A song-by-song analysis like I did Thursday seems unnecessary tonight, since most of the songs were the same. So instead we’ll do a thematic analysis, with a certain name guiding the topics.
Definitely no surprises like Hartford. For one, in Hartford we got three tour debuts, all outtakes, and in Montreal zero. But the latter is more the norm, so that’s nothing to be disappointed by. The shame is that there aren’t more changes, even among a few regularly rotating songs. The changes we did get were great (opening with Night and throwing in Darkness At the Edge of Town later), but having most of the songs be the same in the same order takes down the anticipation somewhat. At least shuffle ‘em up! Two surprises stood out however. First, the song Bruce co-wrote with Patti Smith, Because the Night, turned into a fiery singalong with a furious guitar solo by Nils that went on and on (more on that later). The second song of the encore was an even bigger surprise though. Setlisted to be Bobbie Jean or Thunder Road, Springsteen ditched both those options when he saw a sign for one of the most requested songs he has: Jungleland. From the opening chords I knew I was right this time (see Hartford’s encores, where I wasn't) and it was exactly what the song is always described as: epic. Going from solo piano by Roy Bitten to full band and back again, Bruce wove his long tale with confidence and a focus that kept the audience hanging on every word, no matter how many times they’re heard them before. And then Clarence Clemons came up for his saxophone solo…but more on that soon.
This is where the show has a few problems. Bruce is usually the master at setlists, and the structure this tour has some great points. Opening with a wildcard song (always rocking and with lots of sax) into the hard-driving Radio Nowhere is a great choice to get the crowd going from the first note. Similarly, ending the main set with Badlands keeps them screaming the “woah-oh-oh-oh” at top energy while the band takes a couple minutes to catch their breath. In the middle of the main set is where the problems lie. After Radio Nowhere, going into the bland Lonesome Day dampens the energy too soon. He’s only been onstage seven or eight minutes, and the audience is just getting going. Following that up with slow-beginning Gypsy Biker is the death blow to the enthusiasm though, a one-two punch that throws away the audience fervor he created with the openers. When he gets it rocking again a few songs later with the She’s The One – Livin’ In the Future – The Promised Land, you realize that’s the sort of combo that should have begun the show in the first place. Having the set get to the slow songs about 2/3 through is great, as The River and Devil’s Arcade give the audience a chance to catch its collective breath.
The encore group is almost perfect, rocking from almost beginning to end. I say almost beginning, because Girls In Their Summer Clothes kicks it off. The problem there is not that it is a bad song, or even that it is new. It’s that it is not high energy, does not have a rocking singalong part, and won’t get anyone on their feet for long. When you see an encore set like tonight's, Girls – Jungleland – Born to Run – Dancing In the Dark – American Land, that first slow sticks out like a sore thumb as not being in the same league as the others. Having the second encore slot be the wild card is a good idea, and the ending three-pack is unbeatable.
The E Street Band is known for playing some of the best rock’n’roll out there, and they certainly live up to that reputation. What I found more surprising was how adept they proved at other styles of music. The dirty blues of the Reason to Believe rearrangement is on par with any Canned Heat record you’re going to find, and the way they incorporated the Seeger Sessions Band’s American Land into a folk-rock combo without sacrificing either element worked unexpectedly well. The controlled psychadelia of the Gypsy Biker outro and the jazzey flourishes and jam-band solos on Kitty’s Back were also noticeable. Which begs the question of why they don’t do more of that. Either throw an unusual cover into the mix, perhaps something with intricate group vocals, play more songs from their early jazzier period, or rearrange a few more E Street Songs into new styles. What about a bluegrass Promised Land, or a country Darlington County?
Several instrumental performances were notable tonight. First off is Roy Bitten on, well, just about everything. Clarence may be the most visible member of the band, but Roy’s tinkling piano is really the most irreplaceable element. His playing for Jungleland was obviously impressive, but if you listened close he was doing cool things on pretty much every tune. A Springsteen/Roy concert all by themselves would be something indeed. Another notable performance was Nils’ guitar solo on Because the Night (video). Stretching out for three minutes, it was furious but focused, tight though not improvised. The Band tends to keep the songs tight, but letting Nils loose a little more often couldn’t be a bad thing. The true showcase solo, however, was The Big Man during Jungleland. It is probably his most notable performance, and he replicated it par excellence. Replicated isn’t the right word though, because though he played the same notes as the original, the emotion and feeling pushed it way beyond mere repetition. The intensity of every note reverberated through the silence in the room as he went on minute after minute. When he knocks out a thirty-second rock solo with the band behind him, he’s hitting the notes fine, but you can’t detect much subtlety. Here the band was all but silent, a spotlight on him as the audience hung on every moment. It demonstrated once and for all that he is more than just a personality or, at this point, a legend, but an incredibly deserving musician in his own right.
