Saturday, April 14, 2012

Show A Little Faith, There's Magic in the Night - Concert Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Detroit / Auburn Hills

Photo Credit: Mike Itchue, MLive Media Group
Concert Review

Bruce Springsteen
and the E Street Band
The Palace of Auburn Hills
in the suburbs of Detroit, MI
April 12, 2012

Some people have religion.

Some people have psychiatry.

Some people have controlled substances.

I have Bruce Springsteen.

Not that things are so bad in my life, although I have been frustrated by being unable to find work of late and chagrined by the ongoing chicanery in the world.

And not that I ever need a reason to see Springsteen in concert, especially when he tours with his erstwhile E Street Band. For those maintaining the tote board, this was my 39th Bruce show, the 33rd with the E Street Band.

But in case you were wondering why I opted to take a Thunder Road Trip up to the Detroit area to see him, well, the simple answer is that he isn't playing Chicago on the spring leg of his Wrecking Ball tour, although a September 7 date at Wrigley Field was just announced. But more metaphysically, to paraphrase The Cars (apt for the Motor City, though they're not from there), a blow-my-mind, restore-faith-in-mankind show by Bruce Springsteen was just what I needed.

And the Boss delivered. 

This isn't a surprise, nor should it be given my longstanding devotion. While all the culture and entertainment I often write about here offers emotional nourishment along with much else, and there are many great rock 'n roll artists that I truly love--I've seen well over 200 different acts in concert, more than 50 of them at least three times--I say this with no degree of whimsy:
As a performer, there is Bruce Springsteen and there is everyone else. 
Particularly in his full band shows with E Street, he is that good. With great regard for artists as cherished as Paul McCartney, U2 and Pearl Jam--all of whom delivered @@@@@ shows last year--no one else is close.

Photo Credit: John T. Greilick, The Detroit News
And with a magnificent 3-hour, non-stop show at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday, he proved it all night (though the song that line references isn't one of the 26 he played).

Bringing his legendary band onstage to the recorded strains of Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street," he began with an Apollo Theatresque self-introduction--tongue firmly in cheek--as he copped to being the only performer in the world "who insists on introducing himself."

The band then kicked into "We Take Care of Our Own," a strident rebuke of democracy inaction from his excellent new Wrecking Ball album. Although Palace security was particularly vigilant about not letting patrons bring in cameras--I had to bring mine back to my car--they didn't stop everyone nor ban cell phones, so I found this clip of the intro and first song on YouTube. Shot from behind the stage, it gives a pretty cool perspective.

One of the first things I noticed was what was missing: Clarence.

I never before had witnessed an E Street Band show without Bruce's longtime saxophonist and main onstage foil, Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, who passed away last June after suffering a stroke. So without meaning to imply a similar gravity, seeing the band on-stage without his sizable presence was a bit like the first time I saw the Manhattan skyline without the Twin Towers.

Yet despite the vastness of the void in myriad ways--Clemons will forever be an intrinsic part of Springsteen's legend, lore and iconography--musically things were in good stead, as Clarence's nephew Jake Clemons is along on this tour and covers most of his uncle's sax solos with no apparent deficiency. Smartly, rather than position Jake stage right, acutely in Clarence's shadow, Bruce has Jake stationed on a riser in the back along with four additional horn players (there are also two backup singers and a second percussionist; even with Bruce's wife Patti Scialfa absent from the Detroit show, there were up to 17 people on-stage at a time).

Photo Credit: Mike Itchue, MLive Media Group
In taking his solos Jake stepped up into the spotlight, sometimes all the way to the front of the stage. On his first big solo, during "Badlands," I felt chills. Clarence is gone, but his shoes are well-filled, from within the family.

As for Bruce himself, although I initially saw him in 1984 on the Born In The USA tour, most of my shows have come since he reunited the E Street Band in 1999. Yet while he's now 62 years old, he doesn't seem any worse for wear.

