“Not only does he know the way to San Jose,” said Bruce Springsteen last night, announcing himself, “but he knows what to fuckin’ do when he gets there!”
Knows what to do, indeed.
Last night in San Jose, Bruce Springsteen played for over three hours—but he didn’t just “play.” He leapt on top of a grand piano. He hoisted children on his shoulders. He slid on his knees across the stage. He threw his guitars high into the air. He hung upside-down from the microphone stand. He carried a girl in his arms. He glugged water and spat it skyward. He let the audience play his Telecaster. At one point, he fell backward, kept singing, and crowd-surfed across half the arena over a sea of fans.
The man is 62, people. Sixty-two years old, and performing with more vigor and energy than most people a third his age. This is Bruce Springsteen’s bazillionth tour, and his shows simply haven’t gotten old. He’s still giving 110% for his fans, who left last night with ringing ears, sore feet, shot vocal chords—and who on the verbatim advice from the Boss, all woke up this morning and asked: what the fuck happened to me?
“Watching a master at work,” maybe, except “watching” doesn’t describe it. A great Springsteen show, like the one last night, is an immersion.
And it doesn’t always come in the form of a party. Springsteen is touring on his new album, Wrecking Ball, which wraps up a lot of zeitgeist nervousness and anger. He played “41 Shots (American Skin),” a clear nod to Trayvon Martin. He spoke about the Occupy movement, and the economy, and unemployment, and a broken system that “gives the folks at the top and rich guitar players a free pass.” A prevailing theme of the night was sculpted from people going through hard times and the hope of those hard times coming no more.
But the most affecting personage from last night’s show wasn’t on the stage. Clarence Clemons’ place in the E Street Band has always been both requisite and required, a token but necessary accoutrement; without him, the hole is larger than one person. Springsteen’s first tribute came while introducing the band during “My City of Ruins,” asking the crowd if there was anyone missing, and reinterpreting the famous, once-jubilant call of “Do I have to say his name?” With both Clemons and Danny Federici gone, he reentered the song: “You took my heart when you left / Without your sweet kiss, my soul is lost.”
Clemons’ nephew Jake has joined the band, and after his solo on “Badlands” the crowd roared one of many choruses of approval in the bloodline replacement. With a full horn section and other extras from his “Seeger Sessions” band, Springsteen’s honed a hybrid of Irish melody, folk forms, barn-burning rock and classic soul. Patti Sciafla was conspicuously absent from the show—she was at home, Springsteen explained, “keeping the kids out of the drug stash”—but it hardly mattered by the time the band hit its Apollo medley. A six-person acapella first verse beginning “The Way You Do The Things You Do” led into Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789,” a full-scale rave-up highlighted by the long, rapturous crowdsurf.
Help from the audience came in a few places, with varying results. A call-and-response with three front-row singers, all flat, caused Springsteen to quip, “This is why I’m the one gettin’ paid!” A girl pulled onstage for “Dancing in the Dark” didn’t quite have the moves. But a great moment came in “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” when a small boy not only sang the chorus but took cues from Springsteen on leading the band, sliding across the stage and briefly stealing the show.
The set was expectedly slim on older songs, and all but ignored Born in the U.S.A. until the encore, which gave a solid blast of “Out in the Street,” “Born to Run,” Dancing in the Dark” and “Rosalita.” Naturally, set closer “10th Avenue Freeze Out” couldn’t have been played without a nod to the Big Man. After the “Big Man joined the band” line, Springsteen, having run into the crowd and leapt onto a riser in the middle of the whole arena, froze with his mic in the air and his gaze up to the video screens. Clip after clip of Clemons played, and the intense look on Springsteen’s face was one that summed up the whole show: sorrow being overcome by celebration.
Extreme celebration, in the case of last night.
We Take Care of Our Own
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
Jack of All Trades
My Love Will Not Let You Down
Shackled & Drawn
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
American Skin (41 Shots)
The Way You Do the Things You Do / 634-5789
We Are Alive
Out in the Street
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
How thrilled was I for the opportunity to take my young niece to the circus! Yes, the fond memories of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey’s ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ still linger in my mind as warm assurances of a childhood well spent. Never had I thought, as a lad, that I might one day be on the opposite end of this great tradition: a torch-bearer passing down to a generation anew the excitement of the traveling circus under the big top.
And yet the occasion was dew-dropped with sorrow. The circus has changed quite drastically in such a short span. I hardly recognized it. The brothers Ringling have nothing to fear in the poor competition presented by this newfangled “Britney Spears” circus of today.
We entered the arena in anticipation alongside droves of like-minded circus fans, bought our popped corn and cotton candy, and found our seats in the grandstand. When the curtain was raised, a group of female acrobats in clown makeup called the “Pussycat Dolls” filled the center ring, but they performed no somersaults, no balancing act, nor did they treat the children in attendance to any aerial trickery.
Instead, the acrobats moved their pelvises in ways that made me think they had to go to the bathroom. This hunch was proved correct when each girl ran to a pole and squeezed her legs around it. Why is there no bathroom provided for the performers? Circus budgets are so tight these days.
In my youth, the circus was a nonstop show. But when the poor Pussycat acrobats left the stage, there was nothing. Certainly, thought I, Merle Evans will march in with the opening strains of “Thunder and Blazes,” followed by wagons of lions; or a caravan of unicycles will charge the arena; or, if fate does smile on us, a motorcycle “globe of death” will roll into the ring.
Instead, a large screen showed moving pictures of the circus. Moving pictures! I could not believe the indignity! The surrounding children in our section seemed content to occupy themselves by staring at their telephones and hitting the small devices with their thumbs, but I was incensed. This was not what I had paid $150 for!
After this half-hour mockery, the lights went out and more live circus tricks ensued, erasing the sour feelings. A clan of jugglers flung clubs into the air! A prancing maiden navigated dozens of hula-hoops! Two strongmen hoisted a nimble gymnast into flights of fancy! All those seated in the grandstands were tickled and on their feet in glee.
Unfortunately, the main attraction of this particular circus was the elephant, who I believe was advertised as a “singer.” Upon the elephant’s entrance, the small children cheered wildly. Yet to the more wizened it was very apparent that the elephant, replete with jovial blonde wig, was not singing at all but only moving its mouth in time with the loudspeakers!
From that point forward, the singing-imposter elephant took center ring. Clowns surrounded the elephant and held their bladders while horrendous crashes of noise mixed with the “songs.” Trapeze artists dangled from the ceiling, unmoving, while the elephant ambled slowly to and fro in a cornucopia of silly outfits.
After an hour, an unknown defect created a gigantic electric malfunction in the circus apparatus, causing sparks to fly onto the rings, and the performance was over. What a disappointment!
I do hope the Ringling Bros. circus comes to town soon. I would relish a chance to show my niece the true spirit of the big-top instead of this shoddy knock-off currently being peddled across the country.