Springsteen Rising - Current Tour Highlights Range of Springsteen?s Shows

South Carolina Free Times, 2002-12-04, by: Kevin Oliver
There is a sense of community in the music of Bruce Springsteen, whether in the increasingly topical albums he has released since the 1970s, or at one of his legendary concerts with The E Street Band. One stunning visual confirmation of this was provided about halfway through his Nov. 16 appearance in Greensboro, N.C. The crowd hugging the stage was predictably pumping their fists in the air from the first song of the set. But as the band kicked into "Badlands" (from the 1978 album Darkness on the Edge of Town), the house lights came up to reveal the entire audience with upraised arms punching the air in unison, all the way up to the top row of the arena. Few performers can inspire the kind of mass adulation afforded Bruce Springsteen, and fewer still have handled it with as much grace and success.

After the events of Sept. 11, much was made of the need for us to return to the comfortable and the familiar, touching base with family and friends in ways the boom years of the ?90s had shunted aside as secondary concerns to cashing in one?s stock options. The tragedy inspired immediate musical tributes, from the tenderly simplistic (Alan Jackson?s "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning") to the overly reactionary (Toby Keith?s "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue" and Charlie Daniels? "hat Ain?t No Rag, It?s a Flag". Leave it to Springsteen to produce The Rising, an album-length response that sidesteps the big political issues and the little, petty hatreds, focusing instead on the very real and personal effects of Sept. 11 on individuals, including many of his neighbors in New Jersey.

Since his 1991 marriage to E Street band member Patti Scialfa, Springsteen and family have spent most of their time in the same central Jersey area where he grew up. If you spend any time in his old haunts of Freehold or Asbury Park, you?ll likely run into someone who?s had a drink with Springsteen at a local sports bar, shook his hand over pizza at Federici?s or seen him jump on stage with a friend?s band at The Stone Pony. It is this grounding in the familiar that has allowed Springsteen to expand his writing scope, from the fanciful characters from his early years on the Jersey Shore to the exquisitely drawn portraits of grief on The Rising. Terry, Hazey Davey and The Magic Rat may have given way to the unnamed protagonists of "Worlds Apart" and "Mary?s Place," but the needs of the people Springsteen writes about remain the same ? to escape from a life that?s either oppressive or unbearable. The difference between songs like "Spirit in the Night" or "Born to Run" and the new disc?s "Waitin? on a Sunny Day" and "Let?s be Friends" is that now the goal is defined, whereas in the past there was satisfaction?however fleeting--in escape itself.

Perhaps the best example of this on The Rising is "Mary?s Place." On the surface, "Mary?s Place" is a throwaway party song in the tradition of "Darlington County," but deeper digging reveals a searching for familiar community in times of trouble. The Sept. 11 references are subtle, but they are there, from the biblical echoes of "Eleven angels of mercy sighin? over that black hole in the sun" to the unanswered question, "Tell me how do you live broken hearted?" The narrator isn?t wallowing in grief and self-pity, however; he is comforting himself with the presence of friends and familiar rituals, a process that comes across like a trip to the altar rail: "Your favorite record?s on the turntable, I drop the needle and pray (turn it up)." In concert, the refrain?s admonition, "Waiting for that shout from the crowd," provokes just that--a roar of approval that threatens to drown out the band.

This level of approval also has had its down side: Long known for his big anthems--from "Born to Run" to "Born in the U.S.A."?Springsteen has struggled over the years with the misinterpretation of his songs. Most famously, "Born in the U.S.A." was briefly appropriated by the 1984 Reagan campaign, which looked no further than the chorus when they used the anti-Vietnam song at several appearances. During his 1996 solo acoustic tour, and again on the reunion tour with the E Street Band in 2000, Springsteen played a radically different, bluesy slide guitar version of the song--perhaps in an effort to distance it from its flag-waving reputation. This time around the band is back to a close approximation of the original album version, but Springsteen has taken to introducing it as "a song for peace."

Once the show opener of choice, "Born in the U.S.A." has now been supplanted in that role by the title track to the new album, "The Rising." It too is a call to arms, albeit the kind of arms that reach out to others and lift them up: "Come on up for the rising, come on up, lay your hands in mine." In the second verse, Springsteen addresses the morning of Sept. 11 directly, in lines that could apply to either the firefighters who responded to the scene or to his own sense of responsibility to tell their story: "Left the house this morning / Bells ringing filled the air / Wearing the cross of my calling / On wheels of fire I come, rolling down here." It is nearly a gospel song, with a rousing refrain sung by a large backing choir, and it sets the stage perfectly for the near-religious fervor of a Bruce Springsteen concert.

Anthems aside, it is in the quieter moments that Springsteen has had his most meaningful impact in recent years. "Philadelphia," his hit title song to the 1993 movie in which Tom Hanks starred as a lawyer stricken with AIDS, was an early indicator of a gentler, more contemplative Springsteen--one who could invest social concerns with a humanity that connected his audience to others. "American Skin," the controversial song written about a police shooting in New York, was a chilling highlight of the reunion tour and subsequent live album. The Rising also boasts several down-tempo tunes that pack a mighty emotional wallop. "My City of Ruins," a song written about the degeneration of Asbury Park, N.J., and performed first at a benefit show there last year, fits into the Sept. 11 theme in an almost eerily prescient way. "Paradise" speaks to the wider issues of race and human perceptions as it tells a group of parallel stories similar to the tales of the Mexican/ American border that filled the 1994 folk-tinged solo disc, The Ghost Of Tom Joad. "You?re Missing" and "Into the Fire" speak most directly of the Sept. 11 tragedy, from the former?s palpable sense of loss to the latter?s stirring tribute to the heroes of the day--those firefighters who went "up the stairs, into the fire."

