Bruce Springsteen, Working His Powerful Magic

Washington Post, 2007-11-13, by: J. Freedom du Lac
A Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert circa 2007 comes with an implicit quality guarantee. While it might not say as much on your ticket, you know going in that the show will have a particularly high base line, given that the group is more or less incapable of proffering a poor live performance. Indifference and creative implosions simply aren't on the list of possibilities; even on their worst nights, the band is at least good.

Sunday night at Verizon Center was not one of those nights. Instead, Springsteen and his longtime band were simply great, performing a well-considered set with heightened intensity and a very clear sense of purpose.

The guiding principle of a Springsteen show is to deliver salvation and hope through song. Forging bonds is critical, as well -- no audience is more important to Springsteen than the one he's currently trying to win over -- and so he set out to do just that with the audience here immediately. "Is there anybody alive out there?" he wondered. " Is there anybody alive out there?" And away he and the E Street Band went with "Radio Nowhere," a chugging new single about searching for connections in a disconnected world.

Performing the first of two sold-out nights at the arena, Springsteen and his nine-piece band delivered a marvelous 24-song set that included some of his greatest hits ("Born to Run," "Dancing in the Dark," "Badlands") but was particularly heavy on songs from "Magic," a new album whose central figures are isolated, alienated and disillusioned. They've been betrayed and deceived, and so there's a riptide of angst tugging at those who occupy this wartime Americana.

Springsteen articulated that in both music and words: The song "Magic," he said, is about how "the truth gets twisted into lies, and lies get twisted into the truth." In introducing "Livin' in the Future," he talked about rendition and wiretapping and a Constitution under "attack." "The E Street Band is here tonight to do something about it!" he said. "We're going to sing about it. We're musicians. It's a start."

His moaning harmonica set the tone for "Gypsy Biker," a haunting tale about a soldier who comes home in a casket. "Last to Die" was a soaring, impassioned antiwar rant. "Devil's Arcade" -- dedicated to Veterans Day -- was a moving, meditative lament from a soldier's lover who lost her man to the military.

Their ideas were big, and the sound was bigger. Sometimes too big: With the audio mix muddy throughout the arena, instrumental parts stuck together and some vocals were swallowed whole. It was a shame, given just how tight the band's playing was, from Nils Lofgren's pealing guitar leads to Max Weinberg's tempo-pushing drumming, so furious yet so steady.

Still, the message rang clear: All is not well in the promised land of America. But all is not lost, either. "At the end of every hard-earned day, people find some reason to believe," Springsteen sang as the band turned "Reason to Believe," one of his stark "Nebraska" songs, into a bluesy stomp.

Springsteen remains one of the most potent live performers in popular music -- largely because he's among the most committed practitioners of the form, draining all of his creative energy every time he's onstage. (And there is much to drain, as his well runs exceptionally deep, even at the age of 58.) He also maintains an unwavering faith in the power of rock-and-roll; in turn, his own power is undeniable. Add the E Street Band to the calculus, and the result can be exhilarating and explosive, whether they're performing Springsteen's trenchant political poetry, his brittle working-class anthems or his rich, youthful narratives.

Sunday's 2-hour 15-minute set touched on all of Springsteen's thematic hallmarks, and even reached deep into his catalogue for a pair of songs from 1973, back before he'd established himself as one of the most gifted and important voices in rock. Among them was the shifty blues-jazz of "Kitty's Back," a most welcome and thrilling stylistic curveball thrown into a marvelous set that was heavy on muscular rockers with overdriven guitars.

There were songs about love and broken hearts, about refusing to grow old ("No Surrender") and the reality of growing even older ("Girls in Their Summer Clothes"), and, in "Night" -- an old warhorse that somehow still sounds fresh -- about restless, romantic young souls whose world is busting at its seams.

Arguing about whether the concert would have been better served if only they'd eschewed such-and-such (off "Magic" in this case) for so-and-so (from the "The River," no?) is something like an Olympic sport among Springsteen die-hards, and those debates have been raging since the last note of the old-time folk finale "American Land" faded inside the arena on Sunday. Which just goes to show you how hard Springsteen and the E Street Band have it: When you're always good, simply being great might not be good enough.



2007-11-11 Verizon Center, Washington DC,