Apparently, I have been living a lie for several years now, not only to others to myself. Up to the show Sunday night in Chicago, I could have sworn that I had seen at least 30 Bruce Springsteen concerts. Well, I just reviewed the history – the Springsteen concert record, complete with setlists, is well-documented by those with lots of time on their hands – and I can only count 19. It sure feels like more.
My first show was historic – the infamous Bomb Scare Show at the Uptown Theater in Milwaukee. It’s a long, beautiful story – general admission in a movie theater; third row center; dramatic songcraft building into something special; nervous solo "Thunder Road" at the piano after 45 minutes, followed by announcement that we all had to leave and could come back at midnight; band went to the Pfister and got drunk; now in front row, band played until 2:30 a.m. The night was, in a word, Magic.
I took my then-14 year-old brother to the next one in Milwaukee two years later (Jim caught his harmonica after "Thunder Road"); saw three Darkness Tour stops (met him backstage in Cincinnati – that’s me with the hair); sang "Hungary Heart" at his feet while he stood on the chairs at Alpine Valley in ‘84. I celebrated Clinton and Feingold with him on Election Night 1992, although the show pretty much stunk without the E-Street Band. He spent most of the ‘90s in a failed attempt to show he can make the same Magic solo or with others. His solo Tom Joad show at the Riverside in '96 was downright depressing, as he struggled to reach the back of even that small room and yelled at anyone who made any noise.
In 1999, he got back together with the E-Street Band – not a moment too soon – and all seemed right with his musical world again. That first reunion tour was dynamic and joyful, but paled in comparison to the Rising Tour that began in 2002, a roaring engine of soul and truth that took the pain of 9/11 and turned grief into hope and, possibly, redemption. On that tour, Bruce and the band found its collective voice for the first time since the great Darkness Tour in ‘78, but this time with maturity and purpose. The show at Miller Park in September 2003 was the last non-New York show of the Rising Tour, and no one would have blamed him if he quit right there, as the undisputed King of the World.
But now comes a new CD and a new tour, with both less obvious but more intense political statements. His Grand Statement about 9/11 behind him, Bruce is kicking ass and taking the names of those who have used the tragedy to twist his beloved American Land beyond recognition. For the most part, you don’t need to understand the political underpinnings of the songs to dig the new album as a milestone in the era of Mature Rock, where those precious few artists who can still crank it up in their 50s and 60s show their continued musical and lyrical vitality. But, in concert on Sunday night, he and the band are in your face, with no apologies. Republicans at Springsteen shows are just going to have to stop their whining and deal with the fact that, in order to get to "Dancing in the Dark", you first have to get a little education about the Darkness on the Edge of Town created by your boy George W. Bush.
For the second tour in a row, the show is dominated by new material – this time from the Magic CD. It starts with "Radio Nowhere", which I think might be the best opening song in rock concert history. An old-fashioned powerful rock song, it features churning guitars, booming drums and a Clarence sax solo, while Bruce’s beautifully weathered voice literally demands more. "I just want to feel some rhythm," he (and the crowd) shouts over and over, while his drummer, the Mighty Max Weinberg, is giving him everything he has. "Is there anybody alive out there?", indeed. Springsteen is speaking to a dearth of culture, to a world of niche marketing, where the music industry gives us only what it thinks we want and not what we need. "I want a thousand guitars/I want pounding drums." Is that too much to ask?
Only Springsteen and the E-Street Band can live up to the challenge of that song. From there, songs like "No Surrender" and "She’s the One" just deliver on the promise. The first half of this show is the strongest set of hard-driving big-band music you’ll ever hear. The centerpiece is an almost-forgotten song from Springsteen’s sparse, home-recorded Nebraska album, "Reason to Believe". The song starts slow and unrecognizable, with Bruce wailing mournfully on the harmonica (an instrument featured many times on this night). But then the piece literally explodes when the band finds a surreal, seminal beat and the guitars start blazing. With a knowing, joyful look on his face, Springsteen rides the wave. He sings the last verse through the harp mike, making it sound like he is singing through a telephone wire on a bad day. "At the end of every hard-earned day/People find some reason to believe." And so we do.
The stuff from Magic are hit-and-miss, as all new material is in concert. The biggest surprise was "Gypsy Biker", which featured a raucous guitar duel between Bruce and Miami Steve that threatened to take over the night. "Magic" was mostly acoustic, but could have used a bit more help from the band. I was hoping that the trite-but-true protest song "Last to Die" might have come alive in concert, but it suffered from too much keyboard and too little guitar.
As Bruce setlist-watchers will tell you, the songs that are not in the set sometimes say more than the songs that are. No "Thunder Road", "Jungleland" or "Tenth Avenue Freezeout" here – the stories of raw desire and racial tension are replaced by the yearning for freedom on the "Backstreets", the self-realization of "The Promised Land" and spitting in the face of these "Badlands". This is a set about finding yourself and then going out to the world and making a difference. As he sings on another scorching highlight, "Adam Raised a Cain": "You inherit the sin/You inherit the blame."
These are the kind of moments that have always touched me in Springsteen shows, when I remember why I fought for tickets, stood in line, and waited for the lights to go down. There were many on this night; moments of hope, inspiration, renewal. This is the most personal show I think he’s ever done – both for him and for us.
Springsteen’s production crew has used technological advances and expertise over the years to make the sound seamless and enveloping – this kind of perfection wasn’t possible back when Bruce was falling through the floorboards of stages in 1975. Even the crowd is perfectly lit with light as they throw their hands of faith in the air on cue during the still-vital "Lonesome Day" and howl the "whoa!" during "Born to Run". They use the technology to create concert democracy as the singer reaches out and we reach back.
Throughout the whole show Springsteen -- once the vulnerable street poet still trying to understand his own words -- is finally, truly The Boss; self-actualized, in command and knowing exactly what is going to happen next, because he planned it that way. The sheer power of the best parts of this show is truly something to see, even for grizzled Springsteen concert veterans. He’s supposedly bringing this tour through Milwaukee in March (his shows get better later in the tour), and I’ll be there again, this time with my son, who is almost as old as my brother was when I took him to his first show. It’s like taking the kid to see Favre – get it while you can, because there will never be anything like it again.