Gothenburg, July 28: the night the world shifted

Published 2012-07-29
By Karsten S. Andersen

In my 24 years of seeing Bruce Springsteen live, it seems like part of what I’ve been doing is to try to get back to that night in 1988 when the 19-year-old me stood under the starry night in a stadium in Copenhagen and watched as “Twist and Shout” came to an end with 45,000 people dancing as one communal soul.

Before last night I had tried to reach the same emotional heights more than 50 times. With the E Street Band, solo, the Sessions Band, and that other band. Not once have I left disappointed. Many times I’ve left drenched in sweat and wiped out after being through the E Street Band rock ‘n’ roll grinder. Or on a cloud of spiritual insight and elevation after an acoustic show. And many of those times my first spontaneous reaction has been: “Best. Show. Ever”. It didn’t matter so much if it was actually true from whatever criteria you could measure it by. What mattered was that Bruce could still give me that feeling, even if, in retrospect, I would still know in the back of my mind that, “No, that first show in 1988 still had something more”.

Well, last night was different. Last night was on a different scale. It is the first time I can confidently say that my experience in 1988 has been surpassed. If it had happened 2000 years ago, there would still be religions based on it. There might be 2000 years from now.

You know, if it had all just taken place on a nice and warm summer evening like Friday’s show, it may not quite have reached the same level. It was the flood of rain that preceded it that brought it from being merely epic to biblical. The lower the lows, the higher the highs. And standing outside the stadium in that downpour was some of the lowest I’ve ever been. Crammed together in the queue for the pit, with hundreds of other people, not being able to move, while cascades of rain poured down on you, and all you could do was simply lower your head and take it. It gave me flashbacks to some possible previous life in the trenches of Verdun during World War 1. I was seriously questioning myself and what the hell I was doing there. I came close to vowing that this would be my last trip to see Bruce. Little did I know that by the end of the evening I would feel that I would have gone through a hundred of those downpours to be at that show.

By the time the show started - more than 45 minutes late, which didn’t help with our spirits - the rain had quit. Not that it made a huge difference. I was already soaked from top to bottom.

But from then on it only got better.

It’s not quite a rule, but for a show to be epic, it helps if it contains “Lost in the Flood”. Just think of Madison Square Garden on July 1, 2000. Last night, despite the weather, I had not seen that song coming at all, but when Bruce showed the request sign to the band, it made such perfect sense. Of course he was gonna play “Lost in the Flood”. Because that’s what we were. And the song was tremendous. Powerful and ominous, and with that explosive guitar solo that would leave even a heavy metal fan gasping for mercy.

Another guitar moment was the duel between Bruce and Steve during “Saint in the City”, a first for me. It’s so much noisier and raw and dangerous than what it sounds like on bootlegs. It was an awesome flashback to low-ceilinged rock joints in the mid-Seventies and a hungry, desperate band that played to survive more than to have fun.

Before last night’s show, “Frankie” was on my personal top five list of Bruce songs. It is beyond me how it could remain unreleased for so long, and so un-played after its release. Because of that, it was a song I would rarely mention among my wishes for songs to experience live. Because I knew there wasn’t a chance in hell it would happen. So I would usually just say full band “Incident”. In reality though, if I had the choice I would choose “Frankie” over “Incident” any day. I just didn’t think I had the choice. The song has meant so much to me over the years. More than any other Bruce song, it just describes what it’s like to be me. Its quietness on the outside and sparkle on the inside, and so full of light and dreams and hope. While we were standing outside the stadium in the rain, we could faintly hear it being soundchecked. That brought our hopes up, of course, but the way everything else was going, I figured it was just a way to add insult to injury to be so close to experiencing “Frankie” live and then probably see Bruce grab some sign for “Bobby Jean” and play that instead.

But he did play it. And it was glorious. It wasn’t just rattled off like some unrehearsed, spur of the moment thing, as is sometimes the case with songs that look good on a setlist, but in reality don’t quite live up to what you thought. It was a fully realized new arrangement, complete with a beautiful intro and a sweet guitar solo at the end. And in the middle of it, Bruce paused between two verses and looked out in the audience where thousands and thousands of cell phones had been lit up, and he told a story about those summer nights when you sometimes end up alone and you sit there on the porch staring into the night watching the fireflies. It was the most magical moment I’ve ever experienced at a Bruce show. I was completely mesmerized and tears started flowing.

