Who's the Boss
"A Springsteen show is like Paris," The Spin emailed someone in the hours before Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band took the stage at Bridgestone Arena last Thursday night. "See it and die satisfied." A whiff of mortality colors a Springsteen show today the way clouds of green smoke once affected his Municipal Auditorium shows back in the '70s. The music still sounds terrific, the band still fires on all cylinders like the great sky-pawing beast of a machine it is, but your mood is definitely altered a little. In a good way, The Spin would argue, still high from a three-hour-plus set made all the more moving by the band's invocation not just of shared history, but of a common fate.
Even without the late Big Man and Danny Federici — who loom in the show not so much as absences but phantom presences, licks or flourishes you sometimes hear even though they're not there — the E Street Band lineup was unusual, missing key players and making unusual substitutions. The band, that fascinating organism of equal parts sports team, long-running family drama and traveling tent revival, bears additions that represent every stage of Springsteen's career, like rings in a tree trunk: guitarist Nils Lofgren from the Born in the USA switchover, violin player and vocalist Soozie Tyrell from the Lucky Town wilderness years, the Dixieland horn section from the Seeger Sessions project. The latest is former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello — probably not the first name you'd pencil in for the redoubtable Little Steven Van Zandt while he's off shooting Lillyhammer.
It works, though, for the same reason the shows themselves are such a jubilant spectacle: They contain multitudes, and within their sprawl there's room for all. Springsteen, yeoman percussionist Ernest Bradley and the E Streeters set the show's tone with the urgent, defiant optimism of the cover that gives the new High Hopes album its title. Yet the response it got from the full house doubled in volume once "Professor" Roy Bittan sounded the familiar piano chords of "Badlands." The sound of 15,000 people singing those fist-pumping "whoa-oh-oh-ohs" in unison was the first in a night full of heart-swelling communal moments.
Springsteen knows his spells by heart, and he knows they work: the obligatory may-I-have-this-dance routine in "Dancing in the Dark," the obligatory audience-sung verse to "Hungry Heart" — hell, the obligatory "Hungry Heart." If anything, they work too well — that's a lot of obligation. During the lengthiest working-the-room moments there were times Springsteen appeared reduced to a prop in an endless procession of audience selfies. At times, the stiff-legged, geezerly trudge he affected early on — as in an epic "Spirit in the Night," where he played his age for laughs by slumping mid-song (and mid-arena) into a conveniently materialized director's chair — didn't seem entirely an affect.
What kept the show from lapsing into a shtick marathon was Springsteen's unmatched ability to create a sense of intimacy and one-on-one engagement in the vastness of an enormodome. (Case in point: the "Dancing in the Dark" routine, which became sweetly amusing once the chosen dancer stopped the show to negotiate getting her mom onstage instead. The punch line was even funnier: Each demanded her own selfie.) No other artist — with the possible exception of Bono — has so boldly explored the arena-rock grand gesture as an artistic form in itself, down to the thrill of those bellowed "HAH-WAHN! TWO! THREE!" count-offs. Springsteen did this most affectingly on The Rising album, using the stadium-pitched incantation as a rhetorical device to raise vanished loved ones, lost rescuers and the hopes of a stricken city.
He turned to that device repeatedly Thursday night, invoking the anthemic exhortations of "Land of Hope and Dreams," "Waiting for a Sunny Day" and The Rising's goosebumps-raising title track to get audiences of young and old shouting as one. The cumulative emotional effect was like the gradual swell and crash of a wave. There was little obligatory about the set, which was filled with curveballs and unexpected selections. With the arena floor divided into two general-admission sections by a mid-arena runway, Springsteen used an unexpected stage dive to gather fan-made request posters to his chest as the crowd passed him along over its head. From those, he selected a cover he said the band had performed only once before, Elvis' "Burning Love."
