Wednesday, October 14, 2009

LIGHTS OUT TONIGHT: Springsteen live at Giants Stadium - October 2, 2009

“Outlaw Pete,” the opening track on Bruce Springsteen’s most recent album is my kind of song. Cinematic and musically ambitious, the song draws on themes familiar in Springsteen’s work: An outlaw on the run, part romance and part desperation, the haunting price to be paid, lush musical crescendos, a landscape that is both stark and sweeping and a lonesome harmonica. An epic western, the song is “Once Upon a Time in the West” (lifting the harmonica part from the Ennio Morricone movie score) meets “Rocky Raccoon” (the bounty hunter is even named “Dan”).

At Giants Stadium I watched on the giant screen as Springsteen belted out the chorus:

I’m Outlaw Pete
I’m Outlaw Pete
Can You Hear Me?

He repeated the line this time asking the crowd: “Can you HEAR me?” The crowd roared back dutifully, but I found myself answering, “Not very well.”

That’s the problem with these stadium shows. The sound sucks. It’s terribly frustrating because you just know the band is locked-in and you’re fairly sure something magical is happening on the stage but the full brilliance of it just doesn’t reach you. The music sounded muddy. It was as if a little kid was playing with the knobs as the volume and bass/treble levels fluctuated all night. The sound issues are particularly detrimental to a song like “Outlaw Pete, whose emotional power resides in subtle changes in dynamics.

But this wasn’t the night for subtlety, or the place. It was the second of five stadium shows, Springsteen’s farewell to Giants Stadium. For me, the real draw wasn’t the nostalgia of the wrecking ball, (Let’s face it. In New Jersey, the swamps reclaim everything eventually) but the announcement that came one week before the scheduled shows: Springsteen would be playing an entire album, start to finish, at each one of the shows. And the album for October 2nd would be “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” I was thrilled. This album, (along with “Born to Run”) made me a Springsteen fan. It was a landmark album for Springsteen, marking his development as an artist who would become more than a rock star – a songwriter who tells stories, who reaches intense emotional depth and who sings convincingly about the struggles of others. These are songs that have always been amazing when performed live. It’s not an accident that the 1978 tour following this album produced the most sought-after bootleg recordings. And it’s probably not too much to say that the E-Street band became the band that it is playing these songs.

About an hour into the show, he introduced the album. Some of the songs are concert staples that Springsteen plays all the time. But I was eager to hear the songs in order, within the context of the album, especially since few of us listen to albums anymore. Here are my sketch notes of the performances and the songs:

Badlands: A popular favorite for good reason, the song is has become such a fist-pumping crowd-pleaser that I’ve almost come to lament hearing it live simply because the ferocity of the song becomes lost in all of the sing-along stuff. Almost. There’s the breakdown part after the guitar and sax solo when the crowd sings along. It’s easy to sing (there are no words) and easy to project, so it really is a rousing communal moment and lots of fun. But, at the risk of clinging to glory days, it’s worth listening to a recording from the “Darkness” or “River” tour to hear how the band used to play it. Instead of a beery chorus from the crowd, Little Steven (or "Miami Steve" as he was then known) would hum the melody, then Bruce and other members of the band joined in with harmony, gradually building to the big delivery:

For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside,
that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,
I wanna find one face that ain’t lookin’ through me,
I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these Badlands

It captures the theme of the album perfectly. It’s the voice of someone who would take on the world - shitty stadium sound, or not.

Adam Raised a Cain: When you think about the songs Springsteen recorded prior to “Darkness” there is nothing that would suggest a song as angry and tormented as this one. Springsteen brought the song’s ferocity alive with forceful vocals and malevolent sounding guitar. I was struck by the way the themes of this album can be heard in more recent songs. In 1978, Springsteen was singing about his father and drawing on Catholic guilt and biblical lore to express the frustration of feeling trapped by circumstances – economic, familial and existential. He practically screams:

You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past.

Nearly 30 years later, on “Long Time Comin’” he sings to his own children:

If I had one wish in this god-forsaken world, kids,
It’d be that your mistakes would be your own,
Yeah, your sins would be your own.

Something in the Night: One of the real treats was hearing the deep album cuts, the tracks Springsteen rarely plays in concerts. And because the crowd wasn’t singing along, this was one of the songs you could hear the best. The defining element of this song is Springsteen’s moan (which is partly a growl). It’s one of those vocal things that isn’t quite singing, but delivers a raw physicality and emotional resonance that never fails to impress me. It’s the equivalent of a man howling at the moon. And who hasn’t been there?