After “Frankie” he could have played “Bobby Jean” twenty times and it would still have been the best show I’d ever seen (no offense to those of you who like “Bobby Jean”). But of course, “Frankie”, although my personal highlight, was still just a component of the special night it was turning into.

And on it went. “The River” was a perfect companion piece for “Frankie”. “Because the Night” had an even longer guitar solo than usual from Nils. And then “Shackled and Drawn”, the song from Wrecking Ball that I enjoy the most live, with Bruce enacting hundreds of years of labor oppression by the mere way he stomps around on the stage like some mythological colossus channeling the voices of slaves, coal miners and factory workers throughout the centuries. I could watch that all night and be fulfilled.

It says something about a show when “Backstreets” is played and it’s not even in the top three highlights. And it wasn’t for lack of passion, though. It may in fact have been the best “Backstreets” I’ve ever heard in person. Not quite “Sad Eyes”, he still included a sweet interlude that made you hold back your breath. He was in the zone, and he brought 60,000+ people with him. Altogether, the Swedish crowd - at least where I was standing - was amazing. Quiet and attentive when called for, loud and participating when that was required. Bruce may tell all crowds that he loves them, and he probably does, but there’s no question that in the case of the Swedes, it’s a special bond. As a Danish person with an inferiority complex to all things Swedish, I hate to say it, but it’s the truth, and for a good reason ‘cause they’re the best.

At this point every song gels, and even those that are not favorites take you higher and higher. No one in the crowd has any doubt at this point that they’re witnessing something extraordinary even on the Bruce scale. “Thunder Road” with its blast of horns at the end that has greatly revitalized it; the frantic drum breakdown during “Born in the USA”, Bruce urging Max on to create the most jaw-dropping, wonderful noise since all matter of the universe decided to split ways 13 billion years ago; “Born to Run” that is just incapable of getting old and stale, and you yourself who will never tire of punching your fist in the air and screaming out “Tramps like us, baby we were born to ruuuun” at the top of your lungs.

And then, after the obligatory but always emotional “Tenth Avenue”, the moment that will ensure this show a place among the top Bruce shows of all time. More than 50 shows into the Wrecking Ball Tour, the stars and planets were aligned. The night sky within the rim of the stadium suddenly turned into Clarence’s face watching from above. Some say “Jungleland” should have been retired for good. I say you weren’t there last night or you would have felt it too. How all of a sudden Clarence’s death seemed to have happened for a higher purpose, so that the baton could be passed on and thereby symbolizing how nothing dies, and we all stay alive as long as what we do either shifts the world like an earthquake, like Bruce does every night, or nudges some little tiny piece of the universe in another direction, such as we all do. The whole purpose of the tour, and possibly of our existence, was summed up in that saxophone solo. And if you think Clarence wouldn’t have burst with pride over his nephew, you’re crazy. And after it was over, Jake appropriately raised the saxophone up towards that face in the sky and thanked him, his uncle, the Master of the Universe, the Big Man, Clarence Clemons.

“Twist and Shout” followed, not because we needed more, but just because you can’t end a show after affirming life the way we had just witnessed it. Life spurs more life, and we got the longest “Twist and Shout” I’d seen since that night in 1988, a version that just kept going and kept going, until it became a world of its own and twisting and shouting was all there was. Ullievi Stadium didn’t break like in 1985, but if it had, if all the walls had come crumbling down at that moment, I don’t think anyone in the crowd would have stopped dancing.

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Those bloody hippies and their hippie music

Published 2012-07-15
By Karsten S. Andersen

You would think it was 1967 and not 2012 when the police cut the sound of Bruce's show at the Hard Rock festival in Hyde Park last night. The show had run 30 minutes past the curfew, which to Bruce is standard procedure, but in London rules are rules. "Twist and Shout" had just ended. Paul McCartney had been on stage for it, joining Bruce for the first time ever in an intercontinental summit of rock 'n' roll legends. But even the presence of perhaps Britain's biggest rock star wasn't enough to make the London police show a little sense of propriety. The plug was pulled before Bruce could even say "thank you" and "good night", let alone play "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out", which was probably still left on the agenda.

And so a show that had the potential to be one for the ages just sort of fizzled out into the London evening sky. Sure, it will still be remembered, but maybe not entirely for the reasons that everybody thought when Paul McCartney joined the E Street Band six songs into the encores and duetted with Bruce on "I Saw Her Standing There".

