Springsteen and his Verizon Center fans prove it all night

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When the house lights go up at a rock concert, the illusion of magic evaporates. Show's over. Don't forget your belongings on the way out.

Not so at Verizon Center on Monday night, where Bruce Springsteen cranked up the lumens in the middle of his set.

When the overhead lights flipped on during the opening bars of "Born to Run," an indistinct mass of fans was suddenly thrown into sharp relief and the audience appeared as real and human as the band sweating it out on stage. The illusion didn't evaporate. It exploded into something profound.

Revelatory moments like this are stock in trade for Springsteen, who was making his second Verizon Center concert appearance this year. The performance featured a song-by-song rendition of his 1975 breakout album "Born to Run," along with a surplus of career-spanning hits, including "Dancing in the Dark," "Hungry Heart" and "Badlands." (The concert also comes after news that Springsteen will be one of the five recipients of the annual Kennedy Center Honors in December.)

Onstage, the Boss quickly proved that kinetic rock stars beget kinetic crowds. From the sweatiest general admission cluster to the bloodiest nosebleed, fans pumped their fists ceaselessly to the E Street Band's sturdy pulse, as if trying to pound down 20,000 phantom doors. Springsteen pumped his fists, too -- jabs and uppercuts punctuating lyrics as they erupted from his mouth.

It's almost funny to try to remember this man in hot competition with his '80s pop rivals. Prince and the late Michael Jackson each made live performance seem elegant and effortless, but at age 60, Springsteen is still making it look like a labor of herculean proportions. He still sweats, stomps, roars through every crescendo as if his lungs are about to burst.

The members of the E Street Band served as the connective tissue necessary to hold this muscular set together -- but Springsteen didn't stop them from doing a little flexing of their own. Drummer Max Weinberg slapped out fills like artillery fire, saxophonist Clarence Clemons honked away in a familiar timbre, and guitarist Nils Lofgren soloed as if his Stratocaster were an animal trying to slither from his grasp.

Following a few warmup tracks including "Hungry Heart" and "Working on a Dream," the band tackled "Born to Run" in its entirety -- an album that saved Springsteen's fledgling career in the mid-'70s. Unsurprisingly, the title track and "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" earned big cheers, but album cuts "Backstreets" and "Meeting Across the River" were equally striking. If anything, the jazzy cool of the latter gave everyone a chance to slump into their seats for a breather.

Springsteen didn't let them rest for long. He was soon marching down the stage's catwalks, snatching up fan-made posters with song requests scrawled in Sharpie and glitter pen. (Gotta wonder: Would Redskins owner Daniel Snyder have allowed such signage at FedEx Field?) When three posters requesting "Pink Cadillac" materialized, Springsteen led the audience through one of the most spirited singalongs of the night. Bathed in pink light, fans waved their arms from side to side like an army of windshield wipers.

And that's really what made Monday night so powerful: the audience. Springsteen was undoubtedly irrepressible, but he and the E Streeters are probably the most reliable combustion engine in rock history. Finding an audience to match that energy seems rare, but this one was firing on all cylinders, showing no signs of fatigue during Springsteen's six-song encore.

It included "Dancing in the Dark" (the house lights on again), "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" and the finale of "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." It's a tired old soul chestnut, but in Springsteen's mouth, it sounded reborn, baptized in gravelly gravitas. The crowd joined right in, and meant every word.

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