By Jeff Miers
BUFFALO NEWS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Updated: 03/08/08 7:49 AM
Bill Wippert/Buffalo News
Bruce Springsteen and sax man Clarence Clemons of the E Street Band rock the house Friday night.
The best Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band shows are about balance.
Part bacchanal, part thoughtful reflection; part rock ’n’ roll party, part gospel-style yearning; part joyful optimism, part unflinching realism — Springsteen rolls all of this up into a critical mass and presides over it all as the interaction between artists and listener, band and audience.
It’s so hard to get a grasp on one of these shows until after it’s over and you’re looking back on it. While in the thick of it, you’re required to surrender to the moment. Just like the people up on stage.
On Friday, Springsteen and the band wrapped up a trio of shows in our area, which commenced with Monday’s show in Hamilton, Ont., reached a fevered crescendo on Thursday night in Rochester, and plateaued with grace and grit inside HSBC Arena Friday.
Rochester’s show was, by Friday morning, already being cited as the strongest of this leg of the “Magic” tour, now five dates old, but the Buffalo show was equally visceral from the beginning. Springsteen’s long-standing reputation for delivering some of his finest shows to Buffalo audiences was met — and then some.
Since reorganizing the E Street Band nearly a decade back, Springsteen has constructed his shows conceptually, with core material — the stuff that is responsible for carrying the message of the moment, the dialogue Springsteen wants to engage in with his listeners — finding augmentation via a rotating cast of tunes from throughout his history, some surprising, some not.
This tour revolves around material from “Magic,” Springsteen’s darkly intricate examination of the American psyche during the Bush years. It’s one of his strongest albums, both in terms of the writing and the ensemble E Street Band performances, and its material frames the set. The surprises on Friday included “Because the Night,” “Be True,” the new “I’ll Work For Your Love,” and a rockabilly teardown during the “Born in the USA” track, “Working On the Highway.”
“Is there anybody alive out there?” Springsteen screamed, as the band launched into the indelible hooks careening throughout “Radio Nowhere.”
At one point in his career, this query was simply an exhortation to submit to the spirit of rock ’n’ roll in full abandon mode. Today, it’s a more pointed question, referring not just to what Springsteen sees as a soullessness and lack of true communal potential in modern music, but to the waking nightmare that has been much of American life over the past seven years. Perhaps most importantly, the tune rocks like a house on fire, and achieves its in-concert aim as statement of intent rather handily.
The show kicked into gear immediately with the opening burner from “The River,” “The Ties That Bind,” but hit the first of many elevated points during the swamp-blues, John Lee Hooker-informed take on “Reason To Believe,” Springsteen’s examination of against-the- odds faith from the “Nebraska” album. Singing through his distorted harmonica microphone in the manner of Howlin’ Wolf, Springsteen sounded like a man with a pack of hellhounds on his trail, and the band swung mightily behind him.
The skeleton of the “Magic” tour set is the four-song suite comprising “Devil’s Arcade,” “The Rising,” “Last To Die” and “Long Walk Home,” which together form the crux of Springsteen’s concerns regarding hard-won faith in the face of war, loss and what he sees as the betrayal of the country’s promise.
This is not light material, but Springsteen never preached, instead letting his songs speak on many levels simultaneously, leaving listeners to discern meaning for themselves. This is the core of his genius, and it was evident in abundance on Friday.
All of this heaviness did not preclude a helluva lotta fun, of course.
We were granted a houselights- on-full version of “Dancing in the Dark,“ which appeared to be at least as much fun for the musicians as it was for the audience.
Naturally, we got a killer “Born To Run,” because what Bruce show would be complete without it? That take on “Thunder Road” was a bonus, though, as was the “Detroit Medley” Springsteen and company tore through for the first time in eons.
Clearly, this was a nod to the many times the band appeared here in the ’70s. It was a nice touch to cap off a perfect evening.
The Ties That Bind
Reason to Believe
Because the Night
She's the One
Livin' in the Future
The Promised Land
I'll Work for Your Love
Working on the Highway
Last to Die
Long Walk Home
* * *
Girls in Their Summer Clothes
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark