Having been out of the country for the fall leg of Bruce Springsteen’s Magic tour, I started making up for lost time with the first show of the spring leg in Hartford. Having opened the tour proper here as well, for whatever reason the city seems to mean something to the Boss, or at least have a strong enough fan base to ensure a good start. After an elaborate lottery system to get close to the stage (I didn’t win), we stood around for a few hours taking in the scene. In a cavernous arena, it was at least small enough that there wasn't a seat in the house. With the crowd made up mostly of white middle-aged guys, it was clear the ticket prices prevent younger fans from checking it out in the same way they do Dylan. After a lot of drinking and, for many, beer-guzzling, the lights went down and to the stage came…a weird player-organ. It cranked out The Man on the Flying Trapeze, a song Bruce himself covered with the Seeger Sessions Band tour in ’06 as the audience screamed, less for what was happening than for what was to come, when the E Street Band took the stage.
Max Weinberg started a drum fill as Springsteen did the standard shouted introduction of “Is anybody alive out there?” That’s a line from Radio Nowhere, so naturally he went into…So Young and In Love. Only the second time in the last year he hasn’t opened with Radio, and the first time he’s played this obscure outtake this tour. A courageous move for sure, but the audience seemed to enjoy it even if only a small percentage probably knew it. Springsteen running back and forth across the stage high-kicking and plenty of sax blaring from The Big Man, Clarence Clemons, got the night off to a classic E Street Band beginning. Check out the video:
Not forgetting the current single completely though, they just moved Radio Nowhere second slot and showed how rock’n’roll is done. I’d seen Bruce on the folksy Seeger tour, which was lively and swinging, but this is him in his natural hard-rocking element. Steve Van Zandt provided banshee-scream backing vocals on Bruce’s mic, as he did on more songs than not through the concert.
Suzie Tyrell’s violin riff kicked off Lonesome Day, one of three songs he played off his previous E Street album The Rising. A nice song on record, it sapped a bit of the momentum as a somewhat generic rocker that doesn’t have the energy of the first two. Clemons nailed his sax solo yet again however, showing that though his age prevents the sort of movement he used to be known for (he’s 65), the music hasn’t suffered.
The first overtly political songs of the evening, Gypsy Biker proved far superior live to the somewhat flaccid album record. Blaring harmonica by Bruce and Roy Bitten’s tinkling piano riffs kept the extended version interesting, as the crowd joined in for plenty of “li li li”s.
Another mic set up next to Bruce’s was Suzie cue to come center stage to duet (with a couple other instruments in the background) on Magic. Her violin provides the focal point for certain songs, but I had no idea her voice was so good, adding some subtly beautiful harmonies to Bruce’s gruff growl. Guitarist Nils Lofgren provided flamenco plucking that, though quiet, added a rich dynamic.
Next up was a new sound for the group. Generally, the E Street Band plays a rock’n’roll style more influenced by Buddy Holly than Buddy Guy. Though blues influences are always present in rock, Springsteen songs carry them less on the surface than, say, The Rolling Stones. The completely revamped Reason to Believe, however, has turned from acoustic strumming to hard-driving Chicago blues with jarring harmonica and some of the vocals sung through a heavily distorting mic. The Band is pretty much known for one style, but seeing how well they handled such a different sound shows that perhaps more experimentation like this could add to the show.
The second tour premier of the night was another outtake off Tracks, Loose Ends. One of my favorite B-sides, hearing it live was a huge treat, even if it didn’t make the place go as crazy as So Young. From there a classic Roy keyboard riff led into the Diddley beat of She’s the One. Never one of my favorites, but the crowd was into this quasi-classic.
A sudden sax line brought in a quick political speech from Bruce, the only one of the night: “This is a song called Livin’ In the Future, but it’s about what’s happening now!” For the first time though, the litany of Bush complaints got a positive spin: “I feel a new wind blowing through the air!” It didn’t kick as much ass as it could have, but was a nice pairing with The Promised Land. The ultimate singalong, the crowd screamed every line to this one as Bruce wailed on his most famous harmonica riff, strutting the full length of the stage. Many of the concerts I go to, Dylan in particular, are the sit back and listen kind. With Bruce though, the performance isn’t just going on onstage; the crowd enthusiasm and participation comprise a huge part of the experience, and they went nuts for this one.
Waiting On a Sunny Day never did much for me on record, a bland pop song that didn’t seem to have anything deeper to grasp hold of. Live, however, it was another big crowd participation number, with a long outro of the instruments all dropping out one by one until it was just Bruce conducting the audience. If they didn't know the words initially, they learned 'em fast.
