Poor rock 'n' rollers. What do they get for scoring our coming of age soundtracks? Nothing but skeptical derision and agism for remaining relevant in a revolutionary art form.
There may be no other class of performers who are so carefully guarded from growing old. Every other musician is treasured for their experience: something wrong with an old blues man? A jazz trumpeter in his 60s? Country and bluegrass legends from the founding generation? An old folkie? A senior classicalist? Bring 'em on. Unless it's rock 'n' roll. Just let some 45-year old rocker come into town, and suddenly we think it's dinosaur night at the ol' arena.
But when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band landed in the Pepsi Center last weekend, it was merely the latest in a series of phenomenal performances over the past year from a generation of rock musicians who defied assumption and reestablished the vitality of the credentials they have kept active for more than a quarter century. From Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Waits, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, some of the best concerts of the year have been from musicians pulling out all their own individual characteristics, taking the stage with the intensity and energy of Joe DiMaggio, playing like a determined rookie even in the sunset of his career, because "there may be some kid out there who's never seen me play before."
I'd never seen Springsteen live before, but good God, had I heard about the shows. By Clarence Clemons' first sax solo on the opening "Ties That Bind" to the sweat the Boss had already worked up by the second song, "Promised Land," the band was in rare form. If anything, there were on the loud side for these turn-of-the-century times, bouncing notes off each other and cluttering the arena before the levels were better adjusted. But that's why the fans were there, to get pounded by those waves of sound, that nine-piece assault, four guitars strumming and leading, so in tune to each other that they pull us into the garage beside them, letting us see the world through the eyes of the band.
It's too easy to attach some wizened aura to Springstten's ability to penetrate the inner moods and yearning of 18,000 fans, night after night, but it boils down to dancing with them that brought you. Most anyone who grew up in the last 30 years can mark the time by at least one watershed Springsteen album. For me it was playing air guitar while Larry Sideman played sax, thinking we were drunk on the 7-Up masquarading as champagne at the Donkervolt party in ninth grade. Bruce was there when we started, the bard of burned out Chevrolets propelling us through a continuum of passages.
Whether reinterpreting "Thunder Road" or reviving "Jungland," refocusing "My Hometown" or restating "The Ghost of Tom Joad," The E Street Band was larger than life, every bit as large as the cinematic screens portrayed them. While most large shows feature video screens, Springsteen and The E Street Band made it seem like film, using precision shots and luxurious details, artful framing and exteneded takes to elevate the visual experience.
I had never anticipated the degree to which Springsteen includes his audiences in the perofrmance, calling on our sense of responsibility as part of the cultural fabric and turning the lights up when it's time for our part. With lights brighter than that room has ever seen, there was a camaraderie 18,009 strong as the whole hall, from stage to the floor to the rafters, rocked in time to Springsteen's metronomic jumping in the rhythm of his emblematic anthems.
In a band that boasts Nils Lofgren and Stevie Van Zandt trading lead licks, Springsteen could wait until "Badlands," nine songs into the show, to pull out his own solos. Otherwise, he was the tone-setting front man, the bandleader for one of the few semi-enduring groups to have always been greater than the sum of their parts. Clemens, for example, may not be the greatest sax player to blow leads in a rock 'n' roll band -- although when you limit it to rock, the pickins get slimmer than you might think -- but the energy and character of his playing is so well-suited to the total band sound that every solo sends us time-tripping back through the the associations of any number of rock 'n' roll clasics.
I'm convinced that I've missed at least one feature film with a prominent Springsteen role in it. He's a consummate actor, and intensity of expression and his love of playful facades would compliment any scene. Though his on-stage performance emanates sincerity, there is also no hiding the fact that the Boss is often "acting," taking on the role of the stubborn egocentric, refusing to play until the applause gets louder, slipping into a joyous ecstasy as he curls himself into the security of a pair of speakers he can lie down on, taking on that rural Woody Guthrie twang when he seamlessly shifts into an accoustic set (giving his soaked-through shirt a chance to partially dry out), and hitting full revival mode during a "Take Me to the River" interlude in the middle of "!0th Avenue Freeze-Out," enticing the audience into the "river of happiness" made of jangling melodies and wailing horns "when the big man joined the band."
Thankfully, Springsteen has long since worked the '80s out of his system, when he spent a little too much time hanging out with Sting and played much less guitar in favor of "playing" the microphone, a sure sign of the path to an artist's demise. He rarely let his guitar out of his clutches these days, and when he danced in pop-icon mode, he made sure to ask permission, pleading "May I please, sugar baby?" of his wife, guitarist and vocalist Patti Sciaffa, before gyrating his hips. It was also a relief to see that he evidently felt enough attention had already been paid to Born in the U.S.A., choosing to play only one accoustic rendition from the album.
He closed the show with seven encores, including "Born to Run" and a finale during which he donned a racoon hat passed up from the audience, clearly enjoying the new prop and shaking his head so that he could swat Van Zandt with the raccoon tail while they sang harmonies into a single microphone, breaking into spontaneous laughter and reverting to a devilish, playful energy that highlights the dynamics of the old friends on stage.
In an era when ticket prices can fluctuate from $20-$250 per comparable legend (Dylan on the near extreme, the Stones at the far), and when you can still name your price in the parking lot scalping sections -- anywhere from double face value to half-price -- there remains one constant in rock 'n' roll: Bruce and the Band will make your investment pay off, churning out chapters of bedrock musical history and delivering legendary performance that live up to the legacy, night after night.