Thursday, April 24, 2014

Get Along, Get Along! - Pittsburgh, April 22, 2014

Last night in Pittsburgh, Bruce Springsteen put on a show that might have been a hard core fan's dream. A brilliant setlist for the long-time fans, including world premieres and tour debuts, nearly half of the High Hopes album, highlights for all of the band members, and inspired Brucetalk bits. A show that was conspicuously absent of the features so many hardcore fans love to complain about. A show in which more than half of the songs weren't in the set just two weeks ago in Cincinnati. Who on earth changes up their sets that much?

Johnny 99. Photo - Matthew Orel
But was it a great show?

Let's start with the almighty eternal everlasting ass-kicking power of the night. And there was a lot of ass-kicking power last night, from the very first note of the evening. Bruce's blue shirt, black vest, and tucked-in tie are gone, replaced by the Joe Strummer look. And last night, we got a bit of the Joe Strummer sound as well, as the band opened with a hard-driving version of The Clash's Clampdown, Bruce and Tom traded verses while the horn section, the E Street choir and Max Weinberg combined to form a massive nine-piece drum line. Impressive barely begins to describe it; combined with "Badlands" it created an opening two-pack salvo that left the crowd breathless.

Monday, I'm gonna rock with George!
Photo - Ron Valle
But Bruce was just getting warmed up with his ass-kicking mode, continuing with a roaring "Johnny 99" honky tonk, the band bathed in red light, Curtis King kicking the song up with the cowbell, and the horns coming forward. Bruce called out "C sharp!," which could only mean something rare and unexpected was about to happen, and so it was: a tour premiere of the very rarely played Stand On It (the original B-side version without the extra verse that appears on the Tracks version).

Continuing right along with the rockabilly segment of the show, Bruce called out more keys. "D sharp!" ("D sharp??”) "E!" And a hysterical performance of "Seven Nights to Rock," featuring the queen of E Street, Patti Scialfa. Anyone who may have forgotten her role as Bruce's partner and on-stage foil needs to hear Patti's vocals on this one, first singing about a "different little boy" in every different town, and then ticking off the days of the week attached to different boys' names. She got through George and Paul, and some guy name Tom (John and Ringo were presumably for next week) before Bruce announced, "What's good for the goose!"

But was it a great show?

Two Bruces and a pair of ducks. Photo - Ron Valle
As Bruce started "Just Like Fire Would," he shouted to the audience, "C'mon, Pittsburgh, don't be so lazy out there!" For "Hungry Heart," that wouldn’t be an issue, as we had a new item: Bruce crowd-surfing with a balloon figure of himself from You think you've seen Bruce crowd-surfing before, but you haven't seen him crowd-surf like this.The balloon Bruce remained seated in various positions at center stage throughout the remainder of the show.

The sign request segment — the only pause for signs this night — produced a tour premiere of I Wanna Be With You. Sure, Bruce had already soundchecked it, but it always helps to have a sign. He dropped to his knees. He pled his case. And then, a jaw-droppingly brilliant version of "Back In Your Arms," unplayed in the United States since 2009 and a bucket-list song for me. "In life, we don't get many chances to re-do our mistakes..." Then, turning to advice, he added, "Do not hesitate to beg! It's not pretty, but it works, sometimes." As Bruce continued through his intensely soulful singing of the song, I thought, "there goes another $15, I'm downloading this one."

But was it a great show?

Hungry Hearts. Photo - Ron Valle
During "Back in Your Arms," while some fans were mesmerized, there was noticeable chatter in the stands. As Bruce continued with "Wrecking Ball," it became more obvious that much of the audience — the upper bowl in particular — was not coming with him. Oh, Bruce tried to get them back. "Youngstown" had a huge solo from Nils Lofgren. "Mary's Place" had the stage slide— the crowd loved that... and then took their seats again. Tom Morello got them going during "The Ghost of Tom Joad," and "Radio Nowhere" gave Eddie Manion and Max Weinberg a chance to shine. What's wrong with any of these, and why wasn't the crowd more engaged? Was it the omission of crowd-favorites such as "Waitin' on a Sunny Day"? Was it the general lack of direct audience participation? Or the lack of hits or oldies? It may have been a dream set for the hardcore fan, but were the so-called "casual fans" fully engaged?

For the encores, Bruce came out on piano and played "The Promise" by request, referencing again that begging sometimes works. The patrons in section 102 talked right over it. It'll sound great on the download.