The third huge surprise for the night was also the third outtake, Janey Don’t You Lose Heart. Played by pre-show request, one name made it a highlight: Nils Lofgren. For the only time of the night he shared Bruce’s mic, and even sang the whole second verse by himself. In addition to being far and away the best guitar player on stage, he has an incredibly soulful voice that Bruce should make use of more often.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get better, Bruce went into my favorite song, The River. After having been dramatically reworked the past several tours, tonight's arrangement was similar to the original, with the emotional harmonica riff and some twelve-string guitar by Steve. The crowd sang every word, which I would have thought inappropriate for such a serious song, but it almost seemed cathartic for everyone, emotions high both onstage and off. The highlight though was a long falsetto outro, Bruce crying wordlessly over and over in a haunting voice I didn’t know he had. Chilling.
The somber tone continued with Devil’s Arcade, a good song on record made great live. It started slow, but then built and built into a Bruce-Steve guitar duel that cried and wailed until cutting out completely to a spotlight on Max’s solo drumming coda.
One of my first visual memories of the band was seeing them perform The Rising at the ’03 Grammys (video), so seeing it live seemed pleasantly familiar. Other than that personal connection though, it didn’t seem to do much for me or the rest of the audience.
Moving forward from the 9/11 theme, the song inspired by a Kerry speech, Last to Die, is probably the hardest-driving rocker on Magic, but it didn’t quite have the same power live. Probably because the other songs were all amped up in volume and intensity, when this one wasn’t it paled in comparison. It was a nice intro for one of the focal points of the night though, Long Walk Home. There’s a song that lyrically is indisputably great, but musically had never done much for me. Not so live, with a somber singalong and improv bluesey vocals from Steve. Springsteen prowled the front of the stage throughout, pointing at various audience members.
That political pairing made for a strange intro to Badlands, but few noticed or cared as the places exploded. Fists pumping the air the moment Roy hit his first note, everyone screaming along with every word. Lord knows how many times Bruce and the guys have played this, but with this sort of audience response it’s clear why they don't get bored of it. It was extended plenty with “woah-oh-oh-oh” singalongs and Springsteen’s thunder-rumble guitar flourishes. The band finished and began to bow...until Bruce ran back to the microphone and “1, 2, 3, 4”-ed back into another chorus that brought the floor to an absolutely frenzy. As the band took their bows and exited, the audience continued the singalong until the band returned for the encore.
Dedicating this one “for the Hartford girls,” Girls In Their Summer Clothes was a strange start the encores. It’s simply not fast-paced or recognizable enough to seem anything but a let-down after Badlands. While a fine song in its own right, it suffers mightily from placement.
I mistook the intro to Backstreets for the epic Jungleland, but my initial disappointment realizing it wasn't quickly faded as Bruce put his all into this one. It’s never one of my favorite songs, but it’s a real rarity performed with passion by everyone involved. It was nothing next to what followed though, as Bruce’s shrieking guitar led into the unrivaled high point of the night, Kitty’s Back. The only song he did off his first two, more jazzy albums, it broke the twelve-minute mark with incredible soloing from Charlie Giordano on organ, Roy on piano, and, finally, Bruce lashing out at his guitar, each solo lasting several minutes. The song isn’t much on record, but live it builds and builds until nine minutes in when the huge chorus hits - “Kitty’s back in town!” - that seemed the ultimate energy highlight of the whole evening. Plenty of riffing and noodling from The Big Man on sax gave it a funky horn-filled feel that just served to boost momentum. One of the greatest live performances I’ve ever seen.
And then, inevitably, the ultimate crowd participation song, Born to Run. The house lights came on for this one, inviting the audience to scream every word as loud as the band. He’s played it at every full-band concert since god knows when, but seeing this classic live for this the first time is worth the repetition, fists thrust in the air during each verse’s “Woooaaah!” The band kept the audience fervor going with a just as rocking, if less famous, closer in American Land. Everyone except Max came front stage, Roy and Charlie taking up accordions and Garry singing background vocals for the first and only time of the evening. A song written for the more folk-oriented Seeger Sessions Band, I was skeptical about whether it would work performed by a rock outfit. Though pounding drums and electric guitar are perhaps inherently less well-suited for the number, the adjustment was made smoothly by the band, straddling the line between bluegrass and rock in the loudest way possible. Lyrics on the big screen helped the audience sing along, as Bruce introduced the “heart-stopping, pants-dropping, earth-shocking, hard-rocking, booty-shaking, earth-quaking, love-making, Viagra-taking, history-making, legendary…E…STREET…BAND!” Well-put.
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