His voice is still quite robust and his stamina and showmanship remain amazing. Though he's not the dervish he was on the legendary '78 tour, anyone wondering if it's too late to see the Boss at his best--or at least a highly acceptable approximation--shouldn't be disappointed.

But it's not just his showmanship, musicianship, endurance or plethora of sensational songs (including always several worthy new ones) that make Bruce Springsteen the best concert performer my world has ever known. I realize the believers already know this and cynics won't care, but along with the music and length of the shows, three things set Springsteen concerts apart:
  1. Bruce structures his shows to have a narrative arc. Reflecting the latest album's impassioned anger at Wall Street's malfeasance and mass destruction, with new songs like "We Take Care of Our Own," "Wrecking Ball," and "Death To My Hometown" coming early in the set, Springsteen was clearly aiming his wrecking ball at the Palace walls (in this case, literally). And in pairing "Jack of All Trades," a new song about just trying to survive, with "Trapped," his classic Jimmy Cliff cover about battling oppression, he maintained a palpable thread of social injustice. But along with chronicling societal hardships, Bruce's songs also champion hope on a personal level, and singing along with "Badlands," "The Promised Land," "Land of Hope and Dreams," "Waiting on a Sunny Day" and "Born to Run" helps to explain why the Boss is also my de facto therapist. 

  2. No two Springsteen shows are alike. Although every tour has a basic setlist structure--you can see the full Auburn Hills set on makes a point of ensuring each city, and each night's audience, gets its own unique show. That's why I and others like to see so many of them. Of the 26 songs played at Thursday's Detroit area show, just 16 of the same ones were played the next night in Buffalo (no I didn't get to that one).

  3. No one else has Bruce's exuberance. It's not just the length of the shows, nor that he goes into the audience and crowd surfs back to the stage, but from the great smile plastered on his face to the way he interacts with his bandmates to his banter with the crowd, its eminently clear how much he loves what he does. 
Thus, so do I. And though I could say this about at least a dozen shows, his performance in Auburn Hills was one of the best I've seen.

Springsteen paid touching tribute to both Clemons and late keyboardist Danny Federici; "if you're here and we're here, then they're here."

He and the band played amazing versions of rare old classics like "The E Street Shuffle," "Candy's Room," "Because the Night" and for the first time this tour, "Incident on 57th Street" (video below).

Photo Credit: Jarrad Henderson, Detroit Free Press
And although he's been including an "Apollo Medley" ever since his tour warmup gig at the legendary theater in  Harlem, two Motown songs -- "The Way You Do The Things You Do" and "634-5789" -- plus a nice spoken intro went over especially well in the suburbs of Detroit (the Palace of Auburn Hills is about 30 miles north of downtown).

Bruce danced with two young girls from the audience during "Dancing in the Dark," brought a boy onstage to help him sing "Waiting on a Sunny Day" and ended a 6-song encore that included "Thunder Road," "Out in the Street" and "Born to Run," with "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out."

At the part after he sings, "...a change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band," the band stopped playing, a spotlight shone on Clemons' steadfast stage-right spot, a video screen showed some great Clarence moments and the crowd cheered and cheered.

I still haven't stopped.

The only things that could have made this show any better would have been if Bruce opted to play "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"--sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn't--and if he had brought his longtime friend and Detroit area legend Bob Seger on-stage to sing a song with him. I don't know if Seger was at the show or even in town, but he had brought Bruce up to duet on "Old Time Rock 'n' Roll" when Bob played New York's Madison Square Garden in December, so the possibility didn't seem that remote.

But that might have been a bit too unbelievable. And along with all else Bruce does for me, it's nice to have something I can still believe in.

This is a pretty cool video. After Bruce finishes crowd surfing to the stage at the end of "634-5789" he honors a sign's request to play "Incident on 57th Street." The video was shot by the father of the guy whose sign it was and provides a rather amazing vantage point.

No comments: