Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Springsteen hearts the Seventies

Your entry to the Houston music scene with Sara Cress and Joey Guerra
April 14, 2008

Kevin Fujii: Houston Chronicle
Springsteen performs Monday at Toyota Center.

A fellow behind me in the restroom line following Bruce Springsteen's two-and-a-half hour show at the Toyota Center Monday night called the performance "up and down."

Another wanted fewer hits from Springsteen's latest, last year's very good Magic. Another (um, my wife -- though not in the men's room) was disappointed that Born in the U.S.A. wasn't represented. A friend I knew to be a big Patti Scialfa fan likely went home a little disappointed since she was, according to Springsteen, watching their three teenage kids at home. If there are any die-hard Danny Federici fans out there, there was also likely disappointment, as he continues to recover from cancer treatment.

But all this is really just quibbling. What really is there to say about a Springsteen concert? It's an experience that has been well documented for more than three decades. They're long, they're joyous, they're poignant and they're a shared experience in a sweatier way than, say, a Neil Diamond show. They have their own language.

Springsteen seems to play each one as though it could be his last. If he's ever sleepwalked through a concert, he's a master at disguising it. He's endured various subgenres of pop music that were supposed to render him yesterday's icon. But start assembling one of those I Love the [insert decade] shows and you'd be hard pressed to peg him to one. Sure, the '90s treated him a little worse than the '70s and '80s, but he's since rallied.

Eras of excess and irony have done little to change what he does. So maybe some of us wouldn't have tipped the fairly recent Lonesome Day so early in the show (it was third), the same way some of us wouldn't wear black jeans. Being Bruce Springsteen means being impervious to minor criticisms and "major" trends. It means no concessions to fashion, musical or otherwise. He sort of exists in a world of his own creation. Then he invites us over for his shindigs.

So were there down spots that justify an "up and down" critique? Sure. But they were few. I've brought this up before, but last time I saw Springsteen in Houston was more than a decade ago. During the encore he would fall back, only to be caught by a bandmate. "I'm too old," he kept repeating. This night he made a few jokes about his eyesight and the age of some grandkids in the audience, but he sells himself again with a youthful kick.

Maybe the shows have shrunk from three to 2.5 hours since the old days. But he stuffs that time like a smaller suitcase packed for a long trip. How else to explain an ability to drop an A-bomb like the incendiary Badlands -- a fairly reliable show stopper -- and still have a half hour of bangers at the ready?

Things started energetically with Cadillac Ranch and the great Radio Nowhere (though the latter galloped ahead of him on the first verse). The aforementioned Lonesome Day featured a great snippet with guitarist Nils Lofgren (on slide) and saxophonist Clarence Clemons twisting lines around each other. A rousing Atlantic City, fourth in the set, was the closest thing to a downtempo tune early on.

It was also a very rare concession to the '80s. Politics were on Springsteen's mind during that era, but for the most part he selected hot-button songs from more recent albums. A spare and lovely Magic was preceded by a comment about "the end of eight years of bad, bad magic."

He dipped back a little further for raging runs through Because the Night (featuring a marvelous and Sonny Sharrock-y solo by Lofgren) and Candy's Room, later letting loose another new one, the vintage-sounding Living in the Future.

The Promised Land and The E Street Shuffle (a request from a kid named Quentin inked sloppily on a red piece of paper) sandwiched Girls in Their Summer Clothes, another new one that seemed to go over fine with the crowd; a dark, air-conditioned venue at night struck me as an odd place to present it.

Terry's Song, The Rising, Last to Die and Long Walk Home might also be one of those "down" spots since they're all from the past six years. Rising was rousing (how can it not be) though it's li li li's seemed to leave Springsteen winded. But with that tune, he got a little greedy (in a good way) with guitar leads for the first time in the night. He's one of rock's underappreciated players, and it was a treat to hear him cut loose, ragged on Rising, precise on Last to Die.

He could've gone to bed after Badlands, but instead charged through Thunder Road and left the stage having been at it two hours, pulled largely from his old '70s bag of tricks and his new Magic.

The break was a couple of minutes at most, and Springsteen returned with two localish heroes. He and Alejandro Escovedo had a ball with a song I believe to be titled Wasn't I Always a Friend to You, from Escovedo's upcoming album. Joe Ely got a louder rally of recognition applause when he led the band through All Just to Get to You.

Then Springsteen got back to the business of emptying out some of his '70s trunk with Rosalita, 10th Avenue Freeze Out and Born to Run.

The response was, um, very positive.

Saxes go in and out over time. Keys go in and out over time. Black jeans go in and out over time. Anthems and political songs go in and out over time. But something about Springsteen's staples from this era endure and it's not just listener nostalgia. The melodies are undervalued; they hold up to his bullying voice, which it should be noted, sounds untamed by time. Call his sound the epitome of rockism, but it's pointless to wonder what Springsteen would sound like with hip-hop loops or electronic production.

Closing with the Pete Seeger staple American Land was either curious or genius; maybe both. There likely wasn't a soul in the venue who wouldn't have preferred something of Springsteen's own, but you gotta shut it down somehow. A cover It provided some strange punctuation to the evening, a celebratory way of letting everyone know he was done. If he'd unshelled Hungry Heart, folks would've just wanted more peanuts.

Again, it was his party.

Cadillac Ranch
Radio Nowhere
Lonesome Day
Atlantic City
Because the Night
Candy's Room
She's the One
Out in the Street
Livin' in the Future
The Promised Land
Girls in Their Summer Clothes
The E Street Shuffle
Terry's Song
Devil's Arcade
The Rising
Last to Die
Long Walk Home
Thunder Road
* * *
Always a Friend (w/ Alejandro Escovedo)
All Just to Get to You (w/ Joe Ely)
Born to Run
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
American Land

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