I saw Bruce Springsteen and his larger-than-ever E Street Band on Friday, and to say it was a religious experience is not much of an exaggeration. His concerts over the years have evolved into something akin to a secular humanist revival meeting. How “secular” they are can be argued as some songs, gospel in flavor, bring in God and Jesus. Yet from dirges to party songs, what he offers is what people desire: spirit and stimulation.
Springsteen stirs the best of the human spirit. He doesn’t ignore sadness, disillusionment, or failure. He has highlighted those feelings in such songs as “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” and “Downbound Train,” yet in this latest concert, he distilled what we need: hope and the sense of the good things in life.
Songs such as “Born to Run” and “Badlands” are now sung as anthems by Springsteen and co-sung as hymns by his audience. For me, since I first heard his “Incident on 57th Street” at a discotheque in Copenhagen in January 1975 (the Danes don’t dance with glitter balls), he’s been inspiring.
He’d found huge acclaim in October 1975 with his third album, Born to Run. Then in a contract dispute, he threw aside his following and fame. He decided not to record rather than take dictation on what to record or how to record by his manager Mike Appel. For the next three years, he was out of the public eye, and he obsessed over his songwriting, taking a new direction, which is well documented in The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town.
He regained approval with his next three albums, including the dark and lo-fi Nebraska. In 1984, he brought out Born in the USA, which represented the zenith of his popularity in terms of album sales.
In 1985, he filled the Los Angeles Coliseum four nights in a row, 100,000 people a night. In 2003, he packed Giants Stadium in New Jersey ten nights in a row, a feat unparalleled by any other band. In short, he’s made enough money to last the rest of his life and generations to come. Dollars are not what drive him. He has a greater mission, beyond fame and fortune. He helps people through his music.
When I saw him open the Los Angeles Staples Center in October 1999, most of the audience was gray-haired—loyal fans seeing his return with the E Street band, who he had not toured with for eighteen years. I witnessed how songs from his early albums had become touchstones for my generation. We all shouted out the words to “Born to Run:" "Baby this town rips the bones from your back. /It's a death trap; it's a suicide rap. / We gotta get out while were young..."
We were still rebels in our mid-years.
After that, he preferred smaller venues without VIP boxes so that he could connect with the people more. No one could hide behind smoked glass. For the last decade, too, Springsteen has been flexible with his set lists, changing them to fit his mood and inspiration, wanting also to deliver a unique experience nightly. In his 2009 tour, he even took audience requests in a kind of Stump-the-Band effort.
When I witnessed his 2006 swing through L.A. at the small Greek Theatre with his Seeger Sessions band and his folk- and Irish-flavored set of songs by other people, he had fun in a whole new way. He didn’t have to be Bruce Springsteen being a leader of his own music. He shared the stage with sixteen other accomplished musicians.
The music focused on the human spirit and the tough times that people have to continually overcome. The concert included standards such as “We Shall Overcome,” “When the Saints Come Marching In,” “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” and “Jacob’s Ladder.” He showed that life is taxing often enough, but we can all make it though. Much of the music had uplifting energy, including the jig, “Mrs. McGrath.” If you haven’t heard the album Live in Dublin with the Seeger Sessions Band, I urge you to do so.
On Friday’s show, Springsteen was able to take the larger sound and energy from the Seeger Sessions band and create a new 17-piece E-Street Band. In place of the late Clarence Clemons, there was a five-piece brass section that included Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons on saxophone. The audience was filled with young and old. He speaks to a wide range of people now. I also realized from his set of songs how he grabs his audience and simply doesn’t let them go.
The show started with the rebellious “No Surrender,” where he sang that in high school, “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school” and that “We made a promise we swore we’d always remember. No retreat, baby, no surrender.” Yet this same song ends with another kind of feeling: “I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover’s bed / with a wide open country in my eyes and these romantic notions in my head.”
The whole night had that kind of polarity that worked and gave you the vision of generations of people not being divisive but coming together to help each other. The night’s second song, “We Take Care of Our Own” from his new album Wrecking Ball, emphasized that, revealing more about our potential than what we are:
I’ve been stumblin' on good hearts turned to stone
The road of good intentions has gone dry as bone
We take care of our own
On the somber-yet-empowering side to the evening were such songs as “Jack of All Trades,” “Youngstown,” “Racing In the Street” (with an amazing and extended piano solo by Max Weinberg), and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” where Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello stunned audiences with what he can do with his instrument.
The gospel-flavored songs included “Death to My Hometown,” “My City of Ruins,” “The Rising,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “We Are Alive,” and “Rocky Ground.”
I happened to be swimming my laps yesterday at Occidental College, near where I live, and I noticed that the lifeguard was playing all Springsteen songs through the PA system. When he sat by the edge of the pool, I had to stop and ask, “Did you happen to see Springsteen in concert?”
“Yes,” he said, “Last night.” I told him I had, too, and we spoke for 45 minutes as I treaded water in the deep end (a good way for exercise.)
The college sophomore, Jack, had never been to a Springsteen concert before, and he’d never experienced such a concert where, as he described, “People’s hands lifted in the air, and everyone was swaying, and everyone was singing, including me. It was like church, kind of, but so different. I didn’t expect to feel such a part of everyone, but I did, and it was amazing.”
As a writer, I’m continually inspired by him for a few reasons. One is his writing, the depth and layers he achieves as well as his passion and honesty (subjects that I also wrote about recently). I admire him for his lyrical words and how he pushes himself.
He could probably fill Las Vegas casinos from now until he croaks singing his early stuff, and people would be happy, and he could have Cirque du Soleil swinging around him. Instead, he keeps looking for new ways to connect to people.
He could also become New Jersey’s J.D. Salinger and retreat to his New Jersey compound, rarely emerging, saying he wants to be left alone. Books on him would still be written. Yet here, at 62, he offers tight, three-hour concerts with no intermission, his goal wanting your feet to ache, your hands to feel sore, and your mind and spirit alive. A few times he shouted out, “Are you stimulated?”
At two points, Springsteen stepped into the audience, singing all the while, and walked among the people wedged on the arena floor where there were no chairs. His hair or limbs weren’t pulled. He didn’t need a phalanx of body guards, but rather people parted for him, and he shook hands along the way.
He stood at the midpoint on a narrow platform, belting out his tune, surrounded by loving arms, and then he simply laid down on top of people. Through binoculars, I witnessed as hands passed him forward to the stage. He was singing the whole way, and he reached the stage and continued as if trusting everyone was a most natural thing.
His encore set of songs included “Born to Run,” which was such a climax, I thought surely he’d end there, but he continued on with “Dancing in the Dark” and ended with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out.” On that last song, he plunged again into the audience, and halfway through the song, he stopped singing as images of late saxophonist and good friend Clarence Clemons came on the video screens. Through my binoculars, I saw he was tearing up. He reminded us that into everyone’s life comes the wrecking ball. We fall. Still, we need death to remind us we’re alive. I felt how personal it was for him.
Then the band cranked up again, and Tom Morello offered another searing guitar solo. We were sent out into the night feeling whatever our goals, we can do them.
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