Sure, But What Did It Sound Like?

Springsteen Proves His Relevance Again


by Eddie Rivera

These are strange days in the music business. Angry rap/metal bands score huge successes and incite fires at Woodstock. Teen popsters like Britney Spears rack up the hits. And don't get me started on the boy toy bands.

So where does the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band fit into this world? When last he visited these parts, he was backed by a group of strangers. There were empty seats in the Sports Arena, and hearing the hits played by the new band rang hollow with many fans. As one of those, I was tempted to write off the Springsteen phenomenon as "been there, done that" some years ago.

But what has made him appealing over the years still rings true. Taking the stage at Staples Center October 17, he looked up at the luxury boxes and scoffed. "They're called 'sky boxes,' not 'middle of the room boxes,'" he said. "Move them up and out of the way. " It's difficult to imagine The Eagles, for example, remarking on the luxury boxes, except as yet another commercial endorsement of their success. But Springsteen is among the few who would find the presence of luxury boxes insulting to the "everyman" nature of rock and roll. Frankly, rock and roll is no longer "us and them," it's "us and Nike," and people seem to like it that way. Rock and roll is corporately sponsored, and long gone are the days when that would be criticized. So when multimillionaire Springsteen denigrates the boxes, it is the idea that he would criticize at all that's remarkable. There are millionaires and there are millionaires. Some ask for more money, some ask you to contribute to the L.A. Regional Food Bank.

That said,let's talk about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band circa the so-called millennium. The long-awaited reunion tour brought back memories of mid-’80s Springsteen mania. Opening with "My Love Will Not Let You Down," from his 1998 Tracks collection, the band was high-powered and serious about laying down the message: "We're not going anywhere." Most of the E Street band members are late 40s, early 50s, and yet they rocked with an impressive physical energy, particularly drummer Max Weinberg. Springsteen himself looked fit and strong, as the band performed a three-hour show with two encores and no intermission. The Staples Center sound was clear and dense with plenty of room for the band's vocals, though Bruce's guitar flourishes were sometimes lost in the thick wall of sound, particularly on "Working on the Highway." The return of Miami Steve Van Zandt gave the band an additional sonic layer to work with.

Springsteen chose generously from his entire catalog, from Born to Run's "Backstreets" and "Tenth Avenue Freezeout" to a revved-up version of "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Unlike previous shows, there were no long, dramatic stories to illustrate the songs. Indeed the band roared through the first three songs without stopping before Springsteen spoke to the audience. Aided by huge video screens (We don't criticize those anymore either) and a TelePrompTer, Springsteen was the rock and roll evangelist, lecturing us from his Fender pulpit, tongue firmly in cheek.

Springsteen kept his sense of history alive but refused to be trapped by it. He resurrected "Born in the USA" as an acoustic blues dirge, and offered a new sax/harmonica-based introduction to the River. Yet he also offered "Thunder Road," true to the original, complete with the audience singing the second verse: "Show a little faith/There's magic in the night/You ain't a beauty/But hey, you're all right." There were few true surprises in the opening night show, though in later shows Springsteen added little such performed favorites as "Where the Bands Are" (never previously on a tour set list), "Jungleland," "Trapped" and "Hungry Heart." It should be noted that until the house lights came on for "Born to Run," very few of the luxury box patrons stood, while the lower section of the arena remained on its feet for most of the show.

As Sunday night headed towards Monday, Springsteen stood out of the lights, accompanying guitarists Nils Lofgren and Little Steven Van Zandt, singer Patti Scialfa and sax man Clarence Clemons while each sang a verse of his "Should I Fall Behind," a paean to friendship. It was a simple and effective dramatic idea, elegantly presented.

But for this reviewer, it was the enduring "Bobby Jean" that hit home. Visions of old pals and a 1985 spent working in New Jersey swirled when Springsteen sang: "Maybe you'll be out there on that road somewhere/some bus or train traveling along/In a motel room, there'll be a radio playing and you'll hear me sing this song/If you do, you'll know I'm thinking of you and all the miles in between/And I'm just calling one last time/Not to change your mind/ But just to say I miss you baby/Good luck goodbye Bobby Jean."

Hey, I'm only human. And so is Springsteen. As he exited the stage, he reminded fans to donate to the food bank in the lobby. "And you guys in the luxury boxes give a million. Good night."

—Reprinted from Los Angeles Downtown News, October 25, 1999


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