Bruce Springsteen | 04.01.09 | San Jose

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images from: www.myspace.com/brucespringsteen

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band :: 04.01.09 :: HP Pavilion :: San Jose, CA

Bruce Springsteen
In under five minutes Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band seized a packed arena, not like a band on the opening date of a world tour but one that arrived fresh-from-the-gym pumped up, glistening with realized strength and sweaty purpose. The first words out of Bruce's mouth screamed of the moment America finds itself in:

Lights out tonight
Trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision
Smashin' in my guts, man
I'm caught in a cross fire that I don't understand
But there's one thing I know for sure girl
I don't give a damn
For the same old played out scenes
I don't give a damn
For just the in betweens
Honey, I want the heart, I want the soul
I want control right now

"Badlands" from Darkness on the Edge of Town set the tone, and in ways both subtle and those less so, Springsteen and his huge 11-person strong people's orchestra announced that the creeping blackness fully acknowledged in last year's show (check out the JamBase review) was now on the fringes. While the time might not yet feel right for dancin' in the streets, Bruce and co. were sure as hell going to try and beckon us from the shadows to move as much as we're able. Unsentimental hope was the underlying theme, and cynicism be damned if one couldn't snatch a tiny piece of the fleeting stuff over the course of this two hour forty minute show.

In his Daily Show interview, Springsteen said, "Our band was built from the beginning for hard times." A-freakin-men, sir. From the first chords to the last dying notes, one felt their from-the-soil work ethic as they put their shoulders and hearts into everything they did. There's nothing held back, and increasingly they goof, rollick and experiment with a devil may care playfulness that diffuses worry. If they can love what they do so very, very much what then can WE do that we can similarly throw ourselves into? There's plenty to be done out there – something Bruce reminded us of repeatedly – and who's to do it if not US? Yes, this was a rock 'n' roll show (and a grand, classic one to boot) but it was also a call to arms. Do not slink from engagement. Do not surrender to doubt and fear. Get up and dance out of your constrictions.

Clemons, Springsteen & Weinberg
In no small way, this was rock's answer to opera – bold theatre with purpose and spit and power. While the shifting LED lights added shinny icing and the occasional bit of inspirational imagery, the sparseness of their setup is astonishing. Everyone dressed in black, simply for the most part, and the gang free to roam the broad stage to reach out to all sides of the throng. The lighting added drama, sometimes lots of it when it left them in striking silhouette, but the focus is ever the music, incredible songs delivered with pulsating drive. Springsteen's voice is a trusty pickaxe, encrusted and beautifully rusted, tearing away the topsoil, driving down to the rich earth below. If a touch more gravely now, it's lost none of its epic boom or libidinous charm, and he's clearly sparked by the new material, much of the set drawn from Magic and Working On A Dream - and significantly improved in the live setting without Brendan O'Brien's brassy, too obvious production. Hearing "My Lucky Day" and "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" made me wish Phil Spector wasn't such a psychotic mess so he and Bruce could team up for a latter day masterpiece of widescreen, '60s pop majesty that's lurking in Springsteen's work from the past few years.

Majesty is perhaps key to their current modus operandi, though it's different than The Bible or anything by Wagner. It's an Everyman thing where Springsteen and his empathetic collaborators are able to transform themselves into Willy Loman or Holden Caulfield given the spine and drive they were unable to find in their literary works. The use of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times" as the first encore – introduced with a weary laugh by Bruce, "I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same" – is telling. This is music for warding off trouble and for sustaining ourselves as we move through it, as we inevitably will. Bruce introduced the number saying, "As you know, the country is going through the toughest times in a century," before encouraging us to help those less fortunate, focusing us locally on the highly worthy Second Harvest Food Bank, urging us to donate what we could and putting a human face on our less fortunate, deeply struggling neighbors – a surge towards shared humanity that runs as a subtext throughout his work.

Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears
Oh! Hard times, come again no more

Weinberg, Springsteen & Van Zandt
Critics and hardcores may quibble about the song selection, order, etc. but I like E Street when they're a little rough, as they were this night where they reminded me of Panic's trundling, barely on the rails energy, especially during the creepier, more "out" bits like the gutbucket nasty "Good Eye," which was given an ugly swampification with Bruce growling his vocals into a harmonica mic. For guys (and gals) that have been doing this for over 35 years, the "surprise factor" should long ago have gone away, but if anything they're more doggedly interested in making what they do feel alive and thus able to inspire life in their audience.

On purely musical terms, there were too many highlights to number: the Chuck Berry'd up "Johnny 99;" the unrepentant high times of "Good Rockin' Tonight;" the billowing Celtic-tinged sweep of "The Ghost of Tom Joad," which seemed plucked from Cormac McCarthy's subconscious; the sheer BIGNESS of "Outlaw Pete" (who surely spent a few nights in a West Texas town named El Paso...); and the general repartee between Springsteen and his band and audience. His hand is always out, metaphorically and often literally, and you have to exert will NOT to come to him. And in coming closer, in risking connection, we find ourselves a smidgen closer to everyone around us. He is the shaman that directs the ceremony that makes this possible.

One walked out a bit more aware of their surroundings and hopefully a bit less afraid about what lies at the end of the tunnel. Springsteen's music and its dynamic, stirring presentation reminded us of the promise of tomorrow, which may be uncertain but it is also unscripted. Take pen in hand and write a bright, compassionate one, America. That is Bruce's mandate and it's a damn fine one.

04.01.09 :: HP Pavilion :: San Jose, CA
Badlands, Outlaw Pete, My Lucky Day, No Surrender, Out in the Street, Working on a Dream, Seeds, Johnny 99, The Ghost of Tom Joad, Good Eye, Good Rockin' Tonight, Darlington County, Growin' Up, Waitin' on a Sunny Day, The Promised Land, The Wrestler, Kingdom of Days, Radio Nowhere, Lonesome Day, Born to Run
Encore: Hard Times, Thunder Road, Dancing in the Dark, Tenth Avenue Freeze-out, Land of Hope and Dreams, American Land

Some nice pics and a fine insider perspective on this night (and the whole unfolding 2009 tour) can be found at the ever-terrific Backstreets website.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band just began their tour around the world. You can catch the fever here.

Unfortunately, comments needed to be disabled on this review due to negative reader activity.

JamBase | Dawn
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http://www.brucespringsteen.net/

[Published on: 4/3/09]

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