I had a great time at the Garden last night (Wednesday, October 17) with my friend Kitty (of "Kitty's Back" fame) and HER friends. How could I not have a great time? It was Bruce and the E Street Band, after all. Still, his last tour -- the Seeger Sessions tour with a mostly different bunch of musicians -- was such a blast, such a hoedown, such a triumph (as good as I've EVER seen him) I knew this wouldn't measure up. I was right.
The show was worth every penny. It always is with Bruce. But problem number one is his new album "Magic,"which Rolling Stone absurdly gave five stars, the "instant classic" rating reserved for masterpieces like "Pet Sounds" and "The Joshua Tree." (Not that those got five stars of course, for various reasons.) First, I really dislike the way producer Brendan O'Brien records Bruce's voice. That voice hasn't aged in the least, as his ferocious live vocals proved last night. But on the album, it all sounds glossed over, airbrushed...lazy, even. There's no urgency in them and I wasn't surprised to hear the vocals were recorded without the band and that people were brought in to overdub their parts. And of course it's not a great batch of songs. His last really good album was "Tunnel Of Love," when you're talking about original songs. His last great album was "Seeger Sessions" (covers) and before that really "Born In The USA." But he can still deliver a tune. "Radio Nowhere" grows on you and both "Long Walk Home" and "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" can enter the canon with heads held high.
But if any proof were needed that many of the other songs don't cut it, last night's show was the evidence. He included eight songs in the show and most every time they brought a quick halt to any momentum. Not "Long Walk Home" or "Girls" -- people shouted out the choruses as soon as they began. But the rest could't hold up.
The show began with "Radio Nowhere" of course and Bruce launched right into "The Ties That Bind," a great blast of fun and a tune I don't think I've ever heard live before. (I'd love to hear him do "The River" album from start to finish some day.) I called my friend Sam's cell phone because it's his favorite Bruce song and he would love to hear it live and since the tour isn't coming to Florida yet, this is as close as he can get right now.
Then came "Lonesome Day," one of the few songs from "The Rising" I really like. (That album was treated with too much post 9-11 reverence, I'm afraid. "The Seeger Sessions" -- especially the revamped version -- is much better.) The tone of the show was set from the start. Time and again, Springsteen would launch right from one song to the next. There was very little chit chat; just one song after another. If there hadn't been so many songs from "Magic" in that list, it would have been heart-stoppingly good. And the mood was musically celebratory but lyrically dark. To me, this felt like Springsteen's most overtly political set list, with a note of desperation always lurking just behind the beautiful noise.
Things ground to a halt right there, however, thanks to "Gypsy Biker" and "Magic," neither of which held up well, though the crowd was with him for both. Then came the highlight of the night: "Reason To Believe," "Adam Raised A Cain" and "She's The One" piling on top of each other. I think by now most hardcover Springsteen fans love "Nebraska" most of all, not just because of that album's low-fi nature or the fact that casual fans have barely heard of it. No, it's not snobbism, just the simple fact that "Nebraska" has ten great songs, not a weak one in the bunch. It's stark, but there's nothing better to pop in when you're driving cross country late at night. (And it's safer than trying to read "On The Road," believe me.)
"Still at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe," he sings from that "Nebraska" closer. A thumping, boogie beat propelled the song but the real kicker was Bruce singing the final verse into one of those distortion microphones that made him sound like Tom Waits wailing from beyond the grave. It was so out there, so radical, so carnival barker-ish, you just had to laugh. Then it dissolved into a sledgehammer rendition of "Adam Raised A Cain" (can there be any other way of playing that pounding number from "Darkness on the Edge of Town"?). Obviously drawing on a father and son conflict, nowadays the song sounds more general and apocalyptic. THAT dissolved into "She's The One," the epic number from the epic album "Born To Run" and boy would I love to hear Springsteen perform THAT album in order, in its entirety. Come on Bruce, it's all the rage; jump on board. I was in heaven right here.
