Sunday, August 26, 2012

Glory Days (Baby's Back) -- Toronto, August 24. 2012

I imagine a future conversation between myself and Elianna:

Me: "Bruce Springsteen once signed a used ticket stub I handed him, and gave it back!"
Elianna: "Bruce played his harmonica in concert and then gave it to me!"
Me: "I talked to Bruce once."
Elianna: "I sang with Bruce.  He told me I was awesome!"
Me: "I shook Bruce's hand.  Firm handshake, and he looked me right in the eye."
Elianna: "Bruce took me by the hand and danced with me, then he picked me up and I waved to the whole stadium full of cheering people!"

In this episode of Close Encounters of the Bruce Kind, I'm going to lose.  But I don't mind.

Not even 30 hours before show time, we weren't even going to go to Toronto for Bruce Springsteen's show there.  I didn't have General Admission tickets, and after the kids were hooked on the GA experience in Auburn Hills and Buffalo in April, I didn't want to go to a big stadium show any other way.  Besides, Elianna was insisting that she wanted to go to Cedar Point, because it was, as she said, "on her summer bucket list."  And we couldn't very easily do both Cedar Point and the Toronto show...

Then, at 4pm Thursday, General Admission tickets showed up on Ticketmaster.  We're going to Toronto!  Then, at 5pm Thursday, backstreets.com needed a photographer.  I'm renting lenses!!

After experiencing the horrors of Toronto-area traffic, it seemed we walked through half of downtown Toronto to get to the Rogers Centrer (formerly known as the Sky Dome).  The building, sitting under the CN Tower, is immense.  We walked totally around the building to get to will-call; Elianna noticed that my sneakers were falling apart and decided that was funny.  Getting tired from the walk, she asked me to carry her; I, with my own fatigue, not to mention camera case, two large lenses and monopod. told her that if she wanted to see the show, she had to walk.

Has this tour picked up steam?  Consider this:  At my two prior photo stops on this tour, if my recollection is correct there were a total of 11 photographer passes -- 6 in Auburn Hills and 5 in Buffalo (and Buffalo, like Toronto, was on a Friday evening).  Granted, Toronto is Canada's largest city, and is much bigger than either Detroit or Buffalo.  But I still was surprised by the numbers:  there were forty-seven requests for photo passes to the show, according to the Live Nation rep who greeted the incoming photographers.  28 of those requests were rejected.  We had more photographic gear in a 40 square foot space than I'd even seen.

We needed 3 elevator shifts to get to field level.  A woman got on with the photographers and said, "you guys have it easy," to some laughs before exiting at the 100 level; for those who do this work for a living, it can be very hard.  But a Rogers Centre employee quickly explained the woman's remark:  "She's alcohol compliance.  She has to handle the people who've had too many and need to leave."  Right.  Friday night.  Big stadium.  Expanding tour.  This is going to be fun!

When photographing for the arena shows, the photographers' area was by the soundboard, and that was what I expected in Toronto.  But, here it was at the back side of the General Admission area fence.  As I set up on one side of the fence, my family gathered on the other side, preparing for the show.  But Elianna wandered off to find Mark, who had graciously stood with her the entirety of the Buffalo show; Mark had drawn #19 in the lottery and was happy to play dad again.  He had sent an email letting us know where he was; Elianna was on her own to find him.

The show started just after 8.  The band entered to the tune of Take Me Out to the Ballgame, 2 by 2.  Then Bruce, coming out with an acoustic guitar, made a remark about it being Friday Night, and the only song that occurred to me was... Working on the Highway?  Yes, "Working on the Highway" opened the show.  This is not a song I'd expect to open a show; I have since learned that it has happened only twice before.  Then, Bruce kept the acoustic guitar for... Hungry Heart???  As I was in the mode of photographer, this was somewhat pleasing:  After all, how many songs does Bruce have, that he plays early in his shows, that have as many poses as "Working on the Highway" and "Hungry Heart"?  And surely these two numbers went over well with a large crowd getting revved up on longtime favorites.  "Hungry Heart" also gave Bruce ample opportunity to use the breadth of the stage and the extended center section, and to greet fans who were close in.

