Monday, July 28, 2008

A Giant show

Three hours, 20 minutes, 30 songs, 55,000 people. I don't think I've seen a better show in my nine-year, 16-concert Springsteen-chasing lifetime.

From the moment he came onstage, his arm draped around Clarence (who appeared to be wearing an adorned admiral's coat), there seemed to be something different about this show. That hunch proved to be true, in all the best ways. Bruce came out in a black shirt and dark blue jeans, at once a change from his usual black-on-black or gray-on-black attire and a throwback to the Born In the USA days of blue jeans and white T-shirts. And then when the band burst into "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" for the opening, it sure seemed like this wasn't going to be like any other shows I've seen.

The band tore through four songs -- "Tenth Avenue," "Radio Nowhere," "Lonesome Day" and "No Surrender" -- before any hint of a pause. Bruce was animated and engaging, often taking his microphone or guitar down to the low stage that jutted out into the audience. Those lucky -- and hardy -- enough to get there early enough and fast enough shook his hand, felt his sweat and strummed his guitar. Opportunistic as he is, he made sure he was down there -- literally, lying on the stage -- for the line "and she kissed me just right like only a lonely angel can," getting a timely peck on the cheek from a fan who probably fainted before he hit the refrain again a moment later.

The huge stage setup covering the band dwarfed everyone and the high-definition screens on either side of the improvised bandshell essentially gave us all front-row seats. Stationary cameras set onstage often gave us Max's view -- a shot of Springsteen from behind, the sea of arms fading off into the darkness in front of him. If they release a DVD of this show or this three-night stand, I won't hesitate to buy it, because I essentially saw a preview already. Whoever produced the concert, choosing the camera angles and the jumps for the live shots on the video screen, has some experience. It felt at times like watching an edited production.

Following "Spirit in the Night," Bruce walked the lower stage collecting signs from the crowd. "Send up your requests!" he said. "That's a good one. ... Ooh, that's a good one. ... We'll get to this one. ..." he remarked as he stuffed the signs under one arm or gathered them in his free hand. He piled them on the stage near his hydration station at Max's platform and went back to the microphone.

"How's everybody's summer going?!" he asked the crowd. Our response was a bit muted, even on the second and third prompts. It worked out for him. "I dunno ... sounds like you've got a little of the ..." his voice trailed off and the band went into "Summertime Blues."

That cover was followed by "Brilliant Disguise" and "Atlantic City," and then it was time for a couple of requests.

The first one he chose to honor said something to the effect of, "I'm a 10-year-old fan 'Growin' Up' at my first show -- and my name's Rosie!" Bruce called for her in the crowd, and her father put her on his shoulders and moved to the front of the section at stage left. The fans cheered when she came onto the screen, probably because her name is Rosie and they wanted that song. "Let's see," Bruce said, back at his stationary microphone stand, his guitar back around his shoulders. "You're 10, so this song was written ... 25 years before you were born! Your father was a glint in your mother's eye!" And with that, he played Track 1, Side 1 of his first album: "Growin' Up."

"Janey Don't You Lose Heart" came next, making someone else happy to see his or her sign displayed onstage, and then he hit the midpoint of his 23-song main set. He went to "I'll Work For Your Love" off of Magic before darting back and forth through his catalog. "Youngstown" featured an insane Nils Lofgren guitar solo, "Murder Incorporated" followed with Bruce working his Fender and trading licks with Stevie, and "The Promised Land" featured blue sky and white clouds projected onto the backdrop behind the band, which made it appear like they were performing in a diorama. One young fan near the lower center stage got some extended camera time during the song. He looked to be about 13, 14 years old, and someone made a point to show him singing along during the chorus: "Mister I ain't a boy, no I'm a man, and I believe in a promised land." That kid got Bruce's harmonica after the song.

Before singing "Living In The Future," Bruce took a few minutes for his brief political message, explaining the song's influence from the last eight years. "This song is about things happening here that your parents told you growing up only happened in other places," he said. When he finished and the band picked up, the father next to me found enough energy to shout, "Take a trip to Iran!" That and some clapping during "Badlands" and "Born to Run" were pretty much all we got out of that guy the entire night. Not sure what prompted him, his wife and his two kids to come to the show, since I didn't detect any deep interest in any of them, but hey, if he wants to spent $100 per ticket to shout, "Take a trip to Iran!" that's his choice. Plus, there's the fact that the song -- and the point of the song -- has nothing to do with Iran. It's about screwing up Iraq, which pretty much happened simply by starting the whole fiasco with Iraq.

In lieu of an intermission -- which, after the effort and energy put into the first 16 songs, the band certainly deserved -- Bruce took his time getting to "Mary's Place." He walked the stage as the band played a soft backbeat of the song and he spoke of traveling "to that river" and "building a house" and building hope and love and happiness in that house. Clarence provided some soulful response to Bruce's calls. "Go to that river!" "A HOUSE!" Bruce talked a lot about that house. He seemed to like the idea of that house. And Clarence really wanted Bruce to build that house. The only drawback to "Mary's Place" was that it was not raining during the repeated audience-aided call-and-response of "Let it rain! Let it rain! Let it rain! Let it rain!"

Bruce switched it up for the next song, taking an acoustic guitar and a microphone stand down to the lower stage for "Working on the Highway." Back on the main stage, a young woman appeared without introduction next to Soozie and danced and sang backup with her. She never got any screen time, so it was hard to discern her age, but my guess is that it was a daughter of a band member. May have even been Bruce and Patti's daughter, who'll head off to college in the fall. She enjoyed herself up there, then gave Soozie a hug and left the stage after the song, with no mention of her.