We came right back to earth with "Living In The Future," which Bruce preceded with his speech about Orwellian times. I wish the song met his lofty goals, but other than a sing-along chorus, it doesn't stick. "The Promised Land" came next and it did a much better job of addressing the anger and anguish over having our country's ideals betrayed time and again by the Bush administration:
"There's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain't got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted"
Then came "Brilliant Disguise," an unexpected treat from "Tunnel Of Love," but still, an odd song to duet with Patti on since it's about marital breakup. "Backstreets" howled through the Garden next, followed by "Darlington County," a rave-up from his biggest seller, "Born in the USA." We had seats just far enough behind the stage so that we weren't getting a profile of the band, but seeing their backsides. It was a fun view, actually, since we got to see everyone telegraphing to each other their next move, watch Bruce toss off one guitar and grab the next, mop his face with a towel soaked in ice water and again and again he would gesture to the people to the side of him (us) and the folks behind, and with every seat full we raised a roar every time. At the end of "Darlington County," he was slumped over a railing facing us, in despair over the fate of his buddy in the song (poor Wayne!) and we got the full effect of his acting.
"Devil's Arcade" brought the temperature back down again, followed by "The Rising," which along with "My City in Ruins" (not played) is the other keeper from that album. "Last To Die" is just rote; strong musically in a way, but too blunt and straightforward to be more than a polemic. That was followed by another song from the new album. But it's my favorite, "Long Walk Home," and the crowd knew every word and sang along lustily, unlike with most of the other new numbers. It captured everything he wanted to say about our current political situation, but in a timeless manner:
My father said "Son, we're lucky in this town,
It's a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone"
"Your flag flyin' over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't"
It's gonna be a long walk home.
It doesn't get more patriotic, or pointed, than that.
The finale was "Badlands," which for me has become sort of the iconic Bruce song in concert. Unlike say "Born To Run," it's not known perhaps by casual fans. But the entire crowd pumps its fists and sings along with every word. "I believe in the faith that COULD save me...." Bruce was mature beyond his years then and lyrics like those will endure the way something like "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake" never will.
Then came the encore with the other gem from "Magic," the widely heralded "Girls in Their Summer Clothes." The crowd sang the first chorus without prompting, proving it's their favorite too, and the vocals live are much better than the breezy, too happy ones on the album. (Please don't use O'Brien again.) It's a great Brian Wilson melody and a great chorus, but I have trouble completely embracing a song with the lazy line "She cut me like a knife." Still, it's a highlight. Then came "Thundercrack," an early years concert closer that was the precursor to "Rosalita" as a barnstorming finale. It was a lot of fun to hear, but it's no "Rosalita" and is much weaker melodically and lyrically. Fine for the faithful, but for me it didn't build momentum. Then came "Born To Run" and I called my sister Libet's cell phone because the line "Tramps like us" always reminds me of her.
That segued into the synthesizer riff from "Dancing In The Dark," the biggest hit of his career (#2 for four weeks, though I see his cover of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" hit #1 in '85.) That simple riff is the most important melody of his career, since Springsteen added this song at the last minute when he knew "Born In The USA" was missing a pop smash. Everything else in his career followed that very intentional smash hit. Personally, I've been singing a good acoustic, twangy version of the song in the shower lately. The riff is a little cheesey sounding now, so it's good to remind yourself of the dark lyrics. Listening to the tens of thousands of people in the Garden shout out "I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face!" is kind of amazing. The song certainly doesn't pander, does it? It all ended with an extended raveup of "American Land" from the Seeger Sessions. Good fun, but frankly the folky band on the last tour played the hell out of it. The E Street Band made it less quirky, less authentic, less interesting -- to a degree, of course. The interaction of Bruce with Little Steven and the Big Man Clarence and Patti and the rest is still a joy to watch.
No show with gems like "Badlands" and "Darlington County" and "The Ties That Bind" can help being anything but a blast. The new tunes may not all hold up, but Bruce and the band and his back catalog always will. The final disappointment was that he called it a night after just two hours and twenty minutes. It was 10:40 and he almost NEVER stops before the "curfew" of 11 p.m. and usually goes 15 or 20 minutes longer. Maybe the babysitter needed to get home? Thanks Kitty for a fun night. Can't wait to see him again.