BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE E STREET BAND
BANK ATLANTIC CENTER
FRIDAY, MAY 2, 2008
Better than: Watching Steven Van Zandt on reruns of "The Sopranos."
The lines between rock ‘n’ roll show and revival meeting were effectively blurred beyond distinction Friday night as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band ended the current leg of their U.S. trek with an exhilarating, high-energy, two hour, 45-minute blow-out that drew from every chapter of the Boss’ storied 35-year career. It was the kind of concert that offered just cause as to why Springsteen’s fans are among the most zealous of devotees -- those whose fervor can run the gamut from Deadhead-like dedication to that of wide-eyed faithful who see the image of the Virgin Mary in half-eaten grilled cheese sandwiches. And while there’s something scary about buying into the cult of personality, a Springsteen show does go a long way towards making even a reticent skeptic suddenly see the light.
Indeed, Springsteen stalks the stage with an agile grace that’s part big-time rock star, part cheerleader and part Pentecostal preacher, exhorting the faithful to up the ante on enthusiasm (not that it was needed!) while reassuring them that the dreams and idealism of adolescence need not be ceded to aging, encroaching responsibilities and the dire effects of political cynicism. Midway through the show, Springsteen got on his political pulpit, editorializing about the need for change after eight years of the nation being led astray, but all in all, any blatant proselytizing was unnecessary. The best songs of the night – the rallying anthemic opener “The Promised Land,” the populist clarion call “Out In The Street,” a particularly poignant “Growin’ Up,” a riveting version of “The Rising” and a celebratory “Mary’s Place” – all spoke poignantly and profoundly about the need to somehow cling to earlier optimism while peering through the dark clouds of current circumstance.
There was, of course, a shroud cast over the proceedings, specifically the death of longtime E Street keyboard player Danny Federici, whose passing from melanoma two weeks before prompted the postponement of the original concert date. A filmed montage of Federici opened the show on a somber note, but Springsteen’s declaration that the “this is for Dan” turned what could have been a mournful eulogy into a riotous wake. “The Promised Land” effectively rallied the crowd, while its follow-up, an all-too appropriate “I Wanna Be With You,” gave the die-hards a rare and unexpected concert debut. From that point on, the enthusiasm never faltered, and while some standards were greeted with a more arduous response than others, Springsteen’s tireless showmanship kept the audience rapt with adulation all the way through.
At 58, Springsteen’s no longer the manic man/boy he once was, of course – indeed, to see vintage clips of Bruce with the band early on is to witness an effusive entertainer that’s unrivaled in ebullience or execution. However he still retains a remarkably breathless dexterity, one that allows him to swing from a mike stand, literally bend over backwards and take the occasional perilous leap and knee spill. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to think of another performer who can connect with an audience as personally as Springsteen, both literally and figuratively.
He worked every corner of the crowd, literally going to his knees several times to get up close and personal with the people squeezing the stage. Lumbering back and forth on the stage’s extensions, he frequently caught the eye of individuals in the crowd, casting a wink, sharing a smile and making a verbal aside that offered a personal observation. And if that wasn’t enough to make the fans feel inclusive – and most assuredly it was – he took song suggestions from those who had scrawled the names of their favorite tunes on cardboard signs by eagerly taking their placards and parading them around the stage. While Springsteen’s known to personally customize a set list prior to each night’s show – they’ve reportedly performed over 100 tunes during this tour alone – this extra allowance for spontaneity made it a one-of-a-kind event.
As for the E Street musicians, they mostly played the role of support, rarely matching their Boss’ fervor. Guitarist Nils Lofgren, a masterful musician in his own right, offered a stunning spin to accompany his guitar solo during “Prove It All Night,” but with that being his only real instrumental indulgence, he seemed somewhat under-used. Little Steven Van Zandt served as chief guitar foil, mugging his way through several songs and providing reliable back-up vocals. For his part, Clarence Clemons seemed strangely subdued, igniting the crowd with his signature sax solos, but other times appearing somewhat tentative and both physically and mentally removed. The second tier of the band – bassist Gary Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg, keyboardists Roy Bittan and new recruit Charlie Giordano from his Seeger Sessions band, along with violinist/guitarist Soozie Tyrell – were effective, and occasionally effusive, in adding their input to the overall musical might.
Ultimately, Springsteen and company were relentless in their desire to please the crowd, and they were consistently successful when it came to stirring up sentiment. From the indelible sing-alongs like “This Hard Land” and the jaunty “American Land” to an obligatory string of exuberant encore anthems -- “Thunder Road,” “Born To Run,” “Rosalita” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” – this was a show that basked in sheer celebration. Notably, it allowed for reflection as well, with Springsteen summoning the spirit of Federici via a lengthy story about how as teenagers they inherited his parents’ house after the elder Springsteens moved to California. But more significantly, it also looked forward, thanks in part to a trio of tunes from the excellent new album Magic – the breezy “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” and a riveting twosome “Radio Nowhere” and “Livin’ In The Future.”
It could be said Springsteen is the ultimate pop pundit, one who infuses his songs with a powerful emotional bond. Profoundly moving, completely captivating, Bruce and band’s performance proved that music can still matter.
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Personal bias: I was sitting amidst a group of veteran Bruce boosters, one of whom remarked that the level of the band’s enthusiasm on any given night determines whether it’s an exceptional evening or merely a great one. Midway into the proceedings I was assured it was the former.
Random detail: The so-called "pit" is a standing-room only area directly in front of the stage and highly coveted by devotees. Yes, it makes for plenty of interaction with the man himself, but given Bruce’s penchant for playing two to three hours, I’ll take the side seats anytime.
By the way: The word "transcendent" comes to mind.
– Lee Zimmerman