December 3, 2012

Bound for Glory

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Rose Garden Arena
November 28, 2012

(Top and bottom photos by Mary Layton, center photo by Eric Layton; click to enlarge)
"I said this train...dreams will not be thwarted...this will be rewarded!" assured Bruce Springsteen in his concert opener, "Land of Hope and Dreams." In a world where trials, tribulations, and loss are too commonplace, this New Jersey hero and his music continue to summon a gravitational pull of encouragement. There have been inspirational figures throughout history—beacons of light that remind us to persevere. It's in this archetypal position that Springsteen finds himself; as his legend deepens over the years, and as newer generations are drawn to his communal uplift through strife-scarred yet hopeful anthems and songs of unabashed joy, it is difficult to name a peer of his not only doing what he does, but doing it so smashingly. At the Rose Garden, facing another screaming multitude that is just another day's work, "The Boss" lived up to his almost saint-like expectations, delivering over three hours of hope, reflection, and fun.

Touring in support of their new album Wrecking Ball amid an election year, the Jersey Shore-devastating hurricane Sandy, and continuing economic turmoil, Springsteen and the E Street Band (guitarists Stevie Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, drummer Max Weinberg, pianist Roy Bittan, bassist Garry Tallent) honored their mission and recognized their fallen brothers, saxophonist Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici. And as Springsteen's lyrics often remind, no one walks alone, so 11 additional musicians were on hand, including Clemons' talented sax-playing nephew Jake, to help raise spirits and the roof.

With the large head count onstage, not to mention the high amount of energy exchanged between the audience and the performers on this night, it must be observed that Springsteen's concerts, taken historically, just don't achieve parity with this 2012 show. That's not at all to say this is the best tour he's done, it's just that the current Springsteen live experience is a vastly different, more immense animal than in the past. It is a more frequently joyous communion now, in contrast to earlier periods where the reliable rock n' roll party was often acutely tempered by a purposeful, singular, and serious vision being telegraphed from the stage: there was the prove-it-all-night, walk-on-tables seaside bar band era; his redemptive mid-1970s arena takeover after Born to Run; his college auditorium tour for Darkness on the Edge of Town, an album born out of creative and legal struggles; his mercenary Born in the U.S.A. global takeover; his dark, contemplative solo tours behind Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust; his E Street reunion tour/rock n' roll revival of 1999-2000; his solemn post-9-11 trek forThe Rising; the Seeger Sessions Band folk hoedown; and the late-2000s Magic tour which, while expectedly euphoric at turns, at certain points dutifully referenced stacked bodies of war dead and "the bitter fires of the devil's arcade."

In 2012, Springsteen could have understandably turned the gloom dial to 11 in response to our times, and particularly due to the landscape-altering death of the larger-than-life Clemons, whose absence onstage, and how Bruce would address it, weighed mightily on every fan as they anticipated the E Street Band's future. An answer to this came on this night during "My City of Ruins," a gospel-tinted number where Bruce asked us all to remember our dearly departed, and, to stirring effect, he turned the Clemons-referencing lyric from another song, "The change was made uptown..." into a brief mantra. Ultimately, a pair of spotlights shone down on empty spaces that both Clemons and Federici once filled. It was a heart-rending moment that urged healing and gave both the entire Bruce juggernaut and his audience permission to live on and move on, if for nothing else to honor the dead.

Indeed, life and movement were in order here, with many exhilarating sing-alongs (a brisk "No Surrender," the swelling, horn-driven "Spirit in the Night," the insistent "Badlands"), fresh new material (the punchy reminder "We Take Care of Our Own," the Irish folk stomper "Death to My Hometown"), and the pensive, solo-Bruce highlight "If I Should Fall Behind." The Wrecking Ball ballad "Jack of All Trades" found Springsteen singing "There's a new world coming, I can see the light/I'm a jack of all trades, we'll be alright," lyrics that distill the man's entire ethos in short order.

And any air of separation between fans and artist? Left at the door. Springsteen crowd-surfed during "Hungry Heart," and when he wasn't literally playing Santa Claus and wearing a red hat (the seasonal imperative has them playing "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town"), provided Santa-like wish fulfillment to several lucky fans by heeding song request signs (The River-era songs "Drive All Night" and "Loose Ends" were the finest of these) and by pulling a virtual Courtney Cox dance troupe onstage during "Dancing in the Dark"; it's a safe bet that Cox could have never predicted that her awkward dancing with Bruce in a music video would still be reenacted 28 years later.

