Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Madison Square Garden, 4-6-12
Madison Square Garden is still one of the grand rooms of rock and roll. Magic can still happen there. You expect magic when the E Street Band is in the house on a Friday night, and things certainly began with a take-no-prisoners opening: “New York, New York” on the PA, and instead of the band taking the stage in darkness and Bruce coming to the mic for his “Star Time” intro, the band walked on with the house lights full up and slammed straight into the most balls-to-the-wall version of “Badlands” within recent memory. Immediately, the entire Garden was on their feet, screaming every single word, everyone, in the cheap seats and the luxury boxes, leaning over the balconies.
The lights didn’t come down until “We Take Care of Our Own,” which had fine recognition, and “Wrecking Ball” resonated well. “Out In The Street” was a fantastic choice for the what-would-have-been-the-#3-spot, Bruce working the back of the stage (not that he had to work it much). That was, however, a little bit of a tough transition into “Death To My Hometown,” which has grown on me, but I think they’ve taken the song as far as they’re ever going to take it.
“My City Of Ruins” was preceded by a rap about those who came from the bridges and the tunnels, which meandered through Live In New York City territory (the Statute of Liberty, Frank Sinatra, the Giants, etc.). It is show #5, and I am still choked up at the spotlights on the organ and where the saxophone used to be, but probably definitely here of all places.
A steady drumbeat made me think “Sunny Day” had either moved up on the setlist or that I had lost track of time, but the first chord of “Murder Incorporated” had the opposite reaction, jumping up and down with both arms aloft. The highlight of this number was an incendiary guitar duel between Bruce and Steve (yes, you read that right) that caused SVZ to have to re-adjust the babushka afterwards. “Johnny 99” remains a highlight due to the horn arrangement, but, once again, the backing vocalists are just too much.
“Jack of All Trades” does not stand a fighting chance, no matter how well it is sung or performed. Curt Ramm turns in a superlative performance, full of color and tone, each and every night, and Bruce’s vocals are compelling. But half of the audience is talking, checking email, or getting beer. “Shackled and Drawn” made a welcome return to the setlist next, and I still do not know why it ever left. This song in particular provided an outstanding opportunity to watch Bruce lead the band. You know about the details, you know how he does it–guitar neck in the air, boot heel coming down, tilt of the head, a significant nod–but my right-behind-Max seats offered a unobstructed vantage point to see this in action. I never get tired of watching him work. Another highlight of this number: Garry Tallent on backing vocals!
Nothing in the world could have prepared me for what was next, which was none other than “Lion’s Den”. After I got over my initial shock and delight, I salivated at the thought of being that close to the horns to watch them perform on this particular number. Steve was grinning ear-to-ear the entire time. I thought the transition into “Easy Money” worked well.
From “Sunny Day” onward, that’s where the train went off the rails a bit. We saw the setlists come out before the show, and then we saw them replaced only minutes before the band came onstage. My collaborator had a pair of binoculars with him, and carefully noted both setlists, and the changes even within those setlists. (I won’t steal his content, so you can go to his site and read about it.) This was unfortunate because I believe it did detract from the show’s energy at this point. Don’t get me wrong, it was still a great show – but you always expect so much (and rightfully so) from a MSG show.
During the Apollo Medley, Bruce did not just drink one beer out at the center platform tonight, he drank two, and dozens were held aloft around him after that one. (This recent innovation makes me indescribably nervous.) I wonder at what point he decides that the crowd surfing is no longer a sufficiently efficient mechanism to get him back to the stage; everyone just wants to watch or photograph it, not participate. It takes a long, long time to get him there. Selfishly, of course, I just want him to be able to stand there and sing Wilson Pickett without any distractions.
