Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
April 12 at Gaylord Entertainment Center
It was fitting that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played Nashville on a Wednesday evening, a night when thousands of Baptists, Methodists, and Church of Christers around town regularly gather for midweek services. No steeple, however, drew as big a throng as the one that assembled to hear the Boss’ testimony at the arena last week. Springsteen, of course, wasn’t peddling passage through the pearly gates: ”I can’t promise you life everlasting, but I can promise you life right now,“ he vowed at one point. But that didn’t stop him from carrying on like a down-home preacherpleading, testifying, and engaging his choir (his band) and congregation (his audience) in one rousing call-and-response after another.
It was all heartfelt enough, but most of Springsteen’s churchified song-and-dance was ultimately for show, for entertainment value. His show was, nevertheless, a stirring revivala three-hour, 23-song rock ’n’ roll revue reuniting a stunningly tight band that hasn’t toured together in a decade, and hasn’t played Middle Tennessee since 1984. Galvanized by homeboy Garry Tallent’s thunderball bass, drummer Max Weinberg’s inexorable kick, Clarence Clemons’ soaring sax, and a three-pronged lead-guitar attack, Springsteen played as fiery and relevant a set as any of us is likely to hear from a pre-punk rock act at this late date.
But Springsteen bore witness to more than just the transformative power of rock ’n’ roll. ”There’s gonna be a meeting in the town tonight,“ he announced as he burst onstage to open the show. As the E Streeters tore into ”The Ties That Bind,“ it became evident that the evening’s agenda would be an issue that has become more and more important to Springsteen over the years: community, specifically what it means for people to live together in a global society. From the plea for unity in ”The Ties That Bind“ to the second encore’s invocation of the gospel standard ”This Train,“ Springsteen gave sustained voice to an all-encompassing, if at times idealized, vision of human community.
Like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Woody Guthrie, Curtis Mayfield, and numerous others before him, Springsteen sang of a glory-bound train on which there is room for everyone. That’s why it must haunt him that, everywhere he plays, most of the faces in the crowd are those of white, middle- or upper-middle-class baby-boomers. This isn’t to suggest that Springsteen doesn’t embrace his adoring fansnot at all. But as he must be keenly aware, winning fans and winning converts are different, perhaps even mutually exclusive, things. ”I set out to find an audience that would be a reflection of some imagined community that I had in my head,“ he explained in a New York Times Magazine interview published a year after the release of 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad, a populist song-cycle that cast a sharp eye on racial and economic injustice. ”[An audience] that lived according to the values in my music and shared a similar set of ideals.“
The issue of community, especially as it pertains to matters of race and class, has bubbled at or just below the surface of Springsteen’s career since the ’70s. An early incarnation of his band included two African Americans, saxophonist Clemons and pianist David Sancious, as well as a Latino drummer, Vini Lopez. Similarly, Springsteen has often built his songs upon African and Latin rhythms, and he’s colored his lyrics with black, brown, and pink faces, most of them working-class, the rest subsisting at society’s margins. He rendered these issues more explicitly as the ’80s wore on, increasingly expressing his dismay at the nation’s failure to embody the communal ideals inherent in his music.
This impulse was certainly in full effect Wednesday night. Springsteen may have kicked off the show with a triptych professing his faith in the possibility of a just and loving community (”Two Hearts,“ ”The Promised Land,“ ”The Ties That Bind“), but moments later, he sang of the trials that threaten to tear that community apart. Alternating between a broken whisper and a ravaged wail, he took us to duplicitous back streets, shuttered steel mills, homes shattered by stillborn dreams; before he was finished, he had taken us all the way down to the river and out to the darkness on the edge of town.
Most Springsteen fans would likely cite the cathartic release of their hero’s fist-pumping anthems as the key to his music’s enduring appeal. Indeed, his flag-wavers transport us to places few of us can get to by ourselves. Take, as a friend observed, the sequence of ”The River,“ ”Youngstown,“ and ”Murder, Inc.“ leading up to that instant in the show when Weinberg hit the resounding first drumbeat of ”Badlands.“ Here, as the lights came up for the first time all evening, Springsteen and company affirmed that any and all troubles would be met not with resignation but with resistance.
Yet I would argue that it is Springsteen’s gift for empathy that invests his music with continued relevance. Witness last Wednesday’s ashen version of ”The Ghost of Tom Joad.“ The song may have invoked the migration of Dust Bowl refugees to the California promised land, but Springsteen’s plug for Second Harvest Food Bank also connected the dots between the groaning bellies of those Okie peach pickers and the gnawing insides of the regulars at Nashville’s soup kitchens. By the same token, ”Youngstown“ may have sifted through the debris of a bygone industrial age, but it also applied to corporate downsizingindeed, to any time economics render people disposable.
Even the empathy at the heart of Springsteen’s love songs became an expression of solidarity. ”I would rather feel the hurt inside than know the emptiness your heart must hide,“ he pledged at one point. It is precisely this willingness to plunge into the darkness, and to drag us with him in hopes of dispelling it, that enables him to utter hope-filled proclamations like ”just around the corner there’s a light of day.“
Springsteen’s relationship with the E Street Band embodied this communal ethic at nearly every turn. There was the way that Danny Federici’s funereal accordion and Clemons’ bleating sax joined him in mourning the lost souls of ”Youngstown,“ the way that Max Weinberg’s rat-a-tat drums and the stabbing solos of Nils Lofgren and Steve Van Zandt magnified the menace of ”Murder, Inc.“ Yet there was also the way that Clemons’ ascending runs witnessed to the possibility of transcendence, and the way that the heaven-bound harmonies of Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, transported him to that higher plane.
”I can’t get there by myself,“ Springsteen confessed, acknowledging the power of this circle before introducing each member of the band and launching into a soul-revue-style reworking of ”Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.“ But nowhere did this intimacy, this mutual faith, burn so brightly as during ”If I Should Fall Behind,“ on which Lofgren, Van Zandt, Scialfa, Clemons, and Springsteen all took turns at the mike, sweetly echoing each other with the lines ”I’ll wait for you/And should I fall behind/Wait for me.“ A version of the as yet unreleased ”Land of Hope and Dreams“ reaffirmed this vision, capping a liturgically exquisite evening that opened by invoking a spirit of community, followed with a confession of how we fall short of that ideal, moved on to proclaim a message of hope, and finally celebrated the possibility of achieving something closer to the truth.
After that, it was tempting to hear the crowd-pleasing encores, chiefly ”Born to Run“ and the wistful reading of ”Thunder Road,“ as evidence of how much distance Springsteen has put between himself and the escapist reveries of his youth. But listening to these songs in the light of what preceded and came after them Wednesday proved that they are ultimately of a piece with Springsteen’s later, more ”mature“ work. Instead of running from something or trying to get out, it became abundantly clear that he has been running toward something all along. Upon witnessing Springsteen’s testimony the other night, it was hard not to hear the fierce desire to connect expressed in these early classics as the first stirrings of his call to ministry in the First Church of the Hungry Heart.
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