18 May 2009: Verizon Center Washington, DC
Is it strange that I was halfway through Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s epic two-and-a-half-hour-plus set before I noticed that the Boss and his cohorts were dressed entirely in black? Either my powers of observation have atrophied, or there is something so stupidly optimistic about Springsteen’s revivalist stadium rock that it belies the worst of recession-era gloom and crumbling-earth eschatology. If this is indeed America’s funeral, she is going out with a bang, and Springsteen is the grand marshal for death’s parade.
Perhaps the airborne ecstasy in a room lit by Springsteen’s presence is not unrelated to the work required just to get there. At face value, tickets to this Verizon Center performance sold between $60 and $100, and that was after you carpal-tunneled yourself clicking refresh on Ticketmaster.com and avoided the price-gouging trap set by sell-on websites. And by showing up to the concert themselves, fans were in effect declining the opportunity to scalp their tickets for two hundred bucks or more. Faces around the arena reflected a giddy anticipation usually found in dogs tossed a plate of leftover filet mignon or grandmothers let loose into a room of their own grandchildren—this is the best moment of my week, month, life.
In turn, Springsteen seemed to perform as if this particular show at Washington, DC’s Verizon Center was fated to be his last, best, ever. For anyone who has seen him live before or, really, knows anything about him, the guy’s limitless enthusiasm is old news, but still: That he loves being onstage begs to be repeated. This was my first Springsteen concert, and I have never seen a musician so addicted to audience gratification, and I have never seen an audience so enthralled to the band onstage.
The E Street Band’s wall of sound was in full effect, aided by the participation of Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa, whose appearances on the current tour have been sporadic after a horse-riding accident, and drummer Max Weinberg, whose duties as Conan O’Brien’s musical director have occasionally caused him to miss shows. The first sax solo from Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, who nearly seems as well loved as Springsteen, inspired a frenzied response from the audience. At times the sound was a little too muddy, as if there was little more to the band than pounding piano chords and a driving drumbeat, but on the whole the band defied its age by zigzagging through Springsteen’s compositions with the athleticism of a young buck.
More expert Springsteen-followers than me have noted that the band is going all-out in terms of pleasing the audience on this current tour, and I can believe it. The request portion of the show would speak to that, during which Springsteen took posters requesting songs both classic (“Out in the Street”) and bizarre (“Hava Nagila”; “Little Latin Lupe Lu”) and lead the band into rollicking, unrehearsed renditions. Springsteen’s willingness to let every child within arm’s length of him sing a lyric and his donning of a cowboy hat for the song “Outlaw Pete” were moments that bordered on outright cheese, but for some reason they seemed more palatable than might be expected. Springsteen’s charmingly earnest antics have been winning fans for decades, and no doubt he won more than a few on this night.
At the beginning of the show, after coming on to thunderous applause, Springsteen asked, “Are you ready to be delivered?” and then launched into “Badlands”, the Darkness on the Edge of Town opener that mixes classic Springsteenian blue-collar concerns and a galloping accompaniment. This kind of faux-preacher message of hope followed by songs that are lyrically dark yet musically upbeat gave the concert’s overt enthusiasm a perplexing shade. Where exactly are we being delivered, again? To a place, according to “Badlands”, where “you spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come” and where you “Let the broken hearts stand / As the price you’ve gotta pay.” Now that’s something to shake a fist to! Towards the middle of the set, Springsteen went into a lengthy, Sunday-style testimonial about “building a house of hope,” only to transition into a song—Nebraska‘s “Johnny 99”—about a laid-off auto worker who goes on a shooting spree. Suffice it to say that the home envisioned in “Johnny 99” is probably not the kind of “house of hope” President Obama, the likely executioner for much of the American automobile industry, wants to build.
Besides the obligatory “Born to Run”, which with the lights up and all twenty thousand singing themselves hoarse was thrilling if in a predictable way, the concert’s high point was perhaps “The Promised Land”, a mid-tempo stomper featuring an effervescent Clemons harmonica line. The verses feature a typical Springsteen anti-hero, toiling under the hood of some jerk’s car, driving out into the desert to shout down his fate, but the chorus could not be more blunt: “I believe in the promised land,” the arena sung out with gusto. At which point it occurred to me the utopia of which Springsteen sings may not have a geographic location, and it may not depend on a certain level of socioeconomic equality or justice. For Springsteen and his fans, the “Promised Land” can be found in one place for sure—namely, a Springsteen concert. After the failure of politics, dreams, and everything else, his music, for a lot of people, has become the only thing left worth believing in.