DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF PHILLY Bruce Springsteen

With E Streeters in
tow, the Boss digs deep into his roots to help give an old girlfriend a proper
sendoff.

 

BY STEVE KLINGE

 

Few artists are as at home in big venues as Bruce
Springsteen is, and the arena that has been his home the longest is
Philadelphia’s Spectrum (now branded the Wachovia Spectrum). He played his
first arena show there in 1973 opening for Chicago, and he’s been back over
thirty times (a banner proclaimed 47 Philadelphia sell-outs, but that includes
neighboring sites). With the 43-year-old venue slated for demolition after
Pearl Jam plays the last show there on Halloween, Springsteen returned for four
final concerts, just after he played his farewell shows at New Jersey’s Giants
Stadium.

 

It’s easy to wax nostalgic for the end of landmark, and the
old Spectrum has its merits: for a venue that seats over 17,000, it is
“intimate”: the rows are so close together that the neighboring Wachovia,
although it seats a similar number, seems cavernous. But the place is old: the
concourses are narrow, with no logical traffic flow, and women end up using the
men’s room because there are so few stalls. Still, it has its charms, and its
history is one of its main ones.

 

A few weeks ago Springsteen announced that he would perform
one of his albums straight-through each night: Born To Run on October 13th and 19th, Born in the USA on the 20th, and
Darkness on the Edge of Town on this
night, the 14th. (On a personal note, I had my own nostalgic reasons
for picking the Darkness night: my
first Springsteen shows were at the Spectrum in 1978, once in May just before
the album came out, and then twice in August.)

 

Philly is an important city in Springsteen’s history, and he
often treats it to something special. On the previous night, which was by all
accounts a rowdy three-hour marathon, he opened with the old rarity “Seaside
Bar Song” and included a new song, “Wrecking Ball,” written to commemorate the
demolition of Giants Stadium but with lyrics tweaked for the Spectrum. On this
night, after taking the stage to Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man,” he opened with
another old surprise, the Greetings from
Asbury Park, NJ
outtake “Thundercrack,” which became a joyful ten-minute
jam centered on sax and violin solos from, respectively, Big Man Clarence
Clemons, dreadlocked and in a black priestly robe embroidered in gold, and
Soozie Tyrell, looking like Emmylou Harris’s sister.

 

The tendency can be to look for messages in Springsteen set
lists, and choosing The River‘s “The
Ties That Bind” as the next song might have been a site-specific statement
about community and long-term allegiances. But then again, that theme comes up
in about 25% of Springsteen’s catalog, so who knows? The rest of the show’s
first section included the night’s only tracks from his current album, “What
Love Can Do” and the title track, “Working on a Dream” – the former with a
grander crescendo than on the album, but still overly repetitive and
under-written (although the “mark of Cain” line may have been a bit of
foreshadowing); the latter a crowd-pleasing bit of romanticism. Those two
sandwiched a showboating version of “Hungry Heart” that began as karaoke for
the audience as Springsteen strolled to the end of the catwalk. As he sang the
verses, Springsteen sauntered back to the midpoint of the floor. And then the
60-year-old crowd-surfed his way back to the stage. Looked like he was having
fun, too, and he certainly wanted that fun to be infectious, soon thereafter
slipping into preacher cadences, stating that the band was going to “build a
house out of music and spirit” and exhorting the crowd to “bring the noise”
(which, sad to say, was not a Public Enemy allusion).

 

After that half-hour section, Springsteen introduced Darkness saying that it is “a record
that means a great deal to me” and that, coming three years after Born to Run, it “wasn’t greeted with the
kind of affection that it’s gained over the years.” With Darkness, Springsteen turned from “pulling out of here to win”
escapism to an “I believe in the hope that can save me” blend of idealism and
fatalism that would dominate most of his future work. True to its title, it’s a
dark and edgy work, and an especially coherent statement about the psychic
costs of working class monotony when performed front to back.

 

Highlights: “Badlands,” slowed down slightly and with
Springsteen singing behind the beat, with more bitterness than affirmation.
“Adam Raised a Cain,” with Springsteen leading a five-strong army of guitars
and boring into a bent-note and powerfully dissonant guitar solo. “Candy’s
Room,” with Max Weinberg ramrod-straight as he played the machine-gun rhythm
and with another searing Springsteen guitar solo. “Darkness” itself, done as a
grand epic.

