(On April 17, 2012, along with seven other people, I had the pleasure of attending a Bruce Springsteen concert in Cleveland, OH. During the course of that evening, we also watched the sound check and met with Bruce on two occasions. The following essay is about that evening and was initially written for the eight people on the trip. This is the reason for the use of the pronouns "we" and "us" throughout.)
April 17th was way different. April 17th was way the same. How can this be? Let me explain.
The first time I saw Bruce in concert was September 25, 1975, two days after he turned 26 years-old. This night remains mostly a total blur to me. But one thing I do remember is a specific moment when I was shaking my head in utter disbelief on how this scrawny, little fellow was somehow channeling, and embodying, every great rocker that preceded him. Elvis, check. Chuck, check. Buddy, check. Little Richard, check. Jerry Lee, check. Dylan, check. Orbison, check. Van The Man, check. Spector, check. Bo Diddley, check. And that was before Bruce went in to the Detroit Medley for only the second time in his career. Then, there was the crowd. The crowd knew how to be completely hushed when Bruce was crouched at the lip of the stage at the beginning of the concert whispering the first verse to “Thunder Road”. The crowd knew how to spontaneously, en masse, rise to its feet and roar when Clarence started the sax solo to that song. But most astonishingly, and this was Bruce’s first time in a large venue in Chicago, the crowd knew how to catch and support the man when he jumped into the crowd during “Spirit In The Night” and sang a good portion of that song perched on the shoulders of his audience. Just like Bruce lovingly cradled that little girl on April 17th, her name is Ann Marie by the way, that’s how the crowd held-up Bruce on their shoulders that night close to 37 years ago. His jump, on September 25, 1975, was an act of faith. His crowd’s reaction was the act of a real family. These two words, faith and family, have always informed his performances and the symbiotic relationship he shares with his audience. These two words, faith and family, are two of the four constant fractals upon which all of Bruce’s performances, and most of his music, is based. While there are four fractals in the mix, and we’ll get to all of them before this essay is over, let’s start with faith and family.
The thing about fractals are they can look different depending upon vantage point. So, shall we say, it ups the ante just a teeny-weeny bit when, instead of jumping into the comfy seats at the Auditorium, at the age of 26, and trusting you will be held up, you, at the age of 62, well any age for that matter, possess so much faith you believe to your core that your fans will know how to, and succeed in, traversing you across the roughly 50 foot audience pit back onto the stage after you jump into their midst. Yet, this is what we witnessed on April 17th. And let’s be clear: This is a physically dangerous proposition. But it is also an act of wonder. Particularly that night because, as Bruce told us, by application of some unconscious uniform crowd thought, the crowd in Cleveland was able to think far enough in advance to decide to rotate Bruce’s body 180 degrees so his feet, instead of his head, would be at the lip of the stage when he got there. Bruce Body Surf In Cleveland, April 17, 2012 No. 1 None of this, not what Bruce does, and certainly not what the audience does, is taught in any school, not even by Jack Black in The School Of Rock. So, yes, the body surf was a fractal from the beginning of his career, but it is also a fractal of a much larger and dangerous order. April 17th was way different. April 17th was way the same.
The crowd surfing thing is a great example of what Bruce meant when we were with him after the show and he talked about such things as: 1) the experience of being in the moment during every show; 2) the different energy of every show; 3) the alchemy of every show; and 4) the organic nature of every show. These have been components of all his shows from the beginning. But Bruce’s alchemy is different from that of any other performer. The standard alchemy of a live performance generally has two major components. First, the interaction between the musicians on the stage and the creative dynamics this produces. Second, is the feeling, the wave of energy, that is formed by the audience and then directed back toward the stage. But with Bruce, both of those components have enhanced dimensions.
With some performers, Dylan and Van Morrison are among this rare group, it is absolutely vital for the key members of the band keep their eyes on their leader at all times. As Bruce joked with us, Max failed to do it once back in ‘75 and never again. Bruce explained to us this is so because he expects his band to be able to stop on a dime and change directions. That, most of the time, we in the audience don’t realize when this is happening shows how good this band is. So, the band dynamic on the E Street stage is quite different from most groups. As for the audience energy component, not only is this different, it is singular.
