I’m not sure how it is that I’ve made it to three Springsteen concerts in 2008 yet am only managing my first blog post about the shows. Let’s pretend, though, that it’s because of my grand master plan to do a comparative analysis, and not at all related to general laziness on my part. And, actually, a comparison is not a bad idea — I think it can serve to some extent as the answer to the number one question I get every time Brian and I head off to another show: why?
In short: one band, three cities, and three incredibly different concert experiences — all of which nets out to a ton of fun and one long-ass review post. Go get something to drink before you click through to the rest.
First up this year was Houston, which was the first time I’ve ever seen the E Streeters away from the east coast. Before you think I’m insane for traveling all that way for a concert, remember that my sister and her husband live there, so we all — Brian, Jen, and the boys, too — made a family vacation out of it. It was easily the lowest-energy crowd I’ve seen at a Bruce show; no one looked bored, exactly, but they didn’t really seem into it, either — just not a lot of singing at dancing along. Despite the low-key audience vibe it was a great show; the band was really on, and didn’t seem at all phased by the mellow crowd. Maybe it’s typical once they get outside their native area in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic.
Other than the staples, like Born to Run, Because the Night seemed to be the big crowd-pleaser, though possibly due to the fact that they seemed to think they were being treated a 10,000 Maniacs cover — at least if the girl next to me was any indicator. She was amazed when I told her that Bruce co-wrote the song with Patti Smith (“Who?” she said. Sigh.) early in his career. Musically, the high point of the night for me was Candy’s Room, which I really think is simultaneously one of the band’s strangest and best songs. (It violates nearly all the rules of pop music: a whispered lyric than can barely be heard, no verse-chorus-verse structure, no guitar hook, yet it is incredibly powerful and evocative. I’ve never been a teenage boy, but I’m pretty sure that every boy’s heart beats like that drumline the first time he finds himself in a girl like Candy’s room.) Emotionally, I about lost it when they played Terry’s Song, the unlisted bonus track from Magic. It’s the song I would have wanted played at my dad’s funeral, had it been released then. Dad was no Springsteen fan (too noisy, he said) but lyrically, it is perfect. It’s such a lovely, personal song that I never expected to hear it live, and I was a puddle by the end.
Our second show this year was two weeks later in Charlottesville — much closer to home. It was a nice, small arena, and though our general admission wristbands didn’t get us into the pit (the floor area closest to the stage) we were close enough that we were in the very first row of GA, right up against the barrier that separates it from the pit. On the plus side, this meant we had a tiny riser to stand on and there really wasn’t anyone immediately in front of us. But it also meant that the rest of the GA people were behind us and clamoring to get forward — uncomfortable at best, and downright impossible for water or bathroom breaks once the floor filled up. Despite the fairly ideal sight lines, I found that I liked our much-less-crowded spot at the back of the GA area in Houston much better.
I don’t know if my general discomfort contributed, but overall, it was about as unsatisfying as a Springsteen show can be. (Translation: still better than pretty much any other concert, just not the best I’ve seen them do.) I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that founding band member Danny Federici had lost his battle with cancer less than two weeks before and they were still probably reeling. They opened with a video montage of Danny with Blood Brothers playing over it, which was lovely. Later in the show, Bruce went back to his old storytelling ways and shared a story about old times on the tour bus by way of introducing For You, which was clearly played as a memorial.
Overall, setlist had an oddly disjointed feel, and given that Springsteen is known for mixing it up every night and often pulling surprises on the rest of the band, it was just unusual to see it not really come together. The encore, though, really made the night. Watching my brother’s face light up as he realized he was, at last, seeing the one-two punch he’d been chasing for more than 15 shows, Meeting Across the River segueing into Jungleland, was a great moment — truly the high point of the show.
Which brings me — at last — to this week’s show down in Richmond. It brought together the better aspects of Houston (band on its game, good setlist) with the best of Charlottesville (energetic crowd). It also had the added bonus that we finally made it into the pit. We did have high numbers, though, so unless we were aggressive, mean, and willing to be squished, we weren’t going to be right next to the stage. We thus opted to do what any sane people would do — head back to the bar for a couple of hours before the show and then happily ensconce ourselves towards the back of the pit. This worked swimmingly; we were about 20 people back on the left side (by Clarence/Nils/Charlie) and had plenty of breathing — and dancing — room.
In what seems to be a new bit of shtick, after the first couple of songs, Bruce collected a pile of request signs from the folks in the pit and sorted through them on stage to pick the next few tracks. He pulled out a few great older numbers: Backstreets, Spirit in the Night, and Stand On It; in fact, it became pretty clear at that point that, though it was the Magic tour, we were not going to be hearing that much of the new album. Of the 28-song show, only five songs were from Magic, and Brian noticed that Youngstown was the only song released between Born in the USA and The Rising that was played at all. I’m glad it was, though — it’s a great example of how re-working a song live can give it new life. The album version is a folky ballad; live it’s an energetic rocker, complete with one of Nils Lofgren’s blistering guitar solos. It was preceded in the show by one of Bruce’s rare solo-piano outings, on For You, and that unexpected combination was, I think, my favorite moment.
The encore lead off with some silliness, as more request signs were gathered and Bruce expressed his incredulity that someone wanted to hear Crush on You, which he characterized as “the worst song we ever put on a record.” The band had to have an impromptu meeting on stage to figure out how to play it, and if I heard correctly, I think Bruce said “you can follow my ass” just before they started — perhaps Max was asking what the beat was? For something that, according to Backstreets, they hadn’t played live in 28 years, they did a heck of a job with it. And, for what it’s worth, I think they’re over-stating it as being their worst song ever. It’s certainly not their greatest effort, but it’s not as bad as, say, Mary’s Place, which finds its way into the setlist at damned near every show I attend.
All in all, it was a great show. The ending made me a bit nervous, though. Bruce & the band lingered on stage, shaking hands with fans and waving and chatting a lot longer than they usually do. There was an odd air of finality about it — as if they suspected they might not be back. But if that’s the case, I feel lucky to have been so well-entertained, so many times by what Bruce always calls in his closing “the house-rocking, pants-dropping, brain-shocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making, sexifying, electrifying, legendary E Street Band!”
Updated to add: sorry about the photo. I am not sure why it’s all smashed in weirdly with the text. I am hoping it’s a WordPress issue that will sort itself out shortly.
Updated, again: I took the caption off the photo and now it’s not all banging up against the text anymore. The caption should be: Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and some very bright lights; Charlottesville, April, 2008.