Steve Van Zandt for one didn't take it lightly to be interrupted during that historical moment. His tweets after the show leaves nothing to your imagination when describing how he - and probably the rest of the band - felt. However, once the anger has settled, I'd be surprised if Bruce and Steve won't have a good laugh and reminisce about the times when these things last happened, oh, about 40 years ago when the Asbury Park police were more than happy to get an opportunity to shut up the local hippies' intolerable noise.

Well, this wasn't Asbury Park, it wasn't the Sixties, and the people on stage weren't hippies, but two of the world's biggest celebrities. Which to those of us who weren't present and weren't victims of this coitus interruptus only makes it easier to laugh at. One thing is certain: there won't be another official Hyde Park DVD. There probably also won't be another Hyde Park show, but to most UK fans that's not a great loss. Especially after this.

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Bruce played Prove It All Night with '78 guitar intro... Why is that a big deal?

Published 2012-05-18
By Karsten S. Andersen

The Bruce world woke up this morning to a sensation. No, Clarence wasn't resurrected from the dead. No, Electric Nebraska wasn't released. No, Bruce didn't reunite Steel Mill. So what happened? Well, Bruce decided to spend a few minutes of the show last night in Barcelona playing a guitar solo as an intro to "Prove It All Night". But why is that a sensation? He usually plays several guitar solos during his shows. Not to mention that Nils Lofgren makes stadiums go wild with his equilibristic guitar playing during songs like "Youngstown" and "Because the Night".

The guitar intro to "Prove It All Night" was first heard at the first show of the Darkness Tour in 1978. In the beginning it was hardly worth mentioning. It was over before it really got started. But during the course of the tour it evolved into a frantic, majestic 3-4 minute guitar exhibition that made audiences drop their jaws wherever the tour went. And thanks to several live radio broadcasts that were turned into classic bootlegs, the song and thereby the solo reached an ever-growing audience of Bruce fans all over the world. The piercing, and yet incredibly melodic solo became the symbol of a tour that by many is regarded as the highlight of Bruce's career... which, to a lot of us, is pretty much the same as saying the highlight of music itself.

The story of the "Prove It All Night" '78 guitar intro is not complete without mentioning the piano part that preceded and accompanied it. Roy Bittan's foreboding piano notes were the perfect expression of how something dangerous and yet both spiritually and physically arousing was about to happen. After a couple of minutes of this, in its own right, more and more accomplished piece of music, he would settle into an inciting groove while Bruce got himself and the Fender Esquire ready. That moment, just before Bruce's first scorching touch of the strings, just before the explosion, was almost as exciting as the guitar solo itself. A solo which was just the first of three raging guitar assaults that the, on the surface, slightly insignificant song would be the launching pad for, before its climactic ending 7-8 minutes later.

The "Prove It All Night" guitar intro was played a few times during the first part of the River Tour in 1980, but until last night it was firmly connected to the Darkness Tour. Last night's resurrection of the solo is an opportunity for several new generations of Bruce fans to get a sense of living in legendary times. To finally be able to stand up to those oldtimers who experienced the Darkness Tour first hand and refute their indulgent shrugs that, better than words could ever do, made it clear that "yeah, Bruce may still be pretty good, but you should have seen him in '78".

Time will tell if the "Prove It All Night" intro is back to stay or if this was a one-off experience. As great as that moment was, no one who heard it can deny that it would need a lot more work to come close to the Winterland or Passaic '78 versions. But maybe this was just Bruce teasing his fans and we'll never hear another attempt, or maybe he'll get serious about bringing it back and once again let it evolve into perfection.

Whatever the case, what happened last night was magic whether you were at Estadi Olimpic or not, and the first night in Barcelona of the 2012 Wrecking Ball Tour has already secured its place in the Bruce history books. Dreams came true, and it was more than nice.

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New North American leg announced for the fall

Published 2012-04-13
By Karsten S. Andersen

The Wrecking Ball Tour will continue beyond the European leg that ends in July. The news doesn't come as a surprise, but it's still nice to get confirmation. On August 18 Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band will kick off the new North American leg at Gillette Stadium in Boston, MA, After that the tour takes a swing to Canada with shows in Toronto and Moncton before returning to the eastern half of fhe US with shows in Vernon, NY, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington DC, and three shows at Giants Stadium's successor, MetLife Stadium.

So far those are all the shows that have been announced, and fans west of the Mississippi have once again reason to be disappointed. Hopefully the announced shows are only the beginning, but no word as of yet.

See the complete Wrecking Ball Tour schedule.

