Bruce Springsteen tour '99

by Tom Krueger

Last night I saw Bruce Springsteen for the first time since the start of the Born in the USA tour. While the show didn't recapture all the magic of those frenetic 70s and 80s shows, it was an excellent show in large part because it wasn't trying to do that.

I was seated behind the stage, which was a very interesting vantage point. We were closer to the stage than many of the people on the floor were, and you could see the view of the crowd that the band had, which was pretty cool. (You could also see a lot of bald spots up on the stage. :-)

By necessity, the show was less spontaneous and had more arena rock moves than I'd seen before. This was by a large margin the biggest venue I'd ever seen him in, and pretty much requires that sort of change in approach. The one thing that I really didn't enjoy was a couple of times Bruce went off on these long preaching riffs about the healing power of the "ministry of rock'n'roll." In the hands of just about anyone else this would have been hopelessly hokey and silly. In Bruce's hands it was sincere and effective to a point, but also somewhat overblown and self-indulgent. This took the place of the story intros that Bruce used to use to help tie the show together thematically, connect with the audience, and fill the space between songs. Which meant that in other places there were some moderate pacing problems because there was nothing to fill the space between songs. I don't think he really needed to tell us what he was there to do; he did plenty to show us.

One other big difference I noticed was that this was clearly Bruce with the E Street Band as opposed to Bruce and the E Street Band. He did most of the solos; he wasn't really upstaging other people's solo turns, but he also wasn't really fading into the background either; no one was doing anything much in the way of stage business without Bruce's OK. There's clearly still a lot of affection and respect there, but it felt less like a band of equals than I think it used to.

But those fairly minor quibbles take a back seat to some amazing moments.

To me some of the very best stuff was the slower, quieter stuff. The first goose bump moment was a powerful, spare "Factory" with Patti and Bruce singing together beautifully to minimal backing. "The Ghost of Tom Joad" benefited from more of a full band sound and was riveting. So was the solo, slide guitar reworking/deconstruction of "Born in the USA." Hearing those two songs done back to back made me really really wish I'd seen Bruce's solo acoustic tour. "Point Blank" was an unexpected highlight for me, too -- dignified, moody and beautiful. I've always held the heretical view that with the exception of "Independence Day," all those ballads on The River are pretty clunky and dull, but the performance last night brought that song alive for me. "If I Should Fall Behind," with Steve, Patti, Nils, Bruce and Clarence taking turns on vocals and harmonizing together with marvelous feeling and affection on one of my favorite songs brought tears to my eyes.

The rockers, especially the old standbys, generally seemed less hellbent and cathartic than they did 20 years ago, which is not surprising. Now they were more a display of a truly great band flexing its muscles -- especially the Mighty Max, who seems to be drumming better now than he ever has -- which also gave you a chance to be reminded of just how well-written those songs are. An electrified "Youngstown" into a thunderous "Murder Inc." into a remarkably vital "Badlands" was a cornerstone and a major highlight of the show. And for as slight a song as it is, "Working on the Highway" gave the band a chance to have a hell of a lot of fun. It was great to hear "Backstreets," which really came off well, too. "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road" by now fall into that awkward category of songs that pretty much have to be played even if the band is sick of them. The performance of "Thunder Road" was interesting. Bruce started out in singing in that sort of annoying faux-dust bowl ballad voice, but then the band kicked into this swell, almost loping, breezy tempo and feel that I really liked. "Born to Run" charged ahead on its own momentum, with the house lights up and the whole crowd singing along. It was very cool to watch this from behind the stage. That's a hell of a lot of words for all those people to sing in unison. And the buildup that explodes into "1..2..3..4" remains one of the very greatest rock moments. The new, unreleased song, "Land of Hope and Dreams," is one of the better midtempo rockers he's written in a long time and was a very nice way to close out the night.

It really is remarkable to watch Bruce and the band create a real sense of community and joy in an arena full of thousands of people ranging from AARPers to the twentysomethings in the row in front of us who were having the time of their lives. And one of the real pleasures of the show was seeing that the band was truly enjoying themselves, too. The one line of "preaching" that rang true for me was Bruce's promise that "I can't promise you life everlasting... but I can promise you life right now." I'll take it, thanks.

-- Tom Krueger


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