Seeing this show a second time, you pick up on things you were too caught up in the moment to notice the first night. They’re all subtle, but make the night even more enjoyable (and, of course, would be even more apparent if you were closer). For instance, the Nils-Clarence interactions, as he passed Lofgren for every sax solo, or the intensity of the Bruce-Steve duets. The ultimate subtle moment that made a huge impact had to be the whole band pausing to applaud Clarence after his beautiful Jungleland solo as he walked humbly back to his spot.
Onstage, the fact that the band was high-energy goes without saying. It was the most positive sort of energy though. The sullen rock-star vibe where you pretend to hate the fame and fans is clearly not for these guys, who spent the night grinning, joking around with each other, and mugging for the crowds. The camaraderie onstage, though not intentionally part of the performance, helps give an E Street Band show the leg up on most anyone else. The only group who wears their joy on their sleeves as much is The Hold Steady, and seeing them both you feel good about yourself being them to enable them to have the fun they are. Most good bands make you feel jealous; these make you feel important.
Though I was standing about twenty feet in front of the soundboard, what should have been a good spot for sound quality, there were more problems than in Hartford. The two most notable ones: Nils’ guitar solo during Because the Night looked absolutely killer live and, as I listen to the bootleg, clearly was. In person, however, it was very difficult to hear over the rest of the band (who weren’t doing much worth hearing). Similarly, Roy’s piano was too low on several occasions, especially on the intro to Badlands. Those opening chords are one of the exciting moments of the show, being so instantly recognizable for everyone, but they were hard to hear tonight and so the audience didn’t immediately explode as they should. Thank God Clarence’s sax was plenty loud for Jungleland.
Much has been made of the politics, of both the new album and the corresponding tour. Live, however, that faded fast. Songs like Last to Die are biting and poignant on the Iraq War, but in person you’re not paying attention to the lyrics, you’re just singing along to a good rock song. The dark side of the album did not manifest itself in the actual show as much as has been reported, with plenty of songs like The Promised Land and Dancing in the Dark keeping it as fun as ever. There were only several moments where Springsteen’s politics, the same that put him out stumping for Kerry on 04’s Vote For Change tour, came to the fore. One was in the long intro to Livin’ In the Future about all the things we’ve lost as Americans (modified slightly for the Northern audience), and the other was in the song Magic, slow enough that you did listen to the lyrics, about deceit and lies that has clear parallels to a certain administration. Though it wasn't strictly political though, more of it was somber than in the typical ESB show. Several of the slower new songs reined the energetic enthusiasm back in for a more serious note, such as Gypsy Biker, Magic, and a Devil's Arcade that slowly faded out to Max spotlighted on a heartbeat-like rhythm.
The one thing this band has more than anyone else in the business. The audience, however, was a different story tonight. A lot depends on where you stand, but usually General Admission is pretty lively. In Montreal though, people seemed more interested in lining up their next camera-phone video than singing along (some even tried to hold conversations on said phones). They seemed unfamiliar with the new material, only coming alive for the real classics. Having everyone stand around for several hours before Bruce even comes onstage probably goes a long way to sapping energy. And all that beer necessitates plenty of pee breaks.
As I talked about in “Range,” I think there could be a little more done here. I may be just used to seeing Dylan (who is certainly not the norm), but he rearranges almost all of his songs regularly. Masters of War in ’01 is a whole different beast than the song in ’07, and neither one remotely like the original. Bruce, with a few exceptions, is just the opposite, playing most of his songs exactly like the recordings. I’m not saying rearrange the fan favorites – let everyone have their Born to Run just the way they want it – but songs not everyone is going to want to sing along to anyway, why not take a few more risks? The last two tours have featured extended, soul versions of The River, so seeing him revert back to the original arrangement, great though it was to see live, is disappointing artisitically. Reason to Believe is such a success, I don’t know why Springsteen doesn’t try that drastic change on others.
So the ultimate question remains: How was the experience of seeing Springsteen two nights in a row? Is he a multiple-night artist, or if you’ve seen Badlands once, you’re set. Going twice in a row turned out to be a fabulous experience, and going three nights in a row would probably be great though. More than that, however, I would not recommend. He simply does not change his performance or setlist enough to be an artist where every night you’ll see a radically different show. That doesn’t mean he needs to be throwing huge-surprise wildcards out right and left, but have a set of, say, forty or fifty songs you draw from nightly. Rearrange, have more rotating slots, whatever. But the current arrangement, almost all the songs the same nightly with only several rotating slots (even though they are often exciting surprises) does not lend to a show with enough change to follow the tour. A few songs will probably never get old live because of the crowd response, but after two nights of She’s the One, I feel like I’m about set on that song. They were two of the best concerts I’ve been to, and I’m seeing a third in a couple weeks, but after that I will have no problem taking a long break until August. Hopefully by then the show will have changed enough to be new all over again.
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