Women in Music 2016

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Return to 'The River,' Beckon L.A. Crowd To Be 'Transformed'

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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performs at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on March 15, 2016.

“Are you ready to be entertained?” Bruce Springsteen asked the crowd soon after his Tuesday night concert at the Los Angeles Sports Arena kicked off. There was irony in his tone -- that’s a question that’s been asked and fully answered more than a few times in the very hall where he stood -- but his follow-up sounded more like a challenge: “Are you ready to be transformed?”

Putting that responsibility on thousands of strangers is what has always set Springsteen apart -- and the implication is, if you’re not going to buy into the entire “spectacular” (his word), you may as well leave now. Cut to three-and-a-half hours later, near the close of his uninterrupted set, when he demanded at three different points, “Have you got anything left?”

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The taunts were thrown into the pummeling end of the show’s 14-song "hits" segment, which had followed a faithful recasting of 1980’s The River as a rambling bar-band opera chronicling our hero’s (and in many cases, our own) coming of age.

It’s a question we increasingly ask back to our arena-level performers, especially the ones who reached artistic peaks in the now antique-seeming era of the long-play record. Can the old chestnuts still engage? (Spoiler alert for those attending Thursday and Saturday’s upcoming, sold-out shows -- the audience, presumably including attending NASCAR racer Tony Stewart, lustily sang almost as much of “Thunder Road” as The Boss did.) But just as vital a question regarding the 21-song barrage that’s the opening River section -- the songs delivered in sequence as they first appeared -- could he, and we, find transformation together?

The answer for me came with a sense of déjà vu, having gone on the road with Bruce and the E Street Band (then less numerous than Tuesday's 10-piece ensemble) in the winter of 1980 and into 1981. Though the double album had already spawned the hit “Hungry Heart” and was heading for No. 1 on the album charts, his faithful audience was still absorbing the darker themes glinting through the ballads tucked amidst the boisterous cuts. Could the title song, along with other emotional drill-downs like “Point Blank,” “The Price You Pay,” and the album’s gritty, emotive capstone “Wreck On the Highway” be embraced amidst Bruce’s rollicking concert canon?

A lengthy and much-lauded concert tour proved they could. As the band punched out the invariably fine shows through the Midwest and Northeast, this visitor fell in with the road crew, taking notes along the way and finally sitting in a Buffalo hotel room until near dawn with the man himself. As he said then in a theme he’s returned to recently onstage and in interviews, The River was about “going inside,” leaving behind the lonely “samurai record” that was Darkness on the Edge of Town and finding commonality with his maturing fellow citizens.  He was among (oh, dire phrase) the boomers who also were seeking ways to balance work and creativity with real life connections -- ones he said he was “frightened of” -- like marriage. The album is suffused with a sense of mortality; “The clock was ticking,” Bruce says of the realizations that started piling up as he obsessively stockpiled some 70 songs even as his 30th birthday neared, then passed, in September 1979. Somewhere in the wee hours as we looked out over Lake Erie, he summed up: “There ain't a note I play onstage that can't be traced directly back to my mother and father."

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His Sports Arena show would pivot from a hard-rocking start into his saga of his withdrawn, working-man dad as unfolded in “Independence Day” (a song he identifies in the illuminating documentary in The River’s 35th anniversary box set as not bitter, but a leave-taking).

When an assassin shot John Lennon the December night before the Philly concert, the band awaited news of a cancelation. But Springsteen told Steve Van Zandt, "'This is what John Lennon inspired us to do and now it’s our job to do the same thing for these other people, that today it was Lennon and tomorrow it might be me’ … that’s how he does every show, like it was his last.”

A hinge point in any Springsteen set is “Badlands,” a hymn of defiance and hard-won joy (“It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive”). In the raw, energetic 1980 Tempe, Arizona, concert that’s part of The Ties That Bind set, Springsteen laments Ronald Reagan’s ascendancy the night before. Perhaps surprisingly, on this Super Tuesday, he had not a word to say about any politicians on the national horizon.

Having closed Giants Stadium and honored it with “Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen spared a thought for the arena where he stood, one he’d nicknamed “The Dump That Jumps,” and jump it certainly had. Throughout his set, what might have been nostalgia -- guest Sly Stallone tweeted out a memory of shooting Rocky segments in the place -- emerged as celebration.

Part of what stirred Tuesday’s roaring crowd at the Sports Arena was the barnstorming preacher in Springsteen, the one who asked us along on the transformative ride through “marriage, work, love, faith, death” and “the consequences and responsibilities” that come with them.

The band can be a locomotive, and a heartening aspect of that is seeing young Jake Clemons, now on his third tour since taking over sax duties for his departed uncle Clarence, getting showered with audience affection.

Some of The River’s guitar workouts like “Out in the Street” and “Crush On You” (Springsteen suggested he’d leave that off the album in favor of the urgent, apocalyptic “Roulette” if given a do-over) slogged a bit compared to versions that had been recorded in rough-and-ready studio sessions featuring what Springsteen calls “the noise that creates mystery.”  But with the singer skipping merrily (and repeatedly) through the crowd slapping hands and crowd-surfing, the excitement seldom lagged. “The ballads are the heart and soul of the album,” muses the songwriter in the documentary, and after delivering “Stolen Car” with a method actor’s grimness and bouncing through “Ramrod,” he took on the set’s final three cuts.

With those last three tunes, the perhaps risky dare to perform all 21 songs stood answered in full. The closing verses of “The Price You Pay” (“Little girl down on the strand… do you remember the story of the promised land?") emerged in Springsteen’s resolute vocal as both melodically alluring and poignant.

For this writer on the road that winter before and after Philly, the album closer “Wreck on the Highway” was the key -- etching what Springsteen calls “a reckoning this character has with themselves on a particular evening…” In a performance marked throughout by tenderly phrased singing, for an album he’s called “emotionally autobiographical,” it was the quiet winner. And anyone who wasn’t feeling at least a little bit transformed had only themselves to question.