"Tunnel of Love," with a catchy twist of an open, maybe a little Pet Shop Boys-y, came next, followed by the signature main-set end run from this tour of "The Rising," "Last to Die," "Long Walk Home" and "Badlands." Then the rain did come: big, heavy drops falling intermittently at first during the end of "Long Walk Home," then more steadily over, ironically, "Badlands." The drops flashed in the spotlights and cooled the place down, but we never really felt the brunt of the short shower. We got spritzes here and there, but either it was a very localized shower or the wind currents kept it from us, just a few rows from an overhang, and centered it more over the field.

By the end of "Badlands" and, therefore, the end of the set, the rain had ceased. The band took a very short break before Bruce was back at the microphone to deliver his monologue about the community food banks he supports at every tour stop. The encore opened with "Girls In Their Summer Clothes," featuring another visit to the front of the stage and lots of hand-holding with a girl of about 8 and a woman of about 58. "Jungleland" slowed things down a bit before a raucus, intense five-song run to close the show.

"Born To Run" brought the lights up, naturally, and they stayed up for "Bobby Jean" and, ironically, "Dancing in the Dark." They then finished with the fun Irish jig "American Land," the lyrics scrolling across the back of the stage, though too deep for just about anyone off to either side or too high -- so, most of the audience. Everyone knew when to sing, "Dear I hear the beer flows through the faucets all night long," though.

When the band gathered at the front of the stage after "American Land" to take a bow, Bruce had That Look on his face. It's that look of, Maybe we're not done. We caught on quickly. The crowd cheered. Bruce smiled. We cheered louder. Bruce looked at Stevie. We cheered more. Bruce and Stevie smiled. We went nuts.

I first saw That Look in Austin, Texas, in 2000. It was my third show, all on the 1999-2000 return tour, and I'd only seen him play New Jersey before this. He and Stevie played the crowd following what had been the standard show closer of the tour, "Land of Hope and Dreams," and then everyone ran back to their stations and lit into "Ramrod." I'm not a fan of the album version, but it has more appeal live, and Max loves it.

But this time, I new That Look meant something bigger than "Ramrod." The E Streeters returned to their stands and Bruce stepped up to the microphone. "A true fairy tale to open the show," he said, "and a true fairy tale to close the show." He counted off -- "ONE! TWO! THREE! FOUR!" -- and within the first few notes, everyone recognized "Rosalita."

Casey leaned over and said to me, "I can't believe, for such a rare song, he's played it almost every time I've seen him." And he has. Casey's been to three Springsteen stadium shows -- Giants and Shea in the summer and fall of 2003, respectively, and this one, and he's played it each time. She's seen him three other times, twice on the Vote For Change tour and once in a solo acoustic setting following the Devils & Dust release. "Rosalita" wouldn't be a possibility during any of those other three, so she's essentially 3-for-3 in seeing Bruce and Rosie together.

When Bruce and the band reunited for the 1999-2000 shows, "Rosalita" was something of a holy grail for fans. He rarely played it, but we loved it. I'd read setlists on and think of the lucky fans around the country -- or at a notable New Jersey or New York closer -- who got to see this rarity. But when I first saw it, at Giants Stadium in the summer of '03, I was a bit underwhelmed. I think the combination of the buildup, plus the location of my seats so far from the stage -- at the other end of the field, upper tier, halfway up the section -- took some of the oomph out of it. Plus, he followed it with "Dancing in the Dark," when Rosie seems like she should be the show closer, no matter what. As much as I shudder to make this reference, I'll defer to Bruce's unfortunate allegiances and use this analogy: You wouldn't bring Mariano Rivera in to pitch the eighth inning, then follow him with another pitcher for the ninth. "Rosalita" is the Mariano Rivera of Bruce Springsteen's catalog.

Yet he did the same thing that October, when we saw him at Shea Stadium. Rosie came out for the eighth, but Courtney Cox's big break got the ninth.

But this time, everything was perfect. Rosie closed the show, and she rocked. Bruce even put a subtle -- and maybe unintentional -- homage to Van Morrison in there, giving it a little bit of his inflection on "Ro-ro-ro-rosie" in one of the choruses. After he finished the song in the swamps of Jersey, the band came back to the front of the stage for its final bow and we were ready to go. I didn't care if he wanted to do another; I wanted that to be the end. However, I couldn't bring myself to turn for the aisle until the lights came up.

And when they did, the best of my 16 Springsteen shows -- in various configurations, from E Street to Seeger Sessions to 9/11 benefits at the Count Basie Theater to appearances on the Today show -- was over. I found myself torn between not wanting to see another and wishing I had taken the week off to attend tonight's and Thursday's concerts. This show was that good. The band played with an energy and a fervor that, if I did not know that there are several more stadiums booked between now and the end of the summer, I might've thought this was a final farewell. But in retrospect, I think the emotion and effort we saw was the band members' expression of happiness and comfort about returning home and kicking off the final leg of what will have become a 12-month tour when it's over. They got their second wind for this last push to the finish line, and we're the ones who benefit.

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Radio Nowhere
Lonesome Day
No Surrender
Adam Raised a Cain
Spirit in the Night
Summertime Blues
Brilliant Disguise
Atlantic City
Growin' Up
Janey Don't You Lose Heart
I'll Work for Your Love
Murder Incorporated
The Promised Land
Living in the Future
Mary's Place
Working on the Highway
Tunnel of Love
The Rising
Last to Die
Long Walk Home

Girls In Their Summer Clothes
Born to Run
Bobby Jean
Dancing in the Dark
American Land
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)


PSoTD said...

Great review, and it was a special show. There were a couple of shots of Max on the video screen, he looked plum tuckered, they all got a big workout last night, to our benefit.

Casey said...

I agree - that was definitely the best of my six shows (and I can't believe I've seen six already with you! that's almost one per year we've been together!)