Candy’s Room: Another song which, because it relies so much on crescendo and explosion, was undermined by the terrible sound. Still, the sheer propulsive energy of the song came through as did the bite in Springsteen’s guitar solo. Bruce looked drained at the song’s end. Nobody expected that to slow him down for a second. And it didn’t.

Racing in the Street: For my money, Roy Bittan, the keyboard player, is the one indispensible member of Springsteen’s band. His lovely phrasing and lyrical accents work perfectly on this hauntingly beautiful song. It was a rare moment when the intimacy of the album penetrated the massiveness of the stadium. Again, I’m struck by how the songs on “Darkness” differ from the romantic fables and colorful escapes that appear on the earlier albums. The songs on Darkness are never about just one thing – there is hope, anger, desire, despair, love and redemption. And of course, lots of driving.

The Promised Land: True story. When I was 12, I saw a clip on television of Springsteen playing “The Promised Land” at a No Nukes benefit concert. It inspired me to go out and learn to play the harmonica. And I did. I learned every Springsteen song, several Dylan songs and all sorts of blues riffs too. And had I gone on to become a famous harmonica player (instead of someone who merely annoyed his roommates), that story might even be interesting.

Factory: To the casual fan and to the non-fan, Springsteen’s identification with the working man might seem contrived. He is, after all, a multi-millionaire and has been for decades. But his blue collar upbringing in Freehold is real enough and, more importantly, so is his gift of empathy. I was always struck by the complexity and contradictions he describes, even within the factory walls: Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life. Springsteen’s social consciousness emerges on this album. But he’s not a class warrior. He’s a story teller. That’s key.

Streets of Fire: Another intense album cut that is rarely played live. Amazingly, the sound trouble seemed to go away during this song. There’s a certain irony in this because the recording of the album version is an anarchic mess of distortion and feedback. Live, Springsteen’s guitar work was again impressive, emotional and menacing. As always on this album, it is the suggestion of something simmering beneath the surface, ready to explode.

Prove it All Night: This song has always sounded better live and this night was no exception even though the sound problems returned. In the past, Springsteen has added a piano intro and extended guitar soloing. This time, we were treated to an extended guitar solo by Nils Lofgren at the end of the song. It marked the only time during the playing of the album when someone other than Bruce played lead guitar. Nils is the most technically gifted of the band’s three guitar players and he matches his skill and fretboard harmonics with emotion, always crafting the solo to fit the mood of the song (to fantastic effect on the live recording of “Youngstown”). Unfortunately, that emotional element was lost in the muddiness of the sound board and his solo, while surely impressive, came off as somewhat flat and robotic – at least from where I was sitting.

Darkness on the Edge of Town: There's something about this song. It’s the perfect bookend to the album because, as on Badlands, it goes right to the heart of things, the struggles and sheer intensity burning within his characters:

Everybody's got a secret, Sonny,
Something that they just can't face,
Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it,
They carry it with them every step that they take.
Till someday they just cut it loose,
Cut it loose or let it drag it drag ‘em down.

Bruce still changes up the lyrics on one line. On the album it’s:

I lost my money and I lost my wife, them things don’t seem to matter much to me now.

But in concert, he sings: I lost my faith when I lost my wife. He’s done it that way since his first marriage failed. In the final chorus, Bruce gives it everything and belts out the last note, reaching the higher octave, with power and abandon. His voice isn’t better than it used to be, but it’s probably more powerful. And his greatest vocal gift – the ability to convey emotion with conviction – was as strong as ever.

The rest of the set list was terrific. Springsteen’s additional offerings included “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” “No Surrender,” “Thunder Road,”“Be True,” and a surprise cover of “Jailhouse Rock.” I especially enjoyed his version of “Long Walk Home” which somehow sounded clearer than most of the songs. When he played his next song, “The Rising,” the skies above the Meadowlands opened and the rain came, but it was light and fleeting. Encores included “Cadillac Ranch,” “Bobby Jean and the obligatory “American Land.” I figured there was a 50% chance he’d play “Rosalita,” the ultimate concert closer. He did.

But for me, Darkness was the highlight. Shortly after the album was released in 1978, Pete Townshend famously had this to say about it: “That’s not ‘fun’, that’s fuckin’ triumph, man.” For those of us lucky enough to be at Giants Stadium that night, it was both.

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