Better (and more surprising still) was a cover of "Satisfaction" with a pre-teen girl selected from the crowd as his duet partner. (Throughout both numbers, E Street bassist and part-time Nashvillian Garry Tallent must've thought he was back in the Long Players.) A two-song nod to Nebraska climaxed with a blazing "Johnny 99" as the horn section led by star-in-the-making Jake Clemons teetered on the stage's lip, gunning the song's motor with a swaggering "Night Train" riff. By this point, it was clear the 64-year-old frontman was pacing himself like a canny athlete; to drive the point home, he later slithered down the mic stand in a frankly erotic backbend, parallel to the floor on the toe tips of his boots as the crowd uttered a gasp that can only be described as orgasmic.
Many of the night's most chill-inducing moments came from less familiar, more socially conscious material: the Amadou Diallo protest anthem "41 Shots (American Skin)," the solemn Vietnam Memorial ballad "The Wall," which Springsteen introduced with a eulogy for fallen Jersey friends that hushed the crowd. "The Ghost of Tom Joad" is a song that has stubbornly failed to ignite for The Spin, either by Springsteen or by Morello solo. We're not sure we could have taken Morello's jaw-clenched earnestness and rock-face guitar acrobatics on his own — in his nightwatchman's garb, he sometimes resembled a progressive action figure The Nation might give away with subscriptions. But the energy and camaraderie he inspired from Springsteen, standing shoulder to shoulder with cocked arm pumping like a piston, electrified them both; it made the song a live showstopper.
Even the hits offered some surprises. By the time the band polished off the climactic trifecta of "Born to Run," "Dancing in the Dark" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" — a song that has morphed over the years from origin story to eulogy to "look how far we've come" — the sea of extended hands and straining fingers across the arena looked like a wheat field in a windstorm. The fact that Springsteen is still capable of surprise after all these years, while delivering elements fans have come to rely upon the way lovers of Westerns await shootouts at high noon, speaks to his mastery of the concert as an art form. In a sense, he's the Bill Clinton of rock stars — without you, he's nothing. And yet he's attentive enough to seize moments of spontaneity fronting a band the size of an FBI task force. There's something thrilling about a guy barking "E flat!" at roughly a dozen people and expecting order to result, like hearing a man at the helm of a locomotive holler, "Turn left!" As for the selection itself, who ever thought anybody could again make "Shout" something more than a frathouse reunion-band cliche?
Time throws you off a rooftop the day you're born, and the fall you have to the pavement is called a life. The Springsteens of the world are there to remind us the object is to never stop kicking and punching and straining for the sky, all the way to the inevitable finish. You can complain Bruce Springsteen mugs too much, indulges too many little kids and weepy middle-aged moms, does too many of the same things again and again. You know who else you can make that complaint about? The people who inspire the most love from you — the people who have demonstrated their resilience, and their willingness to be there for you even when it's not convenient, and who have lifted their chin to face the hard times we know will eventually have to come.
The Spin was thus happy not to be the only person who got choked up when a little-girl guest singer handed the featured attraction's tambourine back to him, to his clear surprise, only to have him offer it to her to keep. And we were happy not to be the only person brushing away tears at the night's overwhelming benediction, an acoustic "Thunder Road" full of ache, shared experience and tenderness. Nobody ever left a Springsteen show feeling alone.
The Hardest Record to Record
On Record Store Day 2014, Jack White performed, recorded, pressed and released the "world's fastest studio-to-store record," a live rendition of his forthcoming LP Lazaretto's title track, and he did it in — according to White's Third Man Records website — three hours, 55 minutes and 21 seconds. Indeed, White and Third Man have established a sort of spotlight-stealing, go-big-or-go-home modus operandi when it comes to Record Store Day. This year (after a breakfast for the early-bird fans), White kicked things off with an exclusive performance in TMR's Blue Room.
After hustling past the gathered throngs and through Third Man's Oz-like entrance door, The Spin found ourselves in the room with a couple hundred high-dollar-ticket-purchasing superfans and members of the press, all bathed in a disorientingly blue light. At 10 a.m. We can't really use the word "disorienting" enough here. We were sealed in, and Third Man co-founder Ben Swank took the stage to briefly explain the process and lay the ground rules: Jack and his band would be playing "Lazaretto" and the 7-inch's B-side (a cover of Elvis Presley's "Power of My Love"), both of which would be recorded live to acetate on a lathe visible through a window behind the stage. Then, as the lacquer was making its way to United Record Pressing just a few blocks away, White & Co. would play a full set. Also, Swank explained, a no-photography/no-cellphones-for-any-reason policy would be strictly enforced.
