If workers at the United States Census 2000/ Denver Bureau had really been thinking, they would have moved their tables from the entrances of Alfalfa's and the Cherry Creek shopping center and placed them in front of the Pepsi Center last Thursday and Friday nights. That way, the combined total of more than 30,000 upper-middle-class, middle-aged white people who attended two sold-out concerts by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band could've been accounted for in one fell swoop, thereby giving a little bit of relief to the United States Postal Service. (I think we all know what happens when those people get tired and overworked.)
On Thursday night, Springsteen and the E Street Band successfully, passionately delivered a bona-fide rock show that was lovingly received -- at times frighteningly so -- by its audience. Afterward, praise for the concert included decrees that Bruce had almost single-handedly proved that the heart of rock and roll is indeed still beating. Never mind that it beats in a vacuum. In many ways, the show was a pleasant, enjoyable, rollicking nostalgia trip -- a return to stadium rock and an entire era full of memories. But Springsteen has always offered audiences much more than just pleasantness -- he is perhaps one of the few remaining performers we can look to for authenticity, for daring, in an increasingly commercial musical climate. Both elements were plentiful the last time he took his show on the road -- for a limited number of solo, acoustic engagements in support of the quiet, simple and haunting 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. That tour, which may have disappointed some fans who longed for Bruce's heartland rock in all of its raucous, anthemic glory, found Springsteen connecting with his audience in a way that he only hinted at last week in Denver. The Tom Joad shows felt intimate, felt reciprocal. Bruce backed up his reputation as a musical populist by standing alone on a dark stage -- devoid of flashing flood lights, guitar histrionics or a cast of characters -- and just performed, relating to and with a crowd that breathed it in like oxygen. In between songs, he told stories -- small, human tales about people he'd met out on the road, something that had happened when he and a buddy went walking around in the woods, playing guitar at a biker bar in the middle of nowhere -- before launching into breathtaking, full-voiced, emotive versions of Joad material. In that setting, as he played "Youngstown" and "Across the Border" accompanied by just one guitar, you wondered how one man could create so much powerful sound.
But while Bruce and the band did a fine job of filling the vast space of the Pepsi Center with powerful music, rare was the moment when the performance rattled the senses or awakened the heart in new ways. It was almost as if Bruce was out to prove he could still pull it off -- still roam the stage with the vigor of his younger days, still command the attention of thousands for three whole hours, still tear it up on guitar and sing through the night at the top of his voice. He can still move -- as he demonstrated throughout the evening, particularly when he assumed a comical baboon posture and seemed to challenge the audience to a fistfight. "How many of you are alive?" he asked repeatedly before launching into a revivalist litany about the power and the glory, the power and the glory of rock and roll. Yet Springsteen was unquestionably preaching to the converted -- 17,000 people who seemed to hang on his every word, so long as it was loud and followed by an acrobatic guitar solo or something worthy of a raised Bic. Whether he was guitar-dueling with Nils Lofgren on "Light of Day," sharing a microphone and a harmony with Steven Van Zandt on "Two Hearts" or sauntering seductively on up to Patty Scialfa during "Ramrod," Bruce exhibited a rock-and-roll work ethic that's increasingly rare in live performance, particularly among the reunion crowd.
But Springsteen is not just getting older, he's getting old -- a fact illustrated in full Pixelvision by a gigantic video screen hovering over sax player Clarence Clemons (who seemed nearly as large as the video screen itself), which found him resembling Johnny Cash more than the bearer of the famous backside on the Born in the USA album cover. Considering that Springsteen hasn't released a full-length album of original material in five years -- not since Tom Joad, which was hardly a commercial blockbuster -- the current tour seems almost like an attempt to keep the Boss's party going, even in the absence of anything new to celebrate.
Yet strong new work isn't a prerequisite for perpetuating the Springsteen myth. That's a dilemma for an artist whose tendency is to push boundaries, but who's allowed -- even encouraged -- to rely on existent material. In his own way, Springsteen is the world's most famous crossover artist -- both a balls-out rock musician and a good ol' boy, a blue-collar loyalist with a million-dollar smile. He is as much of an American icon as his Levi's, yet he has made a career of championing decidedly personal themes and anonymous people. So while much of his music remains, admirably, informed by and rooted in the stories and turmoils of America's working class and rural poor, he's a commodity of interest to people who have little relation to or comprehension of the kind of things he's singing about. It's a dichotomy that's sure to rear its confused little head from time to time -- as it did on Thursday night.
