Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Land of Hope and Dreams: Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Live in Detroit, 4/12/12

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Live at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Detroit, MI
April 12th, 2012

Five songs into his marathon, 3 hour, 26 song Auburn Hills
set (27, if you count both pieces of the "Apollo Medley"), Bruce Springsteen broke musical ranks during a brassy, orchestral re-imagining of "My City of Ruins" to have a word with his audience. "Good evening Detroit!" he shouted gleefully. "I love you old Michigan! That's right, I know where the fuck I am!" He was referring to his last visit to the Palace (on November 13th, 2009, also my first Springsteen show), where he famously forgot he what state he was in. On that particular occurrence, he shouted "Hello, Ohio!" three or four times before Little Stevie finally set him straight, but tonight, he had a fan's "Bruce: You Are Here" (with a drawing of Michigan) poster to help him out. It was a good-hearted callback to a night I count among the best I've ever had, and a perfect way for him to re-acquaint himself with the crowd. He continued, telling us all, "You're gonna go home tonight with your hands hurtin' and your voice sore and your back hurtin', and tomorrow you're gonna say '...what the fuck happened to me?!?'"

"And of course, we're here to tell you a story, as always," he said a few moments later. "And tonight's story is a story about hellos and goodbyes, and things that leave us, and things that remain with us forever. So let's get started." And they did, playing through three quarters of the song before pausing again for Bruce to do a roll call of his legendary E Street Band. After he had introduced everyone onstage, the longtime virtuosos and the new additions alike, he asked the big question of the night. "Are we missing anybody?" he roared at the audience. As nice as the gesture would have been, everyone in the Palace on Thursday night knew that Bruce wasn't talking about his wife, back-up vocalist Patti Scialfa, who was absent from the proceedings tonight. No, Bruce was clearly referring to the mammoth presence of Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, whose iconic saxophone sound was stolen from the band when he passed away last summer, due to complications from a stroke. And Thursday night's crowd, aware of this fact from the moment they entered the arena, screamed his name back at Bruce as loud as they could muster, over and over again. It was the night's first direct reference to Clemons, but there wasn't a minute of the show's 180 minute run-time where he was far from everyone's minds - Bruce's included. But just as he's been saying all tour long, "the only thing I can guarantee is that, if you're here, and we're here, then they're here with us tonight." And from the moment Jake Clemons (the Big Man's nephew and his perfect spiritual stand-in) nailed the first sax solo of the night during "Badlands" (the first of many brilliant deliveries), the show felt like a tribute, a farewell, and a catharsis.

But it was also so much more than that. It was a powerful display of a band and a frontman who, 40 years down the road from their first record, are still absolutely performing in top form. It was a slate of some of the best music ever written, coming alive for new generations and past ones alike. And for me, it was a reminder of the power music can have, but I'll get to more on that later. All of those things were evident from the show's introduction (where Springsteen memorably introduces himself) and the one-two punch opening of "We Take Care of Our Own" and "Wrecking Ball," a pair of songs from his latest record that crackled and thrived in this setting, even alongside a smattering of classics. The former, especially, came alive tonight, and "Wrecking Ball," while I personally found it more striking when I saw him two and a half years ago (at this same venue) on the final leg of the Working on a Dream tour, was certainly welcome here, as it remains one of the highlights from the new record and possesses a certain amount of bombast that is very appealing in a live setting. Speaking of new highlights, the Irish rave-up that is "Death to My Hometown" was as ferocious and riotous as I hoped it would be.

Photo by John T. Greilick / The Detroit News
The epic sweep of "Badlands" is welcome in any setlist, whether it occurs near the beginning or towards the end (it served as the main set closer on Springsteen's last visit to Detroit). The Darkness on the Edge of Town opener represented one of only three forays into that record tonight (another being "Candy's Room," which also appeared early), but both songs clearly illustrated why the Darkness tour holds such legendary status, as both still ring with the kind of electricity and life that begets the best live shows. Hearing "My City of Ruins" was a particularly emotional experience for me, not only because of the Clarence, or because of the 9/11 association I will always have with it, but because, aside from maybe "Born to Run," it was the first Springsteen song I ever fell in love with. Hearing it seven or eight years after it first caught my ear, especially in such a centerpiece role, with such a lovingly rendered arrangement (the horn section Springsteen has on this tour was especially effective here), was nothing short of breathtaking. The way Springsteen commands the audience on the classics and the rockers is one thing, but his ability to bring things down to pin-drop ambiance on late-career ballads like this one is testament to both his charisma and the devotion of his fanbase: I can think of a lot of bands that are pretty much relegated to playing their greatest hits these days, but I for one am as pleased to watch Bruce play through his post-millennial output as I am to hear his classics.

