Bruce Almighty: Guest Gig Review by Ken Double

Friend of Blog On The Tracks Ken Double sent this great review of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band. It's too good to not share...

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Wrecking Ball Tour, Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, 26 March 2013

If you told me 30 years ago that I'd get to see Neil Young & Crazy Horse AND Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band within a week of each other, both alive and kicking in 2013, I'd have told you to lay off the peace pipe. But thus it transpires.

Young and Springsteen are the two magnetic poles of post-Beatles rock. Neil the unkempt genius tramp, daring his audience to follow him into the weeds. Bruce the comic book superhero, devoting every watt of his bewildering power to the service of a fan base like no other. 

On a personal level I've always inclined slightly towards Young's mystic wilfulness over Springsteen's monumentalism, but Bruce combines high art with the raw necessities of naked entertainment in ways unprecedented in rock. If Bruce doesn't reach you in some manner, somehow, on some level, well, perhaps you'd like to try jazz instead.

Both Young and Springsteen are proprietors of the long haul bands that define them, bands that have floated them to their high water marks. Both those bands have included at some point, weirdly, Nils Lofgren. Both released pretty good albums last year. Melbourne opener "Badlands" (all the house lights on, performer and audience sizing each other up) was followed immediately by "We Take Care of Our Own" without any sense that quality just took a dive off the cliff.

Both have gone on tour in support of their new records and both have tried to reconcile the demands of the past with the necessities of the present. And both have done precisely what it is they do, reaffirming the vitality of their original contract with us and giving of themselves handsomely. Bruce, typically, about 30 minutes more handsomely than Neil. It also must be added that though there's only four years in age between them it looks more like 25.

E Street 2013 is a big band, seventeen people including Management. Notable absences among the living were Patti Scialfa and Steve Van Zandt ("Freezing his ass off in Norway" apparently). Subbing for Scialfa was violinist/guitarist and long time associate Soozie Tyrell. Van Zandt, a serviceable rhythm guitar player, was replaced by Tom Morello, a certified virtuoso. That brought the number of guitar virtuosos on stage to two. Bruce wasn't too bad either.

Yet the difference was not axemanship. In fact the shredding was kept in check. It was the five strong horn line-up behind the back row, anchored by Jake Clemmons, nephew of E Street's spiritual lynchpin, the late Clarence. Looking more like he belongs in The Roots, young Jake acquits himself as a genuine player and a stage presence. He doesn't quite have the Big Man's tone or physicality, but there's a sense of a torch being passed on that, like so much with this band, performers and audience genuinely share. At several points the horns and the singers come forward abreast with the guitarists to form a defensive line of ferocious, martial soul rock.

With all those horns behind (and beside) him Bruce hasn't been this funky since 1975. "E Street Shuffle"', "Spirit in the Night" and a mighty "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" get up and groove in ways you thought "Born in the USA" had erased forever. In the midst of "My City in Ruins" he breaks into Sam Cooke's "Sad Mood", channelling Cooke's imperious instrument with uncanny fidelity. You're reminded that he's always been more in touch with black music sources than most of his audience.

It soon becomes plain that this rock gig is really a revivalist tent show. Springsteen has a persona he adopts on stage that seems to have little to do with him personally and everything to do with stoking and controlling all that adulation. He's like a Baptist preacher, a fiery, beseeching shaman, all sweat and fervour. Long trips around the mosh pit are accompanied by countless hands, always reaching, touching. At one point he is ferried back to the stage in an epic crowd surf, almost toppling into the biomass on the floor. Anyone from Little Richard to Jimmy Swaggart would recognise the mode. If he'd handled snakes at some point I wouldn't have been surprised.

Signs are waved frantically, pleadingly - Cadillac Ranch! Downbound Train! Rosalita! He gathers them up like a school teacher after art class, propping them against the mic stand and dutifully, thrillingly, rendering each. "Red-Headed Woman" isn't on the set list, but he spends a few moments determining the key and runs through the first verse and chorus. "E Street Band, are you ready?" Two stick clicks from Max Weinberg. "That means yes!" And then, one of the world's most rigorously drilled entertainment units launches into a song they haven't rehearsed and didn't know they were playing until two minutes previous.

Highlights? Nils Lofgren's Hendrix octave runs in "Because the Night". The bureaucrats of the band - Garry Tallent, Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg - going about their singular business like it was another day in the office. A poignant moment's remembrance for the late Clemmons and keyboardist Danny Federici. Tom Morello trading ferocious vocal and guitar with his new employer on "The Ghost of Tom Joad". Morello is a committed leftist, the kind they really don't make anymore, not in America anyway. He feels this stuff.

Then there's Springsteen pulling an 8 year old boy out of the crowd and handing him the mic for an hilariously tuneless chorus of "Waiting on a Sunny Day". The pitch challenged nipper then gets a free lesson in the rock star knee slide (hint: sponge down your pants first) before being returned to parents who are probably still talking about it.

"Hungry Heart", always a little lumpen and crass close-up, assumes its proper proportion in the home of the Australian Open. And then "Thunder Road", because goddammit it's "Thunder Road".

Finally, truly, I don't think there's a rock experience to compare with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band performing "Born to Run", house lights up, while 15,000 devoted fanatics hurl every word of his crazed metaphorical excess right back at him.

This is not just a gig. It's another step on a journey that artist and audience have been taking for 40 years. You're not there to kick the tyres, you are one of the faithful and it's assumed you possess an intimate knowledge of holy scripture. The band's triumphs and losses are yours too. Neil Young may be able to match Springsteen's artistic vision, Prince his sheer potency, but neither is interested in making art out of the way they interact with the schmucks who buy their tickets and their records like the Boss is.

During the recent New Zealand gigs several people complained about Neil Young and Crazy Horse being, frankly, Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Some actually left early, their ears ringing. If anyone departed the Rod Laver Arena feeling in anyway hard done by, ripped off, misrepresented or boondoggled, then frankly Ticketek should strike their name from their database forever. They should be blacklisted by every self-respecting venue in Australasia. Bruce Almighty gave you every ounce of what you came for. "We're back tomorrow night!" he shouts like he wasn't dripping in sweat from tonight's labours, the last man to leave the stage. The very idea of an encore, always a formulaic ritual, was utterly redundant. He'll just turn round and do it all again tomorrow. 


Blog on the Tracks is on Facebook and Twitter.

You can also check out Off the Tracks for The Vinyl Countdown, reviews and other posts.

Blog On The Tracks will return after Easter - there will be some new content up at Off The Tracks over the holiday period.