For Nashville's rock 'n' roll fans there is perhaps nothing more frustrating than the constant heartbreak of being skipped by large rock tour after large rock tour—which is why it comes as such a pleasant surprise that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are bringing their self-proclaimed "ministry of rock 'n' roll" to Music City for the third time in a short 15 months. First came 2008's three-hour epic tour-de-force of fan requests, hits, Joe Strummer birthday tributes, impromptu Johnny Cash covers, power-slides and outright passion at The Sommet Center. Less than a year later came the unforgettably triumphant headlining set at Bonnaroo, in which Bruce and the band worked their asses off to win over tens of thousands of festival-goers outside their cult demographic. Despite how notoriously tough a market this is, Bruce & Co. are returning to Middle Tennessee once again to prove their vitality for what many fear may be the last time.
If you missed either of these preceding performances, E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt says it's time to stop waiting around. "I hope [the band] keeps goin'...[but] we are gonna take a little break now," he recently told the Scene, "so anyone out there who's been waiting to see us, it's a good time.... [We're] the best we've ever been. We may not be as pretty, but we seem to be still getting better in some funny way. So it's a good time to see us now, because we are gonna take a year, year-and-a-half, two years off." When asked for his assurance that—despite speculation in the fan community—this is not the last tour for the ESB, Van Zandt emphasized, "You never know, do ya.... Don't wait around. If you're waiting to come see us, come now. We do every show like it's our last show, anyway."
Despite another Van Zandt claim that the band "refuses to be a nostalgia act," they've displayed a healthy bit of it lately, as recent shows have featured performances of entire albums—from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle to Born in the U.S.A. Whether this is an effort to sell more tickets in a tough economy, or perhaps just a nod to the bygone era of album-oriented rock, it's Springsteen's way of avoiding a "greatest hits" tour. He's also maintaining his reputation for going the extra mile with the type of sentimental gesture that suggests the coming of the end, as what was ostensibly a promotional tour for a new album now feels like a swan song. E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan told the Scene, "We started off playing quite a number of the songs on [Working on a Dream]...maybe [Bruce] just felt that the tour had turned into something else.... We're doing all these requests in the middle of the show, and it kind of changed the nature of [it]...the curve of the show changed and [he] kinda changed the focus of it for fun and for the fans."
In Nashville, Springsteen will play his landmark Born to Run, an album that was a make-or-break effort for him in 1975, when, at 25, he was just barely hanging onto his record contract. Luckily for the sake of almighty rock 'n' roll, the album—with its gargantuan wall of sound and empathetic backstreet tales of restless youth—would go on to set the template for the widescreen, Jersey-boardwalk sound that launched him into the stratosphere. While seven of the eight tracks on the record are live staples, seeing the record presented in its intended, sonically cinematic arc will surely be something for any rock music fan to behold. Plus, it's worth the price of admission just to walk in the door knowing that you're guaranteed performances of the meditative "Meeting Across the River" leading into the gangland grandeur of "Jungleland," the anthemic "Thunder Road," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" (complete with live horns), the Bo Diddley stomp of "She's the One" and the majestic heartbreak of "Backstreets"—all in addition to the title track's epic ode to escape.
While the programmatic approach of playing an album in its entirety might temporarily zap the show of the spontaneity and surprise that's integral to the live experience, Springsteen more than makes up for it with his recent tradition of playing a slew of fan requests—anything from a rarity like "Loose Ends" to a '60s cover like Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" or an '80s hit like "Dancing in the Dark." What comprises the other two-thirds of the show's set list is anyone's guess. For Springsteen diehards, the culture of following, analyzing and debating these song selections is a practice akin to sports fans' tallying up stats before a draft. In terms of what makes a perfect Springsteen show, Bittan says, "It has nothing to do with where [the tour] is in particular—[some nights] the band is just really on it and really playing just beautifully together, and some nights the set list is just a perfect set list for a show. It's a confluence of factors. It can happen anywhere at any place."
As Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band head toward an uncertain future, let's hope that any place is Nashville.
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