Where the Bands Are

Greasy Lake, 2006-07-09, by: Peter Vandenberghe
I made a vow to myself, long time ago: if Bruce went on tour in 2006, the year I turn forty, I?d go and see him in the States. I?ve followed him around Europe, went to over 25 shows, but I wanted to experience the ?home-crowd-feeling?. Imagine how shocked I was when I found out that Bruce would be touring in 2006 ? with folk-songs! Banjos, fiddles and washing-boards, no Stevie or Nils? Help. Did I really want to do this?

I did. I checked out the Paris show on May 10th, and was convinced: this was Bruce all right. With a different band, with different songs, but with the same energy, the same immense sound, the same swing.

I threw a huge B-day party (with lots of booze and Bruce), my wife surprised me by mailing everybody not to bring presents ? but bring some $$ to help me pay for the trip. Which they did. My wife didn?t want to join me on the trip: ?This is your dream. I?m not crazy enough to see four shows in six days. I?ll stay home with the kids, you go and have fun.? Yes, she?s the best.

So off I went.

Day One: June 20th.
Open All Night

Planes, trains, boats and automobiles: leaving home at 6.30 am local time (that?s 12.30 am ET), catch a plane to JFK, NY. Take a taxi to Penn Station, get on the Amtrak to Philadelphia, get in the taxi to the hotel, throw my luggage in the room and hurry to the ferry. And be completely and utterly surprised by the venue: the Tweeter Center only has three walls? This is new for me: an indoor-outdoor show? I have a lawn ticket, and frankly: I had no idea what that meant before I got here.

Some Euro-American differences: whole families come to this show. Kids of all ages. People drink a lot. People make a lot of noise. And people go beserk when Bruce enters the stage. Wait ? that?s no difference: we drink, make noise and go beserk. We just don?t bring out the whole family. And we don?t eat that much candy. But the kids can use a sugar rush if they have to stay awake for so long.

The show is amazing. The band is way better than they were in Paris: six weeks ago, the banjo-intro before Jesse James was a train wreck. It just didn?t fit. Over here, it does. The crowd is great: everybody?s on his/her feet, singing, clapping, really into it. Not that we have much of a choice ? Bruce makes us do it. For Europeans: Philadelphia is one side of the Delaware river, the Pennsylvania side. The Tweeter Center is the other side of the river (hence the ferry), and it?s in New Jersey. So Bruce announced a ?New Jersey rumble?, made the Phillies sing ?Old Dan Tucker?, then the New Jersey-part do the same, finding out who?s the loudest crowd. I didn?t participate, didn?t want to influence the outcome.

A first for me: Maria?s Bed, which I thought sounded good, and ?Long Black Veil?, a wonderful song. Real beauty. My fave still remains ?Eyes on the Prize?, though ? I?m becoming a big Mark Anthony-fan. ?Rag Mama Rag? was nice ?didn?t hear that one earlier.

And I was surprised by the roar caused by the line ?This New Jersey in the mornin' like a lunar landscape? from Open All Night: this line doesn?t get the same reaction when he sings it back home. His stories between songs are different, too: in Paris, he was Bush-bashing, calling the Prez dirty names. Over here, he?s more on the level ? ?I let the music speak for itself?, he says at one point. The stories are a bit longer, though ? it?s almost as if he doesn?t find the right words. When, during ?Pay me My Money Down?, Joe Grushecky and Southside Johnnie show up on stage, I realise he?s probably been drinking a few beers with his buddies, before the show. That would certainly explain why he starts a song in the wrong key ? Mark Anthony taps him on the shoulder to warn him, and Bruce thanks him for it. ?Starting a song in the wrong key, is bad. But if you continue, you?ll end up in real fucking trouble?.

The venue is great ? it?s hot out on the lawn, I don?t even need a blanket. Right in front of me, I look at the stage into the theater; there?s video screens on the outer wall, and a huge image is projected seperately. To my left, I see the lights of the bridge over the Delaware River. And a bit further left, there?s the nice skyline of Philadelphia. This is a moment to remember ? too bad I couldn?t bring my camera.

After the show, I take the ferry back to the hotel, walk in the bar for a beer and see the Miami Heat win their first NBA-title. I was rooting for the Dallas Mavericks, because they have the only ?Belgian? player in the NBA, Didier M?Benga.

