Could they still do it? Could Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, four decades (more or less) in, still bring their legendary intensity and joyousness to a live concert? As a fan — perhaps acolyte is more like it — of long standing, I’ll admit I did have some small measure of concern Tuesday as I made the 30-mile drive to the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands.
I needn’t have worried.
From the moment Bruce and the gang appeared on stage, it was apparent to the full house under the massive canopy and on the gigantic lawn under a cool, clear Texas sky that after a five-year absence, they were going to give their loyal Houston audience (more on that later) a very special show.
The band immediately ripped into the raucous, angry “Seeds,” the only song, I believe, that Springsteen has ever set in H-town, about displaced workers during the oil-bust ’80s (Of course, Houston and Texas don’t exactly have that problem in today’s shale boom era). That was immediately followed by “High Hopes,” the title track from his most recent album and “Badlands,” from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, both among Bruce’s pantheon of songs about ordinary people searching for meaning amidst “trouble in the heartland.”
[Special thanks to Dave Meek, who obviously had a much better seat than me, for permission to use his excellent YouTube videos.]
As has been his wont over the past several tours, Springsteen took several requests from the audience in the form of large placard signs. The first of these was the fierce “Adam Raised a Cain,” born of his troubled relationship with his father, an exemplar of Bruce’s ability to marry his social concerns with the personal.
That was followed by the Born to Run standout track “She’s the One,” one of Springsteen’s most urgent songs of desire. As the band started to pound out the song’s famous Bo Diddly beat, Bruce paid homage by singing a bit of Buddy Holley’s “Not Fade Away.”
Throughout the show, Springsteen was in a relaxed and playful mood between songs. He took up what he called “a challenge” from an audience member who claimed “One Step Up” hadn’t been played by the full E Street Band since the 1988 Tunnel of Love tour (the first time I saw him, in fact). Bruce joked up front that “We don’t know this one. But I think we can get though it.” Then he and the band — now augmented with a full horn section and several backup singers — played the earnest ballad, ending with Bruce sharing a beautiful vocal duet with wife Patti Scialfa.
“Good call, good call,” Bruce told the requester.
Since the band didn’t come through Houston during it’s 2012 tour for Wrecking Ball, they made up for lost time with a one-two punch of that album’s title song (a kind of odd anthem written in the narrative voice of the now-demolished Giants Stadium in Bruce’s home state of New Jersey) and “Death to My Hometown,” an angry take on the Great Recession written and performed in the style of an Irish protest song. Later, they performed “Shackled and Drawn,” with the band sounding at first like a 19th Century jug band before the big horn section segued into a New Orleans brass band sound.
Among the members of that horn section is saxophonist Jake Clemons, the nephew of Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011. As Bruce’s main onstage foil during the band’s long career, Clarence’s contribution to the sound of the E Street Band was immeasurable, a fact not lost on the Boss. It seems after the loss, Bruce decided the band needed to be reconfigured. Jake performs the old sax solos perfectly well and has some of his uncle’s physicality. But if he doesn’t quite have the charisma of the Big Man, well, who among us does?
In a night of special moments, the absolute highlight of the concert for nearly everyone was “No Surrender,” the paean to teenage defiance from the seminal 1984 album Born in the USA. Bruce called up to the stage the song’s requester, a skinny teenager who was joined by another young men who might have been his brother. The two
kids proceeded to take command of the stage, singing with unabashed gusto and wrapping their arms around Bruce and guitarists Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello. During a Texas political campaign year when anti-immigration rhetoric is in full swing, the fact that the teenagers young men were Hispanic lent the tune a special context. [UPDATE/CORRECTION: The Houston Chronicle, citing the fan site Backstreets.com, later identified the two as Alex Flores, 28, and his brother, Tommy, 16.]
Speaking of Morello, this was the first time Houston has seen him with the E Street Band after he joined up to stand in for “Little Steven” Van Zandt, Bruce’s longtime best friend who’s now got other commitments in television and radio. Van Zandt’s absence was felt, to be sure, but the younger Morello — who has a prominent presence on the latest album — seems to have added some new vigor to the band. In “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” the almost gymnastic flourishes he performed on his guitar — including pulling out the instrument’s jack and playing it on his hand — were simply amazing. His guitar, by the way, has the inscription “Arm the Homeless,” just about as provocative as Woody Guthrie’s “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
Not that Lofgren (who originally took Van Zandt’s place when he left the band during the massive “Born in the USA” tour) has anything to worry about. Now sporting a leather top hat, Lofgren was an onstage dervish. During the very welcome rendition of “Light of Day,” (best known as the title song of the old Michael J. Fox/Joan Jett movie), he and drummer “Mighty” Max Weinberg had an absolutely killer duet.
Springsteen’s loose mood even allowed him to joke about the early ’90s period when he essentially broke up the E Street Band and moved from New Jersey to California. During that time, he simultaneously released two separate albums of mixed success, one of which included “All or Nothing at All,” a very fine rocker that he assured the audience they would enjoy.
“It’s a sleeper. It’s a sleeper, I’m tellin’ ya,” he joked afterward.
I hadn’t expected the band to play “The Rising,” from the 2002 album of the same name that was Bruce’s painful examination of the 9-11 attacks and their aftermath, but it was a rousing rendition nonetheless, one of his best later-model anthems.
Texas troubadour Joe Ely, sometimes member of the Flatlanders, joined Bruce onstage for a couple of tunes harkening back to the earliest days of rock ‘n roll — Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and Little Richard’s “Lucille.”
Of course, there was no way the audience was not going to get “Born to Run,” the Boss’s all-time signature song. That kicked off an extended run with all the house lights ablaze and a wave of good feelings.
A lot of people have issues with “Dancing in the Dark,” the pop-ish first single from Born in the USA that was accompanied by the famous video that replicated a Springsteen concert. (According to the Dave Marsh biography Glory Days, Bruce wrote the song in a huff when manager Jon Landau insisted the upcoming album needed a sure-fire hit.) In the years since, Springsteen has replicated the video itself by pulling a woman onstage for a dance at the end. He did the same here, but the moment was very charming indeed, particularly since the woman, while very nice, didn’t exactly look like a young Courtney Cox.
Bruce’s ability to appeal to all ages was evident when the band launched into “Rosalita,” another of his classic romantic rave-ups. Beside me on the hill, an entire family including two adolescents, danced together joyfully.
Everybody was on their feet — hell, they were throughout almost the entire show — for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which now includes a brief video homage to the late Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici, who’d died a few years earlier. It was a touching moment indeed.
In every previous Bruce concert I’ve attended (this was my sixth), there were at least two encores. But after a stupendously great rendition of the old Isley Brothers rave-up “Shout,” the band quietly walked offstage.
And then something really magical happened. Bruce came back alone, with an acoustic guitar, and quietly told the audience how about how much he and the band and enjoyed being welcomed to Houston during their first legendary Liberty Hall gigs almost exactly forty years ago. He recounted how the band — after briefly swearing off traveling by airplanes — took the train from New York during a particularly hot and sticky summer. (He told the same story during the band’s 2000 reunion concert, which I reviewed for the Daily Cougar here.)
Then, strumming the guitar and playing his harmonica, Bruce launched into one of the loveliest renditions of “Thunder Road” I’ve ever heard, slowing down the tempo from the full-band version on Born to Run. The entire audience quietly sung along. At the end, Bruce hummed the part that Clarence Clemons used to play on his sax. It was perfect.
Let’s not let another five years go by this time, OK, Boss?
Copyright © 2014 Ken Fountain. All rights reserved.