NEW YORK — Nobody counts to four like Bruce Springsteen. The 73-year-old singer-songwriter has touched the hearts of millions with his music, his words, his voice. But in concert — the arena in which he most shines — it’s in summoning that quartet of integers where his essence is most distilled: He wants to prepare you for the spirit of rock ’n’ roll.
And half the time he doesn’t even make it to four before the crowd starts going nuts.
On Monday night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, Springsteen played all (well, most) of his hits, some killer deep cuts, and a few well-selected new ones for an ecstatic group of fans, myself included. It was the 23rd show of his North American and European tour with the E Street Band, which began in February and ends in December. One tune led straight into another (with that “ah, ONE-TWO-THREE-FOUR!”) for a relentless two hours and 50 minutes. I do not think Mr. Springsteen took one sip of water the entire time. This is no ordinary man; this is one of the great showmen of our time.
Everyone in the audience either paid through the nose or jumped through serious hoops to be there. As has been reported, securing tickets to these shows is difficult and expensive. I’ll be transparent and divulge that, including fees from a resale broker, my mid-tier seat cost me $334.00. Another artist in the same section at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center would have set me back 80 bucks. But since I do not comport myself like the main character in the song “Johnny 99,” who “has debts no honest man could pay,” I can say with no regrets this was an evening worth every penny.
And, for me, a long time coming.
I’ve loved Bruce most of my life, and while I have seen him do two of his legendary sit-ins with other artists, I’d never actually seen one of his mythical shows with the E Street Band. As it happens, the quintessential American balladeer forever singing about his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey (see, for example, songs like “My Hometown” and “Freehold”), is singing about my hometown, too.
Well, let me qualify that a bit. Bruce is from Freehold Boro, and I’m from Freehold Township. These two sections of town are literally on opposite sides of the railroad tracks, which I know sounds like something out of a Springsteen song, but it’s true. I’ll also put it in a blunt way that overlooks a great many exceptions, but here goes: I’m from the Jewish part of town, he’s from the goyische part of town.
In the Boro, you are more likely to find a house with a rundown Chevy up on cinder blocks under a blue tarp on the lawn. In the Township you’ll find more swimming pools.
Gurinder Chadha’s 2019 film “Blinded By The Light,” based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir, is a terrific movie about a British-Pakistani-Muslim boy whose life is changed and galvanized by Bruce Springsteen. He’s drawn in by the energy of the recordings, but also the pure American essence of their stories. There is universality in specificity, of course, so even though being “sprung from cages out on Highway 9, chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and stepping out over the line” may not have had a literal immediacy for him, it still got the point across.
Even though I rode on Highway 9 nearly every day of my life for my first 17 years, Springsteen’s characters still felt like a world away. Whereas he was offering redemption “beneath this dirty hood,” I was repeatedly failing my driving test
But even though I rode on Highway 9 nearly every day of my life for my first 17 years, Springsteen’s characters still felt like a world away. Whereas he was offering redemption “beneath this dirty hood,” I was repeatedly failing my driving test. Despite the proximity, it was a lifestyle that felt foreign to me.
Yet, I still loved the music. As I got older and got my first part-time jobs, owning albums like “Born To Run,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” and “Tunnel of Love” (these were the only four I bought at the time; we didn’t have Spotify back then) were essential tools to help me find immediate common ground with kids from the Boro. Everybody loved Bruce, and was ready to argue whether “Rosalita” or “Jungleland” was better. And once you are talking to people, you are becoming friends with them. This was a lesson I learned early.
(Oh, and if you were wondering, “Rosalita [Come Out Tonight]” is more fun, but “Jungeland” has more emotional heft — and on it Clarence Clemons gives the greatest saxophone solo in a rock context on record, and that includes Wayne Shorter with Steely Dan and Sonny Rollins with the Rolling Stones. I am ready to go to war to defend that take.)
In “Blinded By The Light” there’s a recurring gag in which the lead character’s British-Pakistani dad is convinced Springsteen is Jewish. Mostly the way the name is pronounced, but also (and, meant to be complimentary) because he is a hard-working man and a success. Springsteen, of course, is of Dutch-Irish and Italian Catholic heritage, but there’s a lot that’s Jewish about his career. His earliest champion, longtime producer and manager Jon Landau is a member of the tribe. Two essential members of the E Street Band, pianist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg are Jewish, as well.
“Mighty” Max is literally the heartbeat of the high-energy operation (barely a breath over three hours for these guys in their 70s, did I mention that?), and even though other members of the E Street Band, like the schmatte-wearing “Little” Steven Van Zandt, grab the spotlight romping around on the stage, I think it’s Bittan who might be the finest musician of the bunch. His bright and resonant piano, often standing in for use of glockenspiel or celesta on the albums, really rings out in concert. If you ever want to accuse Springsteen’s tunes of all kinda sounding the same, much of this is due to Weinberg and Bittan. Why does the Meat Loaf album “Bat Out Of Hell” sounds Springsteen-esque a lot of the time? Well, these two guys played on it.
This is, admittedly, just trivia, but one thing that struck me in Brooklyn was how much schtick was involved in the show. Bruce doesn’t banter much, but he and his best buddy Steve shout pre-rehearsed lines at one another, they mug for the crowd, and, at one point during the show, they and saxophonist Jake Clemons start imitating three of the greatest Jewish sages in history: Moe Howard, Curly Howard, and Larry Fine. (You can see that at around the seven-minute mark here.) It’s a stretch to call the Springsteen show Yiddishkeit, but when 20,000 people exit an arena walking on air, it’s impossible not to call it righteous.
It’s a stretch to call the Springsteen show Yiddishkeit, but when 20,000 people exit an arena walking on air, it’s impossible not to call it righteous
It’s entirely possible that this is the last large-scale tour we’ll get from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. No one’s getting any younger, and organizing something like this isn’t like heading down the road and jamming at a bar. Notably, backing vocalist and guitarist Patti Scialfa, also Springsteen’s wife, has been mostly absent on this tour. (Even without her, there are still 18 people up there when you count the entire horn section.) She’s a new grandmother, and maybe schlepping from Brooklyn to Cleveland then back to Long Island is less appealing. Maybe this is foreshadowing.
But if I came away with anything from Monday, it’s that experiencing “Bruce Springsteen live” is one of those rare things that lives up to the hype. There weren’t many stagecraft tricks and the setlist, with one or two tweaks, is the same night to night. It’s just pure energy, fan euphoria, and a lot of earned sentimentality. Two of the newer tracks, “Last Man Standing” and the closer, “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” are raw songs about aging and death. The first is about the shock of losing someone, the second is about acceptance.
The show concludes with a moment of grace, warmth, and joy. “The E Street Band loves you,” Bruce says, and he means it. “Glory days, they’ll pass you by,” we all sang as one just a little while earlier. But “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” written almost 40 years later, recognizes that any day above ground is a glory day, so long as we work to make it one.
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