Springsteen urges city to heal its racial rift

Cincinnati Post, 2002-11-13, by: Rick Bird
The return of festival seating to Cincinnati passed the test, Bruce Springsteen challenged the city on its racial issues, and fans got another stirring performance Tuesday night from the man who practically invented the arena rock concert.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band played a nearly sold out U.S. Bank arena opening his show with a passionate speech about racism, seemingly lending his moral support to local groups who had urged him to boycott the city because of its perceived racial injustices.

"As a young man I saw (racism) up close in my own hometown. While there have been many improvements since then, the core fact of racism continues to this day at all levels of our society," Springsteen said before playing a note.

Meanwhile the venue saw its first festival seating at a rock show since the 1979 Who concert tragedy. Eleven people died in a crush that night when doors opened late for the crowd of 20,000 and concert-goers surged into the building, then known as Riverfront Coliseum.

The return of limited festival seating Tuesday came off without a hitch. Along with 15,000 reserved seats, 1,800 general admission floor seats were sold for the show. "We had advance entry at quarter till six and that went very smoothly with 300 people. They were wrist- banded and searched," said police spokesman Jim Whalen. "The regular doors opened at six right on time. People entered peacefully with no problem."

Police reported only one arrest ? a 50-year-old man who was charged with assault after biting another man on the thumb during an argument.

Most of those in the general admission area on the arena floor seemed to like the festival seating atmosphere.

"Chairs just get in the way of a Springsteen show anyhow. We don't need them," said Cathy Smith of Hyde Park.

"I think the (festival seating) issue was a little overblown. This is a mature audience," said Jack Derr of Walnut Hills. "It's working fine. A lot of time has passed, and I think city can handle this."

Those urging a boycott of Cincinnati over the city's racial issues had a presence with a couple dozen protesters at entrances around the building. Boycott groups had urged Springsteen to cancel his date.

On stage, Springsteen acknowledged he had been contacted by several groups "who are trying to combat the segregation, economic apartheid and racism that exists."

While he didn't address why he chose to ignore the boycott, Springsteen drew cheers from the crowd when he said, "I wrote a song a couple of years ago about what happens when we stop communicating with one another and when that noncommunication becomes systematic."

Springsteen then opened the night with his powerful song "American Skin (41 Shots)" ? about the New York City police shooting of an unarmed immigrant ? dedicating it to "not just Cincinnati but for the country we'd like to see our children grow up in."

Springsteen has rarely played the song on his current tour.

The soul of his set were the several songs that followed as Springsteen drew heavily from his new album "The Rising." It is an album in which Springsteen tries to come to grips with the heart-wrenching post-Sept. 11 emotions. Indeed the first six songs he played, including "The Rising," "Lonesome Day" "Ties that Bind" "Empty Sky" and "You're Missing," packaged around his classic "Darkness on the Edge of Town," were a moving testament to the healing power of rock 'n' roll.

Overall the show had a very different serious feel than his past tours known for a celebration of his "Born to Run" gospel. Springsteen tried to break the brooding mood with his optimistic and bittersweet new anthem, "Waitin' on a Sunny Day." But after the intense opening tunes, it is hard to suddenly switch to a house party. And that may have been the only minor problem with what was another stunning wall-of-sound set from the man who still puts on the best rock 'n' roll concert in the land.

Springsteen long ago moved from writing about girls and cars. He's now a 53-year-old who writes about issues that matter, but still setting those adult themes in what he does best?rock anthems.

The show had its lighter moments, as Springsteen seemed to laugh at himself after failing to spin his guitar around his neck. He got it right a second time. He briefly slipped trying to leap on to the piano.

They are rock stunts he could have done in his sleep 20 years ago.

The crowd got a good laugh when Springsteen introduced beloved saxman Clarence Clemons, "You wish you could be like him, but you can't," he said. "There's only one Clarence."

Clemons had surgery a week ago for a detached retina, which postponed three dates on the tour until the Cincinnati show.

And the Boss played a request, grabbing a sign from the audience asking for "I'm a Rocker" and grinning at his band to see if they remembered it.

They had no problem reeling off the roadhouse rocker. Long-time fans say he hadn't played the song in concert since the mid '80s.

Springsteen closed the night with another subtle political comment on the current war mood in the country. His encore included "Born in the USA" which he sang far angrier ? with thrashing metallic guitars ? than the original sweeter- sounding version.

He reminded fans it is above all an anti-war protest song introducing it by saying, "I wrote this song about the Vietnam War. We play it tonight as a prayer for peace."

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2002-11-12 US Bank Arena, Cincinnati, OH