A stunning version of "The Wall" followed, introduced by a tribute to Walter Cichon and Bart Haynes. Curt Ramm's trumpet part got two verses, with Bruce doubling the part with keening the second time through. Its pairing with a floor-rattling take of "Born in the U.S.A." finally got the crowd's attention; it should be a permanent part of the show.
Dancing in the Dark. Photo - Matthew Orel
Joe Grushecky and family came on for the next suite of encores, including playful versions of "Light of Day," "Frankie Fell in Love," and "Dancing in the Dark," and Bruce announced upcoming dates with Joe at Soldiers and Sailors Hall in May, after this leg of the E Street Band tour concludes (May 22 and May 23). The crowd, now fully re-engaged, helped Bruce out with "Shout" and bathed him in a sea of lights for a beautiful finale of "Dream Baby Dream."
note - this review, along with pictures and video, originally appeared in

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Growing Younger with Bruce - Cincinnati, April 8, 2014

Since Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band last played in Cincinnati in March, 2008, the United States has gone through two presidential elections and a great recession. Two cherished members of the E Street Band have passed away. Bruce has released two powerful studio albums and, along the way, has enabled new voices and new sounds for his Hall of Fame-bound band.
During those six years, while the rest of us aged, Bruce somehow became younger. We can conjecture from what or where his fountain of youth came. Was it from the booty shaking? The love making? The earth quaking? Perhaps it was the Viagara taking. He has mentioned Viagra taking. Whatever the elixir, whoever the alchemist, the results have been spectacular.
But what about Cincinnati?
Bruce's 2008 Cincinnati show didn’t pass the two-hour mark until the evening’s last song. Tonight’s show could have come with a warning label: For a show lasting longer than 3 hours, audience members should call their doctors immediately.
Many fans saw the video stream from the outdoor March Madness concert in Dallas. But there’s nothing like being in the building when Bruce and the band hit the stage. In that moment, there is one place in the world to be; if you’re in the building, you’re at that place. That’s when magic begins, and that’s where mysteries are revealed.
If the March Madness show had a bit of an attitude of “fun and games,” beginning with an opening tip-off, tonight’s show was all business from the outset. Bruce and the band launched directly in to “High Hopes,” punctuated by a searing guitar solo by Tom Morello. “Badlands” and “Death to My Hometown” followed, providing a high voltage reminder — both in Bruce’s output and its meaning — of the past six years.
Bruce called out, “C’mon Jake!” for the evening’s first audible: “Night.” The crowd response was ecstatic (as it remained all evening), and Bruce appeared to be in a great mood. “Hungry Heart” followed, starting with a very high guitar toss and ending with crowd-surfing.
Shining a small flashlight up on his face, Bruce asked the audience if they believed in ghosts. After recounting the tale of an automatic toilet seat he encountered in Australia (a spirit?), he turned to his Cincinnati audience: “You haven’t had me for six fucking years! But we cannot choose how or where spirits manifest themselves.” This led to a mighty “Yeah, yeah,” and then “Spirit in the Night,” during which Bruce went to the rear section of the floor and to the arena’s lower bowl to sing with stunned fans.
At this point, the show wasn’t even an hour in, and we were all getting younger by the minute. But Bruce and the band were just getting warmed up. A monumental performance of “Lost in the Flood” from a sign request was followed immediately by “Because the Night,” with Patti Scialfa taking center mic to sing with Bruce, and with a patented multi-twirl Nils Lofgren solo.
The U.S. debut of “Heaven’s Wall” put the spotlight back on High Hopes, featuring Everett Bradley leading in on percussion, and Nils and Tom trading licks, and then Bruce trading licks with each of them in turn. “American Skin (41 Shots),” also on the new record, is now incendiary in concert, with soloing from Morello.
It was wonderful to see the E Street Choir shine tonight: a rollicking Dixie-style sing-along on “Pay Me My Money Down” was complete with a full band procession and second line umbrellas for the singers. And on “Shackled and Drawn,” it’s all about Cindy Mizelle: sure, sure, there’s the 14-person lineup down front at the end of the song. But I come to hear Cindy sing.
During the encore, Bruce brought up 136 people, give or take a half dozen, to dance with him during “Dancing in the Dark,” starting with a young woman who came on stage during the second verse… and stayed. Then her family. Then other families. And so on and so on and so on. 
More fan interaction on “Growin’ Up,” which came as a birthday sign request. Tonight’s story started with advice: "First thing you do, before you write a decent song, before you pick up a guitar, before you play your first gig, you lay in bed at night and you dream yourself up. Everything you weren't in the day, as we stand united, all rock musicians, in the great faith of self-loathing and self-hatred. 'I hate my nose!' 'I hate my hair!' So the first thing you do is, you dream yourself to life.” Bruce brought the birthday man on stage to sing the final verse, and then the fan — with no warning at all — dove in to the pit in an attempt to crowd surf. Bruce’s shocked reaction was priceless; fortunately, nobody was hurt.
With the band going just as strong at the three-hour mark as at the start, tearing through “Shout” as a last hurrah, Bruce announced himself to be a prisoner of the “everlasting eternal ass-kicking power of rock and roll.” And still, he wasn’t done. After ushering the band offstage, Bruce concluded the evening with a call for donations to a local food bank, and by serenading the audience with a gorgeous rendition of “Dream Baby Dream” from the pump organ.
After the show, I spoke to a long-time friend who has seen many shows: “This show moved me,” he said. Yes, the elixir works.
this post originally appeared in slightly different form on Photos by Matthew Orel.