Then again, not all fans are so accommodating, and I saw more than a few people heading for the doors in pursuit of bathroom breaks and beer runs during "Jack of All Trades," the most pensive moment from Wrecking Ball. While the song is hardly my favorite on the record, the live performance was undeniably effective, plunging the Palace into an elegiac darkness and allowing Springsteen's voice and words (and later, Nils Lofgren's stunning guitar solo) to ring through the arena unhindered by special effect. On the other hand "Trapped," a cover of a Jimmy Cliff song, thrived on lighting effects, starting in a hazy purple light (which perfectly accentuated the song's nostalgic guitar intro), and exploding into the chorus just as the house lights went up. A muscular electric version "Youngstown," a blue-collar anthem originally from the all-acoustic Ghost of Tom Joad album, played spectacularly well in Detroit, which has fallen on harder times than a lot of other places in the country, while "The E-Street Shuffle," a block-party style jam session from way back in 1973, played up the other side of things and gave the city's residents reason to dance and sing along. Each of these songs epitomized the spirit of the first half of the set, where Springsteen spent most of his time diving in the back catalog and snatching out deep cuts, a practice which might not be rewarding for casual fans, but which I found fascinating.

                     Photo by John T. Greilick / The Detroit News
But the "golden greats" did start to appear eventually, first with "She's the One," the first of four Born to Run cuts to make it onto the stage tonight, and then with live stand-bys like "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," where Springsteen brought a little boy up onstage to sing the chorus and taught him how to do his patented "knee slide" ("His life peaked at seven," my brother exclaimed later. "What could he possibly do that would be more exciting than that?"), or "The Promised Land," the third Darkness cut and another chance for Jake Clemons to show off his chops. I personally don't understand the ubiquity of "Sunny Day" as a live staple, as I've always found the song to be one of the more innocuous moments on The Rising: it's a simple, somewhat tongue-in-cheek pop song on a record of deeply spiritual songs dealing with tragedy. That said, the song is a lot of fun, and I was more jealous of that kid than I would care to admit (though going back to reality after this concert was hard enough for me, even without having shared the stage with a legend). "The Promised Land" was as solid as ever, though I would have traded it out for either "Racing in the Streets" or "Darkness on the Edge of Town," and no complaints on "She's the One," as any Born to Run song is a good one.

Perhaps the best moment of the night came when Springsteen plucked a fan's poster from the pit and held it up, saying "special request for Detroit." The sign read "Incident on 57th Street," a title that prompted every hardcore Springsteen fan in the place to let loose a few ecstatic expletives. That song is one of the three classics that constitute the flawless second side of Springsteen's second record, The Wild, The Innocent, The E-Street Shuffle (and is generally considered "his best song not on Born to Run). However, despite the adoration it receives in fan circles, "Incident" is rarely played live (this was the proper-tour premiere of the song), but hearing the E Street Band play the song tonight made me wonder why. The song was neither the longest, nor the shortest performance of the set (clocking in at 8:30, it was sandwiched between two longer segments in the forms of the soulful "Apollo Medley," where Springsteen paid tribute to Detroit's Motown history, and "American Skin," which I'll get to in a moment), but it was certainly among the best. Most of the audience quieted down to hear this (nearly) historical moment, allowing the song's melodic splendor and lyrical depth to shine. By the time Bruce got to my favorite line of the song ("Hey little heroes, summer's long but I guess it ain't very sweet around here anymore"), I was in heaven.

