Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bruce Springsteen in the Swamps of New Jersey

I like to think that I was there near the very beginning of Bruce Springsteen’s career. I first heard of him in the fall of 1970, owned a first pressing of his original album, and now after all these years find myself among a select few who attended the now iconic and legendary performance at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic during the Darkness tour in 1978. So that puts me in some rare company and living in New Jersey also puts me ahead of out-of-state critics because they can never really, authentically, have a New Jersey mindset.

Programs from the Capitol Theatre concert, top - cover; bottom - inside ad

Over the years I’ve seen a sampling of Bruce’s concerts from nearly every phase of his career and last Friday night I finally got to see a performance from the Wrecking Ball tour. This is the tour, I can safely say, that has seen more changes than any other Springsteen tour to date.
The obvious changes: Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, so essential to the “E Street sound,” are no longer with us. Since every musician has their distinct sound or musical footprint, Clarence and Danny can never be truly “replaced.” Their fill-ins last night did an admirable job but as close as they came to approximating the sound, you felt and heard it as different. The size of the band: The E Street Band has now morphed into a large ensemble rivaling the large collections of musicians in the band Bruce formed and called “Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom.” With Dr. Zoom, in those early days (early 70’s), most nights there was a band member on stage playing monopoly. There was no monopoly game on stage at Met Life Stadium (aka The Meadowlands) Friday night, but at one point I counted 19 band members on stage, and, at times, some would have been free for a couple of dice rolls.

Bruce used to start his concerts with a beginning, rave up favorite. The Darkness tour always stared with “Badlands” as the set main opener. Sometimes he led into the concert with a cover of another well-known rocker. In the Madison Square Garden concert on that 1978 tour, he led into Badlands with the Roy Brown tune "Good Rockin’ Tonight” made popular by Elvis I never understood why but he led into his concerts that way, especially when he had any number of great intro songs of his own, but he did and still does.

