Monday, September 12, 2016

May Your Strength Give Us Strength - Pittsburgh, 9/11/16

I pray for the strength, Lord.
Of all the things that Bruce Springsteen has done in the 15 years since 9/11, there was one thing he hadn't done: Perform in public with the E Street Band, on 9/11. Last night's show... would be different. It would have to be different, somehow.

Springsteen's recent shows have turned in to early career retrospectives, going album by (rock) album through the first dozen years of his career, and stretching the whole thing out over 4 hours. Sure, the songs feel like old friends now, mostly. But last night felt different.

Last night there was a wound to check on, and it was still bleeding. In an arena that seemed to have more people than it could hold, and that was several degrees warmer than comfortable, Bruce led a service. It was raw, emotional, intense, with mourning for the dead and prayers for the living. When it was all over, after a typically goofy suite of party songs, we were collectively drained.

I had no particular expectations for this show: For me, it was just "the one show I could get to," after a summer of mostly ignoring Bruce's summer tour in Europe. Only after seeing the periscope feeds from New Jersey, with new features such as the shocking version of "American Skin" with Jake holding up his hands, did the feeling return: That feeling of needing to see this, while I could.
American Skin
The lights went down early. At 7:45 the string section walked on stage, meaning the show would open with "New York City Serenade." But where recent shows have seen explorations of Bruce's first album immediately following, last night it was The Rising on display, starting with the most direct tribute to the fallen, "Into the Fire," then "Lonesome Day," a stark and still raw version of "You're Missing" (with a harmonica play-out), and finally the wake song, "Mary's Place." A 4-song sequence through the process of loss and attempts to heal. But the realization, 15 years on, is that the wounds don't heal, not really.

From there, yes, the show mostly resumed the career retrospective presentation. Though not exactly anything new for long-time fans, it's still nice to see the guitar duel of "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City" and to have "Incident on 57th Street" lead in to "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)." The shtick is good and even funny ("Don't Bruce me!"... "ok, Bruce me!"). And, of course, Grushecky per et fils for "Light of Day."

While the show did eventually land on the party songs -- noting that it was twenty-nine songs in to the set before he played the only song that had been a top 20 hit for him ("Dancing in the Dark") -- there were two more stunning moments:

First, a detour to "My City of Ruins," the song originally written for Asbury Park that Bruce re-imagined after 9/11. First with three people holding up cell phone lights behind the stage. Then 7. Then the section. And finally the entire arena, it seemed. And here the words seemed to cut through: "With these hands... I pray for the strength, Lord... Rise up!"

Then, at encore time, Bruce came out with an acoustic guitar; the chords weren't familiar. "Somebody gave me a copy of the Constitution of the United States... It does say 'Fuck Trump' on the front of it... and this was his request."

What followed was a devastating solo performance of "Long Walk Home": Last night I stood at your doorstep, trying to figure out what went wrong. You just slipped something in to my palm and you were gone.

As if to issue the challenges: "what have we learned?" and "where do we go now?"

You know the flag flyin' over the courthouse, means certain things are set in stone; Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't."

Monday, September 05, 2016

Some beats and eats in Royal Oak

Friends of mine have been posting links to articles claiming that going to concerts makes people healthier and happier. Apparently, many studies have proved this effect. The studies don't even claim that this is restricted to good concerts, though I'm supposing that helps.

So on Friday evening we went in to Royal Oak for part of the 19th annual Arts, Beats and Eats festival. The "healthier" aspect was clear enough immediately: My fitbit says it took 1871 steps to get from our parking space - at a Middle School on Glenn Frey Drive - to the Michigan Lottery Stage. A few of those on a daily basis would help, no doubt!

We went to see Stewart Francke and then Joan Jett. Stew had played the event every one of its 19 years; it's nice to see him get a huge audience. Stew's band had 11 members of Friday, including a horn section and multiple singers. Beginning with a tribute to David Bowie of "Rebel, Rebel," Stew then took the show crisply through several of his career highlights, interrupted only occasionally by the freight trains passing by just behind the concert area. My favorite -- and I think much of the crowd's as well -- was when Greg C. Brown took over "Sam Cook's On the Radio." 

By 8, it was time to make way to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. At 58, Jett looks great, and she's maybe the first person I've seen who can wink while soloing. Starting, as she typically does, with "Bad Reputation," she ripped through a set lasting barely an hour, leaving the audience both breathless and wanting more (not possible, really, as Buckcherry was to take the stage after her). She went through career highlights and also mixed in a few songs off her latest CD. The band collectively saluted a passing train during "Hard to Grow Up." My favorite sequence was the back-to-back of "I Love Rock and Roll" in to her cover of "Crimson and Clover."


A few eats and another 1541 steps back to the car (is the walk back always shorter?), and I'm thinking, we needed a study for that?



Friday, April 15, 2016

The Bruce Springsteen Diet - The Palace of Auburn Hills, April 14, 2016

I dragged myself on the bathroom scale this morning. It was reading kind of low. Good, good, I thought, I haven't seen that number in months. That's when I realized, the Springsteen diet works!

Oh, I got that Fitbit and I track my steps and my climbs. But on Bruce show night, I walked twice as many steps and climbed twice as many floors.

It starts with the 10 minute walk in. That can be tripled if the teenage daughter leaves her ticket in the car -- unplanned benefits!

Then the show starts, and there are so many opportunities! Free weights, during "Hungry Heart." Lateral motion, during "I'm a Rocker." Hand grip exercises, for "Drive All Night"; bring your own cell phone or lighter. Aerobics, during "Dancing in the Dark"; the teenage daughter offers to take lead. Voice exercises, during "Backstreets." Jumping, during "Shout." And, of course, staying upright for three and a half hours with no break. Just keep wearing those rock and roll shoes, and never be afraid of large group exercises.
Bruce has even been kind enough to provide the perfect tour shirt for a totally hot exercise. It's a plaid job, looks just like the cover of The River and that thing is hot! Look around the arena and it's clear: Many people are on to the wardrobe portion of the Springsteen diet.

With most diets, we might struggle to lose a pound or two a week. The Springsteen diet is good for 3 pounds per night! There are some caveats, of course: No cold beer, not at a reasonable price or at any price. No bathroom breaks; after all, bathroom breaks might lead to warm beer at unreasonable prices and besides, that means missing a song. No periscoping. And no sitting down.

Do these things, and it's 3 pounds per night, every night! Unless, of course, you are Bruce Springsteen, in which case everyone is just gawking at you and saying, "do I need to go on the Springsteen diet to look like that?"

There's also the food for thought, no calories attached. Bruce provided that during the encores, with this statement: "Michigan is considering bills similar to the ones that forced us to cancel our show in North Carolina. So just on behalf of the LGBT community and many caring people of this state, we hope the bill doesn't pass, because we love playing in Michigan! So keep your heads up." Then he launched an absolutely thunderous this-is-OUR-flag reading of "Born in the USA." Who said that music, politics and exercise don't mix? They're not on the Springsteen diet.

Last night, Bob Seger took the stage to join the E Street Band for the final two songs. Bob looks great... for a guy who's not on the Springsteen diet. But he learned fast: He shook that tambourine, twirled around, and he didn't even need that plaid shirt to work up a sweat as he was in some vest thing that looked like it would have kept him warm at 20 below. I bet he lost five pounds last night.
Another thing about the Springsteen diet: It's fun. The morning after, you don't wake up thinking, "damn, less than 4 hours sleep again and my head is hurting and I never ate dinner and I think I left the poster tube at the arena." No! You don't wake up thinking, "that was too expensive and my taxes aren't done." No!!! You don't wake up thinking about the election, except to wonder, "did Bruce sing, "I didn't vote for this package deal" last night? You wake up and think, "well, that was fun, and I lost 3 pounds, too!"

