The Boss, Walking the Line at FedEx

Washington Post, 2003-09-15, by: Joe Heim
There was little doubt that Bruce Springsteen would play a Johnny Cash song at his concert at FedEx Field Saturday night. The loss of the country music giant, who died Friday, was clearly on his mind as he and the E Street Band -- all dressed entirely in black -- took the stage. Without a word to the crowd, the 53-year-old rocker strummed a few chords on his acoustic guitar, and a melancholy, haunting version of "I Walk the Line" took form.

Cash and Springsteen have much in common, of course. Both are revered by fans not simply for their hits, but for their loyalty, principled beliefs and an ability to craft poetry from everyday events and to find heroism in the lives of ordinary people. And like Cash, Springsteen reaches straight into the hearts of his listeners. He connects with them. He makes them feel he is singing about their lives, giving voice to their restless spirits and their rebellious, romantic dreams.

That he was able to do all of that in a soulless bowl like FedEx Field is nothing short of amazing. The giant video screens helped, of course. Springsteen's every grimace, glower and goofy grin was beamed to even the nether reaches of the upper deck. But technology doesn't explain the fervor and fever of the crowd as it sang along on "Born to Run," stormed through the chorus of "Promised Land" or raised a sea of fists to "Badlands." For a little more than three hours Springsteen and his never-better, self-described "Viagra-taking, lovemaking, legendary E Street Band" created a sense of community and wonder that was as much spiritual celebration as rock-and-roll throwdown.

For all of its soaring moments, though, it is not music meant as an escape. The show was the 110th of the tour for "The Rising," a monumental CD created in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. For the first time on the tour, Springsteen played "Paradise," a chilling glimpse into the psyches of both a suicide bomber and the spouse of a Pentagon victim. He also didn't shy from political issues. "People come to my shows with many different kinds of political beliefs," he said. "I like that, we welcome all." With a short laugh he added, "Well, maybe with the exception of Dick Cheney. I'm not sure about him."

His comments about the war in Iraq were stronger. Before launching into "Born in the USA," he said, "This playing with the truth during wartime has been a part of both the Republican and Democratic administrations in the past and it is always wrong, never more so than when real lives are at stake."

As serious as he is one moment, Springsteen is loosey-goosey the next. He joked with guitarist Nils Lofgren about forgetting the beginning chords to "Pink Cadillac," shimmied with saxophonist Clarence Clemons at center stage, howled at the moon with guitarist Steven Van Zandt during "Ramrod" and, just when it seemed his energy must surely be sapped, reignited the venue with a show-closing combo of "Rosalita" and "Dancing in the Dark."

It was a tour de rock-and-roll force, and knowing Springsteen's admiration for the Man in Black, it's probably not a stretch to suggest the entire concert was a tribute from a living legend to a late one. If so, Johnny Cash certainly would have been proud.

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2003-09-13 FedEx Field, Washington, DC