Live in Oakland
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Reviewed by Steven Rubio
Monday, November 8 1999, 9:59 PM
In 1978, midway through a ten-year stint working as a steelworker, I adopted Darkness on the Edge of Town, the then-current album by my favorite musician, Bruce Springsteen, as a personal marker. There was a lot of anger in that album, as there was a lot of anger in my life, and I fed off the emotions of the album, in particular those in "Badlands," where the narrator just wanted to "find one face that ain't looking through me." Happily for myself, those factory days are long gone, but my attachment to Bruce Springsteen is as strong as ever. And as I listen now to "Badlands" I see more clearly than in my younger days how much hope is contained in that angry song. Eric Alterman chose a line from "Badlands" as the title of his new book on Bruce, a line that could stand as a motto for fans attending the current tour of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive."
While Bruce is a remarkable artist, no serious discussion of his work can ignore the importance of his fans to ascertaining the Meaning of Bruce Springsteen. Many of the best writing on Bruce understands this, including Alterman's semi-confessional tome and Daniel Cavicchi's dissertation-turned-book, Tramps Like Us: Music and Meaning Among Springsteen Fans. For this reason, and also because Bruce is well-known for his powerful live performances, a new Springsteen tour remains an important cultural event, even fifteen years after the height of Bruce's popularity. Only in concert can the relationship between this artist and his audience be fully appreciated.
The current tour, which I caught for three shows in Oakland at the end of October, features the reuniting of Bruce with the E Street Band, his compatriots for more than a decade who had not worked with him, outside of one-shots, since 1988. Any such "reunion tour" leads to understandable concerns about pandering to nostalgia (someone, I believe Ken Kesey, once defined nostalgia as "looking at the past through eyes covered with bullshit"). Springsteen is fully aware of this, and so he and the band purposely set out to perform something more than a nostalgic romp through past hits. He does this, even though the closest thing he has to a new album to push is a career-spanning box set of older material; he does this even though the very fact that he is back with the band that accompanied him to the top of the pop world in the mid-80s creates a nostalgic cloud over the tour.
In order to avoid the trap of playing retread versions of old hits, Springsteen avoids both his most popular album, Born in the U.S.A., and his supposed Greatest Hits album. Indeed, of the 41 different songs that Bruce performed over the three nights in Oakland, only 10 came from those two works, meaning the casual fan who knew only those career "highlights" would not have recognized 75% of the material played at the concerts. Furthermore, by changing the setlist extensively from one show to the next (11 new songs on Night Two, 6 more on Night Three), he accepted the fact that many fans in the audience were coming to every show.
The concerts, taken on their own, are marvelous. The E Street Band is better now than they used to be, and Bruce sings better than ever, which astonishes those of us who expressed concern before the tour that he couldn't sing rockers anymore. While the 50-year-old Springsteen is not as spry as he was in the legendary days of 1978, he still brings a strong physicality to the show, along with the expected total commitment to his fans that he has shown throughout his career.
Nonetheless, it is more accurate to say these shows are different from the past than to say they are better. The band may have improved with age, but hearing "Thunder Road" for the 23rd time is not going to carry the same elements of surprise and even danger that accompanied the first times we heard the song. Bruce has constructed a show that emphasizes a particular theme, one of rededication to community, over any artistic needs to present new, fresh material. Of course, many of the older songs feel revitalized in their current versions, and the occasional new (or rather, less old) song adds to the overall quality of the shows. Ultimately, though, what makes or breaks these shows, given that Bruce Springsteen continues to be apparently incapable of playing a bad concert, is the audience, and our relationship to Bruce.
And the audience gets an A+. At times, we were more fired up than even the highest moments of olden-day tours. Songs like "Born to Run" weren't just oldies played for the thousandth time; they were ritual elements in the Church of Bruce, and the overall experience, fed by Springsteen's overpowering evangelical preaching, was as much a revival meeting in the religious sense as it was a "reunion tour." Audience participation at the level of a Bruce show almost requires a long history behind it: there's a magnificence to the singalong "Out in the Street" that requires the audience know every single word and every single ritual gesture, that demands we give in to our history. At such times, it hardly matters whether or not the version being played on the stage is "better" than the one the band played in 1980, nor does it matter if the foregrounding of old material is something less than risky artistically. What matters is that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive, what matters is being a part of a community, temporary in a specific sense but with potential for growth if these fans take the joys of community with them when they leave the concert. (That this is difficult to achieve is addressed with power and intelligence in Joe Sartelle's piece for Bad Subjects, "As If We Were a Community." That it is impossible to achieve is still in question.)
So Bruce Springsteen constructs a show around a theme of rededication to community, closing each night with the only new song on the tour, "Land of Hope and Dreams," where there is room for everyone, sinner and saint, sending the audience off with the promise that "dreams will not be thwarted, faith will be rewarded." Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will move on to other towns, where they will work their magic once again. The true success or failure of the tour, however, will only be felt by the communities within which Bruce fans live their daily lives. If, having been saved by Bruce, we merely return to our former ways, then the concerts are nothing but a good time. But if we strengthen our ties to our communities, what kind of a concert do you have then? One that saves.