The Springsteen diet isn't for everyone. It can be really expensive, especially for people who travel to participate. And there's really no substitute for being there; periscope just isn't the same. So this was probably my last night on the Springsteen diet for a while. I may be in withdrawal for a while.

note: pictures previously appeared in backstreets.com

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Springsteen's North Carolina Boycott

Earlier today, Bruce Springsteen canceled an upcoming show in Greensboro, North Carolina.

This is hardly the first time he's canceled a scheduled concert, not even on relatively short notice (the show was scheduled two days from now). Just 10 weeks ago, he postponed a show in New York just hours before the scheduled start time. In 2009, he canceled a show in Kansas City after some fans had already arrived at the arena for the show. In 1992, I traveled to California to see a pair of Springsteen shows in Mountain View, and they were both postponed, just a day before the first show.

Of course, the circumstances were different each time. The New York show was postponed due to a major snow storm. The Kansas City show was canceled due to the death of one of Bruce's cousins who was also part of the crew for that show. The California shows were canceled due to illness.

This time, it's different. This time, Bruce is choosing not to play the show. He's choosing not to play the show because of a law signed in to law in North Carolina just 16 days ago, commonly referred to as the "bathroom bill" due to some of the bill's openly discriminatory language.

This is a boycott.

I have never been prouder to be a fan, and I have never been happier with any "statement from Bruce Springsteen."

Which is not to say that I am happy. I am not simply "happy."

I am not happy, on account of my friends in North Carolina who will miss the only show they would have seen this tour.

I am not happy, on account of the people who would have been employed in some capacity at or near the venue, and who will lose their pay.

I am not happy, on account of my friend Mike Telesca, a North Carolina teacher who not only goes to Greensboro shows, but who routinely buys dozens of tickets so that some of his students can go as well.

I am not happy with the timing of the announcement, so close to show time, thus inconveniencing travelers with airline tickets or non-refundable hotel room reservations.

I am not happy with people who "oppose" this decision on one stated objection or another, when it's all too clear that their actual objection is with people who are LGBT.

Most of all, I am not happy that this law exists in the first place; I am not happy that elected legislators passed it and I am not happy that North Carolina's governor signed it.

But I am happy, thrilled, even, with this decision. It is a decision for civil rights. It is a decision to stand up for beliefs. It is a decision not to participate in the enforcement of the law, in any way. It is a decision to say to the people who created, passed, and ultimately signed this bill in to law that what they did was wrong. and that it will have economic consequences. It is a decision to lead by example, to help demonstrate that if enough others make similar decisions -- paypal.com now, or organizations like the NBA later (the NBA all-star game is scheduled to be in Charlotte next year), then change will be the only remedy to avoid economic calamity.

Some of my friends have argued that Bruce should have played this show. That if he disagreed with the law, he should have said so from the stage. That he could have given the proceeds to any number of worthy organizations in North Carolina fighting against this law. That he could have organized a separate disruptive rally, or taken some other action.

I understand their points: Many of these people were ticket holders and want to see the show. Some of them live in North Carolina and can't just move out of state over laws passed by legislators they didn't vote for. And, of course, some of them still want Bruce to just "shut up and sing."

It took Bruce time from the passage of this law to make his decision. This should surprise exactly zero people, as Bruce routinely uses all deliberate speed to make his big decisions. No doubt he had to consider the thousands of people who would be inconvenienced or financially impacted by his decision. In the end, the principle won out. I believe it is the right call.

I have never been more proud to be a Springsteen fan than I am right now.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Springsteen in Denver, March 31, 2016



Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at the Pepsi Center, Denver. March 31, 2016
Sometimes, opportunities arise unexpectedly. A trip that needs a change of planes. A tour that is stopping in a hub city. A chance, with just a bit of finesse, to make these intersect. That, more or less, is how I ended up in Denver this past Thursday night, as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band continued "The River" tour there.