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Nebraska hits the theater

Published 2012-04-09
By Karsten S. Andersen

Few Springsteen albums have served as inspiration to other artists as much as Nebraska. In 1991 Sean Penn used the storyline of “Highway Patrolman” to create the movie The Indian Runner; 14 years later, in 2005, author Tennessee Jones wrote a collection of short stories - Deliver Me From Nowhere - based on the album; and now Bruce’s first solo album will come alive as a theatrical performance..

Like Jones’ collection of short stories, the performance borrows its title from “Open All Night” although with a slight variation. It’s called “Deliver Us From Nowhere: Tales From Nebraska” and consists of 10 short plays that each represent a song from Nebraska. It’s the Tympanic Theatre Company of Chicago that is behind the show, including artistic director and long-time Bruce fan Daniel Caffrey. The production will open on April 26 at the Right Brain Project in Chicago and run through May 20.

The plays are written by 10 different playwrights, and all 10 plays will be enacted during the course of the evening. If you’re hoping to hear Bruce’s songs, you are unfortunately out of luck. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be music. A bunch of new songs have been written that will be performed by live musicians during the show. The songs are inspired by the plays, which in return were inspired by Nebraska. Confused? Don’t be. The long and short of it is that the dark atmosphere of the Nebraska album will be brought to life right there on a stage in front of you, with real actors, musicians, and audience.

If you want more information about the performance, you can find it here, and if you’re already convinced, tickets can be bought here.

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Meet Dr. Zoom & the E Street Boom

Published 2012-03-27
By Karsten S. Andersen

Carter Bernhard probably didn’t care too much about setlist or band lineup when he attended last night’s show at the TD Center in Boston. Prior to the show he had spent an hour backstage with Bruce as a result of the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s life-affirming efforts. Not that Bruce probably needed much convincing. Carter is, by all evidence, a very lovable 5-year-old kid who happens to suffer from Spina Bifida, a birth defect that can - and in Carter’s case did - lead to disability. Carter also loves Bruce Springsteen and, like all fans, dreamed of hanging out with him. The dream came true, and not only that. Bruce even played two songs - “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” and “Tougher Than the Rest” - just for him before the real show started.

The show in Boston was the 6th show on the Wrecking Ball Tour. By now we have a pretty good idea what Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band stands for, post-Big Man and with the numerous extensions of the lineup. Like Carter Bernhard lived out a dream by meeting his idol, it seems as if Bruce is now living out a dream of just putting everything on that stage he can think of. Add a monopoly player and we’re back to the good, old days of Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, which was the first time Bruce attempted this concept.

This may sound slightly sarcastic, but it’s not meant that way at all. The shows by most accounts don’t suffer by the presence of a horn section, singers, a rapper, and a bongo drummer. On the contrary, they are all utilized in a way that blends in well with the music, new and old, and doesn’t distract too much from the power of the core E Street Band. The only quibble has been that Steve Van Zandt seems to have trouble finding his place in this lineup and has appeared distant compared to other tours. Hopefully this will change over time.

Other than that, concerns about static setlists, shorter shows, or signs of Bruce aging have proved groundless. The last two shows have seen a total of ten tour premieres, the length of the show has already increased by 15-20 minutes, and Bruce... well, he continues to defy the year on his birth certificate and appears in better physical shape than at any point post-E Street Band reunion. Knee slides, back-bends, and crowd surfing are all part of his palette of shticks, and by the end of the night, he still looks like he could go a few more rounds.

Clarence Clemons, of course, is not forgotten, nor is Danny Federici. The touching commemorations first seen at the Apollo show have been repeated at every show and are an important part of the night, for Bruce and fans alike. May they continue as the tour progresses.

In the next couple of weeks Bruce and the band hit their home turf of Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York. Not that the previous shows have just been a warm-up, but expect the following run of shows to reach new heights of emotional and powerful impact. For those of you with tickets, it’s time to dig deep into your souls and find the Carter Bernhard in yourselves, forget about what’s not being played, and embrace the present. The big wheels are rolling.

