finding trancendence: springsteen rehearsal shows

Paramount Theater, Asbury Park, NJ
22 April, 2005

My expectations for this show – what little there were – were joyously blown to smithereens the second it began. After Bruce greeted the audience (invoking the Tom Joad rules), a rhythmic backing track came through the PA. He stood centerstage, silhouetted in the spotlight, crouched over and began to play vicious searing blues harp, and began to sing– okay, it was more like a testifying, shouting blues, processed through a distortion effect that echoed the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. It took several lines of the song until I realized he was singing “Reason To Believe” because the song bore no resemblance whatsoever to the original version on Nebraska – but yet it would have fit Nebraska perfectly in that it was haunting and possessive and impactful and utterly mindblowing. I was absolutely transfixed and astonished and delighted.

So when he picked up the acoustic guitar and stood center stage and began to sing “Devils & Dust,” the unconventionality and surprise of the first number meant that you were already viewing the performance through another lens whatsoever, and all bets were off for the rest of the night. Almost every song was a highlight, a gleaming jewel in the crown that was this performance. “Long Time Coming” was as triumphant and joyous as it should be, “For You” as heart-wrenching. I’m not a huge fan of “Part Man, Part Monkey” but used as a political platform and performed in a psychobilly style that Lux Interior of the Cramps would have applauded, it was kind of hard not to like it.

“Further On Up The Road” never realized its potential as a rocker; it usually ended up plodding on the Rising tour, and when it started to be cut from the setlist, no one really minded. I think he’s found the answer in the acoustic version, which had no pacing or plodding problems. The other new songs held up more than admirably; I do wonder if “Reno” will last in the set simply because he seemed to have trouble getting the rhythm just right (and not for any other reason. It’s a good song.) “Maria’s Bed” was sweet, and “The Hitter” felt more comprehendible than it does on record.

But, of course, the two real Moments in the show, two once-in-a-lifetime chances, are the ones that will stay tucked in my heart. The first one came out of nowhere, a mention that it was a favorite of “Mr. Lan-DO” and that some guy had yelled it out the night before — nothing could have possibly prepared the audience for the third performance ever of “Real World”. If you only know this song from the record, I don’t blame you for saying “so what” – if you ever heard it live, on the bootleg from the Christic Institute benefit shows in 1990, then you know that it is almost another song entirely.

I wanna find some answers
I wanna ask for some help
I’m tired of running scared
Baby let’s get our bags packed
We’ll take it here to hell and heaven and back
And if love is hopeless hopeless at best
Come on put on your party dress it’s ours tonight
And we’re goin’ with the tumblin’ dice

Those words were written pre-therapy, at least 15 years ago, even before his first child was born, when Bruce was just starting to realize he had questions that needed answering. And the best of his work since then, in my opinion, has been the exploration of these very grown up, very adult issues, of having “run way out of road” (as he referenced it at the Somerville shows in 02). He sang it like he meant it in 1990 and in 2005, there is a whole other layer of understanding and joyful acceptance, having lived it for more than a decade. The performance – Bruce at the grand piano – playing with strength and proficiency, an instrument that he has worked at for years and always feels slightly less than competent at. Some of the best moments in concert over the past five or so years have been when he sits down at that piano and is able to find the same connection with the instrument that he does with the guitar, when everything flows and he can let go and his voice is sure and his playing matches it and everything just soars above and beyond and for one moment or two you have found sheer fucking transcendence.

Which is how it was for “Real World” last Friday.

And while that alone would have been more than enough, he had to sit down and play a song on solo piano that he has never ever played on solo piano, and give away more than a few secrets about how it was written (and I love this stuff more than the average bear, I realize this): how there were originally two versions, one with a girl and one without. Bruce related how Obie (long-time veteran Springsteen fan) said, “I like the one with the girl,” and that when he played it for Steve (Van Zant), that Steve said that he liked the one with the girl because that’s what happens in real life. You can have the boys’ club for a while (“And we’ll ignore the homoerotic tendencies,” Bruce joked, causing me to erroneously write down “Backstreets” in anticipation — long-time Bruce fans will get that joke) but then one day, the girl comes along, and it changes everything.

I don’t even know that I have the words to adequately describe hearing “Racing In The Streets” on piano. It is such a dramatic song that sometimes I wished there wasn’t so much music behind it, so I could concentrate on the words and absolutely feel the emotion in the lyrics pure and unadulterated. On piano, it was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the movie switches from black and white to Technicolor, the story felt bigger and a thousand times more vivid in my head. All I could wish was for time to stand still at the end, wishing that we had one of those endless rising codas that happened from time to time on the Rising tour (never got to see it, only hear it), because I never wanted it to end. The fact that he can continue to imbue songs from 30 years ago with such genuine emotion — whether or not it’s the same emotion that was there when he wrote it is irrelevant — is equal parts magic and artistry. But mostly magic.

There is a sense of calm and self-awareness, mixed with a healthy dose of humor, reflected from Bruce onstage in the past year, starting with Vote For Change, and most evident both at Storytellers and Friday afternoon in Asbury Park. It’s clearly the product of someone who has lived and examined his life, most likely the fruits of both the therapy he went through in the 90’s and just plain old living and getting to his particular decade.

The show is powerful, relevant, enjoyable, challenging. It won’t make the fans coming to hear “Thunder Road” very happy, but for those of us who want to see Bruce continue to grow and take chances and evolve, this tour has surprisingly turned into an important part of Springsteen’s musical history instead of just a footnote.

Reason To Believe
Devils & Dust
Lonesome Day
Long Time Coming
Silver Palomino
For You (Piano)
Real World (Piano)
Part Man / Part Monkey
Maria’s Bed
Highway Patrolman
Racing In The Street (Piano)
The Rising
Further on Up the Road
Jesus was an Only Son (Piano)
The Hitter
Matamoros Banks
Waiting On A Sunny Day
Bobby Jean
Promised Land