A happy fan came a long way to get his wish.
Unlike in many Eastern venues, ticket sales in Denver were relatively soft; tickets could be had for substantially below face value in the days leading up to the show. Turnout for the "pit" lottery was relatively light by some recent standards, as well. Inside the venue, the limited edition silk screen posters failed to sell out.

Once the show started, none of that mattered. There may have been empty seats, but the Pepsi Center felt full, and it was hot and loud. Bruce seemed to feed off the energy of the crowd, and his voice was clear and strong. The core setlist started with the same 21 songs as every other show on this tour, presented with a sense of complete assurance. Yes, it's a play, and that part is pretty much identical each night. The crowd interaction moments vary each time out: this evening we got a man from Japan who got a guitar pick, and a young girl who with a green hat; later on there'd be a dance with a Navajo girl. But it's a really good play. When he comes surfing on by, it's permissible -- I think -- to pause a moment to think, "yes, that IS Bruce Springsteen above my head, and that I am helping to move on up the line."

For those of us who have seen multiple shows on this tour, there are small changes: An extended opening to the piano intro to Point Blank; a cell phone sea of lights during Drive All Night. In this venue, the occasional aroma of legally purchased marijuana, too. With Patti absent, the stage line-up had the surviving participants of the original sessions all stage left, with the newer band members all stage right. Max, of course, was the anchor, featured not just on the heavy rockers but on many of the slower songs as well. Jake Clemons is also improving greatly as a man who can play and dance -- and hoist -- at the same time.

The highlight of the encores, no doubt, was Backstreets, presented here as a meditation. "Forever friends," repeated, over and over again, followed by many repetitions of "Until the end." Almost as if the repetition could make time stop for just that moment.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Party Noises - Cleveland, February 23, 2016

I was a college freshman when The River was released. It was the first record I remember buying for my own turntable, to play through my own receiver, and to hear on my own speakers. I still have that turntable, that receiver, and those speakers, too, and I still use them regularly. Felt like the best $150 I ever spent… until tonight's show in Cleveland, more or less.

The ticket I bought to my first show on the original River tour was $12.50, tax included. I still have the stub, too. That first show, Bruce played "Independence Day" and introduced its meaning to him, about talking to his dad late at night: "I never once asked him what he was thinking about... and later I realized that what he was doing every night was, he was sitting there dreaming... but what happened to him was... he didn't have the strength any more, or the power to begin to make any of the things that he was dreaming about real." And that felt so real to me. Now I know the things you wanted that you could not say.
Things have changed for me besides the ticket price. I met a girl and I settled down. Our son is a college freshman. I may be on the other side of that kitchen table now. Bruce said back at that first show, about holding on to dreams, "that's the hardest thing you gotta hold on to, so don't lose it." Bruce now refers to "Independence Day" as "the kind of song you write when you're young," but maybe that's only because it's the younger person doing the speaking. Punctuated by Soozie's melancholy violin, the song hits as hard now as it did then. Harder, maybe, for all of us who have walked parts of that dark and dusty highway these 35 years.

By following the album's script, this tour almost forces internal questions. I remember that first listen, already knowing a few songs from radio broadcasts, with most of the others being revelations. The feeling of being suddenly kicked in the gut when the title song rolled around, and then the procession of disoriented and lost souls on the second record: their struggles, desperation, and lonely demises. Even "Cadillac Ranch" and "Ramrod," though they rocked out, weren't really happy songs.
With a mighty arm and an outstretched hand: Jake pulls Bruce on to the stage while playing.
How to make it all real and now, that's a challenge, and Bruce came through for Cleveland. He may have called out "Party noises, Pittsburgh!!" before "Sherry Darling," but he quickly corrected himself and with a laugh blamed the gaffe on seeing Joe Grushecky backstage before the show. The stage is no frills, but it gives each of the players their space, in a "front line" tonight consisting of Bruce, Steve, Garry (in Patti's normal place stage left, Patti not being present this evening), Nils, and Soozie, and a back line of Roy, Charlie, Max and Jake. Bruce has easy access to the audience on the perimeter of the pit, and to the first rows of the side; he uses that space to draw in the crowd. "The River" features the audience singing out "union card and a wedding coat." "Crush on You" is a sing-along, too, and if Bruce doesn't hit all the high notes of that one, so what? The audience doesn't, either. But Stevie does, in harmony — how did his voice get better?