Though the lion?s share of the songs Springsteen played in Greensboro were drawn from The Rising, there were more than enough hits and obscurities thrown in to satisfy both the casual and rabid fans alike. Highlights included a smoldering take on "The Fuse," a song of sexual longing that seems oddly out of place on the new album. The live version expands on the guitar solos, increasing the tension of the lyrics for a more meaningful result. "Empty Sky," another song explicitly related to Sept. 11, was given a gently inspiring reading with just Springsteen and his wife Scialfa on acoustic guitars and vocals. On CD, "Worlds Apart" has ethereal background vocals and pseudo-worldbeat rhythms, but in concert it takes on a more direct, muscular quality, with its story of cross-cultural romance visually aided by the face-to-face singing of Springsteen and Scialfa into a single microphone.

While Springsteen shows are great communal events, like all concerts, they do end. Even at this stage in his career, however, Springsteen?s two-and-a-half hour shows end a lot later than anyone else?s. One final word of advice: Don?t leave your seats until the roadies start tearing down the stage, because Springsteen and the band usually do at least two encores, and it is in these extra mini-sets that some of the greatest crowd-pleasers are placed. From "Glory Days" and "Born to Run" to "Dancing in the Dark" and "Thunder Road," if it hasn?t been played in the regular set, chances are good it will show up here.

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Bruce?s Records--And What to Expect Live By Kevin Oliver

Despite his high profile and multi-platinum album sales, Bruce Springsteen has released only 15 albums over the past 30 years, including two box sets, two live discs and a greatest hits album. Here?s a quick look back at the studio albums, with some clues as to which of the older songs might pop up in this week?s concert.

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (Columbia, 1973):
Springsteen?s debut showed what a scruffy 24-year-old with a Dylan and Van Morrison fixation could do with a band of Jersey Shore ruffians behind him. Heavy on the wordplay and colorful characters that would remain staples of Springsteen?s work for years to come. "Blinded by the Light" was a minor hit, but went to No. 1 when covered by Manfred Mann. "Lost in the Flood," "Hard to be a Saint in the City" and "For You" have been played so far on this tour.

The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (Columbia, 1973):
An extension of the first album, with the trio of "Incident on 57th Street," "Rosalita," and "New York City Serenade" ranking among the most perfect album sides ever. "Incident" has shown up frequently on this tour, with Bruce plinking out a nice solo version at the piano, to the delight of longtime fans.

Born to Run (Columbia, 1975):
The album that put Bruce on the covers of Time and Newsweek simultaneously, this is his self-described attempt to sound like Phil Spector and sing like Roy Orbison. Springsteen has been drawing heavily from this album, with "Night," "She?s the One,"and of course the title track making multiple appearances in the set and encores.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town (Columbia, 1978):
The darker follow-up to the big hit of Born to Run, Springsteen?s Darkness was influenced by business conflicts with his original management, a lengthy lawsuit and the pressure to follow a career-making album. Songs like "Badlands" and "The Promised Land" have been a good fit next to the new material in concert, and even "Candy?s Room" and "Racing in the Street" have shown up a few times.

The River (Columbia, 1980):
A sprawling double album that worked more times than it didn?t, with many diverse sounds and styles attempted. The title track has been another good fit in some shows, and the rockers like "Ramrod" and even "Cadillac Ranch" have been loads of fun for the band and the audience.

Nebraska (Columbia, 1982):
This stark, acoustic album was recorded at home on a four-track and contains some of the most gripping, powerful material Springsteen has ever written, from the title track?s examination of serial killer Charles Starkweather to the last hope anthem, "Atlantic City." But aside from "Atlantic City," little if any of Nebraska is being performed on this tour.

Born in the U.S.A. (Columbia, 1984):
Bruce?s biggest selling album, with seven out of the 12 songs released as singles. Curiously, several of the other songs, including "Bobby Jean" and "No Surrender," have been given some stage time alongside the hits like "Dancing in the Dark" and the title song.

Tunnel of Love (Columbia, 1987):
This was the beginning of the end for the E Street band, with Springsteen completing most of the album on his own with minimal band contributions. What resulted was an introspective masterpiece on the pitfalls of love--a document of Springsteen?s first marriage disintegrating. Though it contains some of his best songs ("Brilliant Disguise," "One Step Up") few of them are played these days with second wife Patti Scialfa sharing the stage with Springsteeen.

Human Touch/Lucky Town (Columbia, 1992):
Separately released on the same day, these are the much-maligned albums Bruce made with California studio musicians after jettisoning the E Streeters. The result was Boss-lite, with some of Springsteen?s weakest songs coupled with relatively uninspired performances. The ballad "Should I Fall Behind" is among only a handful of songs on either album Bruce has revisited since, and "Human Touch" is, as of this writing, the only one to be played on this tour.

The Ghost of Tom Joad (Columbia, 1995):
This is Springsteen as Woody Guthrie in an almost solo acoustic format that came out oddly flat in comparison to the much less produced Nebraska. There are some interesting stories here, but little melody to hold a casual listener?s interest. Live versions from the acoustic tour (including a Columbia show at the Township Auditorium in December 1996) were much more robust, but so far nothing from this album has surfaced on the current tour.

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