I’ve been to hundreds, probably thousands, live performance. I’ve been at a Stones concert, no more than six feet away from Mick, and he is not making any real human contact with any member of the audience. And it’s not just Mick or the size of the venue. Vastly, more times than not, even in a small venue, the artist isn’t making any real, human, one-on-one contact with anybody in the audience. I experienced this five days after the Springsteen show in Cleveland when I saw one of America’s great songwriters at an extremely small venue. But with Bruce it is really different.
Bruce pretty much laid this out for us after the show when talked about the moment when he saw the girl with the tattoos for “Because The Night” and “Glory Days” on her arms. It was quite obvious when he was telling us about that moment that this was something immensely personal and touching to him. This whole sequence, the absolute joy on Bruce’s face when this was unfolding, can be see in the body surfing video No. 1 above from 2:17-3:00 and here, beginning at 2:50: Bruce Body Surf In Cleveland, April 17, 2012 No. 2. Same thing when he told us, twice actually, about the spiky-haired kid the night before in Albany who requested a very obscure track, “Janey Don't You Lose Heart”: Janey Don’t You Lose Heart in Albany, April 16, 2012. Watch the beginning closely as Bruce strums the guitar. What’s happening here is, in his head, he is going through the song because he hadn’t performed the song in so long. Then he says: “I think I got it.” Think? Finally, as he told us after the sound check, because he wasn’t sure the band could pull it off, lots of reasons for that, he decided to perform the song solo and it turned into one of those rare, mesmerizing Springsteen performances.
I’ve been doing this since 1975 and I’ve witnessed him doing some variation of these very personal requests for as long as I can remember. And while they have happened with “routine” frequency, based on what we heard from the man himself, each one is special, each one touches him personally. For instance, the moving story behind Bruce’s dedication of “We Are Alive” in Cleveland can be found here: Scott Fedor.
I don’t want to sound overly fawning about all of this. But if memory serves, when Bruce told us about the tattoo girl, he kind of shrugged his shoulders, or something, and said something a bit sheepish like: “Now how could I not do the song?” But even if my memory is flawed, it doesn’t make any difference. The whole gestalt of these sorts of things is entirely unique to Bruce and his audience. The closest thing to this is the Grateful Dead and its audience. But that is more about a sense of community. This is about the second fractal, a sense of family. And it is stronger now than it has ever been. April 17th was way different. April 17th was way the same.
The third fractal is Bruce’s instinct when it comes to live performances. After all these years, and shows, his awareness, and the correctness of the choices he makes, in the moment, continues to astonish. On April 17th, it started at the sound check. It was just fascinating to watch Bruce lead the band through the discovery process when he was figuring-out what to add to “Light Of Day.” For me, it was more than enough to get a bit of “Land Of A Thousand Dances.” But Bruce was not completely satisfied because, after huddling with Steven near Max’s drum kit, Bruce came back and went into “You Can’t Sit Down.” During this, you could see Bruce brighten-up considerably. But that look paled in comparison with the look of complete satisfaction he shot Steven during the show when, after doing the “Land Of A Thousand Dances” fragment, they launched into “You Can’t Sit Down.”
The other great example of Bruce’s instinct came when Ann Marie nailed “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day”. When Bruce was telling us about this after the show you could tell how much he genuinely enjoyed the interaction with her, the poise under pressure she exhibited at such a young age and her decision to take him up on going up on stage to do the knee slide when he asked her to do so following telling her to shout: “Come on E Street Band” (This is the instinct part as, to my knowledge, Bruce seldom does this sort of thing. But his performer instinct told him he had a trouper in Ann Marie.). Bruce And Ann Marie
All to often, too much is made of instinct and acting from the gut. Still, even on a cursory examination, it should be obvious Bruce’s instinct has always been there when it comes to his live performances. What’s different now, with regard to the live performances, is there is a speed to it, and a flow to it, that is nearly infallible. Those of us who were around from ‘78-‘81 speak with reverence of these Springsteen concerts. These were great shows. Literally, the stuff of legend. But, especially looking back, there were problems. There was an unevenness to these shows. Not only from show to show but within the show as well. There were lulls. Perhaps, in some instances, the lulls were welcome rests from interludes of white hot angst and intensity which were at its height during the late Born To Run through Darkness era tours, particularly at the times when Bruce was talking about his father while performing the Animals’s “It’s My Life”. But they were lulls nonetheless. This was a problem that was never really resolved before Bruce disbanded the E Street Band after the Tunnel Of Love Express Tour.
When the band reconvened in 2000 this problem persisted. Then something began to change. It may have started to happen at, or around the time, of the Born To Run show here in Chicago on September 20, 2009. In any event, by the time Bruce and the band had survived the staggering crucible of doing five full albums in ten days, at the end of the last tour, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band were untouchable. Gone were the lulls and, in their place, was just clarity of vision and one peak after the next, despite the fact that he was crafting different set-lists nightly, some of it on the fly. This is why, there is no hyperbole, or false bravado, when Bruce told us that the one thing about which he is absolutely certain: No band can stop on a dime, change direction and follow its leader wherever he wants to go like the E Street Band. Period. No exclamation point needed.
Still, what brought Bruce to new heights at the end of 2009 was his ability to form consistently brilliant shows from his past, and it was mostly the past pre-1985. By the end of the tour that ended in 2009, there was one piece missing: Current material that could co-exist during a concert performance with Bruce’s staggering back-catalog of material. That missing piece arrived when Wrecking Ball hit the streets a few months ago.
Wrecking Ball is a triumph. Wrecking Ball is everything that every album Bruce has released since Born In The USA isn’t because nearly all of its songs, night after night, can absolutely coexist in the same concert set-list with the gems from his back-catalog without there being a lull or let-down during the show. It’s an album that rocks. It’s an album that matters in terms of message. It’s an album with a collection of his best pop hooks since The River. It’s an album of some of the most challenging arrangements since his first two albums and those arrangements illuminate the lyrics – sound matches sense (A flaw I personally find in parts of Born In The USA.). It’s an album where, instead of hearing the influence of Bruce’s influences, one hears the primary influences being Bruce’s own music.
Sure, there are those who believe Wrecking Ball should have been Nebraska II. And, yes, Wrecking Ball could have been Nebraska II. But that’s not what Bruce wanted. What Bruce wanted, I believe, is an album with: a) the depth of Nebraska; b) the pop hooks of The River (so people would listen to Wrecking Ball in much larger numbers than listened to Nebraska); c) some of the musical challenges and diversity of the first two albums; and d) a group of songs with which he could hit the road and know that these songs would work with his audience without any let-down. Wrecking Ball runs this table and puts Bruce and the band back where they were in 1985. Except this band has gotten much, much better (didn’t think that was possible) and Bruce has raised his own game to an unsurpassed level in terms of creating a dizzying array of near bullet-proof set-lists from night to night.
So what we now have is a recapitulation of the performance instinct fractal from those legendary shows from ‘78-‘81, where the cast is fairly the same and many of the songs are the same. Except, quite honestly, night in, night out these shows are better, arguably much better. April 17th was way different. April 17th was way the same. Some of the reason for this is faith. Some of the reason for this is family. Some of the reason for this is instinct and talent. And, finally, some of the reason for this is Bruce’s unwavering devotion to the vision for his music. And like the other three fractals, this unwavering devotion has been there from the very beginning.
Last year Bruce spent three hours on Little Steven’s Underground Garage. Mostly they talk about their friendship, Bruce’s career and the music they love. These shows are great and highly recommended. The Bruce And Stevie Show, Pt. 1, The Bruce And Stevie Show, Pt. 2, The Bruce And Stevie Show, Pt. 3 One thing that came through to me while listening to these three shows, and I hadn’t really realized this before, is that, from the beginning, the composition of Bruce’s band was not only quite unique, it was also brilliant. Since the Beatles, the general composition of a rock band has been some combination of bass, drum and guitar, with maybe one additional “color” instrument, say a keyboard. Bruce’s E Street Band, since Greetings came out, has been something different altogether. Yes, Bruce has a bass and drum rhythm section. But after that, and the guitar, Bruce did something no one else was brave enough to do. Not only did he have a dedicated keyboardist, initially David Sancious, he also had a sax player, Clarence Clemons, and a Hammond B3 organist, Danny Federici. What this line-up of players on the stage allows Bruce to do is, whenever he wants, he can choose to use any of the significant lead instruments in rock’s history during a song.
