Monday, March 24, 2008

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks at the Vic 3/21/08

Having never been a Pavement fan, I’d never even heard of former-frontman Stephen Malkmus until I saw all the rave reviews his album with his new band The Jicks, Real Emotional Trash, received. And it’s a good album, jammy but restrained, long guitar sections mellow, but not boring. So armed with knowledge of that album alone, I checked out the band at Chicago’s Vic Theater.

Opener Jo
hn Vanderslice has always been a blog and college kid favorite, but seeing him for the second time it beats me as to why. Very little of the crowd even bothered to show up for his set, and they made the right decision. Backed by a three-piece band, he fluctuated between shoegazer and singer-songwriter, failing at both. Lyrics like “electricity is crossing out your family name” were laughably stupid, trying to seem Decemberists-esq vintage, but just coming across as nonsensical. The one redeeming move was, for the last song, the band brought their instruments (or part of them, in the case of the drummer) into the middle of the crowd and played a completely unplugged number. Admittedly, you couldn’t hear anything but the drum unless you were within about five feet of Vanderslice, but it was a cool move regardless.

Malkmus’ set was a step up, but not by all that much. The songs are not traditionally catchy, so onstage they don’t stand up on their own. With an interesting visual performance, or reworked or extended versions, that could have been fine. Unfortuntaly, all there was was the songs, with little interesting to watch onstage, Malkmus just standing around. His guitar-playing was excellent, but the long solos were mostly the same as on the album. On the record the songs are described as jammy, but live that was far from the case. To “jam” implies to experiment, explore, take risks. Copying their recorded counterparts note for note indicates that the jam sound was not authentic, but calculated.

The most interesting part of the show, it turned out, was not Malkmus himself, but drummer Janet Weiss. Famous for her tenure in Sleater-Kinney, she is as exciting a drummer to watch as I’ve seen, playing like the concert like one long drum solo. In other contexts this would be annoying, but this virtuosity added to the loose structures of the material. Was it strictly necessary? Probably not, but the musical passion and creativity was far more enjoyable to watch than anything else onstage.

A set heavy with new material pleased people like me who only knew the new release, but older fans became restless as he played few older songs (six of the first seven songs were new). Inexplicably, one of the few songs he neglected off Trash was Baltimore, by far the best of the bunch. Others, like opener Dragonfly Pie and Hopscotch Willie, got good singalong responses from the audience, rivaling older favorites like (Do Not Feed the) Oyster. Overall, however, though the music was solid, Malkmus presented little reason to see a show and not just stay at home and play the album.

SET LIST:
Dragonfly Pie
It Kills
Gardenia
We Can’t Help You
Hopscotch Willie
Cold Son
Real Emotional Trash
Vanessa From Queens
Jo Jo’s Jacket
Wicked Wanda
Elmo Delmo
Post-Paint Boy
(Do Not Feed the) Oyster
-encore-
Alright Alright Alright (Velvet Underground cover)
Water and a Seat

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Raveonettes at the Double Door 3/18/08

The Double Door is a legendary music venue in Chicago, and more than lives up to the reputation. Unlike Schuba’s, it’s not a bar with a concert venue attached, it’s both at once, a full bar with a stage off along the side wall. It’s about as intimate as you can see a concert these day, a few hundred people crammed around among the pillars and stools. There’s a small area in front of the stage for standing, but the majority of the audience is scattered around the room, many with pretty crappy views. A bar show in the most stereotypical sense of the phrase…and my new favorite music venue. It’s low-key, musicians and technicians milling around the stage mid-show (you apparently have to walk across the stage to get from the bar to backstage), a stage so small even a three-piece band found themselves with little room to move.

First up were Black Acid, opening for The Raveonettes this whole tour. They were so decidedly unimpressive I assumed they must be some local group though. They were essentially a Nirvana tribute band not playing Nirvana songs. The mannerisms and delivery of the lead singer were Kurt Cobain at his most nasal and angsty. Better him alone than when the others joined in on backing vocals though, all apparently in different keys. Grating at worst, boring at best.