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Whirlwind before the storm

Published 2012-03-16
By Karsten S. Andersen

The Wrecking Ball Tour doesn't officially start until Sunday, but Bruce hasn't exactly been charging his batteries by staying home on the couch. Yesterday saw his much anticipated keynote speech at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin. For almost an hour he spoke about the state of music today and about the artists that inspired him, emphasizing such name as Elvis, Roy Orbison, the Animals, and James Brown. He even got a guitar on stage and demonstrated the sometimes very fine line between his own songs and those classics that fueled his muse. It was captivating, it was fun, and after a somewhat rocky start, it was Bruce in full performance mode. Watch the whole thing right here:

How Bruce's speech could be as energetic as it was must have been a surprise to the lucky people who were present at the Austin Music Hall just 12 hours previously. Because around midnight they had witnessed Bruce jump on stage during his friend Alejandro Escovedo's show and participate in a high-energy, four-song jam that also included Joe Ely and Garland Jeffreys. They did "Midnight Train", "Always a Friend", "Dusty Old Roads", and "Beast of Burden" before calling it a night. 

Despite staying up late and despite delivering his energetic speech earlier in the day, Bruce still had plenty of energy left for last night's full E Street Band show at the Moody Theater in Austin. Like at the Apollo show last weekend, the show was for contest winners and specially invited people, and again it had "special occasion" written all over it. Particularly the encores turned into a Bruce & Friends event when first Jimmy Cliff sat in on three songs and then Eric Burdon of the Animals showed up to do "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" (which Bruce during his speech had just hailed as being all of his own songs combined in one) before it almost turned ridiculous for the finale with with Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo, Garland Jeffreys, Tom Morello, and Arcade Fire all taking part in a grandiose "This Land Is Your Land". Check out the complete setlist for that spectacle here.

All in all, an eventful few days for Bruce that also included the news of Wrecking Ball reaching number one on the Billboard Chart and a closed dress rehearsal before the tour officially kicks off in Atlanta in two days. Stay tuned for that!

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Balcony survived but roof blown off The Apollo

Published 2012-03-10
By Karsten S. Andersen

Television appearances are one thing, but last night we got the first real impression of what Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band will be about post-Clarence. In a 2½ hour show last night at The Apollo Theater in New York City, they went through what will probably to a large degree be the core show on the upcoming tour. The show was a special event to celebrate the 10-year-anniversary of SiriusXM Radio - the satellite-based radio syndicate that includes the all-Bruce channel, E Street Radio. Only subscribers to Sirius had access along with special invitees and the usual celebrities. In return, the whole thing was broadcast live on E Street Radio and has already found its way to public consumption through the magic of bootlegging.

The show was a mix of new material, classic Bruce songs and soul-review. The Apollo Theater being a landmark to black music, Bruce dedicated part of the show to paying tribute to some of the great names that had appeared at the theater in times past, including ending the evening with Sam Moore's "Hold On, I'm Coming".

But for many fans it was probably the new songs and how the old Bruce war horses would be treated without the presence of the Big Man that had spurred the most questions and head-scratching beforehand. Of course, Clarence Clemons' absence was not ignored. Bruce was only five songs into the show - a revived horn-driven "My City of Ruins" - when he introduced the band. The introduction ended with a call-and-response segment with Bruce asking "Who's missing?" and the crowd shouting back "Clarence!" ... and probably intertwined with a few "Danny!"'s too. As if that weren't touching enough, Bruce introduced what could become the new motto of the band: "If you are here and we are here, they are here!" and repeated the line over and over as the song reached its crescendo. Finally, towards the end of the show as "Tenth Avenue" came blasting from the stage in all its horned glory, Bruce reached the line "When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band"... and then halted.... only to let the crowd erupt in cheering for a full minute.... before kicking back into the song and ending it on its usual high note. An amazing moment that one can only hope will be shared with audiences in other places during the next several months.

In place of Clarence was of course the new horn section that included Clarence's nephew Jake Clemons. He's a cool-looking young dude, dressed in leather and wearing shades, who doesn't resemble his famous uncle too much, but who nevertheless does have potential in the charisma department. His playing was excellent, and if you closed your eyes, you may not have noticed too much difference in some of those signature solos, like "Badlands" and "Waitin' on a Sunny Day".

As for the new songs from the Wrecking Ball album, they will be no exception to the rule that Bruce songs just sound better live. "Death to My Hometown" is already a highlight in many fans' minds, and "Rocky Ground", which some might predict would be difficult to recreate in a live setting, came across as a powerful manifestation of the new times on E Street, as it merged into a fresh-sounding "Land of Hope and Dreams".

Bruce himself was in fine shape and good voice. He dove into the audience during "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" and even climbed the balcony at one point in what looked like a somewhat risky endeavor. But both Bruce and balcony survived, and Bruce went on for another couple of hours blowing the roof off the place and the minds of the 1500 lucky people who were present.