Also, during "Hungry Heart" we started to see the impact of the enormous hi-def video screen that formed the backdrop for Bruce and the band.  While the band was on stage, a supersize image of Bruce, or the crowd, or anything could be showing behind them, to spectacular effect.

After "Hungry Heart," Bruce did a sign search, finally settling on "Sherry Darling" and having Kevin Buell bring out an electric guitar.  With the sign propped in front of the mic stand, he led a rollicking version that featured something I don't think I've seen since 2008:  A guitar solo by Steve Van Zandt!  Steve was more involved in this show than I've seen in a long, long time; on several occasions sharing the mic with Bruce, having multiple guitar solos, and, toward the end of the show, getting in to a zany quasi-dance routine with Bruce during Rosalita.  The dour "Silvio" look was gone; the goofball has returned!

My photography session completed, I could join my family -- what I could locate of it, anyway -- for the remainder of the show.  As I entered the GA area I immediately noticed a strong combination of odors:  beer and body.  I also noticed that there were kids everywhere in GA.  If Elianna was hoping to get noticed this night, she was likely to be disappointed.  I told Aaron it wasn't so crowded up by the very side of the stage, and he left to go there, leaving me and Lori childless at the back of the pit.

After the 4-pack of songs that has been standard on this tour (We Take Care of Our Own / Wrecking Ball / Death to My Hometown / My City of Ruins) I got to witness the new version of Spirit in the Night for the first time on this tour.  It is a powerhouse.  Fueled, on this night, by Bruce chugging a large beer during the pause; "it's too early," he protested, but he downed it anyway.

Having not heard from Mark since before the show started, and having not seen Elianna, I shot Mark a quick note just before 9pm:  btw, we have no idea where she is.  If you see her, let us know!


Bruce took another sign.  I had seen it before the show when I was doing test shots.  It was in black marker, and featured a lightning bolt coming out of a butt, with the word "Springsteen" on the right cheek and "Thundercrack" in big letters.  This was waaaaaay too silly for me, Bruce would never pick that.  So I took a picture of the "Drive All Night" sign instead.  Memo to self:  Next time, shoot 'em all.  Bruce picked up the "Thundercrack" sign, going in to some detail describing the design and attributing it to Canadian humor.

The band rocked through the song, and at the very end Bruce went forward to repeat the line "all night" with various youngsters in the audience.  First he tried with a little boy, who confused Bruce shushing the crowd for the line he was supposed to sing.  Then, then, then...  I shot Mark a note, saying, FOUND HER.  Elianna -- all 30 feet of her face and a couple more for her hat -- was on the big screen, singing with Bruce.  In tune.  In rhythm.  And again.  And again.  And again.  Her smile was about 8 feet high, on the monitor.  The sparkle from her braces lit up the stadium.  Lori stammered out, "that's our daughter!," to a few people near us at the back, and only one person replied, "so why aren't you up there with her?"  The back of the pit was especially friendly after that.

