Still powerful, Springsteen masters the contradictions

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2008-03-18, by: Dave Tianen
His new album is called "Magic" and as Milwaukee found again Monday night at the Bradley Center, magic continues to pulse through the night whenever Bruce Springsteen picks up a guitar and steps on stage.

At 58, Springsteen remains the most powerful of rock and roll front men, charismatic, funny, joyous, virile, and coursing with raw energy. There are many of things Springsteen has done well through the years and three of them in particular are on display in the songs of "Magic." One of them is the ability to take themes that are serious, even somber, and craft them into music that is upbeat and, against all odds, exhilarating. "Radio Nowhere" is on one level an apocalyptic vision of a man trying to find human connection after an unspecified calamity. It's a dark tale, but it's also alienation that rocks.

"Livin' In the Future" is another example. It is, if you look at the lyrics, almost Orwellian, a bleak tale of American civil liberties under attack, but Springsteen grew up on '60s pop and those dark words ride along on a buoyant pop melody. It is, if you will, an exercise in danceable agitation. That ability to frame stark scenes in almost upbeat music, sometimes leads to misunderstanding, but it also buttresses Springsteen's credibility.

Unlike some of the other old guard of rock - Neil Young and Elvis Costello come to mind - Springsteen also has the ability to frame his views in music that remains on some level positive in spirit. For that reason he rarely comes across as a sour scold. Even "Magic" which is the darkest tune on album, and is clearly leveling charges of government by deception, does it without calling names or railing against specific personalities. For that reason as an artist, Springsteen is able to remain convincing as a patriot in dissent.

He's also a master at taking the national or global and shrinking it down into the tales of ordinary men and women who become collateral damage in a geo-political chess game. "Devil's Arcade" is about an ordinary soldier lying in a hospital ward and dreaming of his wife at home. The title character in "Gypsy Biker" could be the son of the fallen soldier in "Born in the USA."

Of course, if Springsteen did nothing but come out and lecture people, however, cleverly and seductively, he probably wouldn't still be filling big arenas like the Bradley. Nudging towards 60, Springsteen still understands the joy of simply rocking your butt off. Monday's set list included "Cadillac Ranch," "Jungleland" and an encore triple blast of "Ramrod," "Born to Run" and the Irish jig "American Land."

As rewarding as it was, Monday probably wouldn't rank with Springsteen's best Milwaukee appearances. For reasons unexplained, the concert started slightly over an hour after it was scheduled to begin. That's a very long wait for even a superstar.

This was also the first time that I've had the sense that time was beginning to slow the E Street Band. Danny Federici has dropped out of the band for health reasons and Patti Scialfa has elected to sit this leg of the tour out to stay home and tend to the kids. More significantly, Clarence Clemons seems like a shadow of himself. The playful interplay between the Big Man and Springsteen seems like a thing of the past. Clemons now moves slowly and deliberately like a man in pain, and often retreats to a lounge chair in the shadows of stage, where he sometimes sits out entire songs.

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2008-03-17 Bradley Center, Milwaukee, WI