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The Boss Rises Again: Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band Live In Sacramento

by Jason Warburg

They tried to draft Bruce Springsteen last year. A group of New Jerseyites got it in their head that what their state really needed to turn things around was for Springsteen to represent them in the U.S. Senate. That idea only seems preposterous if you have never seen the man live in concert. For there may be no one in the history of rock and roll - hell, the history of popular music - with this man's ability to inspire.

As he has throughout the 2002-2003 tour supporting his Grammy-winning album The Rising, he arrived in Sacramento, California last Wednesday night with the entire reconstituted E Street Band on board to deliver a performance that achieved the man's own vision of what a rock concert should be: "part political rally, part dance party, part religious revival."

It was the first date back in the states for the band after a month-long swing down under to Australia and New Zealand. When Springsteen left, the U.S. was engaged in a tense standoff at the U.N.; while he was gone we attacked Iraq and he began opening shows with "War" -- as in "War / What is it good for? / Absolutely nothin' / Say it again," the ferocious Edwin Starr standard he first played live back during 1984's Born In The USA tour. At home, popular opinion about the war remained divided despite the steady success of the military campaign. How would Springsteen bridge that gap in front of a home crowd, while remaining true to his principles?

His approach was, typically, both passionate and ultimately unifying. With the war nearing its close, he opened with an acoustic rendering of "Born in the USA" that has become familiar to Springsteen-ites but was likely foreign to most casual fans. With the anthemic electric guitars and keyboards removed, the song was stripped down to its bare bones and revealed once and for all as the bitter lament of a war veteran battered by the ravages of combat both abroad and at home. With the often-misinterpreted chorus excised, the song emerges as a gripping plea for the salvation of the narrator's soul. Bringing the full band into play, Springsteen followed with a ringing, memorable rendition of the CCR classic "Who'll Stop The Rain," an anti-violence hymn you can sing along to.

The remainder of Springsteen's two-and-a-quarter-hour main set was a challenging mixture of familiar classics and a substantial cohort of songs from The Rising, an album that interweaves desolate laments with a steely backbone of hope. The title song in particular translated beautifully to the stage, the crowd singing along like it had already taken its rightful place among the band's classic numbers. Springsteen and the E Streeters also offered strong readings of Rising tracks "Lonesome Day" (a reflective rocker) and "You're Missing" (one of his most affecting ballads). The album's lone upbeat party-number "Mary's Place" offered time later in the set for band intros and a hilarious little mating dance Springsteen presented to wife/background vocalist Patti Scialfa ("She's being cool about it, but this always works at home!").

The clear highlights of the show, though, remained the old classics. The leadoff track to 1978's seminal Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the ringing "Badlands" retains every ounce of its desperate determination 25 years later, the crowd singalong toward the end swelling like a gospel chorus. Moments later as they pulled out old nugget "She's The One," a secondary track from 1975's breakout hit Born To Run, drummer Max Weinberg's hammering fills brought the crowd energy to an early peak. (If there was ever a vote for Most Improved Over The Years among E Streeters, Weinberg would win hands down. He started out in 1975 solid but unspectacular. Today he is simply the best there is in rock'n'roll when it comes to plastering a 4/4 backbeat across the audience's brainpan.)

 

Stunning is the only way to describe Springsteen and company's rendition of the operatic "Jungleland," also from Born To Run. From the gorgeous opening piano melody played by Roy Bittan, to the stylized Leonard Bernstein street-fighting verses, to Clarence Clemons' magnificent sax solo, right down to Springsteen's soul-baring moans over the closing notes, it's a song designed to enthrall that still succeeds in doing so a quarter-century later.

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E Street guitarist Nils Lofgren and Bruce Springsteen get it together at Arco Arena. Photo courtesy of Sacramento Bee (Anne Chadwick Williams).

The first set of encores quickly moved into the heart of Springsteen's catalog, an energetic full-band reading of "Thunder Road" dropping right into an all-out houseparty on the rave-up roadhouse rocker "Ramrod," featuring that hammering backbeat, great turns by Roy Bittan and Danny Federici on piano and organ, another tasty sax solo from Clemons, and a seven-bandmember conga line circling the stage. By the time they finished the crowd was -- despite an average age hovering in the late 40s -- ready to tear the roof off the place. There was never any question what had to come next.

"Born To Run" was, well, " Born To Run." Springsteen wrote it in 1974 as "my shot at the title, a 24-year-old kid aimin' at 'the greatest rock'n roll record ever.'" Whether he succeeded is still the subject of debate, but the song remains almost three decades later one of the most succinct and complete renderings of the poetry, majesty and sheer power to thrill that rock and roll can be.

During the second set of encores Springsteen made his only overt reference of the night to world events. Introducing "Land of Hopes and Dreams," a soaring, gospel-tinged anthem of salvation, he said "Tonight our prayers are for peace and for the safety of our sons and daughters and the Iraqi people." And there it was -- the bridge across that gap. He spoke his mind, no one walked out, and the party went on.

Suprisingly, the soundtrack for the last ten minutes of the show was taken entirely from Born In The USA. First came a brilliant reworking of "Dancing In The Dark," that dated '80s synthesizer sound banished for good and replaced by dominating guitars and organ over a jacked-up backbeat. With just a few adjustments the song went from swaying melancholy to a flat-out rocker. For all-out goofy fun, though, it's tough to beat closing with "Darlington County," complete with all the "sha-la-las" the audience could possibly take. Hoarse, spent and all smiles, the crowd headed home with a bounce in its step. Some of us even felt a little inspired. And in a cynical world, that may be the highest office an artist could ever aspire to.



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