Some other main show highlights:
  • A return to a full complement of songs from Wrecking Ball (except for the unfortunately omitted Rocky Ground).  
  • A thunderous version of Murder Incorporated leading directly in to Prove it all Night, punctuated by a trademark closing spinorama guitar solo from Nils Lofrgen, and then from there without pause to Candy's Room and finally another direct pass in to She's the One.  And this last, with a full lead-in of Mona that was a first for this tour.
  • An extended lead-in to Shackled and Drawn, and a better than ever closing duet with Bruce and Cindy Mizelle out on the front riser, who then settled in to lead an 11-person front -- horns all forward -- to end the song.  To say that Cindy Mizelle brings a combination of soul, style and stage presence that has not been seen before on Bruce's stage is a massive understatement; she's a one woman tour de force.  She has taken what was once a Lyn Collins sample, and taken it to greater heights than I ever could have guessed from the album track.
  • Waiting on a Sunny Day.  Yeah, it's sometimes referred to among some hard-core fans by the Potterish title, "The Song That Shall Not Be Named."  But the girl was good, she even improvised when she realized she couldn't get to the low notes at the end of her passage, by taking it up an octave.  That took presence of mind... and a good voice.  Not so good were the parents who held up a young boy to Bruce earlier during that song; the boy looked terrified and parents across the stadium must have had the same thought, all at once:  "put him down!"
  • Incident on 57 Street.  In the past year, I've somehow managed to see Bruce perform "Incident" solo guitar, full band, and solo piano.  Amazing.  And this may well have been the best of the 3.  Bruce's voice was strong and clear, his piano playing as good as I've heard, and the crowd mostly co-operated by giving Bruce the quiet he needed (the beer consumption may have been high, and I'm sure there were pockets of poor behavior, but I witnessed an audience that stayed with it).
  • Glory Days.  At 28 songs and with Twist and Shout concluded -- complete with a reference to the cutting of the power in London, they were done.  Except, they weren't.  Max had taken off his inner ear monitor and couldn't get it back on that fast; he never heard Bruce tell him to hold off, so he came in full force.  Bruce rolled with it: "oh what the fuck!" he exclaimed as the band kicked in.
During the encores, Bruce used a sign for Rosalita, featuring the dancing moves of Little Steven.  This was followed by Dancing in the Dark, apparently also by request.  As Bruce came down early in the song, he looked over to where I guessed Elianna was:  He wouldn't... would he?  I mean, how often does he ever go to a child more than once during a single show?  A couple minutes later, we found out that...  it does happen.  As Jake played his solo, there was Bruce heading down the riser, and there was Elianna, on the stage!  We had prepped Elianna for Waiting on a Sunny Day (I am of the opinion that this is a moral imperative for any parent bringing a child in to the GA area, we've seen the horror of the poor child who realizes they don't know that part only after Bruce hands them the microphone), but never for this.  And now, here's Bruce motioning to her how to dance.  And now, here's Bruce twirling her, once, twice, five times.  And now, here's Bruce lifting her up.  After more than 3 hours on stage, with his guitar still slung across his back, carrying her.  And now, here's Elianna, one arm secure around Bruce's neck and the other extended to the crowd, with her OhMyGodICan'tBelieveThisIsHappening smile, the one that would light up cities if you could hook up a generator to it, the one I've seen a few times but never quite managed to capture with a camera.  And I still haven't.  But this time, there were 40,000 witnesses (I'll bet a few of them even took pictures).  And now they all know what I know:  That Bruce is a pretty good dancer, after all.

All along Front Street after the show, people were stopping Elianna, talking to her, taking their picture with her.  Many of them couldn't believe it wasn't totally staged... until they spoke to her.  As we left a restaurant, after the last table was done applauding her -- at nearly 2am -- a flustered waitress came over and asked, "Who... is she???"  A public star for an evening.

Afterwards, we learned some details of Elianna's show:  That Mark couldn't tell us she was with him because his cell phone wasn't working in the building.  That very early on in the show (I'm thinking during Hungry Heart), Bruce came over to Elianna and shook her hand.  That, when Bruce said he saw some "old faces" in the crowd during My City of Ruins, he pointed directly at her, an indication that somehow he recognized her from Buffalo.  That, after her bit in Thundercrack, Bruce said to her, "you were awesome"; Elianna, not having heard him clearly, said "what???," thus prompting him to mime the same words to her as the song continued; this, she understood instantly.  And, after the show finally concluded, Bruce blew her a kiss, and lingered on the stage until she blew one back.  Bruce's ability to play a show for tens of thousands, while at the same time playing a show for a single patron -- and Elianna was surely one of many to receive personal attention -- is without parallel in anything I've witnessed.
As for Aaron, he stayed at the side of the stage until the end of the show.  It had gotten just crowded enough so he couldn't get elbows to the stage, but he still had a great view across the stage.  So good, that he had a perfect angle to see Jake's solo during "Dancing in the Dark."  Which he watched, very carefully.  He watched it so carefully that he never noticed his sister on the stage.  He didn't seem to mind having missed it, though; Jake was really good, and besides, he saw Elianna sing.

For the record, the show came in at 3 hours and 37 minutes, possibly the longest show I've ever seen.  With the exception of Mona and the solo piano Incident, there were no true "rarities," and for those looking for follow-ups on the order of the recently performed Frankie and Knock on Wood, the setlist may read as a bit of a disappointment.  But it was more than a just a long show, and more than just a personal treat (and, fortunately, Elianna fully appreciates that what she personally experienced last night is not an "every time" thing, and that my future recaps are more likely to remain focused on the shows themselves).  The crowd left the stadium both drained and euphoric, fully realizing, I think, what they had witnessed.

