Fans go home with the Boss, E Street Band

Review: Bruce Springsteen gave new life to old favorites like `The River' and `Born to Run' with sharpened guitar playing and spirited singing, proving his glory days aren't in the past.

September 01, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Contrary to popular belief, you can go home again. What you can't do is expect things to be exactly as they were -- especially if it has been a dozen or more years since last you were there.

Seeing Bruce Springsteen back together with the E Street Band for the first time since the late '80s was a lot like going home for many of the roughly 20,000 fans packed into Washington's MCI Center last night.

They mainly played the old favorites, the songs that made Springsteen a rock and roll legend: "The River," "Jungleland," "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run." And there were moments, when Clarence "The Big Man" Clemons' saxophone wailed as Roy Bittan's piano pounded out chords over "Mighty" Max Weinberg's slamming backbeat, that the music seemed to transport us old fans back to the glory days of the late '70s and early '80s.

But it was different, too -- at times, more different than familiar. When Springsteen did "Born in the U.S.A.," for example, it wasn't with the fist-pumping fervor of the big hit single; instead, it was offered as a spooky acoustic blues, with Springsteen accompanying himself only with a 12-string guitar and a bottleneck.

For the most part, however, it was like running into an old friend you haven't seen in years. Not only are you reminded of everything you liked about him in the old days, but you're impressed at how much age and experience have added to his charms.

In Springsteen's case, putting him back with his old band underscored how much he has grown as a singer and guitarist.

His improved instrumental abilities manifested themselves first, as he used a squalling cloud of feedback to launch "Adam Raised a Cain," the show's second song.

Springsteen built from there, using the slowly grinding central riff to spark a long, incendiary solo. He kept on wailing, too, soloing eloquently and effectively in "Prove It All Night" and "Murder Incorporated."

As impressive as his playing was, Springsteen's singing was even better. Somehow, he has absorbed the vocabulary of gospel singing into his style, and yesterday's show found him carrying on like a sanctified preacher, at points loosing a soul-stirring shout, at others using call-and-response like a soloist working a gospel choir.

It came as no surprise, then, that he worked a lengthy aside into "Light of Day," in which he testified about "The Ministry of Rock and Roll."

There were plenty of other moments that were equally stunning. When he sang "10th Avenue Freeze Out," it was as if he were possessed by the spirit of Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave fame). Even more amazingly, when he finished "The River," it was with a falsetto of breathtaking sweetness and clarity. Moments like that actually made the good old days pale in comparison.

Perhaps the most interesting difference between Springsteen now and Springsteen then is how he used the E Street Band.

Even though this was being presented as a sort of reunion tour, the current version of the E Street Band is bigger than its predecessors, with three guitars backing Springsteen instead of one -- originally, Miami Steve Van Zandt, who was later replaced by Nils Lofgren.

With both Van Zandt and Lofgren on hand, plus Patti Scialfa on acoustic rhythm guitar, Springsteen was able to expand his arrangements dramatically, broadening the scale of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and adding fresh color to "A Mansion on the Hill."

"Mansion" was particularly interesting, as Springsteen brought a heavy country flavor to the tune, deploying Lofgren on pedal steel and Van Zandt on mandolin.

Still, for most of the fans, such fripperies took a back seat to the straightforward rock and roll energy he pumped into the likes of "Working on the Highway" and a nearly ecstatic reading of "Born to Run."

Unfortunately, there were also moments when Springsteen rode the crowd's energy to cover flaccid sections in his songs, as on "Badlands" and "Out on the Street." But most of the audience seemed eager to play along, enjoying the ride every bit as much as Springsteen.

On the whole, the show may not have been quite the same as going home, but for most of his fans, it felt just as welcome.

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