On Magic and opening night of the E Street Band tour
“Devil’s Arcade,” the last song on Bruce Springsteen’s just-released Magic, is one of his greatest-ever ballads, no small achievement. Intimate yet grand, engrossing and shattering, its story pivoting on the edge between life and death, its guitar as insistent and terrifying as the 4 a.m. cry of your own child, Springsteen’s singing possessing an almost Astral Weeks-like intensity, “Devil’s Arcade” is a song very much of the current political and military moment, but also as timeless as war itself. With Springsteen playing once again with The E Street Band, it’s as powerful a piece of music as I’ve heard in years.
That awful beauty also separates “Devil’s Arcade” from the rest of Magic. There are some strong tracks on the album (the nasty “Magic” and the worldly but hopeful “Long Walk Home”), but more than half of Magic feels tired, smooth, self-conscious, settling for the generic when it should be burrowing toward the specific. As with Springsteen’s two previous albums, Magic is backward-looking. But whereas 2005′s Devils and Dust rescued a handful of worthwhile decade-old compositions from the vault and last year’s covers set We Shall Overcome showcased Springsteen’s excitement as he discovered a new context, Magic feels overtly nostalgic. Its lead single, “Radio Nowhere,” is the chief culprit. It’s an unmistakable attempt to recapture a particular sound (the sound The E Street Band invented in the studio from 1979 to 1984), and it feels like someone returning home to find things have changed and he can’t do anything about it. The topic is hardly new — good bands were writing songs complaining that there was nothing to listen to on the radio as far back as the mid-’70s — but here Springsteen just sounds petulant. He sounds, most of all, like an aging former multiplatinum rocker unhappy that he can’t hear himself on the radio anymore. Contrast that with the bittersweet “Bobby Jean” (from Born in the U.S.A.), in which Springsteen imagines himself closer to a far-away friend because his friend can hear him on the radio. Bruce wants to be on the radio again, damn it (forget for a moment that there’s no such thing as rock’n'roll radio anymore), and he’s going to make a record that he thinks will get him back there.
So Springsteen stuffed Magic with more musical and lyrical connections to older songs than he’d ever allow on a record. Hey, self-referential cliches work for Bon Jovi. Nearly all Clarence Clemons’s solos (even the sharp one over the fade of “Long Walk Home”) bear a close resemblance to earlier ones, and some songs are pastiches of previous triumphs: “Livin’ in the Future” is “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” meets “Out of Work,” which Springsteen wrote for Gary U.S. Bonds during a previous recession. And the record just sounds a bit off, second-hand, without the rawness of Springsteen’s previous record with the E Streeters, 2002′s The Rising. Emotionally raw, I mean, not musically raw. Producer Brendan O’Brien, it seems, never found a musical edge he didn’t want to sand smooth and buff up.
Still, even subpar Springsteen records have their charms. (The guitar solo at the end of “Human Touch,” the title track of his 1992 dud, comes to mind.) Even on “Radio Nowhere,” dismissed in the previous paragraph, you have the pleasure of listening to the Weinberg/Tallent rhythm section, as inevitable as the tides and a lot less predictable. Hearing these players lock in after so long together is, even on a bum cut, borderline thrilling. As they proved at the end of the Rising tour when Springsteen added Human Touch selections to the set, they can make mediocre songs sound better than they really are.
But as precise and reliable as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band can be in the studio, they do their best work on a concert stage. Magic feels like a record meant to be played live. And that’s what sent me, on a school night even, down to Hartford for the kickoff night of the band’s tour.
If you see a band on a long tour, either go very early in the tour or very late. Very early, they’re still figuring out the set and some welcome surprises can emerge from the miscues. Very late, they’re adding more and more surprises to keep themselves engaged. (Needless to say, the middle third usually produces the most professional and the least interesting shows.) Tonight’s show in Hartford, after three open rehearsals in New Jersey, was the first bona fide full arena show, and a good place to see where the band is five years after it started its last major tour. The anticipation before such a show is still quite real, even for skeptics.
