Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have, over the past few weeks, said a lot about the current, challenging state of America, the hard work and sacrifices we, the people, have to take upon ourselves, and the power of we, the people, in shaping our future. I’m not here to pick apart their speeches—this is not a site about politics. I bring this up because on the two days after Obama accepted the Democratic nomination, I saw these people, myself included, who together will be shaping America’s future. The entire cross-section of our citizenry, from paunchy guys in Bears T-shirts to kids with massive Afros to the most well-dressed men and women imaginable (entirely prepared to let themselves get soaked) to loud-voiced men trying to scalp not tickets but parking passes. They were all gathered around Addison, Clark, Sheffield, and Waveland those nights to watch Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on their Wrecking Ball tour.
One of my pet statements to friends regarding my love of music is that I choose my one concert a year based on which artists I need to see before they retire or die. I’ve been a fan of Bruce Springsteen since I was little and saw the “Dancing in the Dark” and “Glory Days” videos in heavy rotation on VH1, and my Uncle Richard, my dad’s twin brother, told me about seeing the E Street Band six times in the late seventies and early eighties. In March 2009, right before I let Los Angeles, I got to see them play the Los Angeles Sports Arena during the Working on a Dream tour, which would prove to be Clarence Clemons’s final tour before his death…a memory I will cherish until I die. That concert was probably the greatest I ever attended, a two and a half hour explosion of energy which concluded with a glorious rendition of their mammoth anthem “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” However, there was also a particular mood about that tour which only comparison allowed me to put my finger on. Working on a Dream was more a collection of songs than a full, structured album, and Springsteen felt the need to tightly structure his concerts around a grander, very liberal political message: the songs chosen for the setlist ran together to tell a very specific narrative of ordinary people, our rights, and our power, and it included a ridiculous monologue to that effect during the performance of the song “Working on a Dream.” Also, the E Street Band was a bit more subdued, probably to accommodate Clemons’s ill health; the Big Man only broke out his sax on about half the songs, and there was a sense that they were reining in their capabilities a bit. This wasn’t bad. It allowed for a glorious slow section in the middle of the concert when Bruce and Roy Bittan strung together “The Wrestler” and “Racing in the Streets,” and Clemons’s solos were choice and dynamic. But it was a different vibe from what one can hear on the Live 1975-1985 album and footage from other tours.
The Wrecking Ball tour is a different, and maybe even more glorious, monster. The justifiably praised Wrecking Ball was an album on which Springsteen fully embraced his debts to Guthrie and Seeger and turned in a series of rock songs blended with folk and gospel, the lyrics all attacking our modern version of tyranny and championing progressivism, while refreshingly staying clear of any specific allegiance or over-topicality. These are songs we can easily imagine being sung by future generation if they live in similar times. At the same time, the political message of Wrecking Ball negated the necessity of Springsteen having to graft a message or theme onto the entire evening, and thankfully erased the similar need for an interminable monologue. Moreover, to recreate the album’s communal sound, the E Street Band has been greatly expanded. The core was all there: Bruce himself, Little Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, Patti Scialfa Springsteen, Roy Bittan and Charlie Giordano, Garry Tallent, Soozie Tyrell, and Max Weinberg of the “God is Rhythm” drums. But there was also a gospel choir, and a five-piece horn section to replace Clemons, led by the Big Man’s own nephew, Jake.
The big songs and the bigger band, I kept hearing in the press, had pushed Springsteen to new heights on stage. When my Uncle Richard saw him, he was famous for playing at least three hours a night. On this tour, some concerts in Europe went on for four-plus hours, and reviews were unfailingly positive. So I wondered what Springsteen would deliver at Wrigley. It was a needless wonder.
