“Oooh, and my ears are still ringing. . . .”
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a concert where the crowd was so loud. I’ve never been to so smoke-free a concert. I hadn’t been to Madison Square Garden before — I imagined it to be much bigger, much more spacious. I think my ears may have turned a corner somewhere; the fine high-frequency sounds (violin, piano) lacked definition in a way that I doubt the sound people would have tolerated. A crowd full of people cheering “Bru-u-u-uce” sounds more like a herd of lowing cattle than like an exhilarated throng of fans. Has anyone else noticed that Bruce Springsteen doesn’t cuss?
OK, I got all that out of the way. The Springsteen set was spectacular. From the moment the band hit the stage, they rocked harder than anything I’ve seen before (except maybe the previous Springsteen concert, but we were all twenty-five years younger then). I was astounded at the job Springsteen did; his performance catalyzed a constellation of ideas I’ve had about “performing” for a while, ideas I’ll allow to gestate a few days longer, but as Margaret appositely observed on the way home, the set was unrelenting. The E Street Band plays compelling ensemble rock’n’roll, without sacrificing intensity to the expansivenes of the band (which was a big band, a big sound, when we saw them back in ’81; now they’ve added Nils Lofgren and Patti Sciafa on guitar and Soozie Tyrell on violin, and sometimes Tyrell picks up a guitar herself, making a total of five guitars plus Garry Tallent on bass). Multiple guitars sometimes makes for a ponderous sound kludge, but the band’s experience with one another and the sound team’s production work channeled the aural density into oceanic force.
I love the E STreet Band, but I especially appreciate the background players. I keep an eye on Danny Federici and Garry Tallent while the projection screens emphasize Bruce (of course), the guitarists, Clarence, Max and Prof. Roy Bittan. They display a professionalism that belies the sterility the term is frequently deployed to convey; contrariwise, they give everything, just right, and support the ensemble sound with grace and reticence.
Springsteen was in terrific form. I had only two cavils: One, very short, involved a verse (perhaps from “Reason to Believe”?) when he sang into an overdriven microphone, giving the impression that he was using a dispatcher’s mike — it sounded incongruous for the song, though it might have been effective in a different setting. Two, I thought he rushed the delivery of some key lines (in “Candy’s Room,” “Jungleland,” “Born to Run”). I wonder whether he’s not trying to wrest control of the lines away from a crowd that wants to shout them along with him — but whatever the reason, I’d argue that Springsteen’s artistry relies heavily on timing, such that letting the lyric run ahead of the beat undercuts the whole. I felt the hurried delivery attenuated the conviction that carries so much of his compositions. (Margaret didn’t notice that, so take my criticism with a grain of salt.)
He took on a very tough job, trying to keep a wildly enthusiastic crowd on board for the somber political message of the songs from Magic. How do you cheer wildly at the end of “Devil’s Arcade,” even if Springsteen delivered it with heart-wrenching intensity? And some in the crowd had no patience for Springsteen’s explicit politicking, shouting, “Just sing the songs.” Though I’m on Bruce’s side here, I wonder whether he might not do better taking the heckler’s advice — “Magic” and “Last to Die” sound more convincing to me than most of Bruce’s (heartfelt) excoriations of the last six years. But Bruce just wins; the songs from Magic work better, Margaret and I agreed, on stage than on the record (and I notice that the AMG review tends to concur (“[the] careful construction. . . tends to keep the music from reaching full flight”).
Highlights? Goodness! Well, hearing “Night” right after “Radio Nowhere” caught up whatever hadn’t already been captivated. “Reason to Believe” worked admirably as a with the blues-rock setting the band gave it — the lead-in sounded uncannily like “Spirit In The Sky,” a song I’d love to hear Springsteen and the band cover). Asking “Are there any lovers out there tongiht?” (he obviously knew Maragret and I had come to the show), he sang “Tougher Than the Rest” with Patti. He dedicated his performance of “Meeting Across the River” to Peter Boyle, whose birthday it would have been, noting that Boyle always loved the tension of hope and failure in the song. Springsteen sang it accompanied only by Tallent on upright bass and Bittan on piano, and it soared, and (in accordance with cosmic laws of necessity) segued into a tremendous performance of “Jungleland.” The band had buckets of fun with “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” including winning byplay among Bruce and Steve and Clarence.
And yes, he brought out “Thundercrack” in the encores. Bruce explained, “This was our show-stopper, back when. . . there was no one at the show. We used to play this at Max’s Kansas City. We played there with Bob Marley and the Wailers — it seated 150, and there were some empty seats!” The song gave Federici a chance to step out at the beginning, gave everyone a chance to rock out in one of Springsteen’s classic episodic compositions, and thrilled me from toes to scalp. The band segued into the inevitable “Born to Run,” then, and “Dancing In the Dark” (on cue, Steve did The Monkey with the audience seated behind the stage). Then Bruce brought the Sessions Band out to play “American Land,” with supertitled sing-along lyrics on the projection screens.
What a night! Thanks so much, Jennifer, for the tickets. And thanks, Bruce, for the hard work and brilliance that you put into everything.