2009 / Live Reviews / Music

Concert Review: Bruce Springsteen Embraces, Celebrates Legacy At Milwaukee Stop

Rock Legend Performs ‘Born To Run’ In Its Entirety

MILWAUKEE — Besides slowly slipping into rock ‘n’ roll oblivion, concert-goers can expect the most haunting nightmare that Bruce Springsteen feels he must guard against these days would be to see his career become a nightly embodiment of his mid-’80s hit, “Glory Days.”

Photo: Columbia Records

Photo: Columbia Records

While most fans might revel in the lyrics’ buoyant celebration of old pals rejoicing in shared youthful memories, the song’s final verse reveals Springsteen the narrator’s real feeling about whimsical strolls down memory lane. Namely, that nostalgia equals death.

Despite Springsteen’s long-held misgivings and his attempts to blunt sentimentality in the 10 years since he reconvened his legendary backing group, the E Street Band, the Boss is showing a new leniency in workplace rules. During a marathon three-hour concert on Sunday night at the Bradley Center in downtown Milwaukee, Springsteen and his bandmates showcased a surprisingly gleeful embrace of his history by playing his greatest album, “Born To Run,” in its entirety, taking audience requests of obscure tracks from his canon and rewarding a fervent audience of admirers with a performance that reaffirms that they are certainly one of rock’s greatest traveling shows.

If some think this concert sounds like cheap nostalgia, they would be shocked by how dynamic the music was. Springsteen and his group represent a long-gone age when blue-eyed soul, folk, jam-rock and old-school pop co-mingled and yet, the performance still carries an impressive power to galvanize and move onlookers as it did arena audiences generations ago. This we can chiefly attribute to Springsteen, a truly unique hybrid of rock poet and exhilarating showman. He recently graced the cover of AARP’s magazine and might occasionally mix up his Rust Belt states (as he did a few days ago when he addressed a Michigan audience as Ohio repeatedly), but his onstage stamina and jaw-dropping frontman skills haven’t abated because of age. When many of his contemporaries (and a couple of his musicians) are nursing hip replacements, he was doing James Brown moves, crowd surfing, Elvis karate moves and whatever he had to whip an already energized crowd to further heights of excitement.

“We need you to bring the noise,” the black-vested Springsteen commanded of the crowd, and they were overjoyed to rise to his challenges.

Of course, beyond Springsteen’s stage antics, proudly playing songs that have become some of rock’s most enduring anthems is a surefire boost to pump up any crowd. Performing a complete album in concert is a novelty that Springsteen and his longtime manager Jon Landau stumbled upon a few months ago, likely inspired by Van Morrison’s performances of his “Astral Weeks” album last year. The idea could be brushed off as just his latest onstage gimmick to lure butts into the seats, but whatever the motivation, it certainly offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience for lucky fans in the right cities. Other tour stops have seen complete performances of “Born In The U.S.A.,” “The River,” “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” and “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.” (Warning to Baltimore: He hasn’t played “Tunnel Of Love” yet.) For most Bruce fanatics, seeing “Born To Run” would be their top choice.

This approach has other less-obvious benefits beyond pleasing veteran ticket buyers. For the first time since he resurrected the E Street Band, Springsteen is now really harnessing the combo’s full potential again. The foundation and powerhouse for Springsteen’s mission to rev up audiences has always been his nine-member group. The E Street Band remains the lone analogue for an orchestra in the rock ‘n’ roll world, and for too long now, it was both overstaffed and underutilized as Springsteen chafed at the idea of doing all the old chestnuts the same old way. While he’d keep some songs the same, he’d rearrange others, which would reduce the role of many of the group’s signature players. Then, he’d insert too many new songs that didn’t exactly play to the band’s strengths. As a result, there were sometimes as many as four or five guitar players onstage, but with Springsteen taking nearly all the solos. Meanwhile, saxophonist Clarence Clemmons was stuck shaking a tambourine for a majority of the set. Latter-day E Streeter, violinist Soozie Tyrell, was rarely audible at all. On this night, backing singer Patti Scialfa (AKA Mrs. Bruce Springsteen) was a no-show, but the Boss had two new employees singing backup.

The E Street Band welcomed the opportunity to be who they really are, roaring like a monster come to life. The fist-pumping, hillbilly rock of “Cadillac Ranch” followed by the galloping “Badlands” established that Springsteen definitely wasn’t pushing his latest product. This concert was something bordering on ecstatic, a mood raised higher still during the hit “Hungry Heart” when Springsteen darted off the stage, ran down an aisle on the arena floor and into a tiny stage hidden in the center of the floor. Springsteen barely sang the song as he held the mic out for all to sing the words. When he was done, he fell backward onto the sea of hands, who he urged to carry him toward the stage. Unbelievably, as he floated along, he continued to issue orders to the band, including instructing Clemmons to take a solo.

