Local columnist for the Post-Standard Sean Kirst (and a Bruce fan), once wrote a column about the best one-night rock show ever in Syracuse. He picked a 1957 rock and roll caravan, where up to 10 groups traveled together and each played 3-4 of their hits. These caravans were a big thing in the 50’s and 60’d–a musical revue with girl groups, soul, rockabilly and crooners all sharing the bill.
The May 13th performance of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in Albany, NY reminded me of this style of show. The difference of course is that Bruce & the E Streeters were the only band–and the music may have been even more diverse.
The huge band (3 guitars, bass, piano, organ, fiddle, 5 piece horn section, percussionist and back up singers) was even missing two regulars: Patti Scialfa and Steve Van Zandt. Bruce traditionally uses both of them as foils during the shows–singing duet choruses, joking around and (with wife Patti) highlighting the romantic songs. Saxophonist Jake Clemons (the successor to Bruce’s greatest onstage partner, the late Clarence Clemons), guitarist Nils Lofgren and especially former Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello are all stepping up as both musicians and stage partners.
The set list in Albany has been described around the Bruce internet community as “wild,” “wacky,” freewheeling” and “a careening go-kart of a set.” It was the first show I’ve seen in the internet era, when folks have instant access to set list information, where everyone was left guessing what was coming next. It made each break between songs exhilarating. We learned later that 10 songs on the original handwritten set list were abandoned on the fly and replaced with requests or Bruce’s instantaneous decisions to go another way.
The opening of the show was a shocker for me–I had no idea what the first song was! It turned out to be only the second performance ever of the INXS song “Don’t Change”, played with a guitar-based ferocity that set the stage for the first section of the concert.
Badlands (complete with audience “whoa-oh, oh, oh, oh” choruses), the martial-sounding, Irish reel indictment of the rich folks who wrecked our economy of “Death To My Hometown”, the re-tooled “High Hopes” with great horns and Tom Morello’s electronic flourishes on guitar made this the hardcore rockers part of the evening. No banter, no stage play–they kicked ass and took names. The highlight of this section may have been the Born In The USA fave “No Surrender”–judging from the fact that approximately 100% of the audience was singing along and pumping their fists in the air.
The next section was best described by Bruce himself, when at one point he yelled out “It’s audience participation night!” There are only three more shows left on this tour and with no future shows on the immediate horizon, it’s apparent that Bruce wanted to loosen things up and have some fun. He did the R & B classic “Treat Her Right” after a funny introduction about the wisdom and life lessons contained in what our parents just thought was “the junk playing on the radio.” The E Street Band’s roots are in mix of soul, R & B and rock. When the E Streeters are augmented with a 5 piece horn section, 3 back up singers and assorted percussionists–they are awe inspiring. So much so that a young woman jumped up on stage with Bruce and did a soulful interpretative dance, while Bruce and the band chugged along.
What happened next is something only Bruce & the E Streeters could have pulled off. After all the funny stories, dancing girls and soulful harmonies, Bruce steps up and plays a stunning version of what may arguably be the most depressing and intense song in his catalog–the Darkness gem “Something In The Night.” The piano and dramatic vocals by Bruce immediately changed the atmosphere in the room–going from party to rapt attention.
But then it was right back to the party. In an era when stage shows at concerts means lasers, scores of dancers and other technology-driven gimmicks, Bruce Springsteen is the most entertaining act in music by dint of his personality, some stage patter and his interaction with fans–the highest bit of technology being the homemade poster signs brought by fans for song requests. Bruce played six requests from the audience. And it resulted in two more memorable moments.
Bruce started out reading a request from a woman for a selfie picture w/ Bruce (which resulted in a profane refusal) but ended with a heartfelt request for Bruce to dance with her mom, which resulted in a beautiful version of The Drifters “Save The Last Dance For Me” and a spin around the stage with a teary-eyed mom.