Most of all, I think Bruce has drawn his own band closer in to the show. Stevie hasn't been engaged in the show like this in many years, but here he is providing vocal and instrumental support for Bruce song after song. Bruce enabled this in part by sometimes stepping aside himself: for a three-song stretch beginning with "I Wanna Marry You," Bruce doesn't play the guitar at all, as Steve takes lead. Then, after the guitar and violin blow-out of "Cadillac Ranch," two more songs without the guitar. Steve's 12-string support for a funereal version of "The River" and for "Fade Away" are notable high points (nevermind that Bruce flubbed the second verse of "Fade Away" tonight). And the harmonies! It wasn't so long ago that, after a televised performance of "We Take Care of Our Own," a musician friend emailed to say, about Steve, "I think he was singing 'Cadillac Ranch.'" Onthis show, the harmonies soar. The jaw-dropping moment for me is the "Here She Comes" introduction to "I Wanna Marry You," with Bruce pulling out maracas, and then trading the "little girl" line with Steve over and over again, so earnestly and soulfully that we're transported to another reality: these aren't mid-60's men anymore, and we're not greybeards in the audience; we're all romantics on our street corners, this is our shared moment, and for these few seconds we can even forget that the "love" in the song is just "youthful imagining." Other times, they would be goofy but no less spot-on; during "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" they even appeared to toss in phrasing from the local frat rock classic, the Human Beinz' "Nobody But Me."
This show also reminds just how great the songs of The River are. It's easy enough to imagine grown-up themes; this record and these performances make them resonate. "Stolen Car" may be the greatest hidden gem of Bruce's career. There's the 1980 arrangement of "Point Blank," a soul-wrenching "Fade Away," an intense "Drive All Night," in which Bruce seemed to intentionally go hoarse, only adding to the sense of desperation. Add a goofy crowd-stroll of "I'm a Rocker" (aka "I Maraca" for me), "The Price You Pay," and finally, the terrifying vision of "Wreck on the Highway." All songs just from the second disc, rarely played in the past three decades, now dusted off and played as if they were brand new.

The River album portion of the show ends with the reminder that time is limited, but of course, our time for the evening doesn't end there. For me, seeing this show finally for the first time, it could be, and I'd leave happy. It's that good. But for Bruce, it's not enough; for one thing, as long as The River is, it's not three hours. And it's not like he would send the crowd home thinking about a wreck on the highway. So bring on some Darkness-era rockers. Experience Nils blowing off the roof not just with one of his patented twirl-o-rama solos, but two, as the tour premiere of "Youngstown" followed "Because the Night." Bring out another "just for Cleveland" moment with a fun tour premiere of "Growin' Up." Bring Joe Grushecky and Johnny Grushecky on to the stage for "Born to Run," for those Pittsburgh party noises. Find someone with the coolest sign of the night and have a nice dance. Heck, find two someones, and have two dances, and let the second guy play guitar (Bana Moureiden is the girl with the cool sign, and Scott Williams is the guitar-playing guy). And finally, dance the night away with a sweat-soaked "Shout," and only then, after more than three-and-a-quarter hours, call it a night. The audience soaked it up until the very end, responding to every emphatic shout of "Cleveland!!" with a return shout of "Broooce!!"

