The E Streeters took over the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC, on April 24, and left in their wake an arena-full of believers.
BY FRED MILLS
It was a show for, by and about family, both figuratively and literally. That applied to yours truly as well: with the chance to grab a pair of plum stage right/box section/3rd row seats, I opted to take my 13-year old son because I figured it was high time to expose him to the pure rock ‘n’ roll essence that is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band—and no doubt hoping, in my parental vanity, that he’d come away a believer as so many other Boss newbies have come away before him. More on that later.
Springsteen, nearing 65, put on his usual marathon, clocking in at around three hours, and although some longtime fans will sniff, “Only three? Why, I saw him hit the four hour mark on the last tour…”, to that I say, this was perhaps the most powerful, unadulterated, all-fun/no-filler three hour’s worth of da Boss I’ve seen in my nearly 40 years of seeing him, probably 14 or 15 shows so far. The first time was on the Born To Run tour in ’76; later, there would be a four-night stand’s worth of The River shows; and much later, there was the 1999 E Street reunion tour, which if you are a life-long Bruce devotee, would be hard to top under any circumstances.
But for Raleigh, Bruce brought a level of energy and emotion that was matched sweat-drop-for-sweat-drop by the audience, an arena-full of fans drawn from the entire age spectrum—middle schoolers, college students, aging hipsters and old not-so-fogeys—who were on their feet from the very get-go, singing along with every single tune and never ceasing with the cheering and dancing and clapping—I do mean never. How “never,” you ask? So “never” that the E Street Band didn’t even bother to leave the stage for the customary encore break, but instead, clearly sensing the formality would be pointless given how nuts everyone had been going the entire time, simply paused for a few deep breaths while Bruce talked to the audience.
Out in the Street
The Promised Land
I’m on Fire
Because the Night
Working on the Highway
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Land of Hope and Dreams
encores (so to speak):
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
As you can see from the setlist above, April 24 was not an evening for deep-vault rarities, Boss-geek-bait obscure gems or those highly coveted tour premieres, with the possible exception of “Pretty Flamingo,” which Bruce used to play during the pre-BTR era and selected it spontaneously from among the fan-wielded request signs at the aforementioned encore juncture. (Instead of going offstage for a smoke or a quick drink, the musicians lingered onstage while Bruce gamely refamiliarized himself with the Manfred Mann oldie’s chord progression, eventually turning it into a more-or-less duet with wife Patti Scialfa.) Instead of surprises, Bruce opted for the type of shared intimacy that comes from familiarity, because there is something to be said for, as a fan, being able to anticipate lyrics and melodies and tempo changes and feel like you’re wholly in synch with the band. Part of the show, in other words. Participants in a shared communion.
That’s always been the way it is at a Springsteen show, but tonight, more than ever. Even the “insider moments”—Bruce dancing with his daughter Jessica during the “Dancing In The Dark” dance-with-the-ladies segment, and his bringing up three of her Duke University classmates to help out on the last verse of “Growin’ Up”—felt like everyone was on the same page and at the same party, on a first-name basis with everybody else. (Did I mention Raleigh was a family affair?) The fact that Bruce ran into the crowd multiple times throughout the evening, running along the aisle on either side of the floor pit and across a riser pathway that bisected the floor, and spent plenty of time stopping to shake/slap hands, lean in for some excited gal’s selfie, reinforced the whole no-barriers vibe of the show. That’s partly an illusion, of course; you can bet that if anything got out of hand a bodyguard would’ve been at Bruce’s side in a millisecond, although when he crowdsurfed on his back all the way from the riser to the edge of the stage it had me wondering where those handlers actually were.
At one point he paused in his crowd-roaming looked directly at the young women slightly to the left and in front of me in the first row of our section, then hopped up on the wall separating the seats from the aisle and leaned back against them as the huge overhead screens projected the image of three shocked pretty girls shooting selfie after selfie of them with Bruce. He was so close I could see the beads of sweat on his earlobe; he was so close I could have reached out and grabbed his sleeve. That’s intimate, friends.
High points? Well… there were 26 songs performed, so that would make… 26 high points. But since you asked…
On my personal bucket list for the evening were “Because The Night,” as it had been a favorite non-album cut from the Darkness era which I had actually never seen him do live, and “The Ghost Of Tom Joad,” because I had come to love and respect the dark, thunderous electric anthem it has evolved into (as opposed to its earlier acoustic incarnation), and because it was a chance to see new E Streeter Tom Morello render the guitar solo in classic Morello-shredder-effects fashion. (I am a fan of and have massive respect for Morello, both his music and his politics.) Concert opener “High Hopes” caught me offguard because, as a relatively new addition to the Springsteen canon, it was so effective at pulling the full 18-person E Street ensemble into the fray; it segued into the more traditional opener “Badlands,” and the one-two punch brilliantly set the tone for the show to come.