When I get into my room, I can finally call home. It?s 1 am ET, meaning I?ve been on my feet (well, more or less) for 24 hours. This is an original way to beat the jetlag: don?t go to sleep at all, don?t eat a decent meal, don?t think about the time.

Day Two: June 21st.
The Streets of Philadelphia

A no-Bruce day. How am I gonna deal with that? Easy: I take a long walk in Philadelphia?s historical center. I?m surprised by the fact that there is such a thing as a historical center in an American city. People here have the tendency to let a building rot, tear it down and construct a new one ? I?ll see plenty of that in Asbury Park in a few days. But in Philadelphia, buildings and (cobbled) streets are actually preserved. And it looks great, too.

A taxi and a train later, I find myself in Manhattan at noon. It?s hot in this city, way too hot. I still manage to walk around, though ? do my shopping, take some pictures, have a beer in Bleecker Street, find some cooling for my feet on Washington Square (the only reason I come over here is to have a picture of the Friends-setting); I enjoy myself in Central Park and wonder around in the new Apple Store on Fifth.

I have a ticket for the Mets game tonight, but when I walk to 42nd Street to get my bus, the jetlag gets the better of me: I?m dead tired. I decide to walk into a bar and watch some soccer. Don?t remember how the night ends ? too much Bud during Happy Hour. I?m just glad I end up in my own bed in my own hotel room. By the way: the Gershwin Hotel, on E 27th Street is a great place.

Day Three: June 22nd.
American Land

This is something I?ve been looking forward to: a show in the Garden! The magical Madison Square Garden, home of the Knicks! I wonder if Patrick Ewing?s still wondering around, or did he finally, really, quit?

I get to the Garden early, to chat with some people who wait in line to get into the pit, pick up my ticket at Will Call, and try to find out where Bruce might enter for the sound-check. But it?s too hot, again, and I?m hungry. So I end up in an Irish bar just around the corner, to have a burger and some beer.

I?m not the only one with this brilliant idea: more and more Bruce-fans show up and have the same diet I?m having. Burgers and beer, can?t go wrong.

It?s fun, in this bar (Molly?s Wee Pub or something): an Irish bar in America, with a Hispanic barkeeper and a crowd of Croatians and Australians watching the World Cup Soccer. I?m fixed on the other screen, where Brazil beats Japan. I think about taking on the job of explaining the rules of soccer to Americans, but I give up on the idea after five attempts at the offside-rule. There just is no way of explaining this to women or Americans. Sorry.

The Garden is everything I expected it to be: it?s huge, huge and huge. I have a seat up in section 226. Surprises: waiters walk around with trays filled with glasses of? champagne. Crazy New Yorkers. In front of me, a couple with their 5-year-old boy; next to me a mum with her 7 year-old son. The kid?s fave song: Pay me My Money Down. Neither of them is going to last so long: they?ll both be asleep halfway through the show.

Bruce starts with a surprise: American Land. A song about immigration, about cultural differences. Makes me think about all the nationalities in Molly?s Wee Pub, earlier today. Nobody seems to know where song came from: is it a new, original Bruce? A Pete Seeger-song? Something else? Even Backstreets? in the dark on this one. I believe it?s the Pete Seeger Song that Bruce?s changed the lyrics from. Maybe he?s found some older lyrics in an obscure songbook, somewhere ? like he seem to have done for ?When the Saints?. The Boss reads books ? kids, did you hear this? Stop watching TV, start reading books!

Anyway: the New York audience is supposed to be one of the toughest ones. ?People just go there because they want to say they?ve been there. They get in late and leave early, and they?re never really into the music,? somebody in the line explained earlier. Well, that?s not the experience I?m having today. The crowd goes wild. On each and every show, the band?s been playing this game at the end of ?Pay me??: everybody leaves the stage but Larry Eagle (drums) and Art Baron (tuba). Finally, Bruce comes back on to take Larry with him, while Art plays the rockin? tuba to make the crowd sing-along. In Camden, they changed the routine and had Southside play the harp for ? like for ever. Tonight, Art is taken from the stage by? his mother! He looks really surprised.