Last Friday night, Bruce opened with "Living on the Edge of the World," dredged up from the Tracks collection  then followed with the obscure "Open All Night" from Nebraska, warning everyone that he wouldn’t know all the words and dropped a number of f-bombs, while the crowd nervously laughed and covered up some young children’s ears.
He showcased a number of obscure tunes, including "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)," a song intended for but not included on The River album. It left me with the impression that he somehow needed to get those in because at the end of the tour someone would proclaim that over his God-knows-how-many shows on the tour he had performed an impressive number of different songs. I appreciate his attempt to display his whole catalogue, but not playing "Thunder Road" left me feeling a void. Other nights got “Jungleland,” Racing In The Streets,” and Prove it All Night.”
This brings us to another point. While “Living On The Edge Of The World” is normally an interesting raucous filler song, great for the interior section of his concerts, as a lead-in it had the effect of weakening his opening. The reviewer for the Star-Ledger, Tris McCall, proclaimed this to be one of Bruce’s best concerts, and he’s probably been to some terrific shows, but he also admits to only joining Bruce’s career in the late 80’s.  This means that he isn’t measuring this concert against the Darkness and The River tours and is using the Born in the USA tour as his baseline.
"Open All Night" was reassuring and he followed that up with "Out in the Street" but then seemed to feel the tone was set and turned to a number of slower songs that sat everyone down.
In comparison, he opened the Radio Nowhere tour at Giants Stadium with six of his biggest openers that lasted for 34 straight minutes. Everyone was standing and dancing for the entire time and utterly relieved when he slacked off for a quiet number, allowing his audience to collapse in their seats to collect their wits and allow the oxygen to catch up in their blood streams.
Holding up signs to request songs is getting a bit old. I think he values the spontaneity over carefully considering what fits and what songs are better together, even if pulled from some back shelf. To his defense I’d have to wonder about all those zillion songs that never made their way to vinyl and ones we’ll never hear. If those songs never made it, what chances do we have hearing “Kitty’s Back” or “Jackson Cage” bracketed by other sensible hand-picked catalogue staples?
I was grateful for the biscuits thrown my way that night, “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street,” “Out In The Street,” “Lost in the Flood,” and “New York City Serenade.” It was also fun realizing as he ended that last one that if you owned The Wild and Innocent (album number two) that “Rosalita” was on its way because that’s how the two songs are grouped on the vinyl.
Having Gary “U.S.” Bonds on stage to help with “Jole Blon” was a stroke of genius leaving me wondering why Southside Johnny couldn’t be coaxed up for “Talk to Me”— admittedly penned by Bruce but a signature song of the Jukes when they released the Hearts of Stone album.
There were heart-warming sections, especially the nice touches with “My City in Ruins and the tribute to Clarence in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Even though he alluded to Danny Federici in “My City in Ruins,” although some could be thought to have conjuring up 9/11 as well, it was a shame his reference to Danny couldn’t be more poignant, like using a song like “Sandy.” Maybe he feels he shouldn’t tamper with Federici’s classic.
I was thrilled that he reprised his Super Bowl “Ramrod” sketch with Miami Steve and I enjoyed “Bobby Jean,” especially now that I understand the song was written about Miami Steve, not a long lost girlfriend. (Bruce was feeling the loss of Miami Stevie when the guitarist left the band in 1984 to pursue some personal projects. (he returned in 1995)
When the pace of the concert slowed to a crawl I found my mind wondering and the thought struck me that this was a modern day version of a Glenn Miller, big band orchestra (especially with the large brass section). Bruce was more like an orchestra leader, using a hand instead of a baton, but essentially performing the same function. Glenn Miller had a clarinet at the ready and would join a song in the bridge, much like Bruce slings the guitar over his back and then pulls it out like a rifle when needed.
 There were no long-winded political diatribes in this concert. Several early tour attendees did remark that Bruce pushing his politics took away from their experience. Here it wasn’t Richard Gere or Susan Sarandon sharing their political expertise, or the conversion experience of Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a couch, Bruce’s early tour political spadework had the effect of a solicitation call during the dinner hour, something barely tolerated and nearly as annoying. I wondered when he was singing "Death to My Hometown," a dramatic song about bankers causing a hometown factory to close, if he had a balancing song that asked whether the town’s main factory was closing down because it was producing products that nobody wanted and whether the banker had been driven to the cut-bait moment by unions escalating their wages beyond a limit that priced the product over their competition.
Maybe he should have suggested something like how we shouldn’t be building any more gas-guzzling SUVs and maybe getting paid by productivity rather than seniority or position on a union roll call. (See the longshoreman union's destruction of the US shipping industry.)
There are many ways to gauge a concert. I had this gut feeling about the concert Friday night that involves who I’d want to share the concert with. One by one I was taking my daughters to see Bruce. The first daughter got to see The Rising tour. That was such incredible fun to finally get one of my children to directly understand my obsession with Springsteen’s music. Then, in 2009, I was able to get the second daughter to the Radio Nowhere tour (That’s what I call it although the album is correctly called “Magic”) The second daughter is the biggest fan of Bruce, and especially liked Radio Nowhere, so it was a tremendous thrill to have her there and to see it in the very beginning, kicking the show off.
On Friday night, about an hour into the concert when it started to slow to a slog, I revisited my prior regret that I couldn’t get daughter number three to see Bruce. She had to return to Florida just before this recent set of stadium dates. The timing will have to be just right, especially if I want her to see Bruce in New Jersey. (Is there any better place to see the Boss?) I thought had she been there next to me, she would have been horrified and underwhelmed and thought all my prior comments about how unbelievable his shows—no his “experiences,” had been over the years.
Happily he kicked it into another gear and the last two hours seemed like a typical epic concert of his. The question is why he almost rumbled to a standstill before going racing in the street? I think the only real answer is that substituting requests, and then playing “Death to My Hometown”, “Shackled and Drawn” and then not playing “Thunder Road,” “Backstreets” “Jungleland,” “The Promised Land,” “Atlantic City,” and “Growing Up,” he was leaving out the heart of the concert.
I absolutely love “American Land” and “Land of Hopes and Dreams.” “Wrecking Ball” is a flawed song and maybe it’s the fact that he’s reminding me that New Jersey taxpayers are still paying for the Giants Stadium that was knocked down—to the tune of $100 million of debt or $13.00 for every New Jersey resident. The old stadium brought in $20 million in annual revenue while the new stadium brings in a paltry $6.3 million. Consider that the Giants raped their season ticket holders for a one-time personal seat franchise to help finance the obscene cost of putting up a new, gray-drab mausoleum, a stadium that replaced a perfectly good stadium. It struck me as humorous, sitting there, that only the 1 percent-ers could afford to buy or build a seat so that Bruce ticket holders (more 1 percent-ers) could listen to a diatribe against corporate greed and the owners and CEOs - the other 1 percent-ers.

Parking lot 3 hours before starting time on ticket; 4 hours before the actual start

Last night was really a two-part concert. The first solid hour was a warm-up for the typical frenetic finish characteristic of a Springsteen concert. I personally enjoyed the older songs that I’ll never tire of hearing. Given that Bruce’s worst performance is still a whole lot better than most performers’ best nights, it was still a great concert. Having said that, this was not one of the concerts from my personal experience that I would put even in my top ten. I was still thankful for having access to the ticket, [thank you Kathi and Brian] wouldn’t have missed it except for dire circumstances, and it was completely worth the effort to get there. 
The night was balmy and even for Bruce in his home environs of New Jersey, impossible to dial up a better night on request. As Bruce said during the concert, his favorite time of year is end of summer/beginning of fall. Friday night was perfect. I don’t think there’s any place I’d rather have been than at a concert given by the Boss. Even though his concerts have definitely changed, he is still the best rocker to ever strap on a guitar and take to the stage.

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