Hi 66 / Lo 42
|Volume 68, Issue 52,
Wednesday, November 6, 2002
Arts & Entertainment
Springsteen's rock 'n' roll revival brings crowd
By Ellen Simonson
Fans of Bruce Springsteen often say his concerts can be like a "religious experience." Springsteen himself has often proclaimed his belief in "the ministry of rock 'n' roll," and indeed, when he introduced the E Street Band during his Houston appearance Monday night at the Compaq Center, it was with all the exaggerated fervor of a revival preacher.
I love Springsteen with a passion (his music's pretty good, too) I'd never seen him live before so I was all set for a good old-fashioned, emotionally uplifting religious experience.
However, not all transcendental experiences are immediately blissful. Sometimes you've got to proceed through the pain before you can have the joy.
Springsteen's songs feature characters trying to do the right thing in a big, cold, unfeeling world; they describe what it's like to be lonely, yearning, restless, frustrated — in other words, they articulate the inevitable, universal hurt that comes from being human.
Bruce Springsteen knows all about broken hearts and mixed-up dreams, and he offers sympathy and understanding. But most importantly, he always offers hope — a reason for optimism, a highway out, literally, of course, but metaphorically too. A line like "We've got one last chance to make it real" can apply to mental as well as physical escape.
To me at least, watching him perform live was as emotionally wrenching as it was uplifting. The narrators in Springsteen's songs have to face their pain, to articulate it before they can be redeemed. And the audience comes on this journey with them (OK, I did, at least).
It's completely worth it. Played by the E Street Band, the saddest dirge can mature into a sonic house party over the course of a few minutes. Even the initially mournful "My City of Ruins," which began with Bruce alone at the piano, was turned into a rollicking cry for redemption by the end.
At first it was just Springsteen's rich baritone describing "a blood red circle/ on the cold dark ground ... young men on the corner like scattered leaves," but by the end the song had become a full-fledged celebration.
"Come on, rise up!" Bruce exhorted the crowd, while the band threw in its joyous support behind him. "Come on, rise up!" And the crowd did.
The band members (Roy Bittan, keyboards; Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, saxophone; Danny Federici, organ; Nils Lofgren, guitar; Patti Scialfa, vocals; Garry Tallent, bass; "Little Steven" Van Zandt, guitar; Max Weinberg, drums; and Soozie Tyrell, violin) were just as thrilled as Springsteen about spreading the message of rock 'n' roll.
Every song on the set list — from the familiar, oft-misinterpreted "Born in the U.S.A." (which Springsteen introduced as "a prayer for peace") to the old-school, Dylan-esque "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" — was attacked with fervor, precision and infectious enthusiasm by everyone onstage. The mournful, beautiful duet between Springsteen and his wife Scialfa on "Empty Sky" was a highlight, as were an unusually edgy version of "Atlantic City" and a call-and-response rendition of "She's the One," performed with musical delight that belied its dark lyrics.
Springsteen and the band are on tour in support of their latest release The Rising, much of which was written in response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The words "September 11" were never spoken from the stage, but the songs carried an effective political commentary of their own.
"Waitin' on a Sunny Day," rather polished on the album, turned up live as a furious and sincere exhortation to believe in the healing powers of optimism, and the band threw itself into a folk-infused version of "Worlds Apart" that perfectly reinforced the song's message of cultured understanding.
There were more than a few tongue-in-cheek arena rock moments, too; at 53, Springsteen can still twirl a guitar, leap atop a piano and skid across a stage on denim-clad knees like the rebellious Jersey kid he used to be. Those moments were delightful, but Springsteen's genius lies not in his showmanship but in his message: Life's never easy ("Hard times, babe you know they come to us all"), but if you remain optimistic, if you continue to believe, you will be rewarded. Eventually, you will even be glad. Bruce certainly is.
In the end I have only two complaints. One: No "Thunder Road." Yeah, "Ramrod" and "Badlands" — not to mention the full-blown joyous fervor of "Born to Run" — more than made up for it, but what if I die without ever hearing "Thunder Road" live? How will you feel then, Bruce?
Two: To the loud guy in the cheesy glasses and his drunk, flailing girlfriend, who were standing behind me on the floor — If you don't want to worship, I would suggest you don't go to church. Thank you, and vaya con Bru — er, Dios.
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