The return of Bruce Springsteen to “culture icon” status over the past decade has occurred in perfect symmetry with the resurrection of rampant sincerity in alternative music. Perhaps nothing demonstrates this more than “Hangin’ Out on E Street” – a web video feature hosted at The Boss’ website where modern artists like Ted Leo, Tegan and Sara, Against Me, the Gaslight Anthem and more talk about Springsteen’s songs and cover a track of their choice. For any other artist such a project would reek of vanity; yet in almost every clip, a genuine love of the Springsteenian mythos cuts through the cynicism and hits exactly the right note. They’re true believers.
Despite these connections between the bands of my generation and the E Streeters, I don’t think I was quite prepared for just how different a Springsteen show is from the typical concerts I attend, especially when it comes to the fans. For example, at most shows I frequent, fans wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the T-shirt of the band they’re there to see. Why waste an opportunity to one-up the other concertgoers with an even cooler band on your chest? But at a Springsteen show, EVERYONE wears their Springsteen clothes. Tour t-shirts, album cover t-shirts…there’s even the homemade variety. While waiting in line at the nearby McDonald’s, I saw two middle-aged women wearing Christmas sweatshirts with Springsteen on them – the Boss rocking his Santa cap, no less. And then there was the guy in the pit whose t-shirt had a photo of himself WITH the Boss plastered on it.
The pit was another surprise. When I saw Neil Young in November, the crowd makeup was broad, but the keeners at the front of the stage were almost entirely young people. This makes sense, since they’re generally the ones with the patience to stand for hours before and during the show. But not at a Springsteen concert: there, being 20 and in the pit is to be an outlier, close to an oddity. Fans as old as 60 or 70 were willing to wait for five hours or more for the prime real estate when Boss Time rolled around.
See, what my brother and I didn’t realize when we snagged floor tickets to Springsteen’s April 15th show at the Los Angeles Sports Arena is that there’s a whole system when it comes to getting into “the pit,” that front-most section of the floor that’s blocked off to prevent the stage from being rushed. At this show, patrons with floor tix had to show up by 4:45 to get a numbered wristband. Shortly before 5 p.m., they lined everyone up in order and drew a number. That person would be the start of the pit lineup, and they’d fill up the available space from there.
So think about this: in order to be there by 4:45, you not only would have had to be keen enough to miraculously snag floor tickets (the show sold out in five minutes), but you’d also have to either a) skip work b) book time off work, or c) be traveling to see the show. In other words, these are the most HARDCORE of hardcore Springsteen fans. And it showed: nearly all of them had a story to tell. There was the guy who saw the Boss on the 1974 tour before Born to Run. There was the guy who saw Prince open for Springsteen and get booed off the stage. There was the couple who had just seen the Denver show the week before and were positively beaming about it. As someone who was seeing the Boss for the first time, I certainly felt a bit out of place (to say nothing of my brother, who is only a casual fan).
In total, just over 800 fans stood in line for an opportunity to make the pit, and 600 of us got in. We ended up a mere 45 feet from the stage and spent the following three hours socializing with the Springsteen fans around us. Part of me wishes that I had taken notes, collecting the stories in more detail and marking down names, because all of those genuinely-fascinating recollections were rocked out of my brain the moment 8:15 hit and the E Street Band walked onstage.
Perhaps it’s for the best. Spending my time psychoanalyzing the Springsteen fan base is rendered rather redundant when you see the man perform and it all makes perfect sense: the religious overtones, the passion play, the ritualism (somehow everyone in the pit knew when to join in the “spontaneous” crowd participation moments)…an E Street Band show is less a rock concert than a spiritual awakening.
I’m clearly the right audience for this kind of experience, given that I consider music the closest humanity has ever come to truly touching something godly. But it’s miraculous how effortlessly Bruce and the boys pull off their “rock and roll as salvation” gimmick without appearing self-aggrandizing or self-indulgent. A Springsteen concert is as much about the audience’s participation as it is the merry band of minstrels on-stage – the sing-a-longs, the cross-stage performing, and best of all: the requests. At the midpoint of his show, Springsteen crosses the entire front of the stage collecting signs from the crowd and then chooses one request for the band to play. At this show, he chose two: the band’s regular 1980s cover of “Raise Your Hand” and first-album classic “Spirit in the Night.”
After all, even with all the stagecraft involved, it’s the songs that make a Springsteen concert what it is. The man boasts one of the most amazing repertoires of anyone touring these days and he makes the most of it, especially on this tour. When touring The Rising and Magic, Springsteen built his show with new material at the centre, but this time there’s only a small handful of Working on a Dream tracks making the setlist. Perhaps this is a sign that Springsteen knows that WoaD isn’t exactly the greatest collection; more likely, he knows that his time may be running out. Danny Federici passed away last year, Clarence Clemons is almost 70 and Max Weinberg’s moving to the Tonight Show; the E Street Band’s days on the road may be numbered.
If we are approaching the end of one of rock and roll’s greatest backing bands, they’re going out with a bang. With an energy far surpassing their years, Springsteen and the E Street Band tore through both classics and obscurities in Los Angeles, from “Rosalita” and “I’m Going Down” to “Seeds” and “Johnny 99.” Special guest Tom Morello joined Springsteen for a blistering take on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” one that earned the ear-splitting solo at its end. For me, the absolute highlight was getting to hear “Racing on the Street,” a song which to me represents everything wonderful about Springsteen crammed into one beautiful, haunting ballad. I’ve been to many a concert in my life, and heard many a great song…I don’t think I’ve ever felt as genuinely moved as I did standing there and swaying alongside 15,000 others.
I’ve always been a believer. That night, Bruce reminded me why.
(Photos, setlist and video of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” after the break)
Darkness On The Edge Of Town
Out In The Street
Working on A Dream
The Ghost Of Tom Joad (w/Tom Morello)
I’m Going Down
Raise Your Hand
Spirit In The Night
Waiting On A Sunny Day
Racing In The Streets
Kingdom Of Days
Born To Run
Hard Times (w/ Tom Morello)
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Land Of Hope And Dreams