By: David Schultz
In 1974, then rock critic Jon Landau whetted appetites and imaginations by proclaiming, “I’ve seen the future of rock n’ roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Landau’s career-making proclamation, which preceded the superlative-laden era of blogger buzz by nearly 30 years, came to mind in East Rutherford, New Jersey while the 58-year-old “future” was in the midst of his first of three sold-out shows at Giants Stadium. After a politically motivated speech in which he decried the current administration’s penchant for infringing on the civil liberties of its citizenry, Springsteen led the E Street band into a rousing rendition of “Living In The Future.” As Springsteen and the more than 50,000 in attendance belted out the chorus of “we’re living in the future,” the unintentional truth of the lyrics rang true. The future of the Seventies is now and anyone present at Sunday night’s show, for which the torrential rains that buffeted the Tri-State area all day relented, would be hard pressed to refute the fact that one of rock n’ roll’s most identifiable aliases is indeed Bruce Springsteen.
The Boss has been playing stadiums for so long that it’s tempting to find the whole experience cliché. There are common threads to each of his shows: a good portion of any Springsteen concert, be it indoors or out, involves revisiting familiar tunes and participating in long-ingrained rituals and even though a substantial part of the set list changes every night, “Born To Run” will always be part of the encore. For night #1, Springsteen’s audience hit every note of the opener “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” marking out for the song’s reference to longtime sideman Clarence Clemons and finished the set proper by echoing the melody of the set closing “Badlands.” Springsteen keeps his shows from becoming a rehearsed spectacle by never letting the show remain in stasis for long. He exploits his large and adored repertoire by keeping a middle portion of the show open for audience requests. The songs may change nightly but the overall effect remains the same. Regardless of the set list, crowds get a chance to sing along with treasured classics and usually see something special. If one night’s crowd gets an extraordinary rendition of “Jungleland” and a rousing final run through “Rosalita,” as Sunday night’s audience received, the next night’s will get “Thunder Road” and “Hungry Heart.”
The opening night set list spanned Springsteen's transcendent Seventies output from Born To Run, his larger-than-life MTV superstar period from the Eighties, the elder statesman role he assumed in the Nineties and the voice of the people in post-9/11 America. Highlighting the ridiculously high level at which Springsteen’s operated at over that time, he weaves songs from the various periods of his career into a brilliant web with the gravelly voiced singer’s brilliance tying them together. On his last stadium tour following the release of The Rising, his intimate post 9/11 songs of hope were dwarfed by the enormity of the venue. Now, “Mary’s Place” and “The Rising” have grown into true Springsteen anthems.
In the early Seventies, Springsteen sprung to the forefront of the American music scene with the apolitical lyrical narratives found on Greeting From Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle, which described the characters that populated his hometown Jersey shore and the lifestyles they led, standing out as a beacon of positivism in the post-Watergate era. Three decades later, Springsteen is no longer solely a boisterous storyteller, picking up the activist gauntlet that many of his peers not named Neil Young have long since dropped when their record sales moved them into a higher tax bracket. Possibly one of the original psych-folk artists, Springsteen has let his liberalism and populist beliefs come more to the forefront in recent years. His inclusion of “American Land” in the encore accentuated the timelessness of the Pete Seeger classic and proved the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
The wide range of attitudes with which people come to a Springsteen show is what makes the experience so unique. Springsteen’s songs of escape, desire and betterment speak to a number of his fans on a deep, resonant level, especially those who share his New Jersey roots. The audience is populated with legions of fans, many who come clad in T-shirts purchased at past shows or simply adorned in red, white and blue Born In The USA-style bandannas, who come for the catharsis of communing with those who share their adulation for Springsteen. In the parking lot, these are the people who will listen to hours of Springsteen from their tailgate and regale anyone within earshot of their past experiences. There’s a small competitive nature amongst the Springsteen faithful but it’s relatively benign; it’s far from the who-saw-what-and-when contests that the Phish parking lot scene ultimately devolved into. Even if you don’t worship at the “altar of Bruce,” you can’t help but be swept away by the Springsteen’s charisma, his fans' excitement and the show’s energy.
A consummate showman, Springsteen is part carnival barker, part revivalist preacher and 100% rock star. Even though he had to jump down three separate levels to make his way to the crowd, Springsteen played Giants Stadium with the same closeness and intimacy as he would The Stone Pony; his ability to immediately connect with an audience remains unparalleled. Despite the lack of any true choreography, the spontaneity of the show seemed . . . well, not so spontaneous. Perhaps owing to Springsteen’s uber-charismatic personality, the seemingly adlibbed portions of the show had a nice polish and veneer. In the middle of the show, Springsteen collected signs bearing song requests from people at the front of the stage. Without a hiccup, Springsteen led the band through ostensibly unplanned versions of “Growing Up” and “Janey Don’t You Lose Heart.” Therein lies Springsteen’s skill: he either found signs to match up with what they were going to play anyway or he and the E Street Band have enough confidence that they don’t need much notice to play a song long ingrained into their neurons. Whatever did in fact transpire, it came across fantastically.
Once the prototype for a rock and roll collective, the E Street Band - whose current incarnation includes “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons, Sopranos star Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Springsteen’s wife, Patty Scialfa, bassist Garry Tallent, Roy Bittan, violinist Soozie Tyrell and Max Weinberg – has matured into a phenomenally tight band that can follow Springsteen in any direction he wishes to go. The waistline of Springsteen’s right-hand man Clarence Clemons has grown considerably over the years as has the sentimental value of his stage presence. For most of the show, Clemons provided additional percussion or the deep bass of “the man” in “Summertime Blues.” However, when it came time for the saxophone lines that are intimately associated with Springsteen classics, it’s hard to imagine them coming out of any of other horn. On a less nostalgic note, Van Zandt and Lofgren provided the night’s most technically proficient moments during “Youngstown,” “Murder Incorporated” and “Tunnel Of Love,” seizing the grand stage with inspired solos.
Rock and roll always lives with an eye cocked towards the past. It’s the reason why reunion shows spark such interest even though the experience of yesteryear can never be duplicated. The reason why Springsteen’s shows retain their allure is that he can still deliver the thrills that his fans have come to depend on without turning himself into a caricature of his former self. Pete Townshend never had Springsteen in mind when he wrote the words, but he might as well as had Springsteen in mind when he wrote, “meet the new Boss, same as the old Boss.”