Why He’s Still The Boss
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC), New York, August 25
1) The Boss will be sixty years old next month. At SPAC, he performed 2 hours and 45 minutes (a solid 20 minutes longer than last time I saw him), without – as ever – leaving the stage for as much as a toilet break. I call this leading by example.
2) Lawn tickets were $41 (before surcharges). With 26 songs in the set, that worked out at just $1.50 per song, or, at 165 minutes, 40 cents a minute. There are a lot of rip-offs in the world of entertainment, but Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert is certainly not one of them.
3) Empty sky. Coming towards the end of a horrendously wet summer, we were graced with a beautiful, cool, clear evening. Watching the Big Dipper emerge from the sky over the course of the concert made up somewhat fo our distance from the stage. (The lawn seats were general admission; given that we had a 100-mile drive each way, we wrote off the idea of getting there early enough to claim a good vantage point. I figured, this one time, I’d just go with flow. The playa provides and all that.)
4) Like any good Union man, Bruce employs from within. Max Weinberg’s seat at this show, as with several others on the current tour, was taken by his 19-year old son, Jay Weinberg, whose “dynamic tension,” good looks, and aggressive fills were more reminiscent of a certain Keith Moon than of his old man. “You’re not meant to be able to do that at 19,” said the Boss of the New Kid after an especially rousing “Rosalita,” a song originally released fifteen years before the drummer was born. Well, actually, you are meant to be able to do that at 19 – it’s doing it at 59 that’s so much harder. And with all due respect to Max (who is fulfilling his commitments to the Conan O’Brien show), the E Street Band was all the better at SPAC for Jay’s youthful presence.
5) The career-ranging set. This summer tour appears less a promotional opportunity for Working On A Dream – arguably the weakest E Street Band album of all time – than an opportunity to celebrate one of rock’n’roll’s deepest repertoires. Accordingly, and unlike any other act of similar longevity I have seen, tonight’s set drew at least one song each from every album Bruce has recorded with the E Street Band, with the lone exception of the often overlooked Tunnel of Love. (The set also drew from Nebraska and the Seeger Sessions.) The absence of 1990s material may have made for a chronological leap, but the E. Street Band’s involvement with almost all the original recordings ensured, musically at least, ties that bind.
6) The random factor. The original set-list for SPAC – as published on Bruce’s web site the following day, and shown below – bears little resemblance to the songs that were actually performed; Bruce keeps band and audience alike on their toes in a manner that only Bob Dylan, of his peers, can rival. The question marks around songs 12 and 13 refer to the “Stump the Band” interlude. As the group jammed behind him, Bruce leaned down to gather up some of the front rows’ many hand-drawn requests and lay them out on the stage to ponder. (That action, of course, drawn out and exaggerated as per Bruce’s inherent showmanship.) He ultimately opted for a furiously-paced cover of “Summertime Blues,” a more convincingly rendered “Two Hearts,” the inexcusably awful “Surprise Surprise” from the new album (hey, it was somebody’s birthday), and – making the most of a home-made Wheel of Fortune which allowed for “Bruce’s Choice” – a welcome rendition of his co-authored Patti Smith hit single “Because The Night.” Compare this set list, if you like, to the one from two nights earlier; they’re about 50% different. No wonder people are obsessed about seeing multiple Bruce Springsteen shows.
7) The cock-ups. I’m not used to seeing the E Street Band make mistakes. But they managed to lose track of two songs in a row – “Rosalita,” very briefly, appeared to drop the beat, and the subsequent “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” as beautiful a pop song as Bruce has recorded in the last decade, started as if in several different time signatures at once, necessitating a more urgently-shouted second count-in by the Boss. Were wages deducted? I doubt it. To be honest, the Boss’s voice is no longer what it was, either. Time takes its toll on the singers more rapidly than it does the fingers.
8) Dancing In The Dark. Twenty-five years after its mid-1980s ubiquity, Bruce still brings people up on stage to dance with him – and while there were no shortage of pretty young(ish) women in the front rows, and while a couple of them did get their moment in the limelight, all credit to the Boss for also pulling out a woman much his own age for the slow dance. The lady in question made the absolute most of it, stealing several snogs during their brief on-stage dalliance. And if there was something a little off-putting about watching old people kissing in public, the audience appeared to recognize, in a moment of collective consciousness, the emotional integrity of this moment – that this woman had probably dreamed of such a moment for 35 years or more, and that we can’t all age as gracefully as the Boss himself. Indeed, the roar of approval was just as loud as it had been, earlier in the evening, when Bruce pulled a twelve-year old boy out of the crowd, who promptly took a chorus of “Waiting on a Sunny Day” with the complete lack of self-consciousness we all had when we were that young. Call me overly sentimental, but at a point that we can no longer pretend that rock’n’roll is a form of teenage rebellion, there’s a huge satisfaction at seeing it shared through the generations.
9) Specific highlights: a ramped-up “Johnny 99,” Nils’ Lofgren’s guitar solo on “Because The Night,” the interaction between Charles Giordano’s organ and Roy Bittan’s piano on “Racing In The Streets” (all the more poignant for the absence of long-term organist Danny Federici, who succumbed to melanoma last year), and the celebratory rendition of “American Land,” which holds special meaning for this particular immigrant. (You can read why, here.)
10) The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. Regular Bruce fans know that the Boss invites local food banks and other worthy regional charities to collect donations at his concerts. They may not be aware that Bruce matches those donations dollar for dollar. I certainly wasn’t, perhaps because I haven’t always been a good boy and sought out the rattling bucket. But doing so on this occasion – I figured I could donate some of the beer money I might have spent if not driving 200 miles – I was happy to hear as much from the volunteer for tonight’s food charity, The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York. Obviously, we all know Bruce can afford to match our funds, just as he could afford to perform for free, for the rest of his life, if the mood so took him. And he’s not beyond making major credible/commercial mistakes, such as the Wal-Mart exclusive Greatest Hits last year. I don’t seek to deify the man. I just know that, 34 years after buying Born To Run, 24 years after seeing him in concert for the first time, I still get a kick out of watching Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band that only one other performer of his age (or older) can match. Early in the show, introducing a song from his first album, released back in 1973, Bruce went into his preacher persona and demanded to know, “Can you feel the spirit?” Two hours later, the answer was evident.