Reviews

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Jeff Vrabel

It's not easy to spin alienation, disappointment, and evaporated hope to a crowd that is used to leaving your live show feeling as though the world was a searingly hopeful beacon of justice, rainbows, truth, and fresh-baked oatmeal cookies.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

City: Washington, DC
Venue: Verizon Center
Date: 2007-11-11

If The Rising was Bruce Springsteen’s soaring, spiritual attempt at making sense of whatever parts of 9/11 one could make sense of -- its title track, you'll remember, found a heroic firefighter ascending a burning building with "spirits above and behind (him)" -- his newest record, Magic, is the crashing aftermath, a darkened, defiant survey of the emotional and political wreckage since that dark day. Its 12 songs are laden with alienation, disappointment, and evaporated hope. These themes certainly aren't new to Bruce's notebook, but it's still something to hear such themes so prevalent, so front and center. In a few cases, Magic takes Springsteenian lyrical chestnuts and turns them on their disenfranchised ears: the girl in the Motown/boppy "Livin' in the Future" sways into town on high heels that sound like the clicks of pistol, while the "flag flyin' over the courthouse" in "Long Walk Home" inspires not hope or redemption but a subtle national sense of remorse for crimes committed in the names of people who never wanted anything to do with them. These are not easy tales to spin to a crowd that is used to leaving your live show feeling as though the world was a searingly hopeful beacon of justice, rainbows, truth, and fresh-baked oatmeal cookies. But maybe the magic-est thing about Springsteen's Magic show is that, even in a slightly abbreviated and grayer form, Springsteen maintains the uncanny and increasingly unbelievable ability to identify hope in a daily rain of chaos. Springsteen is 58 years old right now, the first of many reasons that the Magic tour shouldn't be anywhere near as vibrant and relevant as it is. Other obstacles include, but are not limited to, perceptions that: he’s overly preachy and political, his band is too old (Clarence is 65!), and he's too rich to identify with the common man. And given his own superlative, impossible history, going out and putting on simply a "good" show might not be enough for a fan base that's come to rightly expect a regular stream of "greatness." Lucky for us, there seems to be something about these challenges that's making him dig deeper. Dark or not, alienating or not, there's never a moment in the two hour-plus show where you think that Springsteen -- all six decades of him -- might not be able to pull this off. None of this is to say that there aren't the usual, scorching moments of cathartic release: the D.C. show's opening salvo of "Radio Nowhere", "No Surrender", and "Lonesome Day" roared with a vengeance; the first set closed, if you can call it that, with "Badlands". This show also found Springsteen leaving time for a stomping, galvanic "Working on the Highway" (complete with Elvis poses), as well as the one-two punch of the new, better-on-stage "I'll Work for Your Love" and "Tunnel of Love" -- the later of which sounds more '80s than ever and closed with an absolutely bonkers solo from Nils Lofgren. Elsewhere, "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" shimmered and waved. Aside from that great chorus, it's one of a few songs on the new record that find Bruce -- grudgingly, one imagines -- copping to his age: they might pass him by now, but Springsteen allows himself a twinkle to the Sandys and Rosalitas anyway. (For the setlist hawks, this night found Springsteen and band killing an audibled "Growin' Up" and taking it directly into a roaring "Kitty's Back" -- both songs going on 35 years old). But for the most part, there's more darkness on the edge of the Magic show than any tour before it. In the context of such alienation -- especially in the D.C. setting, which Springsteen acknowledged with the hot-cha zinger, "I'm so glad to be in your wicked, I mean beautiful, city tonight!" -- "No Surrender" became a fierce challenge (the "wide open country in our eyes" seemed a lot more distant). "Reason To Believe", meanwhile, was rebuilt as a dust-spitting Western rocker in the vein of "La Grange" and "Radio Nowhere". The tune opened with a war cry ("Is there anybody alive out there?", which Bruce has been stage-pattering since the '70s) that was part call to arms, part indictment -- a line that can kick off a big rock show while slyly wondering what, exactly, in the hell have we let happen around here. Springsteen has said that the hook, the whole turning point of the show happens near the end of the first set, when the cathartic, hopeful-against-odds "The Rising" gives way to "Last to Die", the new record's most direct indictment of the war. It’s made more potent when one realizes that the title character, whoever it is, may not have enlisted yet (the song’s based on a speech by John Kerry, no less). When that moment comes, it's a killer: the shift, the tension, the tone, are like a kick to the stomach. Out of the "li li li"s of "The Rising" comes a black highway, an aimless wander and the question of who'll be "the last to die for a mistake." That's Springsteen's challenge this time out: serving the bitter pills of "Last to Die" and "Devil's Arcade" (given a stern, hammering, Max Weinberg-heavy reading in honor of Veterans' Day) next to the fizzy release of "She's the One" and the roaring-as-ever "Night". The final song of the evening, "American Land", is a Celtic-punk holdover from his Seeger Sessions experiment. It turned the GA section of the pit into a rubber-floored free-for-all, lobbing these lyrics at the lobbyists and lawmakers in the audience: "The hands that build the country we're always trying to keep out." No one is more hip to the inability of American audiences to read between the lines than Springsteen -- these are the people that wanted to use "Born in the USA" to sell pickup trucks, and if anyone can drag Pat Buchanan out of his crypt maybe he could explain why he once used the song as entrance music -- but that Springsteen is as invested in such seemingly aging ideals is maybe the biggest reason he's still doing all this. Such is the assignment that Springsteen has given himself: to keep arguing for the points and people he's spent nearly four decades arguing for, to allow just the briefest glimpse of nostalgia (via "Born to Run", of course, and a revved-up "Dancing in the Dark"), to allow more for age and experience. He's there to to cast light on the horrors of a government run amok, and to make people leave a concert thinking that redemption is not only possible, but is possible by tomorrow morning.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Man Alive! Is a Continued Display of the Grimy-Yet-Refined Magnetism of King Krule