Finishing this up, some 30 hours past show time, and with tickets to 3 more shows this fall.  Coming home this afternoon, Elianna asked, "so... when are we going to Cedar Point?"

note: pictures previously appeared in backstreets.com

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Bounties, the New Orleans Saints, and the NFL

On January 24, 2010, I watched on TV as the New Orleans Saints hosted the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game.  I was mildly rooting for the Vikings, just so that old man Brett Favre could get one last shot at a Super Bowl.  The Vikings dominated the game, but turnovers and penalties doomed them.  Favre was injured due to a questionable hit, so much so that he couldn't hobble for a fist down to set up a last minute winning field goal.  Instead, he threw an ill-considered pass that was intercepted, and the Saints eventually won the game in overtime.

Cut forward to 2012.  On March 2, the NFL announced that the Saints may have been intentionally trying to injure Vikings players, including Fare, during that 2010 matchup, including paying bonuses for causing injury.  Of course, I was appalled.  Had the result of that game been unfairly influenced by a bunch of bounty-hunting thugs?

It only got worse:  On April 5, filmmaker Sean Pamphilon released audio of a defensive team meeting featuring Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams, prior to the team's 2012 playoff matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.  The tape showed, quite clearly, that Williams wanted to target punt-returner Kyle Williams and running back Kendall Hunter, possibly via injury.

Williams, coach Sean Payton, GM Mickey Loomis and assistent coach Joe Vitt were suspended.  To be clear:  I have no sympathy for management employees who set out to injure players or have a bounty on them.  "Let them sit," was my initial thought.

Now, on to the players.  Although the league claimed that "between 22 and 27 Saints players" were involved. only 4 were punished.  They appealed, of course, as a result of which the league supplied the NFL Players' Association (NFLPA) with the evidence it planned to use for the appeal, as required by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL and the NFLPA.  As pretty much the entire world has learned, the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has authority both to issue punishment, to hear the appeal, and then rule on the appeal.  Policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury, and appeals court, if you will.  But they still had to show their evidence for the appeal.

Words such as "overwhelming" and "compelling" were used by the league and some in the press, to describe the evidence.  There was only one small problem:  Once the NFLPA had the evidence, they could release it, to the public.  And so they did.  It is available from https://www.nflplayers.com/Articles/Public-News/NFLPA-Makes-Exhibits-Available-for-Review/

So... I finally examined the "evidence."
The evidence consisted of 16 "exhibits," mostly powerpoints by coach Williams designed for midweek meetings in preparation for the next opponent.  There were also several "transcribed" notes from various paper sources such as handwriting on a simple envelope.  There was also a blog piece by Sam Pamphilon, and one newspaper article, both of which post-date the alleged events.

There was plenty of evidence that coach Williams is a bit detached from what I might call "normal."  That coach Williams took the warlike rhetoric of football a bit too seriously, and that he possibly had an issue with Muslims -- even going so far as to use one slide to regurgitate a hoary urban legend about General Pershing.

What there wasn't, however, was convincing evidence of a bounty program.  Or, for that matter, any evidence of a bounty program.  Once I got over having forced myself to read, in its entirety, the appalling ineptitude of the so-called "evidence," I started also checking various forums about this "scandal."  I found that, while some pundits quickly called out that the evidence was lacking, on the whole the response was tepid.  Comments on nearly every forum exhorted the players to "man up" and accept punishment; some even claimed that the players had already admitted guilt (they had not).  Nearly everyone who wasn't a confirmed Saints fan lined up in condemnation, as if schadenfreude outranked basic common sense.

In the meantime, the league faces several lawsuits.  Most notably, a class-action suit by more than 2,000 ex-players alleging that the NFL for decades ignored evidence of links between concussions and permanent brain damage.  In this case, Jonathan VIlma, who was suspended for longer than any other player -- one year -- has filed a defamation suit against Goodell, and has filed for an injunction against implementation of his suspension.  It will be interesting to see how far Vilma gets.  I'm no Saints fan, but I'll make an exception for his case.