Article 2002-08-10 Washington, DC

Thanks, Boss

Lordy, lordy, we needed that.

We needed Bruce Springsteen even more than we thought, and we thought we needed him a lot. On Saturday night at MCI Center, the Boss and the merry posse of musicians called the E Street Band came not merely to rock, but to heal. And heal they did, in a 2 1/2-hour show that roused emotions spanning the full scope of human experience — from grief, despair and resignation to rapture, affirmation and hope.

It’s unlikely that any audience in rock’s history has been compelled to ride from such brooding depths to such giddy heights. At moments, the crowd was hushed quiet by Springsteen and urged to soak up his new compositions about the tragedy of Sept. 11 in reverential silence. Other times, the show became a five-keg house party with all the furniture tossed on the lawn. The peak arrived during one of a half-dozen encores, when the arena lights went up and “Born to Run” was untethered in a 50-million-watt glare.

Only a substance banned by the FDA could make that many people any happier.

There’s always been ample emotional bandwidth to Springsteen’s shows, but not to these extremes. It was as if he had decided he wouldn’t merely assert that the country will recover from the wounds of Sept. 11 — one theme of his latest CD, “The Rising” — but that he would enact that recovery before our eyes.

Nearly half of the songs performed were from “The Rising,” and most of those fared better live than on the album. In some instances that’s because they were scaled up and in others because they were scaled down. The chorus of “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” seems as thin as a nursery rhyme in your living room (”I’m waitin’, waitin’ on a sunny day / Gonna chase the clouds away”), but bulked into a singalong by fans, the point of its simplicity seems suddenly clear.

Conversely, other songs were stripped clean of the overwrought production that so mismatched topic and sound on the album. “Empty Sky” was performed with nothing more than Springsteen’s guitar, his harmonica and backup harmonies with his wife, Patti Scialfa. The song is the anguished testimony of a man whose soul mate is suddenly gone; unplugged on Saturday night, the tune took on the bereft, ravaged feel it deserves. Minus the hoopla of a whole band — which supersized the pathos right out of the album version — the narrator’s loss seemed far more compelling.

A couple of “Rising” songs couldn’t be revived, even with Springsteen defibrillating them with all his considerable might. “The Fuse” flopped the hardest. The song mixes images of a sexual romp with some unnamed dreadful force and winds up an R-rated muddle. You couldn’t help but squirm a bit when Springsteen sang “your bittersweet taste on my tongue,” particularly because the MCI video monitors at that moment showed him and Scialfa in a split screen.

The first half of the show interspersed “Rising” with a half-dozen songs from “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Springsteen’s intensely bleak and thoroughly stirring 1978 followup to “Born to Run.” It was the most interesting and inspired choice of the night — reaching back more than two decades to showcase an album that is hardly his most popular. The material seemed so alive and so relevant that, at moments, you got the sense that Bruce wrote a better album about Sept. 11 some 24 years ago.

“Darkness” is all about shattered characters struggling to reassemble themselves in a world that is terrifyingly low on mercy. The title track, which was the third song performed in Saturday’s show, is a howl for love by a man in full retreat, both physically and mentally. “I lost my faith and I lost my wife,” Springsteen sang on Saturday night, substituting the word “faith” for “money,” which is in the original. Songs like “The Promised Land” and “Prove It All Night” took on a new resonance, as did the opening lines to “Badlands”: “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.”

Of course, when Springsteen wrote these songs he didn’t have terrorism on his mind, but rather the turmoil caused by the fame earned through “Born to Run,” the album that truly launched him. But in 1978, he captured something timeless. The protagonists of “Darkness” have been savaged by life and they’d like to savage something back, but they have no idea where to start. It’s a response to the attacks of 9/11 that seems, if anything, more plausible than the aggrieved voices of “The Rising,” who lament their spouseless lives with a passivity that is hard to fathom.