In 1984, when a then-in-his-prime Springsteen and the E Street band embarked on the epic Born in the USA tour, the crowds were all blue jeans and handkerchiefs, baseball caps and Budweiser. In the lobby of the Pepsi Center, it was leather coats and namedropping, people sipping lattes, fer cryin' out loud. It seemed that Springsteen -- a songwriter who primarily toils in life's difficulties -- was drawing crowds of people for whom the phrase "getting your hands dirty" means there's a little too much finger grease on the cell-phone keypad. Not exactly the audience that Springsteen -- a champion of veterans, laborers, farmers -- sought to connect with in the early days. One has to wonder, for example, how "The Promised Land" -- a song rooted in the small-town frustration of endless work, confusion and pain and the dream of something better, faith in redemption in the face of it all -- resonated with a crowd of thousands who appeared to be comfortably detached from such a rigorous day-to-day existence. "Mister, I ain't a boy, no I'm a man/And I believe in a promised land," he sang on Thursday night, and it sounded like an affirmation of the place where this crowd already lived.
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Though Springsteen has managed to avoid the crass commercialism of some of his peers in the rock-and-roll-revival movement -- Plant and Page, CSNY, for example -- there's more than a touch of nostalgia in what he's doing on the current tour. Near-nightly renderings of recognizable fare like "Two Hearts," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Badlands" indicate the Boss is not interested in using this tour to break new material, or woo new fans. Maybe it's a concession to those who were disappointed by the Tom Joad tour. Maybe Bruce knows full well what happens when he strays too far from the familiar: People talk, get up for beer or to pee, they look anxious, they sit down.
Sure, Thursday's crowd went wild with adoration. From the first moment when the lights dimmed and each of the E Street bandmembers made their individual entrances -- waving, smiling, saying hello, like Disney characters greeting a crowd of sugar-high children -- it was clear that the people who'd trudged down the night's snowy roads were more than happy to do so. There were high-fives shared during particularly impressive guitar solos offered by Bruce, Lofgren or Van Zandt; there were many audience incidents of unapologetic air guitar. During loud, rocking numbers -- which dominated the 23-song, three-hour-long show -- there were more raised fists than at an Aryan youth rally. Even inside the isolationist corporate boxes, folks were rocking with abandon, going for it, man. Yet in quiet moments -- such as during the understated "Youngstown," or the acoustic rendition of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" -- attention waned noticeably. Which is too bad, considering that the acoustic moments were among the night's most enjoyable glimpses of Bruce at his concentrated, earnest best, such as the twelve-string, inverse reading of "Born in the USA," on which Bruce emphasized the song's wrenching, weary verses rather than the unmistakably familiar chorus. To hear him reclaim the song from those who interpreted it as a patriot's rallying cry was to be reminded of the power inherent in so much of his music: that is, his ability to frame a human story in the context of song. It was a moment that was over much too quickly (as was his almost obligatory nod to the Food Bank of the Rockies -- despite his plea for audience members to remember the Food Bank by making donations on their way out, the crowd coughed up a measly $400 over two nights; for their part, Springsteen promoters donated sets of auction tickets, which netted more than $8,000). Soon, the volume was again cranked, the guitars again plugged, and a bloated version of "Backstreets" assured everyone that the performance wouldn't wander too far away from its rock-and-roll center.
Springsteen's original vision may have been to reach as many people as possible with his music -- not for the sake of Elvisian infamy, but to communicate his words. To remind us of just how very far from the so-called promised land so many of us are, to remind us how many dreams die, to remind us to feel something once in a goddamned while. Now realized, his vision seems as much like a curse as a blessing. He can pack any house in the world, practically (or ten houses in a row, as is the case with a series of upcoming concerts at Madison Square Garden). Trouble is, crowds of thousands don't trudge through rain and snow and pluck down big-time money to listen to someone's words -- just ask Steven Spielberg. Springsteen has reached an audience of millions but has become all but inaccessible to the very people who populate and haunt his creative mind. As he asks in "The River," another song he performed on Thursday night, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true? Or is it something worse?" All these years later, he still doesn't seem to know the answer.