BRUCE REVISITED 20 YEARS LATER
One of my coworkers unexpectedly offered me two tickets to see Bruce Springsteen just days before the March 29, 2008 show in Seattle. I hadn't really thought of going, so it was a total surprise.
I haven't seen Bruce in concert for 20 years and found the experience remarkably similar in some ways and changed in others from past shows. Springsteen and the E Street Band kicked off the proceedings with a surprise "Trapped," minus its trademark organ riff, as Bruce would mention later (that's what he gets for shaking up the setlist). After that they barely stopped for a breath between songs. Highlights were many, including stellar versions of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "She's the One." "Reason to Believe" got an electric down-and-dirty Muddy Waters treatment, complete with some gritty harp work from Bruce. The biggest surprise was the eerie "Point Blank," sounding almost exactly like it did at the 1978 and 1980 shows. "Because the Night" was another nice blast from the past. It was performed well, but didn't quite take off as it should have, unlike the set closer "Badlands," which was the hardest rocker of the evening. I think my favorite moment of the entire show was when Steven Van Zandt took his vocal turn on the "Long Walk Home." No one sings "baby, baby" and "I know, I know" like Steven! In fact, it was great hearing him sing with Bruce all night. It made me realize how much I missed him on the 1984 and 1988 tours.
The encores began with three "classic oldies," "10th Avenue Freeze-Out," "Born to Run" and "Rosalita," all wild and sweaty as usual. Twenty years ago, I would have actually been disappointed to hear "Rosalita" since I'd heard it so many times before at shows. But this version was just right. Bruce didn't stretch it out to ridiculous proportions, yet it still was suitably frenzied. The final song "American Land" was fun, if a bit strange. I never thought I'd hear a Bruce show end with an Irish jig!
The new material from the Magic album didn't impress me much, even in a live setting. The title song and "Radio Nowhere" probably worked the best. "Devil's Arcade" was deadly dull and combined with a string of newer songs, made the end of the show sag a bit. Bruce did quite a few numbers from The Rising, which I liked better and I'm not even a big fan of that album.
The weakest link all evening was poor Clarence Clemons (although truth be told, he really was never a great musician, but more of a presence). His first few sax solos were awful. He seemed to improve as the night went on, but hit a lot of clams and seemed to have trouble holding notes. His playing was spot-on for the encores though. Much of the time, Clarence seemed content to cavort on his throne (yes, he had a big gold throne) in the corner of the stage. It was kind of sad.
I'd say the 2008 Seattle show didn't approach the greatness of Springsteen’s 1975-1980 gigs I witnessed, but it was much better than 1984 and I probably liked it more than 1988. The sound system was much better than in the past and the video screens were a nice touch too (cameras were mounted all over the stage, most of them hidden by screens). I wish they had video screens up for the ‘78 and ‘80 shows. It would have been great to see more of the onstage action back in those days.
PS. Shortly after the concert, I heard that original E Street Band organist Danny Federici passed away. He left this leg of the tour to undergo treatment for melanoma. I can’t believe one of the E Streeters is gone.
My coworkers were all listening to the inauguration when I arrived at work. I missed most of the main event due to my commute, so I was more interested in the week’s other major occurrence: NPR’s streaming of Bruce Springsteen’s upcoming album Working on a Dream. Fan and press buzz indicated that it was perhaps Bruce’s most adventurous collection yet. My curiosity piqued, I tuned in and gave the prerelease preview several listens, and. . .
I’ll say it. The album is awful.
My approach to Springsteen’s music for the past twenty years has been one of almost Zen-like patience. I was a huge Bruce fan in the 1970s and 80s, voraciously absorbing every note and word he released (and some he didn’t release via bootlegs) and going to see every show I could. After the Tunnel of Love album in 1988, something changed. His lyrics became broader and he seemed to take on the role of the Great American Troubadour, always imparting an Important Message. Artists change, I can accept that. But one crucial point makes acceptance difficult in Springsteen’s case. His ability to write anything musically compelling disappeared. I can’t think of one song in the last two decades as memorable or enduring as “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run,” “Badlands,” “The River” or even “Hungry Heart.” Yet with every album release, I return, hoping for at least a fraction of the magic that I used to hear. I’m usually more underwhelmed than disappointed by the almost generic quality of most of the songs. There’s just not enough substance to them to capture my attention or imagination.
Which brings us to Working on a Dream. The CD begins with the eight-minute epic “Outlaw Pete,” which reminds me of “Tweeter and the Monkey Man,” the Springsteen parody from the first Traveling Wilburys album. The lyrics attempt to spin a vivid desperado tale, but ultimately come off embarrassing. “My Lucky Day” is a recreation of a River-era rocker, complete with ragged Steven Van Zandt backing vocals (and I’m an absolute sucker for Steven’s vocal contributions). Yet the effort sinks from the lack of a noteworthy hook. Much of the rest of the album drifts by in a similar undistinguished fashion, polished by Brendan O'Brien’s slightly Brian Wilson/Phil Spector-influenced production that adds strings, background harmonies and subtle electronic effects. I guess this is what passes for adventurous.
Surprisingly, one of my favorite songs is the one I dreaded most. Springsteen revealed in an interview that a visit to a new mega supermarket in his neighborhood had inspired one of the new album’s selections. The subject matter doesn’t sound too promising, but here we have “Queen of the Supermarket.” It’s a faux Beach Boys track that shifts and builds with lyrics that are lightheartedly sexy and mysterious. In other words, it has character, a quality sorely lacking on this record. The other standout tune isn’t officially part of disc, but a bonus track tacked onto the end. “The Wrestler” is the title song from the 2008 film and is a desolate character study that recalls Bruce’s brooding acoustic masterpiece Nebraska.
As a Halloween treat to his fans, Springsteen posted a video on his website for a new song called “A Night with the Jersey Devil.” It doesn’t appear on the new disc, but should have. “Jersey Devil” is a gritty, down and dirty blues number that would have shaken the tepid Working on a Dream to its core. It’s interesting to note the songs that are most successful out of Bruce’s latest work are all basically throwaways. “Jersey Devil” is a video freebie, “Queen of the Supermarket” is a goof on the mundane and “The Wrestler” is a writing assignment. Maybe Springsteen should stop trying so hard and relax more. Or maybe I’m thinking too much about Bruce’s recent recordings and have to accept my dream of another major musical statement from him is over. It’s been too long of a wait for my dream to come true.
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