But that?s just entertainment, right. What really matters is: the music. I?m close to tears when Bruce sings ?Bring them Home?, all alone. Well ? not all alone: the whole audience sings it with him. This is a great moment. Just as the next song is ? My City of Ruins. We know he wrote this song for and about Asbury Park, but ever since The Rising, people seem to think it?s about New York. Especially New Yorkers. I?d say: let them think it, let them claim that song. They deserve it. And they sing along perfectly. This has been another surprise during this tour, so far: people sing along, they don?t shout with the music ? like we all like to do during E-Street band concerts. No, this is more like singing, in harmony, almost. Well, kinda?

Day Four: June 23rd
Atlantic City

Since one turns forty only once in his life, I?ve decided to rent a cool car: the new Mustang Convertible. Sounds great, but neither Avis nor Budget have the car I?ve ordered weeks ago. I?ll have to do with a silver Sebring convertible. What the hell, as long as it gets me to Red Bank, NJ?

It does ? and I?m surprised, again. All I?d seen from NJ so far, was NJ City, Newark and whatever it is you see out of Manhattan. That means: grey, industrial, dusty space. But look here now: the Garden State picked the right name after all. I?m driving through woods, I see real, well-kept gardens surrounding houses (not just some kind of lawn).

I?m meeting with Stan Goldstein and his wife Jean in Red Bank. They wrote a book, ?Rock ?n? Roll Tour of the Jersey Shore? and organize Bruce-trips. I?m joining them on such a trip this afternoon ? together with Rhonda from Tampa, Fla and a beautiful women and tatood, loud men. Or: a bunch of Spanish and British fans. All on the same bus, all following the same route: Red Bank (Count Basie Theater), Sea Bright, Long Branch, Asbury Park. We have lunch cooked by Obie, Bruce?s former cook and still number One fan (I thought I was, but no?), and I meet Vinnie ?Mad Dog? Lopez, the drummer of Steel Mill and the E Street Band, on the first 2 records. Vinnie is a lovely guy, tells amazing stories about the old days and sells his CD: Steel Mill Retro. Turns out he got the rights from Bruce to record and play the old Steel Mill-stuff live, he?s gotten a band together and he enjoys doing every bit of this.

AP is a turn-off. Well, kind of. It?s an ugly city, in desperate need of some sound city planning and clever thinking about what to do next. Convential Hall is a fantastic venue, but most windows are broken ? looks like they?re just letting it go down the drain, so somebody can finally tear it down and build some new, cold condo?s on the boardwalk. The Casino, on the other side of the boardwalk, burnt out ? and nothing?s been done with the building since. I?m amazed people have so little respect for their heritage. People come from all over the world, to see where the Boss rehearses and does ?his? thing. A global artist like Bruce picks this place to rehearse for weeks, he does his try-out concerts here. Everybody played here: the Stones, the Who, Jimmy Hendickx, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Janis Joplin (Bruce was there. He was 21, backstage, watched her do an encore. She came off stage, saw him, grabbed him, and said: ?where you?ve been all my life??. He pushed her back on stage, told her to do another song and ran. She came off again, ran after him, never found him. She died. As told by Vinnie).

And now, nobody even changes a broken window pane. Nobody paints the woodwork. Nobody cleans the darkened walls. Why not invest some money in the Hall right now, make it shine like brand new, so that it can be around for another fifty years? In other words: do what Bruce?s done to the Pete Seeger songs?

The ?house where Bruce wrote Born to Run, on the piano in the front room?, or the signpost E Street ? 10th Avenue ?though it?s not the tenth Avenue from the song, probably?; or ?the bridge where Bruce drove over when he thought about the song Empty Sky? or ?the place where Bruce had hot dogs two years ago?? it?s nice enough, but it comes a bit too close to unhealthy obsession. I mean: is this still healthy? Next we?ll be looking at a fish that wasn?t caught by Bruce last time he fished here, in 79, or looking at a crack in the pavement that Bruce nearly missed when he walked here last Summer?