From the moment The Raveonettes came onstage, however, you could tell they were going to be different. A duo from Denmark, they struck an unusual image. On stage right, guitarist Sune Rose Wagner wore an emo-tastic black and white striped shirt, five sizes too small on his absurdly skinny frame. On stage right, other guitarist Sharin Foo looked like a Norse goddess, towering above Wagner with albino-blonde hair a dress made entirely of sequins. Though they technically are The Raveonettes, an tiny but intense female drummer joined them. Though she only played two drums and a cymbal, she pounded them for all she was worth.

If the image is somewhat strange, the music fits it. Indie-pop with an edge, it sounds straight out of a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. Fifties songs updates for the new millennium, there was plenty of dissonant guitar noise for its own sake, but always with a purpose. No song clocked it much over three minutes, and with little audience patter they ran through them fast and furious, hitting most songs off their three-week-old album Lust Lust Lust, and throwing in plenty of classics and fan favorites. Songs like “Attack of the Ghost Riders” and “That Great Love Sound” got the stiff crowd moving a bit (but not nearly enough, as the guy who tried to stage dive simply wasn’t caught). The audience didn’t seem as familiar with the new material, unfortunately, as each song is a classic in the making.

They shared vocals on almost every line of every song, their voices combining perfectly to sound less like a duet that a somewhat androgynous lead singer. Their pretty harmonies offset the sometimes jarring guitar attacks (no bass to mellow the sound here), never losing the poppy core of the songs. Occasionally a recorded element would turn up, a xylophone here, a bass guitar there, but and by-and-large they recreated the dense noises on the albums live, often just strumming muted guitar strings to create tuneless rhythm as the drummer pounded out simple beats to propel the songs towards their quick conclusions. The only disappointment of an otherwise excellent set was its length, clocking in at exactly an hour, including encore. With songs this short, too much more might have made them see repetitive, but a group this good deserves to play for longer.

SET LIST:
Hallucinations
Dead Sound
That Great Love Sound
Let's Rave On
Here Comes Mary
Lust
Red Tan
Love In A Trashcan
Attack Of The Ghost Riders
My Tornado
You Want The Candy
Black Satin
Blush
The Beat Dies
French Disko (Stereolab cover)
Aly, Walk With Me
-encore-
Twilight

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bruce Springsteen in Milwaukee 3/17/08

There were several reasons to expect a great show from Bruce and the boys tonight. For one, it was St. Patrick’s day, the sort of party holiday that Springsteen’s music is perfect for. For another, Milwaukee has a special Springsteen history. In ’75 he performed a now-famous show, halfway through which there was a bomb threat. For the couple hours it took to sort everything out the band went back the hotel bar and proceeded to get plastered. Which, needless to say, made for a lively second half, Bruce telling long rambling stories and running around screaming “Are you loose?” repeatedly.

Now there’s another reason for Milwaukee to loom large in Springsteen lore, with last night’s show being one of his best in a while. Definitely the best of the three I’ve seen, which is saying a hell of a lot. The band energy combined with setlist surprises made for a show enjoyable both to the diehards and the one-show goers.

The surprises were there from the beginning. Opening with No Surrender added a new song to me seen-in-concert repertoire, and is a great choice. It’s fast, rocking, and familiar. The only advantage something like Night has is a strong sax part, which is such a staple of the E Street sound it’s nice to get Clarence Clemons some showcase time from the beginning. Three songs later was the biggest surprise of the night though, the tour debut of Streets of Fire in only its fourth performance since ’79. Several songs later came a show highlight, the second performance of It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City thus far. It was loose, ragged, and far from perfect, but extraordinarily fun, the band grinning and playing around as Bruce conducted. It’s the first song I’ve seen off his debut album, and hopefully he’ll rotate others in more regularly. That led straight into another surprise, a song that was a regular on previous tours, and his most legendary performances ever in ’78, Prove It All Night. It wasn’t as epic as it was then, but Nils did bust out with a long guitar solo just when you thought the song was ending.