See the complete setlist and check out some videos too.

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The morning sun is breaking: Wrecking Ball review

Published 2012-03-05
By Karsten S. Andersen

After the longest break between new studio albums since The Rising (not counting The Promise), Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is finally hitting the shelves worldwide. The longer the wait between albums, the higher the expectations, and Wrecking Ball is indeed one of Bruce’s most anticipated albums in the last ten years. And it’s not just because of the amount of time that has passed since the - to many - somewhat disappointing Working on a Dream. It’s what has happened during those three years: the death of Clarence Clemons, the sense of crisis and doom that has grabbed much of the world, the focus on inequality, the 1% versus the 99%, all of which we’ve been clamoring for Bruce to speak about. We need Bruce right now, just like we needed him after 9/11. We need him to put words to our fears about the state of the world and to rally us for what awaits us. And on a fan level, we need him to show us how there can be a Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band without Clarence.

If you can subscribe to the above, Wrecking Ball is exactly what we’ve been hoping for. As Bruce himself has said, and as all PR statements have emphasized, it’s about the economy, stupid, and Bruce is angry. As for Clarence, there may not be a song dedicated to him as we may have hoped, but he’s there, in the liner notes, in the artwork, and indeed in the music.

The album kicks off with the first single and the most classic Bruce sounding song of the bunch: “We Take Care of Our Own”. Although the violin seems to be the new keyboard/piano, no Bruce follower is going to need smelling salts after hearing it. The really interesting thing about it is that it’s another one of those ambiguous songs that Bruce likes to challenge us with. At first glance, it can seem almost jingoistic, but as with “Born in the USA” you need to actually listen to more than just the chorus. This is not a self-celebration of how great “we” (Americans? Springsteen fans? Western society?) are at taking care of our fellow man. The more you listen to the song, the more it turns into one of those optical illusions where some random blobs turn into Jesus or a chalice turns into a face. Suddenly the words “we take care of our own”, instead of being a great thing, mean failing to take care of everyone else. Like the bankers on Wall Street took care of themselves and thereby sent everyone else to hell.

Altogether, while the dark forces in Bruce’s music have traditionally been referred to as “they” or “mister” or “sir”, or something otherwise indistinguishable, this time Bruce calls it like he, or his characters, see it. It’s the “bankers”. “Up on banker’s hill the party’s going strong, down here below we’re shackled and drawn”, as Bruce sings in the bouncy work song “Shackled and Drawn”. Or “The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin”, as the protagonist in “Jack of All Trades” concludes, before contemplating expanding his work repertoire to include eliminating the same bankers by gun.

On the powerful “Death to My Hometown” (which, by the way, is not Bruce denouncing a certain old song on Born in the USA, as some of us thought when first reading the title) the enemy is referred to as “robber barons” and “greedy thieves”, but five songs into the album we have a pretty good idea it’s those “fat cats” on Wall Street he’s referring to.

The first half of the album is about as angry and bleak as Bruce gets lyrically. We hit rock bottom with “This Depression”, but the thing with rock bottom is that sometimes it can send you bouncing back. And the turning point of the whole album appears almost unnoticeably in the last line of the last verse of this, one of the gloomiest songs Bruce has ever recorded: “Now the morning sun, the morning sun is breaking”. From then on Bruce leads us out of the darkness, out of the rocky ground, and into a place of defiance, encouragement, and - dare I say it - hope.

The title song, of course, represents the defiance. The song that was written as an ode to Giants Stadium in 2009 when it was about to be torn down, in its new context becomes so much more than a quickly written ditty about a football stadium. Here it represents the old unbreakable values that even the wrecking ball can’t destroy - or at least only temporarily - and it asks the jacks of all trades of the world to hold tight to their anger, because hard times may come, but they also tend to go away.

While “Wrecking Ball” is a classic Bruce song, the style of which can be traced all the way back to “Thundercrack” and “E Street Shuffle”, the next song, “Rocky Ground”, is more of a departure for Bruce. This is where the smelling salts may have come in handy for one or two diehards when they first heard it. Electronic loops? A rap? A female singer who almost steals the song from Bruce? But after a few listens you realize Bruce is doing what he’s always done, which is utilizing the American musical tradition and making it his own. After all, rap and loops have long ago become just as big a part of American music as electric guitars, pounding drums, gospel choirs, trumpets and flutes, all of which are present on this album.