On the topic of Sept. 11, little was said directly on Saturday night. Actually, Springsteen didn’t say much of anything through the show, aside from heartfelt if perfunctory hellos and goodbyes, band introductions, a plug for local food banks and a call to vigilantly watch anyone seeking to roll back civil rights.

Story time once took up a quarter of a Springsteen show, and the last time he came through town — when he reunited the E Street Band three years ago — he spent perhaps 10 minutes sermonizing about the power of rock. This was a less whimsical production, one intuitively aware that rock inspired by an act of mass murder is different from rock about anything else. Springsteen, above all else, is a performer preternaturally connected to his audience. On Saturday night he found the right combination of first aid and entertainment.

The intensity was leavened occasionally with upbeat hits, but only toward the end of the show. After 90 minutes entirely focused on cuts from “The Rising” and “Darkness,” Springsteen got festive with “Glory Days,” one of the pure pop moments of the night. Versions of “Thunder Road” and “Bobby Jean” highlighted the restorative power of nostalgia. Toward the end of the night, he got to “Born in the U.S.A.” recalling the first time Springsteen turned a national tragedy — Vietnam, in that instance — into arena rock.

Through it all, the E Street Band never broke a sweat and never broke character. Everyone in this group brings something to what often feels like the hippest, happiest family barbecue you were ever invited to crash. Clarence Clemons is the guy on his third burger whose laugh can be heard three houses down. Max Weinberg is the slightly stiff middle manager who’s one beer from turning his napkin into a hat. Little Stevie Van Zandt, dressed like a Gypsy at a wake, is the goofy uncle who keeps cheek-pinching the children.

Backup singer and acoustic guitarist Scialfa flirts with her husband and gives the festivities both a homey touch and an erotic edge. Violinist Soozie Tyrell, added for this tour, seemed like somebody’s comely young niece. And there’s the quiet crowd: guitarist Nils Lofgren, keyboardists Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, and bassist Gary Tallent, the buddies you met in high school whom no party would be the same without.

The affection these people and Bruce feel for one another is either genuine or convincingly contrived. They do things like share microphones for close harmony parts even though there are microphones to spare onstage, giving the group a sloppy, all-for-one vibe. They seem to love their jobs and they seem fond of their Boss. Springsteen’s band introductions were the only moments of outright comedy all night.

“The result of a ménage à trois between Keith Moon, Buddy Rich and Ed McMahon!” he shouted, introducing Weinberg. “The illegitimate son of Jerry Lee Lewis and Liberace!” he bellowed, introducing Bittan. Before asking Clemons to take a bow, he told the audience simply, “You wish you could be like him, but you can’t!”

Clarence didn’t get much air time on “The Rising,” so for much of the show he was relegated to knocking together a variety of percussive instruments, including a pair of Middle Eastern thumb cymbals on “Worlds Apart.” But whenever he squared up to reprise an old sax solo, the results were Pavlovian. His contributions to “Thunder Road” and “The Promised Land” had grown men trading high-fives.

On “The Rising,” Bittan snares most of the audio space vacated by Clemons, a weird choice considering that guitarists outnumber keyboardists in this band by three to one. (Four if you count Scialfa.) For a lot of the album, there’s barely any strumming at all. On Saturday night, the guitarists reasserted themselves. Occasionally you could actually hear Lofgren, who, by the way, looks more like Springsteen’s Mini-Me every year. Little Stevie got to noodle and mug with a mandolin. Most of the finest solos belonged to Springsteen, though. He seemed especially glad to reprise, note for note, the distress signals that screech throughout the songs of “Darkness.”

His guitar playing is only the beginning of what makes Springsteen such a stupefying spectacle. Measured in terms of charisma, energy and fan affection, who can touch him? When a rock star reaches 52, you’re obliged to mention his age and then comment about how vital he is, given his advancing years. But the years have barely laid a glove on Springsteen as a live performer. He bounds around less than he once did, and he’s certainly too rich to actually be the regular-guy-in-flannels he seems onstage. No matter. Rock is his religion and for as long as he ministers, his flock will know a thing or two about faith.

By David Segal via The Washington Post.
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