The Stone Poney is a definite highlight ? a great place to spend hours, days, weeks. Wish I could be back for Southside, or Grushecky, later this Summer. But I ran out of friends, or my friends ran out of money, can?t remember which one came first? There is a very nice lady in Convention Hall, and she lets me, with four or five fans from Spain, into the Hall. She and her friend take care of the catering for the band that?s currently rehearsing in the Paramount. They can?t believe we?re actually on a tour of AP, just to see Bruce-sights. And she probably won?t go to the shows in Holmdel, this weekend: ?I?ve been hearing these same old songs, day after day, one long month long?, she says. ?We did their catering during the rehearsals. I have to say: the Bruce-crew is by far the friendliest of all. They also all drive to this place by themselves ? no armoured, streched limo?s for the Boss. He?s a real nice guy.?

The Upstage is a legendary club, explain Stan and Vinnie. ?Back in the sixties, you just came in, plugged in your guitar and started jammin??, says Vinnie. ?That?s how things were done here ? the best bands played here, and the best musicians.? I didn?t ask how or where he plugged in his drums ? because it doesn?t really matter: the Upstage has been closed for years, will probably be torn down, and a parking garage will be built here. I can?t believe it. Worldwide, people are still sad because The Cavern in Liverpool once redecorated, so nobody can see exactly how The Beatles performed their first gigs. But over here, the clubs and halls are still here ? they?re just not looked after.

After a long, long day, with an information overload, I drive down to Atlantic City. I kinda regret booking a room there now, because it?s late and I?m tired and I have no idea what I?m going to do there. But then, some strange things happen?

I put on my iPod as I drive out of Red Bank, shuffle mode on. I get off the Garden State Parkway onto the Atlantic City XPSWY, where you see the horrible Atlantic City skyline. And what song comes up? Right: Atlantic City. After a late dinner and a walk on the boardwalk plus casino?s, I get back in my room, turn on the TV ? and what?s on, on some public channel? The 76 Hammersmith concert. Really. These must be signs, telling me I had to come to Atlantic City. Unfortunately, they haven?t told me what to do there.

Day Five: June 24th
Where the Bands Are

Back to AP we go. One thing I didn?t get a chance to do yesterday, that needs to be done. All friends and familie who sponsored me, will receive the Greetings From AP ? postcard, sent from AP. Finding such cards has to be a piece of cake. I mean: it?s the single most famous thing in the city, I?ve seen large prints in the Stone Poney and on the Casino wall. But? Nah. I enjoy the drive along the shore, rooftop down, through nice cities and towns, passing great houses. Just before I ride into AP, the rain starts pouring down. And up goes the roof again.

Through the massoon, I run from boardwalk store to boardwalk store, looking for the world-famous postcards. No such luck. A lady in Convention Hall (where some kind of Jazz Fest is on its way) suggest I go to Cookman Ave, to a small store, Wish you Were Here. And yes: they have the postcard. They even have sixty of them. Way to go!

On Route 18 to Colt?s Neck, where I booked a room. Because of the heavy the rain, traffic actually stops on Route 18. F***. And once I get to Colt?s Neck, I can?t see the signs along Route 34 through the curtain of water, so I can?t find the hotel. Just my luck. I make it to the PNC, though, where the Will Call line is much longer than anybody cares for.

We discuss this band and this tour, while waiting. The longing for the E Street Band can be heard all over. But people who?ve seen the Seeger show before, are convinced that this is a great show.

I prefer Bruce re-inventing himself every time again, rather than turning into some kind of an oldies-act. Just think back: he did it in 82, when the whole world was convinced he was the best rock ?n? roll act ever. He?d been touring the globe, doing his thing every night, preaching the prisoner or rock ?n? roll-idea. And what did he do, when everybody expected a new River? He gave us Nebraska. Waw. 84 gave us Born in the USA, the commercial break-through? followed by Tunnel of Love, again something different. Right after the big reunion with the E Street Band and the Greatest Hits-album, he released? Tom Joad. And toured solo. And after The Rising and the huge successes of the Rising-Tour, he went solo again, with Devils and Dust. And now there?s this thing.

And this thing is, in my opinion, well, it?s Springsteen. Think about what he did to rock ?n? roll: he turned the drum-bass-guitar-vocals (with the occasional keyboards) into a wall of sound-affair: lots of guitars, two keyboards, lots of drums, horns ? you name it, he wanted it. The Rising Tour gave us four guitars (if you count Patti); one bass; one drums; two keyboards; one sax; one violin.

