We saw Bruce Springsteen at the Air Canada Centre two nights ago. It was a terrific show. I've seen Bruce in concert maybe eight or ten times - although not since 1988 - and he never disappoints.
First, there's Springsteen, an incredibly charismatic performer.
In his younger days he was nonstop energy, a skinny, sweaty whirling dervish. He talked about giving his absolute all at every show, because kids spend their hard-earned money to see him and deserve his absolute most and best every single night. You'd leave one of those four-hour shows exhausted, and wondering how he managed to do it night after night.
It was more than just raw energy: it was the way it felt so genuine. Springsteen's obvious pleasure in what he was doing, his total absorption in the moment, his seeming complete lack of artifice, goofing around onstage like a kid singing in front of his mirror with a comb-microphone, was infectious.
Although his music with the E Street Band has a big sound, and he was playing in arena venues, Springsteen's stage presence was still garage-band size.
The great front-people of rock are all riveting to watch. But generally, the better they are, the greater the distance between you and them. You're not seeing the person: you're seeing a mask.
The greatest rock front-man of all time, Mick Jagger, is all mask. Same for David Bowie. I love them, and I've been completely mesmerized, entranced by them - but you know you're watching a performance. You never think you're with the real Mick Jagger or David Bowie.
Not so with Springsteen. You feel as though this is Bruce, the man.
Today, Bruce, pushing 60, is obviously not the skinny guy who clambered up on amps and slid across the stage to sing at The Big Man's feet. He is slower and more deliberate. He doesn't move around that much on stage; when he thrashes around, you can hear him struggling for breath while he sings.
Yet somehow Springsteen today is as charismatic as he has always been. You still believe he is there - a man, not an actor. He is still riveting to watch.
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Then, there's the E Street Band. Their backbone is a hard-driving, propulsive, anthemic sound, but the sax and acoustic piano add an earthiness and intimacy. Now, the addition of Soozie Tyrell's fiddle accentuates that quality even more. I adore the use of violin in rock and jazz; I love music built around fiddle, like Cajun and Irish music. When Springsteen added fiddle to the E Street sound, I was in heaven.
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Springsteen didn't talk a lot during this show - none of his famous storytelling, the band just ripped through song after song. He dedicated a few surprises to some lucky people, and made some brief political remarks before two songs.
Introducing "Magic," he said (paraphrasing), "We live in Orwellian times, where the truth is made to be lies and lies are made to be truth. So this song isn't about magic - it's about tricks. And their consequences."
More often, he used the juxtapositions of songs to lend extra meaning, an old Springsteen device. After "Livin' In The Future," about the crumbling of democracy and the rise of fascism in the US, he sang "The Promised Land," a song of hope and faith. After "The Rising," about September 11th, he sang "Last To Die" - "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?", then "Long Walk Home," about the possibility of putting the country back together.
Bruce also gave a lengthy plug to Food Share Toronto. He is highlighting a local food bank in every city of the tour.
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Allan likes to know set-lists in advance, and to follow the sets as they evolve on tours. I like to go in completely cold. I don't want to know a thing. I want the show to unfold fresh; I want to be completely in the moment. I asked Allan not to tell me anything about the show unless I asked. It was difficult for him to resist, but he did it - and thank goodness!
The highlight of the show for me - "highlight" doesn't even begin to describe it, it was otherworldly - came during an encore.
Springsteen said, "This next one, we're gonna go way back, way way waaaay back. When we wrote this song, all around here, it was still woods." I wondered what it could be, as he had already played a song from his first album ("For You") without that type of intro.
When I heard the first notes of "Thundercrack," I thought: it can't be.
"Thundercrack" is legendary among Bruce fans. He never recorded it on a studio album; we've only heard it on bootlegs or seen it on live clips. He used to perform the number in bars and clubs, before my time. By the time I starting seeing Springsteen live in 1978, he was no longer doing it. But be still my pounding heart, there it was: Thundercrack.
It didn't get a huge audience response, I think most people didn't know what it was. But the people who did know were going nuts. When the band ripped into the opening chords of "Born To Run" next, the crowd went crazy, but I had already peaked.
He closed with what sounded like a traditional Irish song, but we knew couldn't be that. Danny Federici and Roy Bittan, the two keyboard players, strapped on accordions and came to the front of the stage, along with Soozie Tyrell on her fiddle. The E Street Band banged out a reel fit for any pub in County Claire. Well, better. If I had seen a band like that in Ireland, I'd be talking about it still.
The lyrics were scrolling on the video screens, so we knew the song was "American Land," about a nation of immigrants trying to keep other immigrants out of the country. The next day, Allan learned this was an outtake from We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Springsteen's tribute to the great American songwriter and activist Pete Seeger. What a song to close with, eh?
The full set lists for the tour are here.
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There are many writers and musicians whose work I love and admire, but feeling a deep personal connection with an artist is a different - and inexplicable - thing. When we're kids or teenagers, alienated and searching for connection, we form those bonds more easily, but they generally fade or break as we get older.
Two artists from my earliest musical days have aged with me, and I with them: Joni Mitchell, and Bruce Springsteen.
In Bruce's case, when he became wildly commercially successful, his music went off the rails for a time ("Born In The USA," "Hungry Heart"). I hung on, hoping it was only a brief interlude, and the artist I loved would return intact. My faith was rewarded.
Now here I am, nearly 50, watching a performer nearly 60, and I still hear him speaking for me, and singing about our lives.