By then I would have been more than satisfied with an already surprising setlist, but Bruce just kicked it up a notch with a two-pack of rare songs. Cadillac Ranch, decided upon on the spot, saw guitarist Nils Lofgren toss on a goofy green hat as the audience screamed along every word. Lyrical undertones of mortality were ignored in the singalong spirit of this party number. From there he quieted things down with another non-setlisted song, My Hometown. I was never the biggest fan of this one, but my appreciation for it grew seeing the solemnity Bruce and the band approached it with and the reverence with which the audience sang along. A song so meaningful to so many people (the favorite of my show companion) can’t be all that bad. And, as the second time played on the tour proper, it was another nice surprise.

The surprises in the encores rivaled anything from the main set though. For the first time this tour, Girls In Their Summer Clothes was dropped as the first song of the encore, replaced by the outtake Loose Ends. The third time played on the tour for that one, but since I was there for its debut in Hartford it was less exciting for me than for others. The second slot of the encore is usually the biggest surprise slot of the show, and I was hoping for anything but Jungleland (ironic, since it’s most people's top choice, but I’d already seen it). True to form, Bruce both met and denied my request at the same time. It was clear there was a special treat in store when a road crew member brought a stand-up bass to center stage, and an elderly man took his place. It turned out to be none other than legendary
Astral Weeks bass player Richard Davis, here to reprise his roll in my favorite Springsteen song (well, one of two), Meeting Across the River. The second time having been played this tour, this rarity is one that many go their whole life without hearing. It went straight into Jungleland, which in that context I didn’t mind being played a bit. Clarence’s sax solo wasn’t quite as incredible as in Montreal, but Bruce and the band seemed tighter and more into each lyric. The focus onstage reverberated through the audience, as the beer runs and slow-song chatter cut out completely and everyone watched it build and build.

Any setlist-follower would assume that was it for the surprises, but not so, as instead of the usual Dancing In the Dark, another fun rocker was played in the penultimate spot, Ramrod. It’s a pretty worthless song on record, but live is something else entirely, extending on and on with loads of Bruce-Steve schtick. “Is it quittin’ time?” “Naw…” “Is it sleepy time?” “Naw…” “Is it sexy time?” “Naw…” “Well, Steve, what time is it?” Long pause.” “It’s BOSS TIME!” No one knows how to make an audience explode like Bruce, even with a song that most would not consider that great. A clear highlight, and my eighth new song for the night, I don’t know why this isn’t an every-nighter.

So those were the surprises. Whew. But what was even more special about this show was how good all the OTHER songs were, songs I’d seen twice already and thought I was bored of. I’ve never liked She’s the One as much as most, but tonight it was tight as could be, every part in place and everyone focused on making it both fun and musically impressive, Roy Bitten pounding those keys for all they were worth. Devil’s Arcade, a highlight every night, stood out especially tonight for the passionate delivery. In seats for the first time, I noticed how much the lighting adds to songs like this one, setting a somber purple mood, but changing in elaborate patterns as the story unfolds. Springsteen really extended the Max Weinberg drum coda, each band member slowly fading out one by one as Max kept going and going. Keeping that momentum, The Rising following was especially tight, the backing vocals by Steve and Soozie heartfelt and biting.

And it would be impossible to talk about a Saint Paddy’s day show without mentioning the Irish-sounding American Land. It’s always a blast, but the crowd got especially into it tonight, many probably assuming it was played for the occasion. Bruce grabbed another green hat from the audience for Steve, and Garry sported a pair of green shamrock glasses tossed onstage. As it went on and on, neither the band nor audience could seem to get enough of the jigging and jumping. Another show to add to the Milwaukee legacy.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Randy Newman and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra 3/16/08

Seeing Randy Newman before in a solo setting last summer (read my review) prepared me less than I would have expected for seeing him with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. For starters, a high percentage of the audience was clearly there to see the orchestra, dressed in suits and evening dresses, and not little old Randy. The season ticket-holder vibe led to an unusual audience for a singer/songwriter concert, less apt to laugh at funny lyrics and prone to waiting until the very last ringing of the piano in every song to applaud.

