Why Bruce Springsteen's return to Bridgestone Arena is more than just a concert 

Springsteen & I: A Testimonial

Springsteen & I: A Testimonial

Not to brag (and at the risk of sounding pathetic), tonight I'll see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band for the 23rd time. I've probably been to more Bruce Springsteen concerts than I have weddings or religious services. Sometimes this worries friends and family who know me well, and for their own good, know better than to get me started on Springsteen. Don't they get it?! I've touched the same chipped and faded Fender Esquire that graces the cover of Born to Run; I've actually held the man himself as he crowd-surfed across an arena floor; I've seen the past, present and future of rock 'n' roll, and its name is Bruce Springsteen!

Between all the knee-slides, backbends and preacher routines, I've seen Bruce & Co. bust out more than 200 songs; I've seen him play The River in its entirety; I've seen him call to the stage surprise guests ranging from Elvis Costello to Jimmy Cliff; I've traveled to tourism-starved cities in fly-over states I never thought I'd visit. Each show is different, and yet each show is kind of the same. KISS has big fans too, but are they so well-rewarded?

Most of my honorable, hard-earned badges of Bruce fandom would've meant little to me the first time I saw Springsteen at a baseball stadium on a warm summer night in 2003. Sheepishly, I admit that night was perhaps the first time I ever heard a lost classic like "My Love Will Not Let You Down." For shame! At that point, I was a cursory fan of standards like Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska, with a wide-eyed rock scholar's academic understanding that a Springsteen show was a spectacle to be seen. To say the least, that turned out to be true.

By now, I've managed to see most of classic rock's reunited dinosaur acts. In most cases, once is enough. In some (Fleetwood Mac), one time was too many. For Bruce Springsteen, 22 shows and counting still isn't enough, because despite being a year away from Social Security eligibility, Bruce Springsteen isn't a dinosaur act.

By diehard tramp standards, my first Springsteen show was fairly unremarkable (save for a rare performance of The Ghost of Tom Joad deep cut "Across the Border"). But it did the trick — I was hooked on the first high. Bruce Springsteen worked his ass off that night, howling at the moon and barking out "Badlands" like it had been written the day before, and The E Street Band followed suit.

In fact, Bruce Springsteen works his ass off every night. "I want an extreme experience," he told The New Yorker's David Remnick in 2012, who wrote, "He leaves the stage soaked, as if he had swum around the arena in his clothes while being chased by barracudas." That elbow-grease approach to rocking is what Springsteen does to justify $100 ticket prices and win over new fans. Perhaps that partially explains why tonight's Springsteen show in Nashville has outsold his 2008 and 2009 Music City appearances, but it's certainly not the only reason. Since reuniting his leg-en-dary E Street Band — inductees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as of last week — in 1999, Springsteen and his famed sidemen have cut nearly as many records and performed nearly as many concerts as in their 1972-1989 heyday. In the process, they carved out a twilight career unprecedented in its scope and vitality, expanding a songbook that continues to resonate with listeners with increased intensity.

After 22 shows, there are still a handful of Springsteen's biggest back-catalog cornerstones ("Tunnel of Love" and, shockingly, "Born in the USA" among them) I've never seen him perform. And the latter-day classics — "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "Wrecking Ball," for instance — hit hard enough for crowds not to notice the omissions.

Tonight, I'll blow my voice out singing along to any of those tunes with intoxicating, almost embarrassing fervor, despite the fact I've never worked in a factory. I didn't grow up in a dead-end town ravaged by plundering corporate charlatans. I didn't marry my high school sweetheart at 18. I didn't lose high school friends in Vietnam, and I have a loving relationship with my father. I've also never drunk warm beer on the hood of a Dodge or lost a knife fight, and I've gotten lost every time I've tried to drive in New Jersey. Nevertheless, I've related to lines like, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse" or, "Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart" for coming-of-age comfort in tough times. The sentiments are universal. 

At the end of the day, Bruce Springsteen doesn't just sing about downtrodden day workers, star-crossed lovers and marginalized small-town in-dwellers; he sings about reconciling ideals with realities, learning to cope with what you can't control, and the emotional blowback that is central to existing in the world as a human being. For diehards and newbies alike, a Springsteen concert — a marathon rock 'n' roll revival careening through moments of silly shtick and pensive transcendence, party time sing-alongs and raw balls-out intensity — is a thousands-strong collective emotional outpouring and expression of each attendee's own life story. Not to mention one helluva show. Recommended if you like joy.

Email Music@nashvillescene.com.

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