Photo by John T. Greilick / The Detroit News
"American Skin (41 Shots)" emerged over a decade ago for the E Street Band reunion tour in 1999 and 2000. That tour eventually lead to the inception of The Rising, but the song never made it onto a proper record, and remains available only in live recording. As a result, it's not a song I've spent a lot of time with over the years, but that changed when Springsteen brought it out and polished it off on Thursday night, using it to deliver one of the most emotionally intense moments of the night. Written for the controversial 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, Springsteen revived the song last month in Tampa, FL, a mere two hours' drive from Sanford, where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed similar circumstances. Tonight, it sounded like a funeral dirge, transforming the Palace into a cathedral of sound and tragedy, and providing the most sobering moment of the night. As the song stretched on for almost nine minutes, through repeated chants of the "41 shots" motive, and a scorching, over-the-top guitar solo from Lofgren, it resonated in a way that few songs ever do, and was transformed into a highlight. Bruce didn't need to say Trayvon's name for everyone to know what he was singing about, but that's always been one of his gifts: he's always been able to take a song that was written for something else, and apply it to new situations in performance. It happened ten years ago, when "My City Of Ruins" morphed into a hymn to the events of September 11th in the wake of the attacks, or at the end of the reunion tour, where he re-wrote bits of "Blood Brothers" and had his band clasp hands and close their eyes as he sang them. I was humbled to see it happen to yet another song tonight.

"The Rising" never truly resonated with me until I saw Bruce play it live here in 2009, so I was eager to hear it again, and it didn't disappoint. A Johnny Cash-esque, mostly acoustic performance of Wrecking Ball closer "We Are Alive" was every bit as moving, but both were nothing compared to "Land of Hope and Dreams," which served as main set closer tonight, and burst with more energy and emotion than any band has a right to have after playing for over two hours. "Hope and Dreams," which was also originally penned on the reunion tour, finally made its way onto a studio record with Wrecking Ball, and how pleased I am that it did, as its undoubtedly my favorite song of the year so far. In studio form, it contains the only Clarence sax solo on the record, one last flawless piece of a man who spent his life conjuring up some of the greatest moments in the history of recorded music. In its live setting, the song is a sweeping, epic behemoth, a flawless set closer, and an affirmation of the beauty of life, music, and everything in between. It was already my favorite song of the year, but that it managed not only to stand up to Springsteen's best material, but to land as a highlight amidst a set of highlights, was nothing short of staggering, and made me appreciate just how good Wrecking Ball is as a record.

But then, it was singalong time: a trademark harmonica yelp heralded the arrival of "Thunder Road," arguably the greatest song of all time and one of the best I've ever seen performed live. Chills shot down my spine as Springsteen wound through the lyrical beauty of the song's intro, and returned when he let the crowd yell "Show a little faith, there's magic in the night, you ain't a beauty, but hey, you're alright" back at him. "Rocky Ground" had no business being anywhere near an encore set, as much as I like the song on record and as well performed as it was. Back-up singer Michelle Moore got a prominent feature, both on the song's vocal refrain and during the climactic rap section, but the audience reaction was lukewarm, and the song threatened to kill the feverish momentum that had been carefully building since "Incident." Luckily, a performance of "Out in the Street," a raucous bar-band rock song from The River (the only track off that album played tonight), helped bring it back, and by the time the opening swell of "Born to Run" had filled the arena, everything was forgiven. The house lights came up, and I put my arm around my brother and we both screamed along with every word. As the song neared its euphoric bridge section, I took a look around at the arena, gazing behind me at the hundreds of faces scattered on the floor, and the thousands more I saw rising around me in the seats, and I felt like a part of something huge, momentous, and important. With a massive grin on my face, I turned back to the stage and belted out the song's climactic lines: "someday girl, I don't know when, we're gonna get to that place where we really want to go and we'll walk in the sun," and I knew these were moments that I was going to remember and cherish for the rest of my life. "But until then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run." Amen.