Two nights, two three-plus-hour shows, 55 songs altogether. Even though I couldn’t see a bit of the performance, simply hearing it made these, if not the greatest concerts I will ever hear in person, certainly the most unbridled in terms of power and passion. Springsteen’s only theme was to produce great rock music, and he succeeded. His voice still rings clearly and strong at age sixty-two, Jake Clemons fills his uncle’s shoes with brio, Weinberg shakes the sidewalks, and Scialfa and the vocalists back up Springsteen in full soulfulness. And of course, Van Zandt and Lofgren serve as the best foils and powerhouse soloists of them all. But though there was no message, Springsteen has a set structure: each concert has four distinct parts, and each part longer than the last.
Part I: The show opens with three uptempo and anthemic numbers, played with the volume cranked to an 11.5 Spinal Tap would envy. The first night, Springsteen’s mood was a bit more romantic: he roared through “Prove It All Night” (emerging out of a five minute jam intro), “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” and “Out in the Street.” The second was more about community: “The Promised Land” (a great concert opener), “The Ties That Bind,” and “No Surrender” with great duet vocals from Van Zandt.
Part II: After a crowd sing-along to “Hungry Heart,” Springsteen launches into material from Wrecking Ball and does it with precision and thoughtfulness which in no way detracts from the mood. For instance, sequencing “Death to My Hometown” and “My City of Ruins,” which becomes a lengthy gospel rave-up and band intro number, is a bit obvious, but that doesn’t mean it fails to work. And on stage, “We Take Care of Our Own” is infused with more purpose than ever before.
Part III: Springsteen gets random, pulling out a wide variety of songs from the band’s history, always surprising, always delighting, and singing them as if he was debuting them for the first time. The biggest and best surprise for we lucky fans may have been two special guests who joined him both nights, and who will one day be enshrined with him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Tom Morello and Eddie Vedder, the latter of whom now possessing a voice almost indistinguishable from the Boss.
On both nights, Part III frequently had me going “Holy S—t he pulled that one out?!?!” The biggest surprise was a performance on Friday of one of my favorite Springsteen rarities. On the Born in the U.S.A. tour, he introduced a rearrangement of Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped” which he contributed to the We Are the World album, and he the same interpretation on Friday: no reggae remaining, just organ, drums, sax, and Springsteen’s voice going from 1 to 12 on the volume scale in a howling cry of defiance to powers that be, whether in politics or romance. Friday also featured my father’s favorite Springsteen song (although he always prefers Manfred Mann’s cover) “Spirit in the Night,” a stomping duet with Vedder on “Atlantic City,” a stirring “Lonesome Day,” and a two-shot from 1984 with rockabilly blasts of “I’m Going Down” and “Darlington County.”
Although Saturday may have been more random: two extended jams on “The E Street Shuffle” (with the outro faithfully recreated and expanded) and “Pay Me My Money Down” from The Seeger Sessions done as a joyous sing-along and showcase for Tyrell’s violin, Vedder singing along on moving versions of “My Hometown” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” the joyful spitfire “Working on the Highway” (a song I always have linked to “Darlington County,” and which gave me special joy to hear played), and my personal favorite, “Because the Night,” featuring an amp-bursting Lofgren solo which buried all memories of 10,000 Maniacs (though not Patti Smith because, come on, she’s Patti Smith.)
Part IV: The long and grand finale. Another massive gospel treat with “Shackled and Drawn” becoming the hopeful “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” which now features Springsteen pulling a preschooler out of the audience (How does he find them?) to sing the final chorus. Then Morello, who played on random songs both nights, joined Springsteen at this point for their incendiary duet version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” I had seen them sing this in Los Angeles in 2009 and felt it would be the closest I’d ever get to hearing Hendrix, and both nights they brought back the same magnificence, the howling folk song ending in a hellish breakdown of scratchy guitar and feedback set to 13. (Yes, the show only gets louder as it gets longer.) Springsteen then gets more spirited with “Badlands” and “Thunder Road,” now done just as on the Born to Run album with the piano giving way to the full band arrangement. After this, the stage lights completely dim, and according to the set list it’s an encore, but I wouldn’t call it an encore because the band never pause, never stop, just keep playing as if it’s the only thing in the world you could possibly do even if the world was ending. The same three songs feature at the end of every show, at which point all the lights in Wrigley blaze forth: “Born to Run” (OF COURSE), “Dancing in the Dark,” which sounds a thousand times better than the already classic original now that it’s been stripped of synthesizers and the closing jam goes on even longer so the Boss can pull a girl on stage again, and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” now with two moments of cheers and silence when Bruce, his voice cracking, sings “the important part:” “When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band.” And yes, people still somehow manage to chant “TENTH” over and over again even though “TENTH” is a bizarre word to autorepeat. Try it sometime.
