Bruce Springsteen – Live in Atlanta

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I’ve seen many concerts, but Bruce Springsteen has not been among them. I’ve had opportunities, but while I respect and generally favor artists who continually grow, much of his music over the last two decades hasn’t appealed. 2007’s “Magic” caught my ear, and I really shouldn’t go through however many years and say “I never saw him.”  That path leads to regrets.  Those regrets came to roost with the passing of iconic band member Clarence Clemons last year, and having become a fan of Nils Lofgren, it was time to catch a rock legend… with his legendary band.

Perhaps in consideration of Atlanta’s penchant for arriving unfashionably late, Springsteen took the stage 37 minutes after the scheduled start. After a self-parodying and fairly hilarious self introduction (“the future of rock ‘n’ roll himself, he’s sexy and he knows it, the owner of the #1 album… for four days!”) the band kicked off with an anthemic “We Take Care of Our Own,” quickly followed by “Wrecking Ball,” the title track of his most recent CD.

It’s difficult to comment on the Wrecking Ball Tour without touching on Wrecking Ball itself.  It’s extremely well done – the lyrics, the tunefulness, the musicianship. Happily, Springsteen doesn’t sound like he’s trying to be Bob Dylan any more… Pete Seeger, well, guilty, but comfortably in his own E Street skin. But almost the entirety of the CD has a lyrical weight about it, basically remarking on tough economic times. There are uplifting moments, certainly, but the subject matter is a downer.  Springsteen has always written about the struggle, but supplanting youthful exuberance with moralistic imperatives... it's not for easy listening.

Two songs into the concert, two songs from the new CD…

“Badlands” to the rescue! The crowd roars in response to this classic, but, if you pay attention to the lyrics, he’s still working on a theme. And enter “Death to My Hometown.”  Don’t be fooled with the accordion and roots feel.  The driving beat, the hammered strums and the angry vocal delivery made clear his conviction, if not insistency, on the theme.

Heavy stuff, and not necessarily what I wanted from my first Bruce concert.  Take a breath, Bruce.  Lighten up.  And he did, talking to the audience, ultimately promising to “wake you, shake you, and take you to a higher ground!”

… followed by “My City of Ruins.”

When you expect or hope for one thing, and get another, you can either fret about it or appreciate what it is that you have. The E Street Band, now 16 members strong, does these songs really, really well.  However, If Stevie Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren are sidelined as rhythm guitarists, don’t despair.  It’s okay. He’s the Boss.  If the brass section and fiddle are defining the musical palette du jour, okay. If the whole of the E-Street Band is as static as a set of furniture (except Lofgren, who has casters) while Bruce runs around the house, so be it. It’s his house. And Clarence isn’t there.

Clarence isn’t there.  I tried to talk a friend into going with me to this show.  “No thanks.  I saw him a few times with Clarence.”  His absence hung there, waiting for an expression.

Springsteen handled the death of the tenor saxophonist with class. Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, by this point had already received a huge outpouring of band and audience support during “Badlands,” but after introducing the band members, Springsteen asked “Are we missing anybody?” Spotlights lit the spaces where Clemons and former organist Danny Federici (who died in 2009) would have stood, and the crowd shouted “Clarence!” at each call.

And speaking of the old days, the band launched into “The E Street Shuffle,” a welcomed release, you might say, for both the band and the audience.  Plus, it’s a great song.

Springsteen then introduced “Jack of All Trades,” noting his concern about the economy’s downward turn in 2009 and the relative lack of demonstrable public outrage at the time.  Much of this song resonates until one comes to the last stanza:

So you use what you've got, and you learn to make do
You take the old, you make it new
If I had me a gun, I'd find the bastards and shoot 'em on sight

One can’t help but think back to The Clash’s “White Riot” for a social call to action, and the shouted agreement from sections in the audience was troubling.  Is murder (vigilante justice is too far a stretch) really the end goal?  And are people who paid $100 plus for tickets so disenfranchised that they’re all for it?  It’s just a concert.  Think about it some other time...

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“Seeds” followed, an older, darker toned rocker that didn’t really capture the audience.  “Easy Money” played well live, with wife Patti joining him on vocals.    And then, to some, a respite from tales of woe with “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” It’s a happy tune, but, per the title, the sunny day isn’t here yet. Still, it lifted the mood, and Springsteen reached out to a teen for well intentioned help.  Note: If you want to sing or dance with Bruce, get close to the stage and bring a sign.  He notices these.

“The Promised Land” carried the mood further.  Yes, it’s apparently a concert staple, but it’s always good to hear.    

Enter a short soul revue. Following his recent appearance at The Apollo, it makes sense. The band had the songs ready, and they were clearly having fun playing them. Still, being fair, other singers sing them better, and I’d bet 99% of the audience would have preferred, oh, “Candy’s Room” or anything from The River.   Still, if not singing of desperate times, these are oldies and, in some sense, fit in with the overall tone.  

And don’t forget that theme, mind you.  “Shackled and Drawn,” “Lonesome Day,” “The Rising,” “We Are Alive”...  It’s the Wrecking Ball tour, folks.  Ten of 13 tracks, even.  It wears, until finally, and finale, a rocking “Thunder Road.”

After the stage went dark for, being generous, a minute, the encore followed, opening with all those classic favorites for which fans had been waiting!

Not.

“Rocky Ground” and “Land of Hopes and Dreams.”  This review is likely sounding decidedly negative.  It’s not.  I enjoyed the show.  The E Street Band never seemed to work up a sweat for these songs, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t execute wonderfully.  They make Bruce sound as good as he can sound, and he sounded good anyway.  His voice was in fine form, and his energy level was through the roof.

The crowd finally joined him there with “Born to Run.” The arena was lit, fists pumping in the air everywhere, and Jake nails the sax solo.  “Dancing in the Dark” followed, a partying song for the dispirited or for those who don’t pay attention to the lyrics.  A teen with a sign got her Courtney Cox moment, and a couple of dancing tips even.   Everyone is having fun.

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What follows is offered with a nod to St. Patrick’s Day, “American Land.” Musically, sure, but the cynicism is still there.  Given the high watt dosage of the previous two songs and an easy feel, this song kept people up and moving.  (Fodder for essayists: lists of radio friendly Springsteen tunes that belie his lyrical point). 

And, finally, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” recognized by the masses in a “Name that Tune” fractional moment.  The E-Street Band was all over this, the crowd was into it, the familiar lyrics flow “when the big man joined the band,” and the music stops.  Ear-splitting tribute followed from the crowd, while band members pointed skyward.  Literally minutes later, a drum snaps, and the piano kicks in to launch the rest of the song.

All told, this sounded like, and was, a fantastic Bruce Springsteen concert. High energy, great audience engagement, passionate delivery, and forget his age. He’s got it.

At the same time, it was disappointing Bruce and the E Street Band concert. And, I get it. Springsteen has floundered a bit, but remains relevant today.  Wrecking Ball validates that. 

I didn’t need to hear, or even plan to hear, a warmed up “best of” show. But even if Jake has to learn some more songs before the repertoire becomes more flexible, I think the show is the way it’s meant to be.  With the stellar talent on stage, they could reinvent older songs musically. The Boss chose not to.  It’s the Wrecking Ball tour.

4 of 5 STARS

Set List

We Take Care of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Badlands
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
The E Street Shuffle
Jack of All Trades
Seeds
Easy Money
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
The Way You Do the Things You Do
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Shackled and Drawn
Lonesome Day
The Rising
We Are Alive
Thunder Road

Encore:

Rocky Ground
Land of Hope and Dreams
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
American Land
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

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