Despite memory lapse, the Boss is unforgettable
Philadelphia Inquirer , 2002-10-08
By Tom Moon
Four songs into his set Sunday night at the First Union Center, Bruce Springsteen strapped on his harmonica and strode purposefully to the microphone, as he's done so many times before. Strumming a basic chord progression, he told the rabid near-capacity crowd that for the next few songs he would need some quiet. And then he froze.
"I forgot this baby," he said, incredulously. A long minute went by as the Boss, who turned 53 late last month, consulted privately with his wife, singer and guitarist Patti Scialfa, and his longtime foil, Steven Van Zandt.
When he came back, Springsteen apologized for his "early Alzheimer's" moment, and joked that he knew he shouldn't have done that LSD before he went on stage. Then he and Scialfa crept tentatively into the ethereal moaning that opens "Empty Sky," one of the memorable songs on his current The Rising.
The performance that followed was fresh evidence of Springsteen's greatness: full of sensitivity and stark, restrained feeling; vocals informed not just by the horrors of last September, the song's inspiration, but by a more generalized sense of the fragility of life. There was a palpable tremble in Springsteen's voice, as if his bout of amnesia in front of thousands had reminded him of his own mortality. Yet he avoided easy bathos, transforming a song that came across morose when the tour opened in August into a startlingly vivid and unexpectedly poignant meditation.
The somber songs of The Rising have clarified Springsteen's vision for rock-and-roll as not just a party, but a spiritual path, one that encompasses the break-the-chains yearning of "Born to Run" and the more reflective, redemption-seeking that underpins "Countin' on a Miracle."
He's always brought a little revival tent to the arena, but now his preacherly notions - in Badlands, it was believing in love and looking to faith as a sustaining force; on "Into the Fire," from The Rising, it's drawing inspiration from those who sacrificed their lives for others - are the focal point. The obstacles differ from one narrative to the next, but it's clear that Springsteen sees his characters as being on the same heroic journey. Those who once schemed to escape Jungleland are less sure of themselves now, but no less hopeful as they cope with their loneliness and look out over beloved places now reduced to rubble.
Sunday's show offered many chances to appreciate the sweep of Springsteen's career and the ways his songwriting has evolved. He opened with a leaden "The Rising" that talked a good game of transcendence but didn't lift an inch off the ground, and followed that with another new selection, "Lonesome Day," that sat in the same plodding tempo.
Then came "Night," from Born to Run, and suddenly the E Street Band snapped gloriously to life, augmenting Springsteen's account of scrambling soul crusaders with music shot full of anxious energy and the sense that something serious was on the line. Later, the contrast between the earnest and wordy "old" Bruce and the doleful current one was magnified when the exuberant torrent of images that is "For You," from 1973's Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., was followed by The Rising's downcast current-events lamentation "Worlds Apart," which has been rearranged since the start of the tour, and is now notable for a weeping guitar dialogue between Springsteen and Van Zandt.
Springsteen's famously durable power-drill of a voice sounded shot by the halfway point of a show that stretched nearly three hours. But when, during the second encore, he sauntered through a feverishly swinging "Kitty's Back," it was as though this tireless performer had just gotten a second wind.
Even in the earlier scratchy moments, he invested just about every line with serious commitment: He sang "My City of Ruins" as though determined that his words, and the hymnlike responses of his band-cum-street choir, could revive a dying town. He dropped a phrase in the first verse of "She's the One" (almost leading to a rare E Street train wreck), then roared back to deliver ferocious ad libs, as though to atone for the blunder.
And after offering a perfunctory reading of the verses of "Mary's Place" and shouting the band introductions (when he got to saxophonist Clarence Clemons, he said, "You wish you could be like him, but you can't"), he bent at the waist and hushed the band for a soulman's improvised falsetto fantasy on the line "I've been missing you." It was spine-tingling.
In addition to a healthy chunk of The Rising, the set offered generous helpings of early material (including a thoughtful "Streets of Philadelphia," which he played solo on the piano), and a rousing "Born in the U.S.A.," prefaced with a Springsteen speech suggesting that President Bush's talk of war with Iraq deserves "full debate," because "vigilance and responsibility comes with the turf when you're born in the U.S.A." The band handled The Rising's contemplative elegies as though they were delicate sculptures, but for all the finesse on display, the evening's peak moments came when this legendary ensemble opened up and got loose - on the barreling "Ramrod," a surprisingly buoyant "Dancing in the Dark" and the delirious finale, "Kitty's Back."