“Atlantic City” was devastating, bringing yet more dark thunder, and “The Rising,” I am not embarrassed to admit, brought tears to my eyes in the way it conjured tragedy and hope in the same instant. Speaking of which, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” offered another deeply emotional moment when, at the point Bruce sings “…and the Big Man joined the band…” a video montage featuring images of late saxman Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici played across the big screens. Simultaneously the E Street horn section, led by current saxman Jake Clemons, marched down from their riser to the front of the stage, cementing the notion (as if anyone needed to be reminded) that when you are part of this band, you are a card-carrying E Streeter and not just a hired hand. Did I mention this show was a family affair?
Before final number “Thunder Road” sent everyone out into the night to let the adrenalin slowly dissipate, we got an extended, riotous reading of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” and I swear there was not a single person in the entire arena who did not have arms thrust skyward and blurting out the titular tagline. At that point Bruce unleashed his now-familiar tent-revival mini-sermon (“You’ve just seen the heart-stoppin’, pants-droppin’, house-rockin’… E Street Band!” etc.), and the roar from the room was deafening. My ears are still ringing.
POSTSCRIPT: It’s commonplace nowadays to see a parent and a kid together at a concert; popular music’s such a part of the cultural fabric that no one even blinks an eye at such a pair listening to and enjoying the same music and the same artists. For me, though, I was entering my pre-teen years just as the British Invasion was kicking into high gear and a generational divide was being erected high. The subsequent likelihood of me going to a concert with one of my parents was slim-to-nonexistent; they wouldn’t have known what to do at a Beatles or Stones gig anymore than I was interested in tagging along for one of their Andy Williams or Perry Como shows. (I do vividly remember, however, the time when I was 15 and my best friend’s mom drove us an hour to Charlotte to see Led Zeppelin and she spent the entire concert at the nearby Shoney’s, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. And a few years earlier, when the Woodstock movie hit theaters, my dad had taken me because I begged to see it but wasn’t old enough to get in without a parent or guardian. Inside, I scooted down near the front while he sat in the back row, and after about 5 minutes I felt a tap on my shoulder: it was my dad, who told me he’d be back to get me when the movie was over… “Oh, and don’t tell your Mom I left you here by yourself, okay?”)
Based on my own personal anecdotal evidence, I suspect that most parents who do take their kids to concerts have a least a couple ancillary motivations beyond a shared musical reference point. There’s probably a bit of ego factoring in, whereby you want to convince yourself that by buying Little Johnny that ticket to see Crosby, Stills & Nash, you are not that same stuck-in-the-‘50s square that your own father was when you were a kid—and that at the same time you are clearly opening up your child’s mind to the beautiful artistry and cultural profundity that molded you into the fine citizen you turned out to be. Memo To Parents: You are inherently a “square” to your kids, especially if they are teenagers, and you will remain so until they reach a minimum age of 30, maybe even older; and they really and truly don’t give a shit about your culture and the attendant baggage you tote around, because they are too busy navigating and trying to make sense of their own cultural milieu. You might try to tell yourself that it’s a bonding experience, but trust me, the kid won’t even think in terms of “bonding,” much less realize it, until he or she becomes a parent, possibly not even until you are long gone and your child has had time to reflect on the relationship. (Newborns “bond” with their mothers; teenagers tolerate their fathers until they’re old enough to get their drivers licenses.)
Still, I would be disingenuous if I didn’t admit that in taking my own kid to see Springsteen, all of the above, and more, has traction for me. 13-year olds are self-conscious, yet cool; awkwardly reserved yet outrageously brazen at times; and the best part is that if you really pay attention, once in awhile you might get a glimpse of their inner lives or a momentary peek at their still-evolving souls. My son doesn’t really listen to Springsteen except when I happen to put some on at home or in the car, so he wasn’t necessarily familiar with the songs this night. And he didn’t ask me to take him to the show, either; he would’ve been happy sitting home that night with his PlayStation, gaming away, but when I told him I was getting a ticket and would he like to go with me (“The seats will be awesome,” I pledged), he readily accepted the invitation.
At the show, I watched him from time to time out of the corner of my eye—which was hard, because there was so much going on in the arena and onstage the entire time—and he was very spontaneously and, at times it seemed, unconsciously, clapping along and tapping his feet, never taking his eyes off the action. He didn’t even want to leave his seat to go get a soft drink or something to munch on; he appeared transfixed.
And in my vanity as a parent, I took a lot of pleasure at being able to share the moment with him, and to say to myself quite proudly and smugly that yes, we were bonding. I’m sure the experience was quite different for him, but I think we both got what we needed from the evening, and that’s good enough for me.
Thanks, Bruce. You delivered the goods once again. In more ways than you can know.
Photos Credit: Jo Lopez/Courtesy Shore Fire