But Springsteen allows plenty of room for variations. On Friday, he debuted a lovely new song, “None But the Brave,” and in between “Badlands” and “Thunder Road” recreated the end of Wrecking Ball, crying out “Land of Hopes and Dreams” and “We Are Alive” like a preacher leading a mighty choir. He followed “Dancing in the Dark” with a spectacular “Jungleland,” all the moans and roars still in tune, all the dynamics there, Jake Clemons nailing the sax equivalent of David Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” solo, and then, to end it all in a bizarre tribute to Chicago, Springsteen, Vedder, Morello, and the ladies on stage gave us… “Twist and Shout.”
But Saturday…during the last hour, it rained. Softly at first, then harder and harder. Springsteen, who first felt the rain with the rest of us during “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” pulled out an impromptu solo acoustic “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” before breaking into “Tom Joad.” Then, after “Thunder Road,” he sang “Rocky Ground,” a quiet number which calls to mind a single candle lit in the darkness, and followed it with the four-song stretch to end all four-song stretches: “Born to Run,” “Rosalita” (just as brilliant as the first time), “Dancing,” and Vedder and Morello back again to send all of Chicago home with his foot-stomping, blaring song of celebration, “American Land.”
Through it all, the crowd inside the field, especially those sitting on the field itself, was drenched in rain visible in the brightness of the Wrigley lights, coming down like a radioactive snow. But they were not deterred…they pulled on their ponchos and sang along with every note, pumped every fist, danced with every dance…
And that is my last point. Bruce Springsteen is a man whom it is easy to love and easy to hate…he carries on the traditions of Guthrie, Seeger, Dylan, but does so in a heart-on-the-sleeve, almost ham-fisted manner, pouring everything into his music and all but forcing it down our throats. Again, it’s easy to laugh at the Boss, call him a pretentious, pandering showman. But the last word is the one which needs to be unpacked. Bruce Springsteen puts on the greatest show on Earth, and he does it not from artfulness but from sincerity. It is impossible to hear these songs and doubt the conviction the man and his band possess in playing them…they cannot be pulled off otherwise. And I know this just from watching the people around Wrigley those two nights.
Everyone from elderly men and women with canes to little children, mostly girls, who weren’t even born when The Rising came out were there. There were very well-to-do people: the man with the cultured accent and natty blue suit who discussed the economics of ticket scalping with me, the DePaul laureate music teacher who drunkenly shared my umbrella during the Saturday night encore, the wealthy-looking group who paid me five dollars for two cans of beer from my cooler in a moment of excitement. There were so many couples, including four of my best friends in this city, watching with their arms around each other, dancing to every note. And there were…my brother went to see The National in Columbus a couple years ago and took a lot of pictures of people exemplifying “hipster” culture. Hipsters were out in full force these two nights, in the plaid, the glasses, the cigarettes and PBR, the attitude. But they sang along, they danced, they embraced, they screamed when the Boss waved to all of us on the walk along Sheffield between dressing room and stage.
Bruce Springsteen is so sincere even hipsters melt in his presence.
Bruce Springsteen makes people from every ethnicity and walk of life sway together in the pouring rain.
Bruce Springsteen could give both Democrats and Republicans a lesson in how to move people into shaping a desired future.