Following The OOZ and its accolades, King Krule crafts a similarly hazy gem with Man Alive! that digs into his distinct aesthetic rather than forges new ground.

Books

The Kinks and Their Bad-Mannered English Decency

Mark Doyles biography of the Kinks might complement a seminar in British culture. Its tone and research prove its intent to articulate social critique through music for the masses.

Music

ONO Confronts American Racial Oppression with the Incendiary 'Red Summer'

Decades after their initial formation, legendary experimentalists ONO have made an album that's topical, vital, uncomfortable, and cathartic. Red Summer is an essential documentation of the ugliness and oppression of the United States.

Film

Silent Women Filmmakers No Longer So Silent: Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers

The works of silent filmmakers Alice Guy Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers were at risk of being forever lost. Kino Lorber offers their works on Blu-Ray. Three cheers for film historians and film restoration.

Music

Rush's 'Permanent Waves' Endures with Faultless Commercial Complexity

Forty years later, Rush's ability to strike a nearly perfect balance between mainstream invitingness and exclusory complexity is even more evident and remarkable. The progressive rock classic, Permanent Waves, is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Music

Drum Machines? Samples? Brendan Benson Gets Contemporary with 'Dear Life'

Powerpop overlord and part-time Raconteur, Brendan Benson, grafts hip-hop beats to guitar pop on his seventh solo album, Dear Life.

Music

'Sell You Everything' Brings to Light Buzzcocks '1991 Demo LP' That Passed Under-the-Radar

Cherry Red Records' new box-set issued in memory of Pete Shelley gathers together the entire post-reunion output of the legendary Buzzcocks. Across the next week, PopMatters explores the set album-by-album. First up is The 1991 Demo LP.

Music

10 Key Tracks From the British Synthpop Boom of 1980

It's 40 years since the first explosion of electronic songs revitalized the UK charts with futuristic subject matter, DIY aesthetics, and occasionally pompous lyrics. To celebrate, here's a chronological list of those Moog-infused tracks of 1980 that had the biggest impact.

Reading Pandemics

Poe, Pandemic, and Underlying Conditions

To read Edgar Allan Poe in the time of pandemic, we need to appreciate a very different aspect of his perspective—not that of a mimetic artist but of the political economist.

Books

'Yours, Jean' Is a Perfect Mixture of Tragedy, Repressed Desire, and Poor Impulse Control

Lee Martin's Yours, Jean is a perfectly balanced and heartbreaking mix of true crime narrative and literary fiction.

Music

The 60 Best Albums of 2007

From tech house to Radiohead and Americana to indie and everything in between, the 60 best albums of 2007 included many of the 2000s' best albums.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Solitude Stands in the Window: Thoreau's 'Walden'

Henry David Thoreau's Walden as a 19th century model for 21st century COVID-19 quarantine.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.