Bruce Springsteen is still Working on a Theme.
Actually, it’s more or less the same theme he’s been working on at least since Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978, when the theme morphed from, essentially:
This town is full of losers. Let’s you and me pull out of here to win! into this:
Chin up, You. And chin up, America! Yes, things are bad. Real bad. I know how bad they are. Mary’s pregnant again, your ’69 chevy is up on blocks, you just got laid off from the ree-fine-her-rhee, you got debts no honest man can pay. I get it. But because I care enough to mention these details — and because of the steadiness of “Mighty” Max Weinberg’s backbeat, and the gale force bluster of Clarence “Big Man” Clemmons’s sax, and the garage-rockitude of “Miami”-cum-“Little” Steven Van Zandt’s axe — you can trust me when I tell you that This Too Shall Pass.
When the E Street juggernaut last pulled into town a mere 18 months ago, the backdrop was bleaker and the message more specific. Fiscal bedlam was still waiting in the wings, but the national mood, with a year and change to go in the Bush regime, was set to Bummed. The two Verizon Center concerts Broooooooooce played then were shorter and more fixed on album-promotion (the strong, sober Magic, in that case) than last night’s loopy, occasionally transcendent trawl through his 36-year catalogue.
Ten years into the E Street Band reunion that for a decade prior to that seemed likely never to happen, some dropoff in surprise is inevitable. But with its leader set to turn 60 in a few months, the lumbering E Street machine shows little sign of rust, even if senior member/citizen Clemmons now spends most of the show seated. And if Clarence’s wardrobe — black cape with glittery silver trim, baffling amulets — now appears swiped from the crappy 70s version of Battlestar Galactica, hey, the E Street Band were already selling out arenas when that show was on the air.
Working on a Dream, the middling four-month-old album that provides this tour’s ostensible raison d’etre, contributed less than a fifth of last night’s 25-song, 165-minute house party. In largely forgetting about that largely forgettable record, the show found room for some lovely curveballs.
The curviest? “Hard Times,” a Stephen Foster tune that dates from the 1850s, a few years before Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ would be released. (“Oh, Susannah!” and “Camptown Races” are among Foster’s pre-Billboard jamz.) It opened the 45-minute encore set on a distinctly different note from the two hours of glorious, if sonically sludgy, rock and roll bombast that had preceded it, giving us something like the E Street Chorus. Bruce’s dusty wail joined Clemmons’s elemental baritone, the high harmonies of Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell, and recent E Street arrivals Cindy Mizelle and Marc Anthony Thompson, to deliver the emotional crescendo the show had approached but never quite achieved until that point.
Not that there hadn’t been highlights. Half an hour in, Bruce resuscitated a rote-sounding “Working on a Dream” by lighting into the preacher schtick he’s been peddling since he reactivated the E Street band in 1999, roaring a pledge to “Take the doubt that’s out there and build a house of faith!”
Bruce might be the only white man in the world who can get away with this sort of thing, but it works for him. The energy in the big room surged immediately, just in time for a trio of songs about poverty. The angry, clangy “Seeds” smash-cut into a honky-tonk refit of “Johnny 99.” The evening’s sole number from the much-revered, recorded-in-Bruce’s bedroom Nebraska LP, it tells of a desperate man driven to crime who gets sent up for life.
Last night, however, “Johnny 99” seemed to be about a train, with The Boss leading the crowd in a whistle-gesture and a woo-woo chant. The performance climaxed with a bit of the hambone comedy familiar from the band’s Super Bowl performance last January: The E Streeters hit a hard stop, and the high-def cameras caught Bruce, Stevie, and — best of all —Max (well-trained in this sort of silliness after 16 years as Conan O’Brien’s bandleader) staring straight ahead, blank-eyed and zombie-like. Well, maybe you had to be there, but it sure was funny. Good thing, too, because next up was “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” another song of resilience, but hardly an anthem. More often performed as a spare acoustic lament, the number swelled with an otherworldly solo from local hero Nils Lofgren that found the recent double-hip transplant recipient pirouetting like Sasha Cohen. Not bad for a guy who can’t pass discreetly through a metal detector.
The Eddie Floyd Stax single “Raise Your Hand” introduced what has become a delightful recent tradition at Springsteen shows, the stump-the-band section. While E Street treadmilled the opening vamp of the 60s semi-hit, Bruce patrolled the perimeter of the stage, pulling song-request signs from the crowd. Written pleas for Arcade Fire’s “Keep the Car Running” (which the E Street Band actually has performed, once) and “Amazing Grace” went unanswered, sadly. Bruce opted for the relatively safe choice of “Out in the Street,” apparently because the request came from a little girl — one who was sitting beside him on the lip of the stage and holding the mic for him before the number was done. And speaking of safe choices, “Hava Nagila” — performed all too briefly after Bruce brought a scroll-like sign demanding it onstage for crowd inspection — is, of course, a popular favorite. Just not in a hockey rink, usually.
The Righteous Brothers' “Little Latin Lupe Lu” was slightly less wicked awesome than “London Calling” or “I Wanna Be Sedated,” both of which have leavened recent shows on this tour, but still good, sloppy fun. An ecstatic “Blinded by the Light” closed out the improv section, and “The Promised Land” gave way to a salvo of more recent anthems climaxing in “Born to Run,” inevitable and unstoppable.
Now, Boss: We couldn’t help but notice that the roulette wheel seemed to land on some of the same “rarities” that cropped up during your last visit. (And also that it did not land on the excellent “Roulette”). I could have done without a reprise of the jazzy, seminal epic “Kitty’s Back,” for example, and “No Surrender” may be John Kerry’s favorite song, but you still don’t need to play it every time you come to Washington. On the other hand, those two uplifting “land” songs you’ve written in the last ten years, “Land of Hope and Dreams” and the Pogues-y “American Land” have within them everything I want from a Springsteen show. After those, playing an extra encore of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” was just gravy.
That one came in response to a sign reading, “Obama called, and he wants ‘Rosie!’” Apparently the Boss signed it and gave it to Rahm Emanuel for delivery to the president after the gig. It’s hard to imagine what the leader of the free world might do with such a souvenir, but if ever he happens to glance at it in a time of crisis, one suspects the subtext will be clear: This Too Shall Pass.
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band at the Verizon Center, Monday, May 18, 2009
01 Badlands 02 No Surrender 03 Outlaw Pete 04 She's the One 05 Working on a Dream 06 Seeds 07 Johnny 99 08 The Ghost of Tom Joad 09 Raise Your Hand (Cropper/Floyd/Isbell) 10 Out in the Street 11 Little Latin Lupe Lu (The Righteous Brothers) 12 Hava Nagila / Blinded by the Light 13 Waitin' on a Sunny Day 14 The Promised Land 15 The Wrestler 16 Kingdom of Days 17 Radio Nowhere 18 Lonesome Day 19 The Rising 20 Born to Run
21 Hard Times (Stephen Foster) 22 Kitty's Back 23 Land of Hope and Dreams 24 American Land 25 Hail to the Chief / Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)