“American Skin” was on the setlist, but not in the spot it was played in, right after the medley. This pissed a lot of people off, not because it was “American Skin” (although there was plenty of that), but because it was, plain and simple, buzzkill after the medley. It feels like Bruce is still trying to figure this part of the show out. As much as I love hearing him sing “634-5789,” maybe it’s time to try something else: “Talk To Me,” “Hungry Heart,” “Ain’t Good Enough For You,” “Lyin’ In A Bed Of Fire” (okay, maybe that last one ranks in fantasy land. Maybe if there’s another show on Steve’s birthday). That still won’t make the next spot problematic. I think there needs to be something between shiny happy people and big and serious.
“Lonesome Day” into “The Rising” is another slot that, while performed well, feels perfunctory on some levels. These songs need a rest. “Long Walk Home” or “Last To Die” would be even more topical and fill the role of Playing Recent Material that The Rising songs do. Or at least just play one of the two, not both. I wonder if it was because we were in New York; I wonder if he feels like he has to play those songs here.
However, “Rising” into “We Are Alive” is a segue that works respectably well, except that he absolutely loses the audience because he has to pause to switch to the acoustic for “We Are Alive”. But for every idiot sitting down, talking and eating popcorn (I’m not making this up), there were people on their feet with their arms in the air, singing every word. The record is still new, maybe by the summer it will feel more familiar to people and be less of a lull in the set.
“Thunder Road” this tour does for me what “Born To Run” has done for me on other tours, it’s that great communal moment with the crowd, houselights up, people hugging and high giving and singing along as loud as they can. Tonight was Jake Clemons’ best “Thunder Road” solo yet. He is getting stronger and more confident in capturing the tone of the original notes, although he has the world’s hardest job at the moment.
It is tough to go from that into “Rocky Ground,” and this remains the place where Bruce shares a few words with the crowd–it does bother me that he keeps forgetting to acknowledge the food banks consistently, tonight especially, WHY Hunger was in the house–but “Rocky Ground” remains a highlight. It was not the strongest performance I have seen, but it was worthy of the room, and I thank deities every show that he has not dropped it from the setlist.
(Come home, “Land of Hope And Dreams,” all is forgiven.)
“Kitty’s Back” was the MSG rarity tonight, and despite the multiple “Rosalita” signs of varying size all over the arena, I was glad for another opportunity to see this particular number blossom with this incarnation of E Street. It is just so tight, so sharp, so well-executed, the solos are on point, it swings, it moves, it breathes, but it does not get lost and does not lose the crowd.
I would like to hate the “Born To Run” / “Dancing In The Dark” / “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” encore but I cannot. I cannot ever get tired of ‘Born To Run,” I try to have some fun with DITD (tonight the dancers were one of Pam Springsteen’s children, and a repeat appearance from Adele–who, I am happy to report, does the whole ‘tramps like us’ bit during BTR). This was my first Tenth where I had a reasonable angle on a video screen, and the second show where the video tribute to Clarence was played at the appropriate moment.
I have to confess, when I heard about this the other night, and even after I saw it, I had the same reaction that I did to the tree and the bear during the BITUSA tour, which was high dudgeon that suddenly our imaginations were not good enough, that we needed an actual dude in a bear suit and an actual dude in a tree costume and an actual gypsy woman; e.g., did we need to see Clarence on screen? Was there any chance that anyone in the venue would not know what that moment was supposed to be about?
And then, tonight, I saw it, and I wept openly, tears running down my face, crying like he had just passed and we were seeing this for the first time. The clips chosen are moving, they are chosen deliberately and carefully. I love that Bruce is going into the audience for Tenth because he wants to watch them and he wants to watch us watch them, and be surrounded by us while all of this is going on. I think sometimes about this tour, why is he working so hard, but it is because there is just so much space to fill, that even a 17-piece band almost cannot do it.
As the crowd filed out of the venue tonight, and walked down the stairs toward Seventh Avenue, little pockets of people started singing the “Badlands” reprise. It was tribute, it was celebration, it was not wanting the night to end. It may not have been a perfect show, but it was more than good enough.
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