Then Bruce saw three pre-teen girls in the front of the stage with their parents holding up a song request sign. He went over and asked them: “YOU want to hear this song? You know its about three times older than you are?” Roy Bittan cranked up the Farfisa organ and the band took us down to the Jersey Shore for the 1973 Bruce chestnut “Seaside Bar Song.” He invited the girls to join him onstage, they just sort of pogo’ed up and down–so Bruce joined in!
The other unexpected song was an E Street-ized version of the Bee Gee’s disco-era hit “Stayin’ Alive.” It has been revamped from the only other time it was played, earlier this year in Australia. Then it was a straightforward tribute to the Bee Gees in their home town. In Albany it started out with just Bruce on guitar and the trumpet of Curt Ramm (who shines every time he is featured–on anything.) This slower intro enabled folks to focus on the anxiety and concern in the lyrics–something that the propulsive disco beat plasters over. It became a funkier exercise by the end–what with the great horn section and percussion–and the finale featured everyone in the band (except for drummer and keyboards) shimmying in unison in one long line across the front of the stage.
The musical highlight of the evening, for me, was the amazingly powerful revamped version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, featuring the guitar of Tom Morello. When Morello was in the band Rage Against The Machine, they did a rap/rock cover of the song. This led Bruce to invite Morello to play with the band at a benefit and allowed him to bring his pyrotechnics to the song. The experience obviously went well, since Bruce has enlisted Morello to tour with the band, especially since Steve Van Zandt’s commitments to his “Lillehammer” television show for Netflix doesn’t allow him to be at all the shows. Morello’s plays on a lot of the newest “High Hopes” album that featured a lot of recording done whilst the band was playing in Australia earlier this year.
Anyway–“Tom Joad” has gone from a folky lament with Bruce’s voice and acoustic guitar, to an electronic hip hop/heavy metal influenced barnburner. It’s an anthem for radical change–far outstripping the cautious mainstream liberalism that Bruce has expressed before. It even takes a shot at the more romantic lyrics of Springsteen’s past stating: “The highway is alive tonight/ but nobody is kidding nobody about where it goes.” It’s a long way from the dreamy optimism in the face of hardship expressed by the protagonists of Thunder Road. It’s an acknowledgement that the oppressed need to band together and fight for their freedom, to confront the enemies that are actively working to keep them poor and downtrodden.
And then to top off the song, Tom Morello unleashes a guitar solo that mixes noise and feedback and . . . as I type this I’m utterly unable to explain in words the intensity of the playing. It is cathartic, powerful, unsettling and thrilling. You’ve just got to listen:
Most bands play for an hour, take a couple minute break, come back with a two song encore–and call it a night. That’s not the E Street Way. After a nearly 2 hour main set, the band took about a 30 second break–then returned to their places for a 8 song encore that lasted over an hour and included iconic songs such as Born To Run and born In The USA, the incredibly poignant new song “The Wall” about childhood friends and mentors of Bruce’s who died in the Vietnam war, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” the origin story of the E Streeters that includes band introductions and a video montage honoring the late band members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons–and features Bruce walking through the General Admission area on the floor shaking hands. Bruce then jumps back on stage and leads the crowd through the hard rockin’ song “Ramrod” and the huge sing-a-long with the crowd on the Isley Brothers’ classic “Shout.”
The show finishes up with a full band version of what may be Bruce’s finest composition “Thunder Road.” This was my only complaint of the evening–when he uses this song to wind down the show, he also lowers the intensity of the band–guitar solos are muted, the singing is restrained, the passion put on hold. I understand the need to wind down the crowd–but I think that to do this with “Thunder Road” does a disservice to the most powerful song in his catalog.
I guess my real complaint is that the show ended at all! This ranks up there with my favorite shows: my first Bruce/E Street show back in 1985 in the Carrier Dome (Born In The USA tour) and the rollicking Seeger Sessions show at SPAC in 2006. It had something for everyone.
If you do not believe me, you can see for yourself–somebody taped the whole thing and posted it to You Tube!