Springsteen & Family Rock Raleigh (Guest Post)

The following is a Guest Post by Brad Risinger, reporting on Thursday’s Bruce Springsteen concert in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Bruce Springsteen’s April 24 Raleigh stop on the High Hopes (2014) tour was a family affair. Vocalist wife Patti Scialfa made the scene, along with daughter Jessica, who is a student at nearby Duke University. Little Steven — a blood brother if ever there was one — was missed, but the ensemble feel of this E Street iteration has a comfortable vibe that is less forced than the Seeger conglomeration and more at peace with the voids left by old friends Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici.

The band’s sound is large on this tour, benefiting from a lot of layering and height provided by a blistering horn section which Jake Clemons helms and a gifted trio of back-up singers. I probably paid more attention to the latter than I usually would have after seeing the wonderful documentary 20 Feet From Stardom (2013) earlier this spring that centered around Darlene Love and a handful of should-be-famous back-up singers. Go queue up The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” turn up the sound and down the lights, and listen to what soars behind Mick Jagger. And then rent the movie.

Tom Morello has been nicely enmeshed into the band, and it has produced interesting results. Springsteen opened with “High Hopes,” and featured a prominent role for Morello that could have set the stage for a tougher backbone to much of the night helmed by the former Rage Against The Machine guitarist. But as the band dealt with Little Steven’s departure and return, and incorporated Nils Lofgren’s lilting voice and tilting guitar, it has found a home for Morello that gets the best of some nasty shreds within the team concept. The “Ghost of Tom Joad” collaboration between Springsteen and Morello, which introduced the latter to E Street, continues to be a wicked piece that shines, but does not overstate its presence. Morello blended in for much of the evening, and was a foil for Springsteen in Van Zandt’s absence. Lofgren’s wild solo in “Because The Night” had a partner-in-crime feel to it, while Morello’s role is more like a younger, evil twin. It’s an interesting balancing act that could take some neat turns in the band’s new phase.

Any band that forms, endures, separates and then charges back reinvents itself regularly. Clarence cannot be replaced, but his nephew Jake has carved his own space. He does not so much mimic the Big Man’s iconic turns on “The Promised Land” and “Thunder Road” as he does honor them. His spin through “Land of Hope and Dreams” feels authentic; it may not turn out to be his “Jungleland,” but it gives the audience confidence that Jake and Bruce will find it. The talented “Sister” Soozie Tyrell feels more lost in this band configuration, but she still has a couple of moments in the parts of the show that recall the Seeger Sessions feel. I would still like one chance to hear Tyrell reprise the string track from the “Incident on 57th Street” version at the February 1975 Main Point show. You may hear that version online; it is a WMMR simulcast that stands the test of time.

Scialfa has always had an interesting role on E Street, and while she has not been steadily on the road in recent years, her voice is aging with her husband’s in a very complementary and intertwined kind of way. I have always liked her voice, and the tension it sometimes has lent the band. While she has had her critics among the Springsteen faithful, her Rumble Doll (1993) CD is a quirky, honest album worth a listen. And she plays off of Bruce in ways now that she didn’t a decade ago. “Brilliant Disguise” in their hands is rarely played but has become smoky over the years and more intimate. And she and Bruce ratchet over each other on “Because the Night” in a way that is angry and conciliatory at the same time. Let’s hope before Patti heads home some audience gets a tortured and understanding take of “One Step Up” sung with her man.

E Street Band shows have always been a tactile experience; for years the curved catwalk behind the stage was a staple when the backshop seats were sold. And, then as now, “Dancing in the Dark” brings company to the stage. But Bruce’s audience roaming has become nomadic in a fun and personal way. Springsteen visited a walkway that sliced through the center of the arena floor a number of times, and it is a slower, more luxuriant trip these days. He stopped for fan selfies, perused the signs requesting songs, and he confidently flung himself into the crowd to be “surfed” back to the stage. It was a snaky looking path, to be sure, but he got there. It is impossible to declare that the band, or Springsteen himself, is having more fun than before. It is tempting to say Springsteen sees the end of the touring road coming at age 64 and is taking a long, reflective walk through his catalog for loyal fans. But honestly, the message he sends off is more celebratory than “so long.”

Nobody gets everything, even in a three-hour rock show that never takes a break. But there is always an oddity that jumps up to surprise. On the Australia swing, a raucous “Highway to Hell” cover banged around on a few nights. And there’s no telling when you will get an “I Fought the Law” or “Summertime Blues” bar band moment. In Raleigh, Patti selected a bright, construction-paper pink flamingo from the crowd and asked Bruce to play “Pretty Flamingo,” a 1960s Manfred Mann hit that he has played only a handful of times over the years. Springsteen exhorted himself to “tell the story, Bruce” to set up the song, and had to reach a bit to find the lyrics and chords before diving in.

These requests from the floor for rarities are a funny business. A fan came with an elaborate sign request for a song Bruce has not played in years, and only rarely ever. It reminds me of the story Bruce used to tell about the guy who followed him for years and held up a sign requesting “Murder, Incorporated” long before it became widely popular. Bruce said he never had any intention of playing it, but admired the persistence. But, some obsessive fan who had the song on a vinyl bootleg from the early 1980s kept requesting it and finally got it. I did not hold up the sign, but I wore that old record out in college.

Springsteen called an early audible by picking a sign request for “Brilliant Disguise,” as a lead-in to “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99.” The show’s Nebraska cameo was an eclectic, and interesting tempo and mood shift. “Atlantic City” had a minister’s desperation to it, less personal perhaps than the album version, but with a keen and softly spoken pulpit verse that resonated. “Johnny 99” was a treat, part Preservation Hall with the E Street Horns and part Roy Bittan rockabilly. (The horns were a good return jab at the recent, loopy comments from Courtney Love critical of the E Street Band because saxophones, she says, have no place in a real rock band.)

I resist the “tape measure” crowd among E Street loyals that obsessively compares minutes on stage, tour premieres, and set lists as if they were Albert Pujols home runs. At just under two hours, 50 minutes and 26 songs, the show was a bit shorter than some recent 3-plus-hour, 30-song cycles, but it was outstanding nonetheless. Sure, there were songs missing — as there always are — but it was a show with lots of flair and personality even if some of the recent, off-beat set list appearances stayed in the drawer. “Wrecking Ball” has better wings now as a cog in the show rather than a centerpiece, and “Because the Night” growled its way through the audience following a nice, moody sign-request of “I’m on Fire.”

It is fair to be jealous that Charlotte got “Louie Louie,” “Mustang Sally” and “Racing in the Street,” but “Pretty Flamingo” surely counts as a surprise, and a fun one at that. And Springsteen dressed up “Growin’ Up” for his daughter Jessica, who is graduating this spring and was in the pit with friends. She also made it on stage to twirl with her dad for “Dancing in the Dark” in a sweet moment. She seemed like a graceful kid, comfortable with dad’s stardom and with being onstage with the family.

Check out Blogness on the Edge of Town for the full Raleigh setlist.

What did you think of the Raleigh show? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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