New York City Serenade

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Madison Square Garden, 7 November 2009
The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

The title of the record tells you the story: The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. It is the story of Sandy, Kitty, Billy, Rosie, Spanish Johnny and Diamond Jackie. It is an album of epics. It is not an album of half-measures.

This is why there was both a full horn section and a string quartet onstage this evening. Walk tall, or don’t walk at all, as the song goes.

These were the songs you always wanted to hear, the big legends, a million words spilling out. It was an enormous album to wrap your head around the first time you heard it. It was equally enormous to sit there and take it all in as it was being played in front of you.

Bruce took to the front of the stage, a conductor’s baton in one hand. He introduced the record, explaining that it was about both New Jersey and New York, tapped the baton on the mic stand, and turned around to conduct the horn section in the cacophony that opened the record, note for note. Once that had been completed (to his utter satisfaction, judging by the look on his face), he turned around and turned into the boy prophet.

I confess I am not a fan of “Sandy”. I always thought the hubbub around it was just the tiniest bit exaggerated. It is a tough song to place in a set. Tonight it was delicate and lyrical, Roy Bittan handling Danny’s accordion role with aplomb. (Roy was running a marathon tonight, since he had to handle all of Danny’s parts on this record, and there are a lot of them.)

I love “Kitty’s Back” but agree that sometimes a 9 minute free jazz exploration in the middle of a Springsteen concert in a large venue might not be the best way to go. Kitty can lose focus. Kitty can be scattered. Kitty has been none of those things since Curt Ramm came onboard for the album shows and with a full horn section, Kitty’s Back reclaims its rightful place. Watching Bruce facing the horn section, conducting them into their parts, in order, was worth the price of admission. By the end of the song, every person in the Garden was up and paying attention and singing “Oooh, it’s alright” like they sang it a million times before.

I worried about “Wild Billy”. I worried about it something fierce. I worried about “Wild Billy” and how people can’t just sit still and listen to a quiet and unfamiliar piece of music, and I was not wrong. But it was also “Wild Billy” and there’s a tuba on the stage and a little bit of Asbury Park magic was conjured in that moment tonight.

It feels greedy to be able to compare versions of “Incident on 57th Street’; the one I saw sitting behind the stage in Montreal 03, when Bruce played the piano, is up there, but tonight I felt like “Incident” truly stepped up and stretched to its full height, that it got to take up all the space it needs. I don’t think it’s ever not compelling, but tonight it was majestic.

I held my breath as Roy played the piano refrain, knowing what was next, waiting for it – and then, just when people were starting to get a little ansy at so many ‘quiet’ songs, the guitar chords and the house lights and it was the best “Rosalita” you have ever seen. I don’t care where you saw it before and that you met your husband there or you saw God or stood next to Brad Pitt or whatever. “Rosalita” can feel perfunctory. “Rosalita” can feel workman-like. “Rosalita” coming after “Incident” and with “Serenade” still to come kept it focused and on track and truly celebratory. I know it rarely came out of “Incident” live, but it has been hard to find its place in the modern era. You watched the entire Garden go apeshit to “Rosalita” and you thought, “Yeah, I *really* get this fucking song now.” You remember what it used to be like.

And then, Bruce dons a 12 string guitar, and Roy settles in behind the keyboard, and all you can do is pray that the yakking dudes three rows behind you will need to take a leak or get another beer or that somehow Bruce will be able to make enough noise to carry you into “New York City Serenade”. I have never seen “Serenade”: I have always missed “Serenade” by one show. It is still rare enough that it’s not like I feel I was slacking or something, but it did start to feel that I might not ever see it; on the other hand, I was glad that Bruce held his ground on this one, that it didn’t get dragged out anywhere but New York (or Philly, and yes that does make perfect sense).

You wonder how he will find the emotional space. You wonder how the band will recreate it. You suddenly see a spotlight on a string section and you don’t consider it too closely, you just go with it. You close your eyes a little bit to let yourself sink into it more, to hear it better. It is like words washing down over you. It is what you thought it would be like but it is also nothing like you thought it would be like. It is enormous. It is stunning. I was behind Roy, and got to watch his hands on the keyboard the entire time, which was yet another level of astonishment.

By the time it was done, I was ready to sit down and breathe. The aftertaste presented by the infernal palate-cleansing “Sunny Day” didn’t matter, it could have been anything. I just wanted to sit and let it sink in.

I would like to report that the rest of the show was equal to the album, and from a performance perspective, this band has not been this good in a very long time. Every performance from here until the end of the tour will be a 10. However, the setlist – full of hits and crowd-pleasers (with the exception of a stunning “Human Touch,” the best I have seen yet) and “Bobby Jean” AND “Glory Days” seemed to not be as strong as the album at its center. Even the requests (and, seriously, people, requests? At these shows? How greedy do we have to be?) All was forgiven, however, when the horns came back out, along with one Elvis Costello, to sing “Higher & Higher,” closing the loop on the Apollo Theater conversation. This has become the theme song for this tour as far as I’m concerned, and I hope they play it all the way until Buffalo.