Review 2018-04-04 Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City, NY

Sorry about that…… Don't know where it came from.

After nearly fifty years of writing and singing about his father, Bruce still has unresolved issues with the man. Last week while performing Long Time Comin’ Bruce began to tear up and by the time he finished singing tears were rolling down his cheeks. As he stepped back from the mic to wipe them away he quietly said, “Sorry about that. Don’t know where it came from.”

The song, from his album Devils & Dust, contains the lines,
“Well my daddy he was just a stranger
Lived in a hotel downtown
Well when I was a kid he was just somebody
Somebody I'd see around
Somebody I'd see around…”

Long Time Comin’ was a substitute for Tougher Than the Rest which he usual sings with his wife Patti Scialfa who has joined him in nearly all of his Springsteen on Broadway shows since it opened last year. She was absent that night handling what Bruce called “parenting responsibilities.” I found myself believing I was living this song in real time with him. There he was onstage entertaining us while his children’s mother was left to handle the family crisis at home.

Bruce introduced the song with a story about an impromptu visit his father had paid shortly before the birth of one of his children during which his Pop offered an apology of sorts for their early relationship. Were the words he would sing in a few moments tugging at him?

“Well now down below and pullin' on my shirt
Yeah I got some kids of my own
Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world, kids
It'd be that your mistakes would be your own…”

Family is among the recurring themes during the show. Springsteen’s parents and extended family make frequent appearances in his monologue. Recounting a childhood memory of being sent into a neighborhood bar to fetch his father, he sketches a physical description of a working man who would be at home in an Edward Hopper painting.

His reverence for his mother is saluted at least twice during the show. First during The Wish and later when he introduced his biggest commercial hit, Dancing in the Dark, describing how his mother, now “seven years into Alzheimers,” still wants to be swept up for a dance much as she would sweep him off the family couch to dance with her to a song on the radio when he was a boy.

It’s an all-acoustic show, and with Patti out for the night, a completely solo act. In spite of that, without even being there, the E Street Band was a presence and except for Bruce no one’s presence is bigger than the late Clarence Clemons’. The band is introduced during Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out. Even without his brothers in arms on stage, Bruce recites their names in carnival barker style while he accompanies himself on piano. Saving Clemons for last he loudly pronounced him “THE BIGGEST MAN YOU EVER SAW!” to roars of approval from the audience.

Those of us in Bruce’s audience are legendary in our own minds. We’re known for our sing-along-with-every-song knowledge of the lyrics and sheer devotion. I’ve always been struck by the way the band looks around at the entire audience and waves at us as they take the stage. It’s as if they’re greeting each of us as old friends, “Hey, good to see you. Thanks for coming out.”

What happens when that audience gets pared down from 40,000 people, typical for one of his stadium shows, to less than one thousand lucky souls? For one thing, it gets real quiet. This is going to be a show filled with nuance. We are here to listen. To hear this man’s story at its most refined.

Seated beside me is a woman close to my age, sixty, and her son. Before the show she regales us and the young woman on the aisle with stories of the hundreds of concerts she saw during her days in Los Angeles but the two she remembers most vividly were back-to-back Springsteen shows at the old Coliseum during the River tour. The young woman is here from Seattle with her family and responds with her own story of growing up with Bruce’s music filling her childhood home and of seeing him live for the first time when she was eight.

I have my own stories as well. I first saw Bruce perform on November 4, 1978 in Burlington, Vermont when I was twenty and working part-time for the local newspaper. Thinking of the photos I took that night I reflect on the physical changes we’ve both gone through over the years. Tonight he is no longer a skinny 28 year old, nor the gym rat from his Born in the USA days. He’s wearing a working man’s clothes; explaining that while he’d never worked in a factory his choice was deliberate. Now he wears his tee shirt untucked, almost, but not quite, hiding a hint of a belly. Of course his face has changed too. Fuller now, the sharp edges gone, but still the pronounced underbite and set jaw. He’s clean shaven for a change. His hair is shorter, almost a brush cut. He somehow seems smaller from our fourth row seats. More human than the towering superhero rock star presence he exudes at stadium shows. When I look up his height the next day and learn that he’s 5’ 10” I’m reminded of a conversation I once had with a long-time friend. Looking him straight in the eyes at the time I found myself thinking, “So this is how tall we get.” That’s the type of slightly off balance observation that Springsteen can seize on and make into something more telling.

This was not the typically joyful three hour-plus run through of the old war horses. Rosalita, thankfully, won’t be coming out tonight. He’ll play fifteen songs instead of thirty-six. Just one guy with a guitar, harmonica and piano instead of what over the years has become for me a somewhat bloated, (but highly entertaining to say the least,) band with nearly twenty musicians on stage.

Bruce is a formidable guitar player. Anyone who has seen him square off for a duel with any of the other E Street guitarists knows that he can make the electric instrument howl and scream. Not so with an acoustic guitar, but still he made it his perfect tool. Whether gently finger picking a melody, playing bottle neck slide on a blues version of Born in the USA, (as originally intended.) or pounding out rhythms that seemed like he was punishing something he demonstrated again and again how he got this guitar and learned how to make it talk. He could hint at a song simply by quietly strumming a few chords as he did when he talked about his older sister’s life rather than playing The River.

When Springsteen first auditioned for John Hammond in 1972, the legendary Columbia Records talent scout thought he’d found the next Bob Dylan and on Springsteen’s first two records the label tried to force him into that role. What Hammond had actually discovered was a rock star who wrote folk songs. Strip these songs of the lovely riot that is the E Street Band and what remains are stories and lessons.

Promised Land performed as a slow and quiet story more fully reveals the ominous depth of the words,
“Well there's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain't got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted…”

The song from what I refer to as my personal “gearing up for battle album,” Darkness on the Edge of Town, speaks to me. Face your challenges. Fight your fight. He’s telling me that if he can do it so can I.

The words from Thunder Road, “It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win” have resonated with me for years. My favorite of his hundreds of songs, that closing line always reminds me of the first time I listened to it closely. Huddled over a portable record player in the waiting room of my high school guidance department with a small group of friends listening to the album Born to Run, I felt the beginning of the pull that would one day take me away from my home state of Vermont. Now with Bruce’s storybook introduction depicting him sitting on top of a mattress in the bed of a pickup truck as he and his friends pull out of Freehold, New Jersey, headed to the promised land of California not only do I identify with the song but with the singer.

This is memoir as performance. Every song is introduced with story. Bruce is his own biggest fan but also his own biggest critic. Playfully boastful, (“there was no ‘great state of New Jersey’ before me. I invented that shit!”) Self deprecating, (“I looked like a creep…”). Never an artist to hide his politics, he spoke of his feelings about America today, insisting that, “We’re better than this.” April 4, the night of the show, was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and that night he spoke of what the country lost that day as he introduced Land of Hope and Dreams in which he sings,
“I will provide for you and I'll stand by your side
You'll need a good companion now for this part of the ride
Yeah, leave behind your sorrows, let this day be the last
Well, tomorrow there'll be sunshine and all this darkness past…”

Throughout the night Bruce spoke of what he misses in his life these days. The opportunity of the blank page was how he summed up his feelings. That night, these shows memorialize how he has filled those blank pages. As a fan who has turned to the companionship of his music time and again throughout my life, I came away from the night again marveling at and thankful for his artistry. The words always come first is how he has always explained his songwriting. First, last and always…

By Jim Wylson via Facebook.com.
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