Songs of Anguish With a Hopeful Beat

New York Times, 2007-10-19, by: Jon Pareles
The Madison Square Garden crowd joyfully sang along with Bruce Springsteen on Wednesday night, not for the first or last time, as he reached the chorus of ?Lonesome Day?: ?It?s all right, it?s all right, it?s all right, yeah.? That?s what the sound of the E Street Band always says, surging past every bit of disillusionment, loss, bewilderment and bitterness in the verses.

The sheer vitality of Mr. Springsteen, 58, belting an entire set of showstoppers straight from the gut and working the stage with his longtime band, provides all the hope the lyrics struggle to find. He?s as serious as any public figure alive, but he leaves audiences euphoric ? a paradox that only grows more profound as he endures.

The music Mr. Springsteen makes with the E Street Band is grounded in the invincible sound of the pop he grew up on, particularly Phil Spector?s Wall of Sound. It echoes the glory days of early rock ?n? roll and an America that ? after World War II and before Vietnam ? was prosperous, confident and outwardly unified.

His favorite chord progressions hark back to doo-wop; so do the saxophone tags of Clarence Clemons. There?s camaraderie in the music and among the musicians. The video screens above the stage would constantly intercut close-ups of the band members with their boss.

Even when those old chords carry lyrics that are far more troubled than those of girl-group love songs, and even when songs expand into anthems and suites (like ?Thundercrack,? the encore Mr. Springsteen revived from his barnstorming live shows in the early 1970s), the music itself harbors no doubts, no second thoughts.

Yet for decades Mr. Springsteen has sung about a world that grinds down dreams and betrays the promise of America. Six years into the second Bush administration, he is open about his political anger. He introduced the title song from his new album, ?Magic? (Columbia), with a comment about our ?Orwellian times,? when ?what?s true can be made to seem like a lie, and what?s lying can be made to seem true.?

Playing the jovial M.C. while the band vamped the intro to another song from the album, ?Livin? in the Future,? he started out naming ?things that we love about America, like cheeseburgers, the Jersey Shore, the Bill of Rights, the Constitution,? and went on to warn about ?rolling back civil rights? and ?sleeping through all those changes that shouldn?t have happened here.?

Concentrating on new songs, the set built into something like an extended argument about the meaning of home. Except for ?Brilliant Disguise,? a song about a troubled marriage that Mr. Springsteen sang in harmony with his wife, Patti Scialfa, there were few old hits before the encores. Instead Mr. Springsteen brought back songs like ?Adam Raised a Cain? and ?The Promised Land.?

Most of the arrangements followed their recorded versions, with a vivid exception: ?Reason to Believe,? a quiet song from ?Nebraska? remade as a harmonica-huffing, John Lee Hooker-style blues boogie, tapping the blues for its alchemy of hard luck into pleasure.

The set?s conclusion was an emotional seesaw: a new ballad, ?Devil?s Arcade,? for a soldier wounded in a desert war, and then ?The Rising,? nothing less than an incantatory ritual of mourning and redemption. ?Last to Die? and ?Long Walk Home? contemplated the current morass.

Then ?Badlands? vowed to push through: with the colossal beat of Max Weinberg?s drums and Gary Tallent?s bass, the chime-topped keyboard chords of Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, Mr. Clemons?s saxophone, Soozie Tyrell?s fiddle and the triple-barreled guitar strumming of Nils Lofgren, Steve Van Zandt and Mr. Springsteen. When the band paused, the audience sang at top volume: all burdens, all misgivings were cast off once again.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will be at the United Center in Chicago on Sunday and Monday.



2007-10-17 Madison Square Garden, New York, NY