Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Philips Arena, Atlanta, GA, 3-18-12
There has been so much Bruce Springsteen in these past few weeks, what with late-night telly vision and satellite radio and keynote speeches and album releases that you would think I would be ready, that I would be prepared, that I would not burst into tears the minute the lights went out and everyone started filing into place onstage. The stage is dark and one by one everyone takes their places and then Bruce steps into the center and the lights come up and there they are. I was happy that none of the above spoiled that feeling of being there the first time they walk out onstage, at that first show, at the first thing that is ours, that belongs really and truly to us, to the fans, and not to the media or to industry tastemakers or studio audiences.
We are in Atlanta and when Bruce starts the “Star Time” introduction, the significance is not lost on me, even if I think that Steven needs to do it, even if I am reminded that if Clarence was here, he would be doing this. I wonder if this will be a regular thing or if he is thinking that he is in Georgia and this is the home of James Brown (which he definitely was thinking, given that the song right as the lights went out was “I Feel Good”) and I was just reading about this very thing a few hours earlier in R.J. Smith’s amazing new biography of James Brown, the genesis of the introduction on the stage of the Apollo Theater for the live album.
Then, Nils hits the guitar effect and here is “We Take Care of Our Own” kicking off the tour. It’s loud and strong and will only get better. “Wrecking Ball” is going to grow on me even if I wince at the verses, even if I do not think the horns are high enough in the mix for my liking. But “Badlands” is giving me goosebumps, “Badlands,” of all of the things that could cause me to have an emotional reaction. It was knowing that it was going to be “Badlands,” it was the tradition and the ritual and it was also a damn good version of “Badlands”. Jake Clemons was brought down for the solo, and unlike some of the shaky (in my opinion) performances at the Apollo, tonight he nailed it.
“Death to My Hometown” is enormous, the loudest thing you have heard, everyone on full throttle. Bruce does some ridiculous Irish jig during it. I am happy for “My City Of Ruins” but I want to hear the song from start to finish, I want to hear Bruce sing the hell out of it, I want to hear the voices on that song. I do not dislike the roll call and the “is anyone missing” and the statement of purpose (tonight adding a promise to “stimulate your sexual organs”) and I think it is important to acknowledge the missing folks early on, and repeatedly, but I wish that “My City Of Ruins” did not have to suffer as a result. Bruce notes that they had recorded several records in Atlanta and a note about the tour starting and “let’s see if this thing works.” I can’t believe he is still at all wary of it not working, after everything so far.
(If you think you are not going to get choked up at the “Is anyone missing?” moment because you heard it on the Apollo broadcast, just one word of warning: you still will.)
An audible is called and “E Street Shuffle” comes next, and it works, you would think it would be just unfamiliar enough to throw off many in the crowd but there is enough energy and activity and the horns coming down and the conga solo by The Unknown Percussionist (I know who he is but wonder when Bruce will ever introduce him) and I still wish the horns were louder.
“Jack of All Trades” becomes the exodus up the aisles that I feared it would, despite it being a tremendous, compelling performance. I never thought he would play it in an arena and yet here he is, playing it and making it work. The only element I find particularly unfortunate are the people cheering the “If I had a gun, I’d shoot ‘em on sight” line. The segue into “Seeds” is nothing short of brilliant, a moment that makes you hope for the rest of the setlist, that he’s finding the threads and pulling them together. I notice women sitting in seats not far from me eating popcorn and yawning.
Bathed in green, Bruce moves to a mic on a the platform front and center (shorter than previous tours, with companion platforms down at either end of the stage) and after a second you realize it’s “Easy Money,” with distorted vocals (think bullet mic from Devils & Dust without the bullet mic). Patti is brought down to sing it with him, but whenever I looked up at the video screen to get a front-end look at what was going on, she seemed just the tiniest bit confused about what she was supposed to do. Out of all the new songs played tonight, this one felt the roughest, but feel like it’s just a matter of time.
“Promised Land” felt equal parts welcome and worn out; I am still of the mind that it could use a little hiatus from the set. Next, all the vocalists came down front and Bruce talked about the Apollo and soul music again, the same rap he did on the radio broadcast, taking us into the same medley from the Apollo. I can’t really complain about hearing the E Street Band do “The Way You Do The Things You Do” or “634-5789″ but yet I am going to complain about it because I could list several dozen Bruce Springsteen originals I would have rather heard at this particular point in the set than a medley of cover songs. Everyone I have talked to about this all said the same thing, that this is the point in the set that they would have expected to hear some of the material from The Promise, like “Save My Love” or “Talk To Me.”
“Shackled and Drawn” was hands-down amazing, paced and executed perfectly, even if there was a little too much ass-shaking (in what I call Bruce’s “Louisana Hayride” moves). “Lonesome Day” into “The Rising” next seemed puzzling; not sure where the former came from, and the latter doesn’t feel like it’s at the right point in the set. “We Are Alive” into “Thunder Road” was brilliant, another segue that made you nod knowingly and shake your head in wonderment.
The beginning of the encore was worth the trip, worth the price of admission: “Rocky Ground,” with Michelle Moore herself along for the ride, lives up to all of your expectations and then some. It is amazing that there will be a new Bruce Springsteen song that I will wait for like anything I have loved for the past 35 years, that will be that moment where you will want to be in your own little bubble and breathe it and feel it and wrap it around you. By the time “Land of Hope And Dreams” started, my immediate reaction was, “Oh, I forgot we still had to get to this!” It works so well, the band have to work hard and Bruce is conducting it and coaxing them and directing everything, he is more focused than I have ever seen him. It is an unbelievable 15 minutes.
And then: “1, 2″ – “Born To Run,” finally, I want to think he saved “Born To Run” for us, for that moment, that time in the show where people jump up and down and run around and high five their friends and throw their arms in the air. I heard it being soundchecked while waiting in the GA line inside the arena and I was not unhappy to hear that it was back.
“Dancing In The Dark,” on the other hand, did not seem necessary, not when followed with “American Land,” Bruce looking tired at this point, the song seeming to go on and on and on, and just when I thought it was time to start saying goodbye, the boyfriend flashes 10 fingers at me and I think, “Now? We’re going to do ’10th Avenue’ now?” Sure enough, here is “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” resplendent with horns (but still! not enough!) and I stood there with my fist raised in the air as high as it could be, and stomped my feet and jumped up and down when Bruce sang the line and held the microphone in the air, as high as he could, and gestured for more applause, and more applause, and he blinked once or twice and I was sure that it was just the lights or dust or humidity, for sure, and we all cheered and yelled and shouted some more, shouted as loud as we could, shouted until our throats hurt and our voices were raw. This is the best thing he does for the Big Man, the best thing for us, giving us the coda of celebration after the earlier acknowledgment of all that is missing.
There is more to say, but it is the first show, and only the first show. This is enough for now. See you tomorrow from Greensboro.