At first blush, it might seem odd that nobody before Bruce figured this out. But, on the Underground Garage, Bruce provided a pretty good reason why nobody else “figured this out”. Maybe they did figured it out. It’s just nobody wanted to do it because of the nature of the Hammond B3.
The Hammond B3 is an amazing instrument that can do many thing and produce many sounds. Hammond Organ There’s just one problem with the B3: The B3 is a big, heavy mother and that’s before you add the second piece to the B3, the Leslie speaker. Now, it’s one thing if you are Bruce Springsteen, mega star, with a large crew of roadies to cart the B3, and the Leslie, from show to show. It’s quite another thing if you are an unknown, with no roadies, and you have to get the B3, and the Leslie, to a show, sometimes on the second floor of some building. Hammond Organ Story (See November 20, 1969 entry.) That’s a real pain, literally. So, you really, really have to be devoted to your vision to, from the very beginning, cart around, from venue to venue on the east coast, all the conventional equipment and a Hammond B3. But that’s the point, Bruce wanted it bad and he just wouldn’t compromise on the devotion to his vision for his music.
Still there is one more thing about this that bears noting. Every person who aspires to be a star “wants it bad”. But Bruce took it one step further: He wanted it all. Not so much in the material sense. Instead, from the beginning, he wanted it all in the musical sense. Think about it, as impressive as it is that the E Street Band can stop on a dime and change directions better than any band in the land, that skill doesn’t mean diddle if you don’t have the horses on stage to go in that other direction. With a bass, drums, guitars, sax, keyboard and Hammond B3 you pretty much can go to and perform any significant song in rock ‘n roll’s history. In fact, as Bruce told me, when I was having a surreal moment standing next to him center stage after the sound check, it takes his crew only a minute to find the lyrics to any rock ‘n roll song on the Internet, say “Mony, Mony”, and then format the lyrics for him so they can be flashed on a video monitor embedded in the stage. Additionally, you can color your own compositions with any of the dominant instruments in rock’s history as well. And you can do it at will. You just have to want it so bad you are willing to nearly break your back, night after night, in the process. That’s a singular, arguably stubborn, devotion to a musical vision. And it is that unwavering devotion to a musical vision that started out as an unconventional six piece band on Greeting and ended up on April 17th as a seamless 17 piece orchestra and chorus. April 17th was way different. April 17th was way the same.
No essay about the current version of the E Street Band, and what we witnessed on April 17th, can be complete without devoting some time to the death of Clarence Clemons. This is true simply on the merits of the thing. And, somehow, Bruce figured-out a way to allow both the band, and the fans, to partake in the loss and the celebration of the force that was Bruce and Clarence. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, Cleveland , April 17, 2012 But inclusion of Clarence’s death in this essay is necessary because, surprise, surprise, it is another example of where faith, family, instinct and unwavering devotion to musical vision all merge.
Clarence’s death hit hard. Some of it was selfish: How can it be the same? Some of it was empathetic. And some of it was: What the “F” is Bruce going to do? The matter of Clarence’s presence in the E Street Band is complex. First, there’s the special, personal relationship that existed between Bruce and Clarence. I peered through a small window and witnessed the depth of this friendship the last time I saw the two of them together before Clarence’s death. It was after the mind-blowing show here in Chicago where Bruce did Born To Run cover to cover for only the second time. When the show was over, and Bruce finished his final bows, he exited, stage right, and then down some stairs. As he reached the point where I could almost no longer see him Clarence was waiting there for Bruce. When Bruce got to where Clarence was standing Bruce gave Clarence a loving kiss on the lips. It was quite moving at the time. Now, all the more poignant because that was the last time I saw Clarence alive. Second, there’s the fact that, despite his relative lack of technique, Clarence was a great sax player, just ask Branford Marsalis. And, third, there is the fact that, not so much at the end, but certainly at the beginning, Clarence was, quite literally, in the dramatic sense, an on-stage foil for Bruce. My favorite example of this is from the legendary show in ‘78 in Landover, MD. The song is the long version of “She’s The One”. “She The One” is carnal. “She The One” is about Eros. “She The One” is about seduction. And starting at the ten minute mark when Bruce says: “Come a little closer” with a Jerry Lee Lewis leer, two, very virile men, play out that seduction to its inevitable climax, about a minute and a half later, with both men laying supine on the stage. “She’s The One” It is of no consequence how much of this is conscious or unconscious on the part of Bruce and Clarence. What matters is the perfection of the dramatic performance between protagonist and foil.