White's band — mostly familiar faces from members of either his all-male touring band, The Buzzards, or his all-female touring band, The Peacocks — took their places, before the man of the hour made his entrance, flanked by a pair of dudes clad in CHiPs-esque highway patrolmen uniforms (one of whom was TMR co-founder and White's nephew, Ben Blackwell). Arranged in a sort of semicircle behind White, from left to right, the band included: powerhouse drummer Daru Jones; longtime White friend and collaborator Dominic Davis on bass; the new-to-us Scout Paré-Phillips on vocals and autoharp; ubiquitous local sideman Fats Kaplin (who White joked was simultaneously cutting a collaboration with Buddy Miller while onstage) on steel, fiddle and mandolin; Cory Younts on mandolin, harmonica and vocals; Lillie Mae Rische on fiddle and vocals; and the inimitable Ikey Owens on keys.
The band warmed up with "High Ball Stepper," the recently released instrumental number from Lazaretto. Then, the "Cutting" light over the stage — which Blackwell had referred to as the "panty-dropper" when leading a press walk-through the previous day — flipped on, and White and his Buzzards/Peacocks (shall we call them them Buzzcocks? Is that name taken?) plunged into the song of the day. "Lazaretto" is a characteristically White-ian blues-rock number filled with quick-spitting, sung-spoken vocals. But more than the song itself, we recall the nerve-racking sense of pressure that loomed as the acetate's cutting was being overseen by Nashville Record Productions' George A. Ingram. Nevertheless, the song seemed to go off without a hitch — really though, who can say, since no one had ever heard it before. White & Co. followed that with the aforementioned Elvis cover, on which onetime Black Belle Olivia Jean played baritone guitar. The song, White would later explain, had originally been considered for Wanda Jackson's JW-produced The Party Ain't Over, but it made a lot of sense in the hands of the former White Stripe. Like his "Love Interruption" from 2012's Blunderbuss, "Power of My Love" anthropomorphizes the very abstract and lofty concept of love — puts it in visceral terms, even fights with it.
At that point, the lacquer was out of White's hands, on its way to United Record Pressing as part of a "police"-led caravan. He could head over and micromanage all he wanted after his set, but in the meantime (rather than "going back to sleep"), he opted to lead his band through nine more songs — White Stripes, Blunderbuss and brand-new tunes among them. The fiddle on "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" sounded like it had belonged there all along. There was "Three Women," a song about three simultaneous love interests (a blonde, a brunette and a redhead), for which White moved over to keys. There were the classic Stripes cuts "Hello Operator" and "Hotel Yorba," the former of which White let the elated crowd take lead vocals on. There were two more new songs — "Would You Fight for My Love" and a suitably classic-Southern-rock-y "Just One Drink" — and "Love Interruption" with Rische singing the female vocal originally performed by Ruby Amanfu.
By 11 a.m., White had left the stage, and we were turned out to rejoin the rest of the proletariat. Naturally, the Third Man superfans were all lined up at a booth out front awaiting the single's arrival, where they'd remain until around 2 p.m., when the "Lazaretto" 7-inches reached the premises. Some might say the prohibitive expense of such a show and, let's be honest, the full-on gimmick of making the "world's fastest record" don't exactly jibe with the inclusive, DIY spirit of Record Store Day. But White and his bros built TMR from the ground up with the intention of giving their fans precisely what they want. As long as the fans keep showing up in droves and walking away clutching their special releases in (sometimes literally tearful) glee, we'd say Third Man is giving the people what they want. And as long as White & Co. keep giving local up-and-comers opportunities to perform at and issue releases through TMR, The Spin will keep on giving them the friendly neighborhood thumbs-up.
Visit Nashville Cream to see The Spin's recap of Record Store Day at Fond Object, The Groove and Grimey's.