Basement Songs: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Live at the L.A. Sports Arena, 4/15/09

Written by Basement Songs, Concert Reviews, Music

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imgoindownsinglecoverI wasn’t supposed to be at this concert. A conscious decision was made not to spend money on a ticket to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band when they landed at the L.A. Sports Arena in support of Springsteen’s new album, Working on a Dream. No, I wasn’t supposed to be there, but Springsteen’s outstanding Super Bowl halftime extravaganza occurred the night before tickets went on sale. When that show concluded and I’d informed Sophie that I wouldn’t be in attendance at the April 15th show, she looked at me with pleading eyes and said, “But you have to go, Daddy, you just have to.” The next morning, after tickets were nearly sold out, Julie called me up to see if I’d purchased a seat. Upon informing her “no” she simply said, “Dude, you can’t miss Bruce.” It’s as if they both could see that maybe my soul needed some uplift and that maybe I would get that injection of life from the heart-pounding, soul-stopping E Street Band. While I still had Julie on the phone, I bit the bullet and bought my ticket.

As a general rule, when seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert, I do not check out the setlists from any show leading up to the one I’m attending. The thinking is that I don’t want to ruin the surprise of what Springsteen will be playing. However, I’ve been to enough of his shows to know that the Boss is constantly calling an audible, and lately he’s been taking requests from the crowd and pulling out rarities on a nightly basis. I decided to approach the evening differently. Instead of blindingly entering the venue without any idea what would be played, I decided to be informed — to embrace the ritualistic aspect of Springsteen’s performance, and offer an objective review for the Basement Songs a mere seven hours after the show wrapped. Going into last night’s show, I was well aware of the standard setlist and which songs would probably get played.

Still, I expected a different feel from the Bruce and the band on this night for they are a different E Street Band than the one I saw in Anaheim in April of last year. First and foremost, Phantom Danny Federici has passed away after a valiant fight with cancer. Charlie Giordano is now the resident organist. Additionally, for this tour the E Street Band is complimented by backup singers Curtis King and Cindy Mizelle (veterans of Springsteen’s 2005 Seeger Sessions tour), brought along to help recreate the beautifully layered harmonies heard all over Working on a Dream.

Speaking of Working on Dream, I happen to like this album a great deal. It’s no masterpiece in the ranks of Darkness on the Edge of Town, Tunnel of Love, or Magic, but it is a record filled with wonderful melodies, insightful lyrics and a couple of classic E Street Band selections. Sure, there are a couple of clunkers, but Working on a Dream is nowhere near as bad as some would have you believe. What I’ve always drawn from Springsteen’s music, what I feel his best songs tell us, is the theme of resilience. Whether it’s socially, politically, or with affairs of the heart, Springsteen’s underlying optimism shines brightly throughout Working on a Dream, especially in the title song, “My Lucky Day,” “This Life” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” As our country continues to gather strength in the face of an economic crisis, Springsteen is one of those artists we need out there providing us with inspiration, giving us comfort and lifting our souls.

Before the concert, I received an extra surprise when my good friend Jon Cummings phoned, offering me his wife’s ticket — at no cost. What luck! After finally making it to the Sports Arena, I met up with John and we entered the venue, but not before I gave my ticket to some young woman wandering the parking lot looking for a spare ticket. I think she was a little stunned when I actually gave her the ticket and didn’t want any cash. This little pay it forward was worth it as the seats Jon and I sat in were awesome, the closest I’ve ever been at a Springsteen show. By the time the lights in the sweaty, decrepit Sports Arena shut off, everyone in the audience, from the aging hippies to their cell phone-wielding peers, to the thirtysomethings twittering throughout the show, to the third generation fans — sons and daughters of the E Street, if you will — were ready to rock. The band came out (they don’t really “hit the stage” anymore, they kind of saunter) and kicked things off with “Badlands.”

Honestly, I’ve heard “Badlands” a thousand times, and the song still moves me. It’s one of Springsteen’s best anthems and if it always remains in his sets, I won’t be bothered. Immediately following “Badlands” was “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” which was sung with more intensity than I’ve heard Springsteen sing it before. Perhaps the tabloid gossip about his personal life has hit a nerve, because he seemed pretty pissed off during the number. From there, the show settled into a great, tight concert, the kind of non-stop, full throttle performance by Bruce and the Band you’d expect. I swear, despite the fact that Clarence Clemons needed help around the stage and Bruce seemed winded after every couple songs, you wouldn’t know everyone was in their mid-to-late 50s. I pray I have that kind of energy in the next 20 years.

The highlights of the show were the numbers that weren’t “standards,” so to speak. You expect to hear “Born to Run,” “The Promised Land,” and “The Rising,” but “Seeds” (only ever released on the Live 1975-1985 box set), and “Johnny 99” are pretty much obscurities for the casual fan. Those two numbers proved to be showstoppers as the E Street Band shifted into roadhouse rockers. “Seeds,” in particular, featured some fine organ work by Giordano. Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine was once again present to rock out “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” just as he did last year in Anaheim. The band was tighter this time around, but Morello decided to melt our minds with an even more insane guitar solo than lat year’s to end the song. From there, the show went from “the sublime to the ridiculous,” Springsteen announced, as they pulled out “I’m Goin’ Down” from Born in the USA. Hearing that throwaway song reminded me of Steve, our departed friend, Jeff, and the summer we wasted time counting the number of times “down” is sung when we should have been working. I nearly called Steve just to hold up my cell phone for a few minutes. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any reception.

Then, two requests from the crowd brought us all to a frenzy: the Eddie Floyd soul classic, “Raise Your Hand” (a staple of the ’70s Springsteen shows) and the essential “Spirit in the Night.” Suddenly, this particular concert felt like it would be something very special. But the energy dropped suddenly when he returned to the regular setlist. Maybe it was me, but it felt like playing the requests and playing the obscure songs gave the band an opportunity to have more fun. While “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” and “The Promised Land” were well played, they seemed a little… routine. Then again, I was just one in the audience. There were thousands of others who were moved to tears and looking on with pleading eyes as Springsteen shook hands, jumped in the crowd and passed the microphone to people. With Bruce in full-on rock and roll preacher mode (a persona he established during the 1999 reunion tour), fans were grabbing for salvation, praying he could give it to them. Is it possible that I didn’t need as much saving as I thought? As tough as times have been for us in our household I’ve never felt closer to Julie, Sophie and Jacob; knowing that we have each other has given me immense strength in troubled times.

The truth is, I didn’t get the same lift I’d hoped for at this Springsteen show. Yes, I was blown away by hearing “Racing in the Streets” live for the first time, and “The Wrestler” moved me to tears, but something was missing. That something was my family. The music of Bruce Springsteen has become such a source of comfort, inspiration and joy in our household, not having my wife and children with me made me, well, a little lonely at times (no offense to Jon, who tolerated my hopping around, fist-pumping and screaming). The next time I see Bruce and the band, I believe I want to experience it through Sophie and Jacob’s eyes. I want to see how they react to the musical legend standing on stage singing, along with all of the musicians they know by name (really, how many kids know who Nils Lofgren is, like my kids do?)

Parting ways with Jon after the show, I wandered around looking for my car for 30 minutes, while carrying the concert shirts I bought for Sophie and Jacob. It was then that I concluded that although this was an exceptional concert, it was not one of my favorites. At this point in my life, the hope I’m looking for and the comfort I need isn’t going to be found in songs and music. It’s going to be found in the open arms and warm embraces of my family.

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