Waiting in line outside the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA, milling about with hundreds of other hungry fans, I suspected that the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert I was about to attend would be much different that the L.A. show I saw back in October. The Honda Center (formerly the Arrowhead Pond) is a newer sports arena, one with deluxe suites, padded seats and air conditioning. You may think I’m joking, but the L.A. Sports Arena, where the October show took place, is a sweltering old gymnasium. I left that show ten pounds lighter. As security guards outside the Honda Center checked each concertgoer with hand-held metal detectors, I feared that a subdued Orange County crowd might drag the show down. I was wrong. Very wrong.
First of all, my seat was choice. 17 rows off the general admission floor, I was close enough and centrally located so that I wouldn’t have to rely on the huge video screens that hovered over the stage. Next to me sat an older gentleman and his wife, possibly in his 60s. He had balding white hair, a bit of a scowl and hearing aids in both ears. I thought, “Great, I’m stuck next to a grandpa who’s going to sit through the whole show.” Man, was I way off base. This guy and his wife were long time Springsteen veterans having been to several shows, including the 1984 massive L.A. Coliseum show. “That was probably before you were born,” she said to me. I laughed, assuring her that, oh yes, I’d been born all right (and stuck in my parents’ basement discovering music). This friendly couple was also attending the next night’s gig, as well. By the end of the night, I would be very jealous of them.
All day long my excitement had slowly built. The nearly five months between making a lucky purchase and the actual show had only slightly dampened my excitement. Throughout the weekend, I would stop Julie at random moments and say, “Hey, I’m not sure if you heard, but Springsteen is Monday.” As if I would let her forget. Still, I had decided weeks ago not to expect the type of experience I’d had back in October. That show had been transcendent; I doubted anything could reach its level of excellence. I just wanted to enjoy myself. Moreover, my workday had been frustrating and exhausting. Would I be able to really enjoy it? Yes. I knew the moment that I sat down and I let my eyes wander the crowd that I was in the right place. These past few months I have been through many internal struggles and being there, amongst the thousands of Springsteen fans, I thought to myself, “I need this. I am so glad to be here.” Any doubts or fears I may have had were dispelled the moment the lights went down and the band took the stage. A spotlight shined down on the Boss and he looked out over the masses. As the crowd roared, he called out to his old friend, guitarist Little Steven Van Zandt, “Hey Steven, I think I see the light out there.”
Max Weinberg then began a familiar drum beat on his tom toms and the band kicked things off with “Light of Day,” the song that Springsteen wrote for the 1987 Paul Schrader film. The song had yet to be played this tour and it was a sign of the good things to come in the next two and a half hours of the spiritual, political, awe-inspiring rock and roll that only Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band can deliver. The concert was the perfect combination of select songs from the new album (Magic), storied chestnuts from one of the greatest song catalogs ever, rarities that would appease the diehards, one epic love song (in the form of “Rosalita”) and a guest appearance by one of the premiere rock guitarists in music.
From the moment the band began playing “Light of Day,” my fears that the crowd might have been too relaxed were put to rest. Everyone knew this gem of a song. In fact, the crowd seemed to know all of the songs, even the selections from Magic. But “Light of Day” wasn’t the only surprise that night. The band also played “Trapped,” their classic interpretation of the Jimmy Cliff song (originally only available on the We Are the World LP, but recently included on The Essential Bruce Springsteen) and a brutal “Murder Incorporated” (from 1996’s Greatest Hits), after which, Bruce announced “We’re out for blood!” Then there was “Because the Night,” the song Springsteen wrote in 1978 and gave to Patti Smith to record. Bruce’s version has only appeared on the Live 1975-85 box set. For that song, guitarist Nils Lofgren once again proved that he may be the greatest sideman in any band currently touring. Throughout the show he hopped around from electric to acoustic to pedal guitar. For “Because the Night,” his extended guitar solo that carried the song from the last chorus to the end was an incredible feat of melodic showmanship that not only had him dancing around the stage in a passionate fit, but had the crowd cheering endlessly and hoping it wouldn’t end.
The songs from Magic were tighter and better played than the October concert — which is hard to believe, because at that show, the playing was impeccable. However, the time on the road has given the band time to really dig into these tunes and get to the core of their meaning. This made the songs sound fresh and even more poignant. During “Gypsy Rider,” one of Springsteen’s greatest songs in recent years, he sang the story of a fallen soldier’s return home with such intensity, I thought his neck would explode from the veins popping out of it. He and Little Steven traded angry guitar licks that were full of raw energy and bled the ears. Out for blood, indeed. The new album’s title track is a dark, allegorical reflection on the current administration in Washington. The performance this night was chilling. Soozie Tyrell sang perfect harmony (substituting for the absent, homebound Patti Scialfa) and added a stirring violin accompaniment. Since joining the E Streeters on the Rising tour back in 2002, Tyrell’s violin playing has brought out a new dimension to the band and is a welcome addition. The powerful anthem “Long Walk Home” was stretched out from previous performances, including callouts between the stage and the audience and some wonderful, soulful singing by Little Steven. Finally, “”Devil’s Arcade” continued to be a haunting, sorrowful number about the war that ends with Springsteen chanting “the beat of your heart.” He song ends with the band dropping out and only Weinberg’s drums playing a constant beat while spotlights shot through him and into the crowd. It was unforgettable.
