Sandy Saddens Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s current tour has been all about ghosts. The title song of Wrecking Ball (Columbia) refers to the demolition of the old Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands. Other songs on the album, particularly the anthemic “We Take Care of Our Own,” refer to the ghost of the American dream as The Boss sees and sings it.
And at each stop along the way of a tour that began in April and, on Oct. 31, made its second visit to upstate New York, the group that Springsteen still refers to as “a glorified bar band” evoked the ghosts of those they have lost along the way, most notably Clarence Clemons, who passed away barely a year ago.
But when the Hurricane Sandy-delayed Springsteen tour pulled into Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena on Halloween, one day later than originally scheduled, the ghosts were freshly conjured in the flood waters and the sea surges that had just torn up and spit out the Jersey Shore towns that gave birth to the legend and the reality of the E Street Band.
Before the show began just after 8 p.m., the audience of 10,000 was a little nervous, wondering what the theme for the night would be: Halloween or Hurricane? It turned out to be a little bit of both. Springsteen greeted the audience in his characteristic black jeans, denim shirt and leather vest, and asked the crowd if they were ready for a “night with the New Jersey Devils,” a mildly confusing reference to make in a hockey arena.
He then launched into a raspy vocal of an obscure dirge entitled “A Night with the Jersey Devil,” with a rhythm reminiscent of George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone,” a clunker which has only been released on the Boss’ website, where it is hoped it will remain.
Fortunately the sound system and song selection improved immediately, as the band of Nils Lofgren, Steven VanZandt, Gary Tallent, Roy Bittan and Max Weinstein launched into an opening set that included “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Wrecking Ball,” as well as a timely and almost cruel version of “Death to My Hometown” from the new album.
They soon mixed it up with “Out in the Street” from The River (Columbia, 1980), familiar even to the dancing youngsters in the audience. The beefed-up E Street Band lineup includes a five-man horn section, two conga drummers and a three-woman gospel voice section, adding depth and dexterity to the formidable front line.
Although the band was working hard as ever, you had a sense that something was not quite right (especially if you had seen them set Vernon Downs race track on fire back on Aug. 29). Bruce slowed it down during the intro to the song “Rise Up (My City in Ruins)” off 2002’s The Rising to explain why. “Tonight we come here with a lot of sadness in our heart. This song was originally written about my adopted hometown of Asbury Park struggling to get on its feet again.”
Springsteen then went on to describe what it was like to watch the rebuilt town get crushed by the terrible destruction of Sandy. His adopted town was in ruins once again, and he was preparing for a Nov. 2 fund-raiser (which aired on the NBC networks and HBO) to help victims of the shore disaster. “We are a band that you cannot separate from the Jersey Shore. There are ghosts standing alongside us. Missing brothers, fathers, sisters, friends, and places that are missing too.”
And for the rest of the night he and the band tried to exorcise those ghosts with the only tool they have at their disposal: rock’n’roll. They dedicated the night to the police officers and firefighters, and even the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, a devoted fan of the Boss, a politician Springsteen has made a point of ignoring. Even in the week before an election in which Springsteen belatedly took to the stump to help out President Barack Obama, this was a night free of politics.
Once again, as in the aftermath of 9/11, Springsteen took on the role of musical consoler-in-chief, asking again and again for his audience to feel the spirits of those who were missing, feel the ghosts of the people and the places that are standing with us, speaking both of the band and the Garden State.
It was like a religious revival when he asked “Tell me how do I begin again?” He then answered his own question with the refrain, “With these hands.” Ten thousand pairs of hands joined in. Then he went on, continuing the ghosts theme with “Spirit in the Night,” with Jake Clemons, nephew of Clarence, following him around while tooling on the sax.
And then, shifting gears from solemn to silly, Springsteen kicked off his one Halloween number: a conga-influenced version of “Monster Mash,” which he laughed about afterward and pronounced “terrible.” It wasn’t that bad, and it gave him a chance to show that strange mixture of cool and corny that is one reason his on-stage persona is so compelling.
Not much later he launched into a heartbreaking version of “Atlantic City” (from 1982’s Nebraska), lingering on the refrain, “Maybe everything that dies some day comes back.” Then it was off to the races, with oldies like “Jackson Cage,” “She’s the One,” “Cover Me” and “Downbound Train,” followed by the stirring love-it-or-hate-it kettle drum-driven “Shackled and Drawn,” another tune from Wrecking Ball. The set ended with “Radio Nowhere,” “Badlands” and “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
When the encore began with “Jersey Girl,” a Tom Waits classic many people think of as a Springsteen original, you got the feel of a man singing to more than his girl. Then the band blasted into the pair of songs that made him a household name more than 35 years ago, “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road.”
The show finished with a sweetly nostalgic video tribute to Clemons. During “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” at the moment when “the change gets made uptown and the Big Man joins the band,” the band shut down and all three Jumbotrons lit up with a photo montage of images of Clarence with the band. Fittingly, the silence was broken by the sax solo ably handled by Jake Clemons. The kid has learned his lessons well.
This concert lasted a “mere” three hours, which can be two shows for most acts these days, but is short for the band on this tour. The Vernon Downs show lasted 3:40, and one show in Denmark on this tour is said to have lasted more than four hours (consult your doctor)—and an earlier concert in London’s Hyde Park went on so long that the police literally pulled the plug after a duet with Springsteen and Paul McCartney. The E Street Band still gives you the best night of rock’n’roll money can buy, even with a heavy dose of sadness in their hearts.