Altogether, the album is woven from a melting pot of styles, references, characters, you name it, that harks back from ancient days to the present. From Irish folk to rock and hip hop. From marauders to Wall Street bankers. From the black slaves and the early railroad workers to the Katrina victims hunkering down in the Superdome. From immigrants of the 1800’s to modern days’ illegal immigrants. From despair to revelation.

The latter is well represented in a song we were all wondering about a few weeks ago when the track list was announced. Why would Bruce include a song that had already been released - albeit in a live version - and had already seen its heydays as a concert favorite 10 years ago? Was he running out of songs? But listening to the album, you realize “Land of Hope and Dreams” was simply waiting for the right moment to appear on a studio album, and this was it. Never mind that this is one of Bruce’s best vocal performances ever, but maybe Clarence’s death played a role in the decision too. When you hear those blasts of his saxophone, which will probably be the last time we will ever hear him on a release with new material, you almost feel he died for a higher purpose. A purpose where he could sit in the skies and play those mournful notes of “Land of Hope and Dreams” and remind us that even in death we all continue to have an impact, and the actions we perform while alive still matter after we’re dead.

The point is rammed home with the last song on the album, “We Are Alive” where the souls of all those departed men and women throughout history reveal that they are still here among us, “in some fashion”. And even if some of them died tragically and seemingly for nothing, everything we do while we live helps nudge the world in one direction or another, and it’s the sum of all those things that matter. So even if things are tough now, what we do now affects the future. That can be a comfort, a threat, or a call to arms, but it’s always worth keeping in mind.

Like most other Bruce albums, Wrecking Ball is bound to divide fans. Some just don’t like the violins. Some don’t like the religious references. Some miss the classic E Street sound. That’s all good and well. But whatever version of Bruce you prefer, this album is as ambitious as any he’s made. As is usually the case, the sum may be greater than its parts, but some of those parts are more than worthwhile additions to the Springsteen canon and will be powerful ingredients in the upcoming shows. As always, the concert stage is where Bruce's songs really come to life, and soon fans everywhere will be jumping up and down to "Shackled and Drawn" and pumping their fists to "Death to My Hometown".

Watch out "Badlands"!

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A day in the Promised Land

Published 2012-02-26
By April Lindner

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s landmark exhibit, From Asbury Park to The Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen, recently made its own epic journey from America’s heartland to Bruce countryNever before seen outside Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the exhibit opened this week in its new home at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center.  For hardcore Bruce fans, the show is a must-see event. 

By April Lindner
 
For this Bruce fan, the excitement built even before I stepped into the building.  “Out in the Street” wafted across Philly’s historic Independence Mall, getting louder as I got closer.  And when I stepped into the building’s sweeping lobby, I felt something close to the thrill of the houselights going down just before the band takes the stage: the familiar, sweeping Constitution Center lobby glowed with huge, backlit portraits of Bruce and the E Street Band, taken by New Jersey photographers Frank Stefanko and Danny Clinch.  In front of Stefanko’s iconic shot of Bruce leaning against the black-and-white 1960 Chevy Corvette bought with his Born to Run money sits the Corvette itself, gleaming in all its muscle car glory.
 
For those like me with a weakness for significant artifacts, the Constitution Center is a treasure trove.   The story of Bruce’s long and varied career is told chronologically through his own words, strategically posted throughout the exhibit, as well as through video and audio clips; but the heart of the exhibit is its carefully chosen relics, objects that loom large in the imagination of Bruce’s fans. 
 
Highlights include memorabilia from Bruce’s early days in The Castiles, Earth, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, and Steel Mill; childhood snapshots of Bruce and his sister Virginia on the rides in Asbury Park; Bruce’s battered surfboard; the leather jacket from the cover of Born to Run; yellowed notebook pages with the lyrics-in-progress for “Jungleland,” “Backstreets,” and “She’s the One”; Danny Federici’s accordion and keyboard-operated glockenspiel; reel-to-reel tapes from Bruce’s audition for John Hammond; the jeans, t-shirt and hat from the cover of Born in the USA; the cassette-tape PortaStudio on which Bruce recorded the demo tapes that became Nebraska; the ticket booth stage prop from the Tunnel of Love tour; the Harley Bruce rode through the southwestern United States in 1989; the Dior jacket he wore to President Obama’s inauguration; the table and chair at which most of his songs were written; and, as they say in the infomercials, much, much more.   The exhibit even includes a handful of creations by the fans themselves, in the form of random song request signs Bruce saved from the Working On a Dream tour.   And one wall is reserved for Post-it notes scribbled by visitors themselves, expressing which song holds the deepest personal meaning to them, and why.
 
