was an interesting view of the show. Too far away, we agreed, for any realistic hope that Bruce would call Michele onto the stage for a dance, Courtney Cox-style from that long-ago music video. But we could see the girls leaning on the stage from the front row who shared her dream. When Bruce danced downstage close enough for them to grab his legs and even stroke his guitar, Mich struggled to stifle a swoon.

From our vantage point too you could see the entire arena pumping or waving their arms in time with the music, singing along with every chorus. Everyone in the place, I thought, wanted to be Bruce or be with him. No wonder he looks like he's having so much fun.

The yearning was palpable, I thought, and maybe that's why Springsteen's concerts work so well.

It may be that we're all longing for a different thing -- love, or the old days, a good party, great friends like Bruce has in his band, a government we could respect, or maybe merely people we'd enjoy working with as much as Bruce seems to -- but there's something in these anthems that feels like it fits whichever strain we have.

When it came time for an encore, Bruce came back onstage and grabbed a sign from the audience calling for "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," a fave from the "Born to Run" days.

"Sing, sing, sing, sing, sing it again," he sang. And everyone did.


Bonus Bruce clips and links

Patrick MacDonald's Seattle Times review
Gene Stout's Seattle P-I review review

A few minutes of "My City of Ruins" at the 2006 Jazzfest:

Mich's fantasy:

When the Saints Go Marching In:


mich said...

What a great review, Mark! Worth the wait. And so much better than I could have done. Thanks for giving me a supporting role. Almost makes me feel like Bruce did pull me onstage.

You and Manuel really helped make it a fun night -- it was even worth forgoing my single-seat strategy.

freda said...

nice post. I will have to check out the utube later, I have found that I have a problem downloading while I am using the phone line, and can access it better with wireless. glad you will be back for the jazz fest again, see you soon.

Rita said...

Thanks, Mark, for the smart review of the concert AND bonus Springsteen videos!!

I loved your personal witty comments about the performers and fans, including those aimed at your 'Bruce-fanatic' sister. I think you really nailed a lot of the reasons for the success of his concerts.

kateco said...

My last Springsteen concert: Born to Run Tour, Municipal auditorium in N.O. and thanks to Laurie and her fabulous concert promoting sister, Cyndi, I was in row 8. I was fifteen. It was rock heaven and it seemed to go on forever. ah ...