Finishing the drive home in my own car, the memories from the arena still fresh, I wonder not so much when I'll arrive, or even how I'll get through Wednesday. I keep in mind that time has passed, and there are still dreams to keep and things to say.

note - this review originally appeared in www.backstreets.com

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Up, Periscope!


Bruce Springsteen and Max Weinberg, earlier this evening at Madison Square Garden as seen on periscope.
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It's Wednesday night and I'm sitting at home in Michigan and I'm watching Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performing live in Madison Square Garden. Oh, it's not on TV, and it's not "official." The picture is somewhat awful, but the sound is pretty good through my computer speakers. Anyway, what can we expect from a cell phone?

This day has been coming for many years. The day when an event like this would be fearlessly broadcast, live, from inside the event venue to anywhere in the outside world. Periscope, acquired by twitter in 2015 before it was even released to the public, was hardly the first app to enable broadcasts from smartphones, but so far it sure seems to be the best. Their slogan is, "Explore the world through someone else's eyes." A week ago, when Bruce played in Chicago, at any given moment there were, it seemed, between 11 and 20 live periscopes. I'm becoming addicted: I may explore the entire Springsteen tour through many people's eyes.

For the most part, I don't watch. I just listen. As I type, I'm listening to Bruce give a soulful introduction to I Wanna Marry You that was retired for decades before this tour. It's beautiful and special and I'm happy being able to listen to it while I type. In a couple days it'll be for sale at live.brucespringsteen.net. Oops! Bruce just messed it up. "Sometimes even the tightest band in the world fucks it up!" "Ooooohhh!! I fucked it up!" Now I get to see him play maracas.

While I was watching that Chicago show, I texted my son in college. It went like this:

Kids don't impress as easily, I guess. Then he added, about the broadcasters, "really people should just enjoy the concert for what it is; live." He's a music major. He is also very wise. I agree that I don't completely understand the impulse to broadcast large portions of a show to the world at large, nor to hold a cellphone up for an hour or two at a time (hopefully -- but likely not -- doing it without distracting anyone else in the arena), but as someone at home being able to listen while I type, it sure is nice for me.

From stage left. The picture is nothing special, but the sound is good enough.
The technology, of course, is still wildly imperfect. People lose their internet connections. Or security finds them -- though there are too many of them for security to get them all, or so it seems. Some folks are just a bit dumb, shooting selfies of themselves or singing along a little too loudly with the music... no, make that a lot too loudly with the music. In Chicago one broadcaster, we'll call him Ivan, was plainly trying to impress some girls with his loud knowledge of the words; those of us following on facebook started feeling sorry for the people sitting around Ivan. Then there are those who feel compelled to add their own commentary to what they are allowing us to witness. It's a small percentage markup on the price I'm not paying to watch.

Watching a show on periscope can be a bit like having a personal transporter. With a couple mouse clicks we jump from one vantage point in the arena clear to the other side, or up, or down. One person tonight even advertised that he was broadcasting from section 227; I guess he's not too scared of security. During those moments when I watch, I can get an idea of the staging, to get an idea of what I'll witness when I finally get to a show in a few weeks.

And now, from straight back.
Then... then... then... my computer crashed!!! Here Bruce is, introducing Stolen Car, and... well, I guess that is a propos. It took until The Price You Pay to get it back.
This show includes the entirety of The River album, so for the first 21 songs (the show opens with a River outtake called Meet Me In The City), it's a fixed order. Then there are the additional songs. Last week he worked up a sweet acoustic version of "Take It Easy," in tribute to Glenn Frey. Maybe there will be something special tonight, too. With periscope and the help of someone holding up a cellphone entirely too long, a few thousand of us will be watching, live.


The River is about time. Time slipping away. Make the most of it. That, more or less, is Bruce's closing spoken line to The River portion of the show. I'm not sure that watching a periscope broadcast of his show qualifies for making the most of it... but it's been fun so far.
Thunder Road from way up high.