So, shall we say, when Clarence died Bruce confronted a vast abyss. How Bruce has chosen to cross this abyss, or is attempting to cross this abyss, is intriguing. The easy choice would have been to choose somebody like Ed Manion, the other sax player on the stage, who, not only is a very good sax player he also possesses past experience with both Bruce and Little Steven. But instead of choosing what “seems” to make the most sense on the surface, find somebody capable of replicating Clarence’s playing, Bruce decides to, for the time being, compromise on the skill of the sax player and go for the long haul: Choose somebody who has the charisma to possibly turn into some version of a foil for Bruce on stage and, because he is Clarence’s nephew, Jake Clemons, will be forgiven by the audience for not being as good as Clarence. We’re just at the beginning of this experiment. But I was watching the interaction between Jake and Bruce carefully and something is forming there. It won’t be the same, obviously. But I do believe Bruce rolled the dice on this one and it will come up as close to sevens as is possible under the circumstance (And Jake is getting better at his craft as the tour progresses, which is a good sign as well.). April 17th was way different. April 17th was way the same.
After the sound check was over on April 17th, Bruce came over to meet most of us for the first time and chat. After a while, he started talking about the show in Albany the previous night where it was blisteringly hot inside the Times Union Center. Bruce’s response to this adversity was to accept the challenge of the circumstance and just give more. This was also the first time he spoke with us about how hairy it can get for him when he’s out between the two GA sections during “The Apollo Medley” and “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day”. Interestingly, I don’t recall him mentioning anything about the hairiness of the body surfing. But, seriously kids, why does he do these things? He’s 62 after all. No one expects such things. Shit, few actually do them at any age. I can’t be sure of the real answer. But what I can tell you is this: On May 12, 2009, here in Chicago, on the first U.S. leg of the Working On A Dream tour, as I was watching Bruce at the center of the mass of humanity between the two GA sections, that hairy area he told us about, I had an epiphany: I’ve had it wrong all this time. I thought it is those of us in the crowd who are the happiest at a Springsteen concert. But no, it’s Bruce (maybe it’s a tie sometimes). And it's been that way from the very beginning. In fact, all of it has been there from the very beginning. The faith. The family. The instinct. And, perhaps, most important, the unwavering devotion to a musical vision and the driving force behind all of Bruce’s live performances (Album One, Side One, Track One, last two lines):
“Mamma always told me not to look into the sight of the sun
Oh but momma that’s where the fun is.”
Faith, family, instinct, devotion. April 17th was way different. April 17th was way the same.
© Copyright James N. Perlman. 2012 All rights reserved.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE E STREET BAND
APRIL 17, 2012
QUICKEN LOANS CENTER IN CLEVELAND, OHIO
1. My Love Will Not Let You Down
2. Light Of Day
3. Land Of A Thousand Dances
4. You Can’t Sit Down
5. Streets Of Fire
2. We Take Care of Our Own
3. Wrecking Ball
4. The Ties That Bind
5. Death to My Hometown
6. My City of Ruins
7. The E Street Shuffle
8. Jack of All Trades
11. My Love Will Not Let You Down
12. Shackled & Drawn
13. Waitin' on a Sunny Day
14. The Promised Land
15. Racing in the Street
16. Apollo Medley
17. Because the Night
18. The Rising
19. We Are Alive
20. Light of Day (including Land Of A Thousand Dances and You Can't Sit Down)
* * *
21. Rocky Ground (with Michelle Moore)
22. Out in the Street
23. Born to Run
24. Dancing in the Dark
25. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out