Springsteen paused the happy uproar when he introduced the concept for the evening. He called “Born To Run” a “big, big record” and said it “started the conversation we’ve been having together all these years.”

Like the musical equivalent of “once upon a time,” Springsteen played a peeling harmonica refrain that begins “Thunder Road,” a song that carries the romantic spirit of young desperation and kicks off an album erupting with the same vibe. While “Born To Run” continues to inspire with its working class tales of bohemian escape from a mundane life, it never really converted legions of suburbanites into gypsies. Instead, the record is a powerful beacon and touchstone for unfulfilled fantasies that 34 years later, still hold unimaginable allure.

Classics like “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Backstreets” and the album’s title track brought out the group’s full power. The music was gloriously bruising and always soulful. Other album cuts typically outshone by the radio hits, like “She’s The One,” got a new airing. In this case, the band worked in the rhythmic elements of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” for added appeal. Springsteen himself tweaked “Jungleland,” by singing the first verses like he was a gravely Tom Waits doing a Bob Dylan impersonation.

For the most part, however, the group played it straight and no one benefited more from this a return to the old sound than Clemmons, who was much busier than he had been in recent tours. Initially wearing a long, black duster with rhinestones and wide-brim hat, Clemmons looked like a generalissimo in Michael Jackson’s faux army. However, he ditched the Elvis threads for a puffy black pirate shirt that was a perfect companion for guitarist Steve Van Zandt’s buccaneer garb. (When Springsteen teasingly introduced Clemmons later on, the cameras for the arena’s Jumbotron zoomed in on the Big Man holding/plugging his new autobiography.)

Beyond the hits, crowd interaction was a hallmark of the performance. Those Springsteen fans schooled on what to expect during the show had a greater sway on what nuggets the group unearthed and performed than the casual fans who just came for a night out. The super-fans came armed with signs carrying song requests and props hoping to catch Springsteen’s attention. A few Santa Claus hats and battery-powered poster of a Christmas tree induced the group to play their trademark version of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.” Other songs — “Loose Ends,” “Jole Blon,” “Living Proof,” and two rare, jive-talking epics from his early years, “Kitty’s Back” and “Growin’ Up” — required a scholar’s knowledge of Springsteen cannon. Some, particularly “Living Proof,” prompted the songwriter to struggle for the lyrics and search for what key the song was in.

Even the real anomalies of the night had something to behold. The bland acoustic guitar strumming of newer song “Waiting On A Sunny Day” was juiced up when Springsteen pulled a terrified young boy to help him sing along. He passed a note to Springsteen who then directed him to drummer Max Weinberg to collect a pair of drum sticks, apparently per request. “American Land,” by contrast, is an Irish rebel song Springsteen worked up for the non-E Street Band album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” and used on this night as an opportunity to show these players are more flexible than he and others might initially believe.

To close, Springsteen packed the concert’s latter half with many of his most heavyweight compositions — any of which could have concluded the evening. The thunderous takes on “The Rising” and “No Retreat, No Surrender” brought many of the arena’s wallflowers to their feet. But, this was all a set up for a note-perfect rendition of “Dancing In The Dark” and the rambling majesty of “Rosalita.” The second was a funky, loose-y-goosey R&B reminder of the wild romances of youth, and was a set staple during the ’70s until it was forsaken for almost 20 years. “Dancing In The Dark” had its cheesy ’80s synthesizer sound tamed into some supportive keyboard humming, was a clear play to hail Springsteen’s mid-’80s golden era. Both were also emblematic of Springsteen’s new rapprochement with his legacy. Few can deny the thrill of Weinberg’s explosive drumming on these songs, particularly “Dark,” and now, neither will Springsteen.

With no encores and barely any breaks at all, Springsteen finished the exhausting night by reviving the group’s soul revue roots with a gospel number, “Higher & Higher.” It underlined the concert’s feel-good vibe and signaled this wasn’t an attempt to cash in. This was Springsteen’s attempt at a payback.

When the show was done, Springsteen the consummate professional couldn’t hide his beaming smile of appreciation. One can only imagine how he must feel with the deafening roar of the crowd slamming against his body, his hands held aloft like a victorious gladiator. This kind of adulation is likely far beyond his daydreams of stardom back in a little Jersey Shore surf shop in the early ’70s.

Springsteen earned his pay on this night. “It’s hard being the Boss,” he exasperatedly exclaimed when he chided Van Zandt for being center stage when he danced with a Courtney Cox-wannabe fan.

When the stage went dark, it was exactly three hours on the mark. Always the master of his ship, the Boss knows when it’s quitting time when the job is done. These are his new glory days.

Remaining Bruce Springsteen Tour Dates:

  • Wednesday, Nov. 18, Nashville
  • Friday, Nov. 20, Baltimore
  • Sunday, Nov. 22, Buffalo, N.Y.

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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