The E Street Band origin story "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" ended the show with the Boss on a center-arena catwalk and a dramatic pause/video tribute to Clemons prior to Springsteen's famous shout-out, "When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band..." Big Man is no longer onboard, but this train is still racing toward glory.

October 10, 2012

Furthur Satisfaction

McMenamin's Edgefield
September 28-29, 2012

(Top photo by Eric Layton, bottom photo by Roy Cevallos; click to enlarge photos)
It's been a long, strange trip, but even seen-it-all Deadheads may not have expected the Commodores lyrics: "Shake it down, shake it down now!" Sung by the Furthur collective during a punchy, bass-propelled "Shakedown Street," it was a fun, whimsical moment that set the upward mood and energy level for this second of the band's three nights at the rustic McMenamin's Edgefield amphitheater.

An easy observation to be made about the Grateful Dead scene 17 years after the death of its talisman Jerry Garcia is that it's smaller—fractionalized by attrition and time. The Deadheads of 2012 are still loyal, though, and the environment to witness Dead music played by any of its original members is a much more user-friendly, enjoyable experience than battling the stadium-sized multitudes of the 80s and 90s. That positive condition was only enhanced at the Edgefield over these two nights with clear sound, balmy temperatures, and a woodsy outdoor setting ideally suited for Furthur's spirited romp through one of rock n' roll's deepest catalogues.

Furthur, founded in 2009 by singer-guitarist Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, is given a welcome jolt of Garcia-esque lead guitar and vocal energy by John Kadlecik, formerly of Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra. (Also rounding out the band are drummer Joe Russo, keyboardist Jeff Chimenti and backing singers Sunshine Becker and Jeff Pehrson.) Where erstwhile post-Garcia projects have vacillated between rewarding (The Other Ones) and conceptually off (gritty Southern rocker Warren Haynes filling the Garcia spot), Furthur is consistently rewarding, offering up a leaner, meaner version of the two-set extravaganzas the original band knocked out for decades. Where there was once improvisational bloat, there is now economy and briefer, percolating jams; where there was once the psychedelic, two-man "Drums/Space," there is now simply one virtuoso drummer.

What hasn't changed is Lesh's booming bottom end and Weir's eccentric yet compelling rhythm guitar and voice. Friday, September 28 ignited in the first half of Set 1 with the singalong "Jack Straw" and a flowing, harmony-laden "Crazy Fingers," and then the fire dampened a bit with Weir's lonesome-me ballad "Looks Like Rain." However, the best one-two punch of these two nights came next with an unexpectedly strong "Doin' that Rag" and a spry cover of The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," complete with Weir mugging and acting out the distress of the lyrics with wild hand gestures. It seemed they were just getting started, and yet Set 2 never quite reached the peaks of Set 1. Although it featured "Viola Lee Blues" with a hypnotic jam, and a forceful "Let It Grow" (which wound down nicely with descending notes evoking a feather floating to the ground), a reading of "The Wheel" felt a bit perfunctory. Thankfully Kaclecik invested some Garcia mojo into the heartfelt "Comes a Time," while Russo's polyrhythmic drumming was remarkable during "Slipknot."

Saturday's show got off on the right foot energy-wise with the "I'm outta here" kiss-off "Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleloo" and a rocking "I Need A Miracle," two audience favorites. Covers were then the order of the night, as Johnny Cash's "Big River" was a rollicking treat, followed by Lesh howling out Bob Dylan's "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues." And while it is customary for "One More Saturday Night" to be held as an encore on this day of the week, the president-referencing barnburner was saved for the last number of the first set, preceded by the more outwardly political "Throwing Stones," spiked with the timely lyrics "The radical, he rant and rage/Singing someone got to turn the page/And the rich man in his summer home/Singing just leave well enough alone..." It must be an election year.

After unfurling "Scarlet Begonias" and "Fire On the Mountain," Set 2 continued the evening's theme of pure musical joy and farewells, with "Playin' in the Band" and "Uncle John's Band" topped off by "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad." Finally, Furthur brought the three-night run in for a soft landing with the a cappella benediction of "And We Bid You Goodnight" as well as the delicate "Attics of My Life." By then, the kids had shook it down, and the current generation of Deadheads streamed happily into the night.