Many of the show’s artifacts were chosen by Bruce himself, who worked closely with Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and chief curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum; quite a few had never before been seen by the public.  Bruce suggested items from his warehouse of personal artifacts, including what may well be the exhibition’s piece de resistance: the modified Esquire guitar immortalized on the cover of Born to Run.  For much of the exhibit’s opening week, however, the Esquire was missing in action; Bruce borrowed it back for his 2012 Grammy performance and rehearsed with it, but ultimately didn’t use it in the performance.   As of my visit last week, Bruce was still holding on to the Esquire for a Rolling Stone photo shoot, but he was expected to return it to its place in the exhibit soon after.
 
Philadelphia-area Bruce fans are lucky to have access to all this Bruce booty.  In fact, the original Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit, which ran from April 2009 to February 2011, wasn’t supposed to travel.  Jennifer Darley, the Constitution Center’s Senior Director of Facility Rentals and Special Events, worked hard to sell the Center on the exhibit, and eventually triumphed.  According to Henke, the Philly show stays true to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s original vision, but adds context for Constitution Center visitors who might not be as familiar with Bruce’s music, highlighting his relationship with the Philadelphia/New Jersey region. 
 
In keeping with the Constitution Center’s mission, the show also explores the link between Springsteen’s songwriting and the first amendment right to freedom of speech.   The walls of the exhibit are peppered with quotations highlighting that connection. “My songs, they’re all about the American identity and your own identity…and trying to hold onto what’s worthwhile, what makes it a place that’s special, because I still believe it is,” one reads.  To judge by “We Take Care of Our Own,” the Constitution Center show’s slant seems to coincide neatly with the new album’s thematic preoccupation: what it means to be an American at this point in history.
 
In the coming months, the Constitution Center will hold a number of Springsteen-themed events.  The first of these, and the occasion of my visit, was a February 15 press preview, which included a talk by Stefanko, whose portraits of Bruce grace the covers of Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River.  Stefanko told the story of how he had first heard Bruce’s music on a radio broadcast of the legendary Main Point show, and how he met Bruce through their mutual friend Patty Smith, the beginning of a forty-year friendship and collaboration.  After seeing some of Stefanko’s photos, Bruce called the photographer out of the blue, saying, “Hey, Frankie, let’s get together and do some photographs.” Stefanko adds, “Bruce was a great subject.  He knew what he wanted to do, knew how he wanted to pose.” 
 
Dedicated fans are likely to know the story of how the covers of Darkness and The River were taken at Stefanko’s house in Haddonfield, but they may not know that when the cover photo was being developed, Bruce called Stefanko up from the lithographer’s studio to say, “The bigger they make it, the better it looks.”
 
Stefanko recounted the story of being summoned to Bruce’s rented carriage house on the Navasink River to listen to the Nebraska tapes for the first time, and of being blown away by what he heard.  He also showed a series of portraits taken right after Bruce learned that John Kerry had lost the 2004 presidential election.  “You can see the pain,” Stefanko observed. 
 
Future Constitution Center events include showings of The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town (scheduled for March 14), Who Do I Think I am? A Portrait of a Journey, a new documentary tracing Clarence Clemons’ 2003 spiritual journey to China (May 23), and Blood Brothers: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (August 15).  A couple of parties--Glory Days: Throwback to the ‘80s Party (April 26) and Independence Day: a Fourth of July Kick-off Party (June 28)--will feature live music, a themed menu and an open bar.  Tickets to all of these events and to the exhibit itself may be purchased by calling 215-409-6700 or on the internet at www.constitutioncenter.org.
 
Also, in keeping with Bruce’s longstanding concern for the hungry, the Constitution Center will collect non-perishable food items throughout March as part of its Hungry Heart Food Drive.  Visitors who bring in canned food will receive two dollars off the ticket price to the exhibit.  The food will be donated to Philabundance, the Delaware Valley’s largest hunger relief organization.
 
 
From Asbury Park To The Promised Land runs through September 3, 2012, and visitors are encouraged to reserve tickets as early as possible.  For Greasy Lakers who live in driving distance, the show is well worth a visit.
 
April Lindner is a professor at Saint Joseph's University, author of a novel, Jane, and long-time Bruce fan.
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