The show could have stopped there and I would have been more than satisfied, but it didn't. Bruce asked us all to "put on our dancing shoes" as the synth-intro of "Dancing in the Dark" washed over us. He pulled a pair of young girls out of the audience to dance onstage, mirroring the song's music video, which gave Courteney Cox her big break 25 years ago. Those who had waited for singles all night (if those audience members existed) had to be satisfied by the one-two punch of "Born to Run" and "Dancing," the two biggest singles from their respective albums, and two songs that transformed the Palace floor into a dance-hall-party. But even as the song dissolved (following one last perfect sax solo from Jake Clemons), Bruce screamed "we're not done yet!" and I knew full well what was coming next: "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the song that has served as the closer all tour long, and for good reason. Halfway through, Springsteen made his way out to the central walkway (ending up some twenty feet from where I stood), and shouting "THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART!" before delivering the most iconic lines of the song: "well they made that change up town, and the Big Man joined the band." The song is, essentially, the story of how the E Street Band formed and of how Bruce and Clarence came together, and on record, that line is followed by a blast from Clemons' sax. Not tonight though. Tonight, the band dropped out, allowing Springsteen to sing that line a cappella, and when he was done, they didn't come back in. Springsteen raised his microphone into the air and photographs of Clarence rolled on the venues' media screens as the audience screamed and clapped for the better part of two minutes. Eventually, Springsteen gave the brass section a cue, and they launched back into the song (with Clarence's sax motive), but it was the two minutes of pure tribute that every audience took with them, and it was a tremendous way to close the set (while carrying it past the three hour mark). "Thank you, Detroit!" Bruce yelled, as the song crashed away and subsided. "Thanks for a great night! We love you!"

The moment Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band left the stage on Thursday night, my head was filled with satisfaction and euphoria, vows to revisit songs that came alive tonight, questions of when I would get to see them again, and a distinctly singular statement: that this was the greatest musical performance I had ever witnessed. I think that last bit is something that every great live performer inspires, and I have certainly felt shades of it on numerous occasions: several Butch Walker shows, the U2 show I saw last summer, and the last time I saw Bruce, to name a few. Comparing concerts is always a ridiculously difficult task because once it's over, it's gone forever. You can download a bootleg, and there may even be a DVD release of it, but there is no substitute for actually being there, nothing that can ever reconstruct that experience. But when Springsteen left the stage at the Palace last Thursday, when those three brilliant hours were just a mere memory, I couldn't recall a concert that had so completely engulfed me, moved me, or reminded me of just how huge an impact my favorite artists can have on my life. Over the past six months, I've gone through some tough situations with my University in regards to my music major, and that's caused me to lose a little bit of faith in the art form that has defined my life for the better part of a decade. But this show was an affirmation, a reminder of why music is so important to me, and Springsteen helped heal those scars on Thursday night. Maybe there were people in the audience like me that night, people who were searching for healing or faith or something equally intangible, and maybe these songs and the atmosphere and energy in the audience helped heal them too. Certainly, each and every one of us was gifted with a catharsis regarding Clarence Clemons, an opportunity to participate in these incredible tributes to him, and a chance to say goodbye in a way that felt completely right. All of those things seemed like miracles to me as I drove back home that night.

The next morning, I got a text from my brother: "What the fuck happened to me?!?" Bruce's prophecy had come true. I myself was exhausted, running on 5 hours of sleep, sore all over, and with a voice that sounded like a hoarse rhinoceros (three days from having to sing in a choral concert, no less), but what I'd gotten in return was greater than anyone who wasn't in that audience could possibly imagine. As I re-adjusted to my everyday life, memories of that concert infected every moment of conscious thought: they were there as I performed that Sunday concert (my voice did come back, amazingly), with a re-energized adoration for music in my heart; they were there as I wrote thirty pages worth of term papers, looking past them to an expansive summer full of possibilities; and they are still here with me right now, as I type these words, listening to the bootleg from the show and trying to sink back into these songs, right back to where I was standing on the floor of the Palace of Auburn Hills that night. In this modern world, this very week in fact, we are worried about a lot of things: about tax day and gas prices and just how the hell we're going to make it through exam week without burning out, but really, beyond things like love, family, and friends, the things that make our day to day life worth living, is there anything more important than a rock 'n' roll concert? Because after seeing Bruce Springsteen play a three hour show, it sure doesn't seem like it.

To borrow a quote from a poster that appeared during the E Street Band Working on a Dream Tour Finale in Buffalo, NY: "It's only rock and roll, but it feels like love."


We Take Care Of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
The E Street Shuffle
Candy's Room
Jack of All Trades
Trapped (Jimmy Cliff cover)
Youngstown (Tour Premiere)
She's the One
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
Apollo Medley
Incident on 57th Street (Tour Premiere)
American Skin (41 Shots)
Because the Night
The Rising
We Are Alive
Land of Hope and Dreams


Thunder Road
Rocky Ground
Out In the Street
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out


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