October 8, 2009

Bring on Your Wrecking Ball

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
October 2-3
Giants Stadium
East Rutherford, NJ

"We are here tonight to uphold our solemn vow... to rock the house!!!" shouted Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium to a thundering ovation from the locals. This is a nightly declaration by the Boss, and the second and third shows of a five-night homecoming stand in New Jersey were no exception. What was exceptional about this run was the fact that these were the final Springsteen concerts at the soon-to-be-razed venue, not to mention the legend's decision to perform one of his classic albums in its entirety each night. This plan found the E Streeters substituting their usual ad-hoc set list with a structure that might have thrown lesser acts off-kilter. But this is the mighty E Street band, and their effortless balance of formal song sequences and capricious, Jersey bar band looseness made this pair of shows exhilarating successes.

The opening salvo of tunes on October 2 featured the brand-new Giants Stadium valentine "Wrecking Ball" ("Bring on your wrecking ball," Springsteen sang with defiance, a sentiment seemingly aimed at both the venue and his ageless self), the brassy "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and the apparent beer/bathroom opportunity "Working on a Dream." Then, Springsteen and his cohorts dusted off Darkness on the Edge of Town, a thematically dead-serious song cycle that is a bit ambitious to tackle in a football stadium. While certain tracks from this LP, a favorite of die-hards, are rousing Boss concert staples ("Badlands," "The Promised Land," "Prove it All Night"), it was unclear whether melancholy deep cuts like "Factory" and "Racing in the Street" would play to the upper decks. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the group delivered the album with a vigor and sense of pride that made it work completely. From "Badlands" to the closing title track, the highlights included Springsteen's white-hot fretwork on "Adam Raised a Cain"; an affecting "Racing in the Street," which gave Roy Bittan's piano work a lovely showcase; a knockout take on the rarely-played "Streets of Fire"; and Nils Lofgren's dazzling spotlight moment during "Prove it All Night," which was less a guitar solo than an exercise in sonic arc welding. At the end of the album performance, the Boss proudly gathered up the specific members of the band that were responsible for putting it on wax, which was an appropriate moment of acknowledgement, especially for the late E Streeter Danny Federici.

Following Darkness came light in the form of the upbeat "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," which found Bruce jumping in the stands and enlisting a young girl to sing the chorus while her dad held her, to massive applause. It was a terrific move, and a significant one: Springsteen's chance to climb off the messiah pedestal his fans place him on and unite most directly with his audience. That interactivity continued with the nightly request segment of the show, where the Boss collects hand-made signs from the audience that beg for obscurities and covers. Tonight, hopefuls holding up their placards for "I'm Goin' Down," the sweetly romantic Tracks nugget "Be True" and Elvis' rollicking "Jailhouse Rock" were the lucky winners. And as is the norm for Springsteen, medicine is to be taken with the sugar, so the overdue reappearance of Magic's "Long Walk Home" (complete with an impassioned vocal by Steven Van Zandt) and an exultant rendition of "The Rising" set the expected equilibrium.

Speaking of balance, the powerful enthusiasm of the cross-generational New Jersey multitudes was just as weighty a factor at Giants Stadium as the Boss himself. Singing along to every song, waving and throwing their arms in unison, and generally suffering from mild hysteria, they somehow imparted an even more mythic status upon Springsteen than he already carries on a normal day. Witnessing that level of hero worship amid impeccable performances of standards like "Thunder Road" and the house-lights-on, everyone-go-crazy cue of "Born to Run" is that most rare of concert experiences, a reminder of the power, glory and promise of rock n' roll. To conclude Night 2, the "liberate ya, confiscate ya" tilt-a-whirl of "Rosalita" sent tens of thousands happily into the rainy Jersey night.

The third installment of Springsteen's fiver at Giants Stadium offered a complete performance of Born in the U.S.A., a populist favorite album from 1984 that catapulted the Boss into household name territory. While this may have looked like a coup for casual fans -- the chance to hear the Boss' biggest radio and MTV hits, such as the title song and "Dancin' in the Dark" -- in these parts, there are no casual fans. For the assembled faithful, it was all about hearing these tracks in sequence, as well as blue-moon live selections like "Cover Me" and "Downbound Train."

Despite this officially scheduled main event, Springsteen, the ultimate showman, still knows how to surprise. During "Hungry Heart," (which has devolved into rote, if lighthearted, audience karaoke) he leapt into the pit at midfield and bodysurfed all the way back to the stage without incident. It would have been a nice "remember-when" story for all these Jersey folk to tell their kids someday, if they didn't already have all their kids in tow.

That stunt pulled off, Springsteen and company delivered Born in the U.S.A. An impactful, if not quite as emotionally rewarding suite as the previous night's Darkness on the Edge of Town, this album performance was both bracing (the haunting "I'm On Fire" sat Bruce at the edge of the pit, while teenage girls in front of him fawned -- that's sex appeal at age 60, folks) and tentative ("Cover Me" sorely lacked the punch it has on record). Still, this Saturday night party got jumping with carefree rave-ups like "Darlington County" and "Glory Days."

With yet another record covered, it was time to cover someone else per audience request: the live rarity/Tom Waits-penned "Jersey Girl," a tender ballad that found every tongue in the stadium singing its "Sha la la la la la la" chorus. The early E Street R&B pressure cooker "Kitty's Back" followed, with the fireworks-punctuated Irish stomp of "American Land" not far behind. By the time the holy benediction of "Thunder Road" hit the warm autumn air, this night we were free, and Bruce's vow wasn't broken.

Bring on the wrecking ball.