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."
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