As Arena Apostle, Springsteen Builds Redemptive Show On Just-Solid Rock
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Bruce Springsteen wasn't about to shuffle quietly into the night. Having already spent nearly three sweaty hours striving for rock-and-roll deliverance Monday at Verizon Center, Springsteen thundered one last time down that familiar redemptive road.
As the E Street Band roared through an encore version of the rambunctious old war horse "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," Springsteen growled and howled his joyous circa-1973 lyrics about forbidden love and "stone desire." He stood on his tiptoes to punctuate particular guitar licks or vocals. He darted back and forth across the spartan stage, feet and, especially, fists pumping. He exhorted the crowd to sing the final pre-chorus part louder, then even louder still.
"It's the big one!" he shouted. "BIGGER!" The sound inside the arena spiked, as requested, and Springsteen unleashed an impassioned shriek, sending his feverish fans over the edge.
At 59, Springsteen remains one of the most potent live performers in popular music, largely because he's among its most committed practitioners. He drains every bit of his creative energy whenever he's onstage -- all in the service of proselytizing the power of rock-and-roll, in which his faith is unwavering.
"Washington, are you ready to be delivered?" he asked at the outset of Monday's concert, before diving into "Badlands," a breakneck rocker about working-class spirit.
Later, during a somewhat leaden performance of the title track from his new album, "Working on a Dream," the Boss bellowed his mission statement for the show: "We're gonna take the fear out there and we're gonna build a house of hope!" Also, he promised: Despair would be transformed into love, doubt into faith, sadness into joy and happiness.
Springsteen long ago embarked on an everlasting edition of Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show, whose guiding principle is to deliver hope and redemption through song. Accordingly, Monday's show featured more than a few moments of redemptive rapture.
But it wasn't necessarily a show for the best-of books, despite the sense of purpose with which the band performed and the generosity of the nearly three-hour set, which spanned 25 songs -- 27 if you counted the instrumental riffs on "Hava Nagila" and "Hail to the Chief," the former requested on a Torah-scroll sign, the latter a nod to another sign's "Rosalita" request, which read: "Obama called, he wants 'Rosie.' " ("By executive order!" Springsteen joked by way of introducing the show-closing song.)
The mix was muddy beyond belief. Opener "Badlands," for instance, was a toxic swirl of cacophonous noise during which the vocals and 10 instrumental parts repeatedly crashed into each other. "No Surrender," an otherwise terrific mid-1980s anthem about war, romantic dreams and lost youth, was a relatively indecipherable and impenetrable wall of sound. "She's the One" suffered similarly once the instrumental parts began stacking atop the clean, simple power chords and Max Weinberg's irresistible Bo Diddley beat.
The set also featured an overabundance of songs from Springsteen's fallow period -- which is to say, from his new album, which is full of lyrical missteps and half-realized or, worse, ill-considered ideas from one of rock's preeminent poets. There were only four songs from "Working on a Dream" in the set, but it sounded like three too many.
Whereas "The Wrestler" was an emotionally gripping character study on which Springsteen sang convincingly of struggle and survival, "Outlaw Pete" was a melodramatic epic that played like a parody of a "Nebraska"-era Springsteen story-song, or maybe like Meat Loaf doing musical theater. It came across forced and farcical, especially when Springsteen donned a black cowboy hat. Would you like some cheese with that hamminess?
Yes? Well, "Working on a Dream," whose lyrics sound like Springsteen on autopilot, featured a cheesy whistling interlude.
"Kingdom of Days" was better lyrically, as Springsteen considered the notion of romance making time stand still with his wife, Patti Scialfa, singing by his side. But, as on the recorded version, the musically overwrought live performance sounded schmaltzy.
Still, the set was generally well considered, with Springsteen mixing some of his greatest hits (the blistering "Born to Run") and oldest misses (the swinging, shifty jazz-blues workout "Kitty's Back") with a handful of superlative recent songs, including "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" and post-9/11 anthem "The Rising," on which Nils Lofgren's slide guitar soared.
On 2007's Magic tour, Springsteen's set was loaded with songs about isolation, alienation and disillusionment. Monday's theme was more hopeful, with several references to the promised land -- including "The Promised Land" itself -- as well as multiple songs about optimism, as with "Land of Hope and Dreams," which included an interpolation of Curtis Mayfield's epochal "People Get Ready."
Not that all's well in this American land. Springsteen acknowledged the recession in several songs, including "Seeds," "The Ghost of Tom Joad," an overly muscular "Johnny 99" and a standout version of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times (Come Again No More)."
It wasn't the night's only cover, for Springsteen and the E Street Band have been getting in touch with their inner-jukebox lately; on Monday, they revived Eddie Floyd's R&B hit "Raise Your Hand" to stirring, soulful effect and bashed out a wobbly garage-rock version of the Righteous Brothers song "Little Latin Lupe Lu" upon request.
No audience is more important to Springsteen than the one he's currently trying to win over, and he's connecting with his fans on this tour by soliciting their set-list input at every show. So there he went, racing around the front of the stage, collecting handmade signs with titles on them and then calling out audibles to the band, including titles from their own catalogue.
Most notable was "Out in the Street," an idealistic 1980 song about community -- a fitting theme, as Springsteen performed part of the raggedy rocker while seated at the foot of the stage, right next to the little girl who'd apparently made the request.
She sang with him and held the microphone while Springsteen played his guitar. But he wasn't sitting down on the job for long; soon enough, the Boss was back on his feet, running, gesticulating, mugging, exhorting and hollering, doing everything in his considerable powers to deliver on that promise of salvation.