 

But the real treats were the ballads: “Racing in the
Streets” and “Factory,” both with gorgeously delicate and lengthy piano solos
from Roy Bittan, urged on by Charles Giordano’s organ playing (Giordano
replaced the late Danny Federici, who died last year), and the seldom-performed
“Streets of Fire,” that was full of heavy anguish and more impassioned guitar
soloing, this time with Nils Lofgren stepping to the fore to join Springsteen.

 

With the exception of “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and
“Prove It All Night” – the ones that have stayed the most prominent in
Springsteen’s set lists for three decades – these aren’t fun songs: they’re by
turns gut-wrenching and empathetic, angry and resigned, and they don’t hide
their bitterness in the way Springsteen would on Born in the USA. And they have lost little of their emotional
resonance.

 

At the end of the hour-long run through the album, the
original E Streeters-Clemons, Bittan, Weinberg, bassist Garry Tallent,
guitarist Steve Van Zandt-joined Springsteen at the front of the stage to take
a bow. And then party time began.

 

The current ritual for Springsteen shows is for the crowd to
interact through handheld signs for requests and acknowledgements. (The most
unusual request, unfortunately ignored, was for Randy Newman’s “You Can You
Leave Your Hat On.”) One sign, held by a girl of about six, said “Can I PLS
Sing With You?,” and she got her dream (or, perhaps more likely, her parents’
dream) of joining in on “Waiting On A Sunny Day,” even managing an a cappella
chorus. Very cute. Then came a joyful, loose “Sherry Darling,” also by request,
with Bitten, Giordano and Lofgren on accordions for a carnival flavor and with
Springsteen grabbing wife Patti Scialfa to share his mic (that song prompted
Springsteen to shout, “Now that’s entertainment!”). A spiritual trifecta
followed, with “Human Touch,” “Long Walk Home” (with Little Steven doing some
soul-style testifying at the end) and a stagey “The Rising” (no need for the
crucifixion pose, Bruce).

 

Amid the surefire finales of “Born to Run,” the old “Detroit
Medley” of “Devil with a Blue Dress” / ” Good Golly Miss Molly” / “C.C. Rider”
/ “Jenny, Jenny,” “Dancing In The Dark” (with a 13-year-old birthday girl
taking the role of Courtney Cox, rather awkwardly), and “Rosalita” came a few
surprises: A crowd-requested “Ramrod” (the third highlight from The River) done as a garage rocker
complete with Big Bopper-style brrrrrrs and a sax and piano call-and-response
section; “American Land,” done in full Irish jig style with guest trumpeter
Curt Ramm and fiddler Tyrell taking leads. (Sadly, the great B-side “Be True”
was dropped from the set list.)

 

That’s a lot in two hours and 45 minutes, and in some ways,
it seemed like two shows: a preamble and then Darkness, and then a romp through the past. It might not have been
as coherent or provocative or exhilarating as some of the past thirty-odd shows
Springsteen had performed at the Spectrum. Sometimes the showmanship and the
audience participation took precedence over the rock and roll itself, and while
Springsteen constantly engaged and interacted with the crowd, he didn’t make
any statements, political, social or personal, and his ability to articulate
insights in the context of a rock and roll show is unique. But it was a fitting
examination of his range and history, and Darkness,
in its dark glory, was powerful indeed.

 

 

Set list:

 

 

Thundercrack

The Ties That Bind

What Love Can Do

Hungry Heart

Working On A Dream

Badlands

Adam Raised A Cain

Something In the Night

Candy’s Room

Racing In the Street

The Promised Land

Factory

Streets of Fire

Prove It All Night

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Waiting On A Sunny Day

Sherry Darling

Human Touch

Long Walk Home

The Rising

Born To Run

 

Encore:

Ramrod

Detroit
Medley: Devil With A Blue Dress/Good Golly Miss Molly/C.C. Rider/Jenny, Jenny

American Land

Dancing In the Dark

Rosalita

 

[Photo courtesy
Backstreets.com; photographed by Joseph Quever
]

 

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