Boss soundly delivers his part of pact

Chicago Tribune, 2003-08-15, by: Greg Kot
There's an unspoken pact in this, the big-bucks era of stadium rock. When folks pay $77 plus service charges to see a big show in a big baseball park, they usually don't want too many surprises.

They want hits, lots of 'em. They want familiarity, because it's reassuring. Most of all, they want to feel like they felt when they first heard the song that was their soundtrack to falling in love, breaking up, making up, getting their driver's license, graduating from high school.

Bruce Springsteen understands. And so he brought "Rosalita" and a few more old friends out to dance Wednesday night at sold-out U.S. Cellular Field, and the place went nuts. He pogo-hopped along with "Dancing in the Dark," while Garry Tallent channeled the bass line from Otis Redding's "Can't Turn You Loose" and the audience made like they were at a Ramones concert, circa 1977.

As required by the Constitution, "Born to Run" was performed. And "Prove It All Night," "Badlands" and "Backstreets" provided comfort food for the many fortysomethings who hooked up with the Boss while Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were in office.

The E Street Band, expanded to a 10-piece juggernaut, also stayed in character. This required Clarence Clemons and Steve Van Zandt to essentially play cartoon versions of their 1978 personas. Clemons now dishes out the same three King Curtis-derived saxophone solos he perfected around the time of "Jungleland," and Van Zandt does more mugging than guitar-playing, leaving the heavy lifting to Nils Lofgren.

Springsteen was required to approximate Elvis transformed into a Jersey shore greaser, a more genial James Brown, a scruffier, leaner Santa Claus. He obliged as he led the band through more than three hours of music-making that ranged from hushed, mournful ballads to shtick-laden party rockers.

But the singer had fun with the role-playing, and his cut-up humor--dropping into Hot Chocolate's "You Sexy Thing" to the amusement of backing singer and wife Patti Scialfa, and musing about square pizza slices while shucking and jiving with Clemons--exuded off-beat charm. Speaking of exuding, Springsteen rained sweat whenever he flailed his arms. He wasn't just working hard to please, he was overjoyed to be entrusted with the job of entertaining tens of thousands of customers. He put that sign flanking the stage advertising sildenafil citrate (aka Viagra) to shame.

Behind him, the E Streeters packed a wallop. Max Weinberg conjured a condor looming over his trap kit, wrists snapping the sticks and punishing the cymbals. Danny Federici brought huge Hammond-organ depth to the background, and Lofgren filled the gaps with subtle intricacy on a variety of guitars. Roy Bittan's tendency to overplay was reined in just enough to appreciate his roots-rock homages by way of St. Louis (Johnnie Johnson) and New Orleans (Professor Longhair).

Though some of the hammier showmanship diluted the impact of the concert's middle hour, Springsteen otherwise drove the band with Joe Strummer-worthy rhythm chops. His solo on the opening "Adam Raised a Cain" set the tone--a one-chord drone that shattered into a scream--and the E Streeters came out blazing. Lofgren's solo was just an appetizer for the seek-and-destroy dance between Springsteen and Weinberg on "Prove It All Night." Even better was a gallop through "My Love Will Not Let You Down" that seemed to peak with a Keith Moon-like drum barrage, only to leap out of its skin for one more charge.

The E Streeters showed the versatility of a mini-orchestra: a cover of Moon Mullican's "Seven Nights to Rock" was straight-up rockabilly, "Working on the Highway" morphed into a back-porch hootenanny with Clemons on zydeco washboard and Federici on accordion, and "Two Worlds" headed East with finger cymbals and Soozie Tyrell's violin.

It was Springsteen's first stadium concert in Chicago since 1985. Much has changed since that Soldier Field spectacle 18 summers ago, which affirmed the singer's ascent to stardom. He's been married, divorced, and remarried. He dismantled his band, then put it back together. He's clung to the glory days in big arena shows, and he's left them behind to play a solo acoustic tour. On Wednesday, he was a grayer and slightly less earnest performer, but his zeal was undiminished. Save for one brief statement about a citizen's duty to question authority, he downplayed the political edge of his arena tour last fall. Instead, he came to make good on the unspoken pact. The customers paid good money, and Springsteen did everything in his power not to let them down.



2003-08-13 Comiskey Park, Chicago, IL