The standards of the concert setlist were outstanding, as usual. One would think that after hearing “Badlands” and “Out in the Street” (an audible that night) so many times, I’d be sick of them. But hearing the crowd sing ever word along with the band and being a part of the rituals that take place during these and the other stalwarts like “She’s the One” and “Working on the Highway” make a Springsteen experience more than just another concert. It’s a religious experience. I don’t mean that in the way that Bruce is God or any nonsense like that. I do mean that these concerts create the same kind of atmosphere and range of emotions that one may go through in any church on any Sunday in America. Screaming these lyrics to “The Promised Land” still inspire me.
“There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted”
And once again, “Lonesome Day and “The Rising” had me welling up with tears, missing my children, wanting them to always be safe and secure. How is it that these songs, after the hundreds of times I’ve played them in my car or home, continue to have such a profound effect on me? It’s magical.
Finally, each and every time I clench my fist and cry out these words from “Born to Run”…
“Together Wendy we’ll live with the sadness
I’ll love you with all the madness in my soul
Someday girl I don’t know when
we’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go
and we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us
baby we were born to run”
I only want my wife by my side. She’s my Wendy and throughout all of the sadness in our lives, I do love her with all of the madness in my soul. I do have faith and hope that everything will turn out alright in the end.
The greatness of the show was taken to a new level by the guest appearance of Tom Morello, guitarist extraordinaire (that’s putting it mildly) from Rage Against the Machine. Rage had covered Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” back in the ’90s, giving it an angry, punk/hip hop sheen, nothing like the quiet, acoustic version that Springsteen recorded for the album of the same name. Ironically, Springsteen originally wrote the song a rocker for the E Street Band back in 1995. Many fans have wondered what that original electric version would have sounded like — and we got our answer the moment that Springsteen and Morello led the E Street Band through what can only be called a mindblowing rendition of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” The two men traded verses and sang perfect harmony during the chorus. Springsteen fed off his younger friend and gave his lines a pointed intensity that was more punk than rock and roll. Meanwhile, the rest of the band was brilliant in following their leads. Of course, Gary Tallent held everything together with his steady bass, while substitute keyboardist Charlie Giordano (filling in for the ailing Danny Federici) and Tyrell kept some of the southwestern atmosphere alive with accordion and violin. However, it was Morello who stole the song. He and Springsteen traded guitar solos, ending their duel with a guitar harmony that was straight out of the Boston/Queen handbook. But after the final chorus, Springsteen stepped back and gave Morello the spotlight to shred through a second solo and leave the crowd gasping in awe and screaming their lungs out.
It was one of those glorious moments when I just wanted to grab the notes from the air and hold them tightly in my fists. My muscles clenched and I screamed a release of pure joy. This version of the song and Morello’s performance so moved me, my ears continue to ring as it plays back in my head. Judge for yourself and you may know what I’m trying to convey.
I think that living in Southern California, the entertainment capital of the United States, I’ve always hoped for one of those concert moments when a big star shows up at a gig and an impromptu jam session ensues. Morello may not be the “star” I had in mind, but from this day forward, I don’t need to see any other artist pop up on stage with Springsteen and company. No one will ever be able to top this moment.
Still, even after such a phenomenal show, the one lasting image I took away from the night was not a musical one. It occurred just before the encores and continues to move me and deepen my appreciation for the man, Bruce Springsteen. As the band returned to the stage, Springsteen stood at the top of the steps slapping his bandmates on the back and congratulating them for a job well done. The last to rejoin was the big man, Clarence Clemons, who was having difficulty walking that night (he had a hip replacement years ago). Springsteen jumped down and helped his old friend up the steps. Then, Clemons leaned on Bruce, his blood brother, as the two crossed the stage. This simple gesture between two old buddies spoke volumes, not only about the enduring relationship between these two men, but also about the commitment between Springsteen and his E Street family. It was a touching moment that gave me pause. Everything about Springsteen’s music and concerts isn’t the spectacle or the songs played; it’s about the people… the community. It’s about you and me and how we hold each other up in times of need and how we draw strength from one another.
When the show finally ended (after 2 Â½ hours), I didn’t mind the detour that took me 30 minutes out of the way, nor did I need the radio to accompany me on my two-hour walk home. I had just experienced one of the most awe-inspiring concerts in my life — a concert that filled my heart with hope and inspiration, and a concert I will never forget.