Just as strange as the experience in the audience was the sight onstage. Though I had known he would be performing with the orchestra, I had not quite pictured it right. I had imagined a little string section backing him up on some songs, not some 70-odd musicians with percussion, brass, and a conductor. And in front of it all, a short senile piano player singing songs about racists, the slave trade, and Karl Marx.

For many of these songs, the orchestra was not strictly necessary. Indeed, for the first section of the concert I was not entirely sure why they were there in the first place. They added to some songs, such as a brash Great Nations of Europe and a bouncing Love Song (You and Me), but for most you could take ‘em or leave ‘em (and on plenty of selections, Newman did just that, performing solo as everyone else watched).

About forty-five minutes in, however, we learned their function when Newma
n took the conductor’s platform. Not generally a fan of orchestral music, I forgot that Randy even did scores. However, they were full-blown classical numbers that were what much of the audience had come to see. He did two selections before the intermission, both Academy Award-nominated scores. The music from Toy Story was fast and bouncy, intent to keep up with the frenetic pace of a Pixar movie, but had quite a few memorable sections. The Natural music was slower, taking its time with several familiar refrains (the theme is apparently played at most baseball games). He said it was the best it had ever been performed, and, though I’m far from an orchestral expert, this group seemed to deserve the praise. Tight, lively, and focused, they kept lengthy instrumental pieces interesting for even someone as low-culture as me.

A couple more followed after intermission, including the highlight of the four (and the only one not nominated for an Oscar…go figure), the Maverick music. It had a mariachi feel, with plenty of trumpet soloing and was one of the most up-tempo affairs of the night. The Avalon score was distinctly less memorable as a few strange harp interludes, “doing things no harp should have to do” as Randy put it, were the only notable part of the piece.

Back to the piano for the remaining of the show. He seemed to save the best for last, at least in terms of orchestra use. While there were still several numbers where the extra instruments added nothing, tunes like Better Off Dead and In Germany Before the War achieved emotional heights with the swelling strings that would not have been possible with mere piano plunking, including parts that were orchestra-only, Newman sitting back as these new additions added their own voices.

However, the peak of the Newman-orchestra interaction came, appropriately enough, for the final song. Louisiana (1927) is one of his best songs anyway, and works pretty well in a normal piano setting. The elaborate string arrangement of the original live changes the whole feel, highlighting the tension of Newman’s nasal croak backed by lush swooping melodies. A song with a pop undertone, the flutes and cellos gave way to soaring violins as the song grew and grew, the orchestra and Newman playing as one being. The orchestra scores were good, but moments like this are why an orchestra can add to some of Newman’s songs in ways no piano ever could.

SETLIST:
Birmingham
Short People
(solo)
The World Isn’t Fair
I Miss You
Love Song (You and Me)
You Can Leave Your Hat On
(solo)
I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)
(solo)
The Great Nations of Europe
A Few Words In Defense of Our Country
(solo)
Selections from
Toy Story
Selections from
The Natural
-intermission-
Selections from
Maverick
Selections from
Avalon
I Love to See You Smile
In Germany Before the War
Cowboy
Dixie Flyer
(solo)
Better Off Dead
You’ve Got a Friend In Me
Sail Away
Real Emotional Girl
Political Science
(solo)
Louisiana (1927)
-encore-
Lonely at the Top
I Think It’s Going to Rain Today

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Bruce Springsteen in Montreal 3/2/08

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.

SETLIST
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.

PACING
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 (a
lways 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, a
nd 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.

RANGE
The E Street Band is known for playin
g 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?

INSTRUMENTS
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.

NUANCES
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.

GENERAL FEEL
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.

SOUND

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.

THEME
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 m
uch 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.

ENERGY
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-pho
ne 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.

EXPERIMENTATION
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.

NIGHT TWO
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.

DOWNLOAD THE FULL SHOW

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Bruce Springsteen in Hartford 2/28/08

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 ro
ck’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 momentu
m 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 a
nd 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 so
ngs 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 encor
es. 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 audien
ce 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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