Bruce Springsteen's career, onstage and on record, arguably is the most consistently brilliant of any artist of the past 30 years. But his latest tour is unlike the recent embarkments by rock's other aging legends: the biannual Rolling Stones and Who wingdings, or the contrived revenue-raking regroupings of Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, or, God help us, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.
Far from an attempt to recapture the glory of yore, or an effort to send box sets flying from the shelves, this latest tour is both a celebration of the past and a testament to Springsteen's determination to grow and evolve, to find something new in songs that are decades old, to remind anyone who cares that these songs still bristle with the vitality of genius, that they resound with the cadence of real life as art, and art steeped in real life.
All that said it's hard to argue with those who view this tour as particularly unpromising. Springsteen hasn't issued an album of new recordings since 1995's bleak, predominantly acoustic The Ghost of Tom Joad. And though he won a Grammy in 1994 for "Streets of Philadelphia," the albums that preceded it (1992's Human Touch and Lucky Town, his first releases without the complete E Street Band since the early Eighties) sold poorly. The accompanying tour, which replaced the E Streeters with a set of studio pros, was met with skepticism from long-time fans and generated little interest from the audience he picked up following his 1984 breakthrough, Born in the U.S.A., and the 1987 followup, Tunnel of Love.
His latest release, 1998's Tracks, is a four-disc box set of B-sides and studio outtakes that rescues some stellar material from the obscurity of rare and costly bootlegs. It's a stunning piece of work -- one that offers proof that the Boss's leftovers could be the centerpieces of lesser artists, and that he knew what he was doing when he left certain songs off of certain albums.
Yet its release, timed just before the announcement of Springsteen's induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and his reunion with the E Street Band for their first tour since 1988) brought with it a whiff of disturbingly well-orchestrated nostalgia.
But, as anyone who caught a show during the tour's first leg last year can tell you, Springsteen has no intentions of subjecting his fans to a stroll down memory lane. He remains, at age 50, a vital and mesmerizing force. That's why he can still pull off a song of frustrated young love à la "Backstreets," or an escapist anthem such as "Born to Run," without pandering to the protocol of arena-rock spectacle. When the Stones tear into "Satisfaction," or the Who haul out "Baba O'Riley," it's strictly for the benefit of the audience: classic-rock tunes dusted off for another exhibition. Springsteen, however, has recast his material, both in the arrangements and in his emotional approach to the songs.
"The River" has been transformed from a mournful, folk-based ballad into something that has the slink of midnight jazz (thanks to some stunning work from saxman Clarence Clemons) as well as the frightening undercurrent of lives being shattered, of dreams turning to lies, or, as the song suggests, something worse. "Youngstown," a standout from The Ghost of Tom Joad, is presented in concert as a blazing statement of rage, from the menacing thump of Max Weinberg's drums to Nils Lofgren's majestically dramatic solo, which comes close to stealing the song from his boss.
Admirably the set lists have varied from show to show, with Springsteen digging deeper into his catalogue than he has in years, playing early obscurities such as "New York City Serenade" and seldom-performed highlights, including "Incident on 57th Street," "For You," and "Ramrod." Most of the standards are there: "Born to Run," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "The River," "Hungry Heart," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Prove It All Night," "Badlands."
But he has shied away from some of his biggest chart hits, especially the ones from Born in the U.S.A. and Tunnel of Love, not to mention "Rosalita" and "Streets of Philadelphia." You have to wonder what the fans he picked up during his mid-Eighties domination must think when, after leaving one of the current marathon shows, they realize he didn't play "Glory Days" or "Dancing in the Dark," or that "Born in the U.S.A." is now performed solo as a searing, acoustic blues, with lacerating slide work and an entirely revamped vocal melody that makes every line burn. If Woody Guthrie's guitar could kill fascists, this new version of "Born in the U.S.A." rains bullets on the jingoistic sloganeering mistakenly attached to one of Springsteen's most scathing songs.
The brilliance of this tour resides in its unexpected moments: the smiles on the faces of die-hards when they hear the first notes of "Backstreets," "Jungleland," or the harrowing rearrangement of "Point Blank"; the way Springsteen inserts bits of an Al Green soul classic into the long, tent-revival monologue during "Light of Day"; his duet with wife Patti Scialfa on "Mansion on the Hill" or "Factory." In this context the less dramatic crowd pleasers like "Darlington County," "Working on the Highway," and "Out in the Streets" only underpin Springsteen's ability to make his concerts both redemptive and challenging, joyously rollicking and unnervingly tense -- events that transcend entertainment and cut straight to the soul.
I've seen Bruce Springsteen dozens of times over the years: the exhaustive workouts that bookended the 1978 release of Darkness on the Edge of Town; the glorious 1980 tour following The River; the post-U.S.A. arena gigs; the harrowing but sometimes hilarious acoustic shows in support of Tom Joad. I've seen him perform the soul standard "Raise Your Hand" in 1976 with its creator, Memphis Stax legend Eddie Floyd, both of them grinning like delirious, overjoyed fools. I've heard "Two Hearts" performed as both a pile-driving rocker and a contemplative, melancholy ballad. I've been moved damn near to tears during versions of "Backstreets," "Thunder Road," and "4th of July, Asbury Park." I've had my head practically cracked into pieces by "Adam Raised a Cain," and I've shimmied like a foolish, hapless dancer to "Spirit in the Night" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." After all of these shows, I've left feeling drained, speechless, rattled to the core by the experience of witnessing the embodiment of everything I believe popular music should do to the body and brain.
Last September, en route to Detroit for his pair of shows in the suburb of Auburn Hills, I expected to be similarly rattled and speechless. More than any artist I've loved over the years, and turned to for solace and release -- more than the Who, the Clash, Prince, the Rolling Stones, and a host of others whose members have either died or called it quits before I could hear them live -- Springsteen has never disappointed me. I've never listened with blind faith, and I know a throwaway when I hear one. But, as the man once said: "Faith will be rewarded." Springsteen has always made good on that statement.
Nothing, though, quite prepared me for those two nights at The Palace, a relatively comfortable arena that is the home of the Detroit Pistons. It wasn't just the power of the band, which turned in what may have been definitive versions of "Darkness," "Tom Joad," "Murder Incorporated," and several others. It wasn't just Springsteen's vocals, which reveal a newfound gospel phrasing that makes them no less evocative and throttling than they were twentysomething years ago. It wasn't just the chills generated during "Point Blank" and "Youngstown," or the warm rush I felt upon hearing "Jungleland" and "Backstreets" for the first time in years. It wasn't the way Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt gazed at each other while sharing the mike during "Out in the Street." It wasn't even "The Land of Hope and Dreams," the tour's set closer and the best song Springsteen has written in years.
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No, what marked these shows as historic, was one simple song: "If I Should Fall Behind," a nightly fixture on the tour. In its original version on Lucky Town, the song is a promise of commitment from one nervous lover to another, an assurance that love will endure hardship through passion and dedication, and a plea to make it all work, come what may.
In concert the song is transformed from a dialogue between two newlyweds into something emblematic of the entire tour: the reuniting of old friends, the importance of enduring relationships. The song is shared by Springsteen, Lofgren, Van Zandt, Clemons, and Scialfa, with each taking a line and a chorus, huddled around the microphone, the lights suitably dim, close friends celebrating the ties that hold them together, and the ties that brought the group back together after more than a decade apart.
The song becomes a kind of affirmation, a reminder that, despite the hardships Springsteen has so masterfully essayed over the decades, life can be a wonderful thing.