Look at folk the Seeger way: one singer, one banjo, one harp. And maybe, sometimes, some drums, organ and bass. Bruce gave it the wall of sound-look&feel again: four guitars (counting Patti), steel guitar, banjo, bass, horns (4 to 6 of them), keyboards, two violins, three backing vocals,?

The PNC-gig in Holmdel went great. I had a fantastic seat (in 104, if you must know): left-front of the stage, about tenth row. During ?Old Dan Tucker?, when I saw him coming in our direction, I sprinted to the stage, waited? and he shook my hand. Wanted to ask him out for a beer, but he was otherwise engaged?

Tonight, he has a second go at Marias Bed ? and I still like it. It doesn?t add much to the record version, but hey ? it is (and always will be) a great song. And it wasn?t on the setlist, originally: he did it ?because that girl over there wants it. Bet your name?s Maria, right??

Hey, why do girls get all requests? (Answer: if you don?t like that, go and see Pet Shop Boys, they do Boys Only-requests).

?How Can a Poor Man? is getting better every time I hear it. And I love what he does to Ramrod. And ?When the Saints? still sends shivers up my spine. And? man, am I happy.

Day Six: June 25th
Waitin? on a Sunny Day

Let me tell you how we, Belgians, go to a concert. We get in our cars too late, hurry to the theater or the open-air venue where the concert is. We get all worked up on the way because everybody left late. We get stuck in traffic on the parking lot, or we leave our cars in some strange, illegal spot ? wondering during the whole show if the car?ll still be there later on. We run to the gates, curse at security, have one or two Belgian beers we feel are overprized (because they charge us like 3 dollar a beer), we enjoy the show, and we hurry home. We do the same with soccer games.

Now the New Jersey-crowd? They go out early, park their car as close as they can to the venue, get cooler boxes out of their trunks, a bbq, table and chairs, and start party-ing. Amazing. Everybody?s happy, everybody?s drunk. Everybody?s having fun. And since it stopped raining, even the people with lawn tickets are happy. Because yes, it?s one of those again: the PNC is an open theater: a stage with a roof, a lawn surrounding it, and consession stalls surrounding that. Beer: 7 USD. I repeat: one beer is seven dollar. And it?s not even a Belgian beer.

There?s one negative side-effect to that bbq-ing in the afternoon: not everybody sobers up before the show begins. Meaning there?s a lot of screaming, cursing and yelling going on at inappropriate times. Wasn?t my problem Saturday, won?t me my problem tonight. Hey ? I told one of these MSG-waiters to shut up, after he yelled ?champagne!? into my ear, in the middle of ?Eyes on the Prize?. So I can handle some drunk New Jersey Shore-fans. All I have to do, is call security, and they boot them?

Less luck with the ticket today: I?m in 401. That?s way back, not-covered, like two meters before the lawn-fence. Meaning there?s a 50 USD-difference between those two meters. Not that I care. I got ?Long Black Veil? again. Southside was in the audience again, as were Bruces kids. I got the greatest encore ever: ?The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze?. I got everything I wanted. Great songs, great musicians. Great crowd. The beer was too expensive, that?s true. And I don?t get the indoor-outdoor-mix: why can?t they make a choice? It?s either a closed, indoor venue, or it?s an outdoor festival-kind-of-thing. But it?s not my problem anymore. The American tour is closed and over and done with. I?ll be seeing him again in Antwerp, in November. Maybe he?ll take me up on that beer, then.

Day Seven: June 26th
Soul Driver

And off we are to AP, again. I need stamps for those 60 postcards. And the cards need to get posted in AP. Don?t want to insult my friends with an AP-postcard that?s been posted in Brooklyn, do I?

It?s raining, again. The two Norwegian guys who stayed at the same hotel, have also enjoyed the show. They move on to Atlantic City. I advize them to stop by AP for a last Windmill hot dog ? they?re nothing special, but Bruce supposedly likes them. And who knows, they might run into him.

No such luck for me. At JFK, I run into Mister T. You know, the boxing guy from Rocky 78 and the A-Team. He?s short, has a beard and wears some funky pijama?s. Strange people, those stars.