Since I became a die-hard Bruce fan in 1989, I had been searching for the mythical Springsteen of the Live 1975-1985 boxed set. I looked for him at two shows on the 1992 tour, and I tried again to find him in 1993, at a benefit for the Kristen Ann Carr Fund. I hoped to see him in 1999, and I sought him again in 2000, on the E-Street Band reunion tour. Though I caught glimpses of him, the Bruce of legend was missing in action more often than not—until I saw the third show on the Rising tour, where I finally found him.
Surprisingly, the least satisfying portions of this concert were those in which Bruce performed his classic material. Thankfully, he left out the second-rate tunes that soured his shows on the reunion tour, opting instead for popular favorites, but even gems like “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” are beginning to sound a little tired. At times, it almost felt like Bruce was just going through the motions with these songs. Of all the older tunes, “Bobby Jean” seemed the most inspired, and that song apparently made it onto the set list only as a result of a spur-of-the-moment decision by Bruce on the second night of the tour.
Not his classics, but Bruce’s vital new songs dominated his two-and-a-half hour set at the Garden. He played eleven tracks from his latest record, which has now deservedly spent two weeks at the top of the charts. The new disc is considered a musical response to September 11. There, the Boss has again successfully tackled political themes—in this case, the terrorist attacks and their aftermath—through personal narrative. I was deeply moved by the grief, anger, hope and faith that he expressed when performing the new songs on stage.
Yet the strength of the new material goes beyond its lyrical relevance. These compositions are not poems recited solo, they are rousing songs performed with one of the greatest backing bands of all time. Musically, these songs are damn catchy. Nearly all of the chord changes, hooks, arrangements and melodies on the album work quite well.
The entire stadium sang along to “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”, which sounded like “Darlington County” meeting Billy Joel’s “Allentown” in a country & western bar. “The Fuse”, with its swirling guitars and echo chamber vocals, must be the most psychedelic song Bruce has written since he did the “The E-Street Shuffle” in 1973. “You’re Missing” sported a Beatlesque bridge and a gorgeous organ coda from Danny Federici that reminded me of “Racing in the Street”. Two soaring rockers, “Lonesome Day” and “Countin’ on a Miracle,”, seemed to be built for stadium shows like this one, recalling classics like “Prove It All Night” and “Promised Land”. A soulful romp, the new party anthem “Mary’s Place”, featured Bruce’s always rousing band introductions, a crescendo reminiscent of “Rosalita”, and some spine-tingling snare work from the mighty Max Weinberg.
The four most impassioned, important songs of Springsteen’s show, all performed towards the end of his set, included two from The Rising and two recorded here at the Garden during the reunion tour for the Live From New York City album.
It must have taken considerable courage for Bruce to again sing “American Skin,” which debuted on the reunion tour. The song criticizes the New York police, and Bruce played it—in New York—despite the fact that so many police officers died here on September 11. For Springsteen, two wrongs do not make a right; the Twin Towers tragedy did not erase the horror of the brutal attack by policemen on Amadou Diallo. In fact, the song makes a point all too relevant in the aftermath of September 11: one of the things that most makes us American is the civil liberties we enjoy. Early in the show, a fan a few feet from the stage tried to hand Bruce an NYPD hat. He glanced quickly at it, realized what it was, and refused to take it from the fan’s hand.
Though celebrations of faith, hope, and the resilience of the spirit prevailed throughout the night—even during “Mary’s Place”, when Bruce repeatedly urged the crowd to “drop the needle” on the record “and pray”—these themes were most fully realized in the three final new songs of his set. The despairing, bluesy verses of “Into the Fire”, which appears on the new record, melted into gospelized, triumphant choruses. “May your faith give us faith, may your strength give us strength, may your hope give us hope, may your love bring us love,” sang Bruce and the band over and over again. Built on the tastiest guitar riff in a Bruce song since “Cadillac Ranch”, “Land of Hope and Dreams” concluded the set. This uplifting song, which first surfaced on the reunion tour, conjures up a “Mystery Train” full of “saints and sinners” that is ultimately bound for glory, that train of faith for which “you don’t need a ticket, you just get on board.” In the context of this show, the majestic “Land of Hope and Dreams” seemed almost like an epic summation of life itself.
Yet I will remember this night most not for these songs, but for “My City of Ruins”, the first selection in Bruce’s second encore. Writing about Asbury Park, which is nowadays nearly as desolate as ground zero, Bruce sang this song on the September 11 “Tribute to Heroes” telethon and recorded it for the new record. Though I found his solo performance of the song on the telethon not especially impressive, when performed with the band, it came alive as a soulful lament and a call to action. The beautiful descending chords played on the piano, first by Bruce and then by Roy Bittan, reminded me of both Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight”. Though the chords cascaded down, Bruce implored the audience to “rise up,” to pray for the strength, faith, and love to “begin again.”
In the end, is that not what life is really all about? We all must continue to “rise up” in the face of the substantial challenges we inevitably face. Listening to Springsteen, and seeing him perform, gives me more of the strength and faith, hope and love I need in order to continue “rising.” For more, I could not ask.