The two-hour-and-fifteen-minute show was, as with so many other official Springsteen/E Street opening night, mixed. It wasn’t the near-train wreck of the Tunnel of Love Express opener in Worcester (would someone please explain that park bench to me?), but it was still a show in which the band members, particular Springsteen, were still feeling their way through the set. Lesser songs from Magic were played tougher than O’Brien let them in the studio (“Gypsy Biker” is developing a hard-headed rock’n'roll ending, as Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt trade brief guitar breaks), although even a vigorous take couldn’t make sense out of the bipolar “Livin’ in the Future.” The performance, to start the single encore, of the pure-pop “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” was light and sweet, especially since the arena echo made the first-draft lyrics easier to ignore. “Devil’s Arcade” was an intense highlight, but (like “Paradise” from The Rising) it may be too intimate to work in a hockey arena.
Most of the new songs did not garner a big audience response, probably because they’re so new. (Magic was released officially the same day as the show.) But it was an unusual experience seeing an audience as a whole sit down for most of the
new songs, even the rockers (except, of course, for the floor, which was standing room only). I suspect this will change as more people hear the record. It won’t change for “A Town Called Heartbreak,” a song from Patti Scialfa’s new album, sung as a duet, which provided the night’s lull and will serve as the Senator Montoya moment for the tour if it stays in the set. (I was only 11 the summer of the Senate Watergate hearings, but I do remember that I could go to the bathroom when Senator
Montoya asked questions and not miss anything important.)
Some of the older songs felt old. “Darlington County,” a deeply silly song, was put across with minimal silliness, and “The Promised Land” felt tired (although, to its credit, it was way less bloated than it’s been on previous tours.) But, as you’d
expect from a band touring behind a not-great new record, most of the show’s great moments came on older songs. “The Ties That Bind” featured a new melodic bass line from Garry Tallent and some sly, Emmylou Harris-esque harmonies from Scialfa. Springsteen played with his vocal and guitar phrasing on “Lonesome Day,” which was one of many songs lifted by new Weinberg flourishes. “Reason to Believe” was a highlight, featuring a boogieing arrangement somewhere between ZZ Top and Springsteen’s ZZ Top tribute “Seeds,” an ace slide solo from Nils Lofgren, and, on the last verse, the return of the Devils and Dust tour bullet mic.
The five-song encore was particularly sturdy. The quarter-century-old “Thundercrack,” only recently picked up by this version of the E Street Band, is as weird, eccentric, and enjoyable as always. Fellow long-time E Street Band concertgoers (likely the only people who have read this far) may appreciate this random note: During the song, bassist Tallent walked all the way to the edge of stage right, past Danny Federici’s organ and Clemons’s equipment, which is the farthest I’ve seen him walk from his usual spot next to the drum riser in 30 years of Springsteen concert-going. Tallent didn’t only travel physically. Since 1975, he and Weinberg have been the core of this band, but tonight (maybe thanks to a bass-heavy arena mix) Tallent’s balance of melody and rhythm was particularly notable. His injection of a few new runs into “Born to Run,” which followed “Thundercrack,” was one of many reasons why that old song still hasn’t any rust on it. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” felt like a benediction to send us into the night, but there was one more song, an E Streetified version of the Seeger Sessions tour finale “American Land.” With Weinberg nearly battering his rack tom into smithereens, Federici and Roy Bittan playing dual accordions, and Clemons nearly mastering his pennywhistle, the band members took turns cracking each other up. It was a friendly, spirited way to end the night.
Two more comments before I end the night, which will soon be morning and I have to walk a second grader to school on Picture Day.
Since reuniting the E Street Band in the late 1990s, many of Springsteen’s most worthwhile new songs have been about death: “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “American Skin (41 Shots),” “The Rising,” “Nothing Man,” “You’re Missing,” and now “Devil’s Arcade.” Many before me have noted that death should be the subject of any artist. With this band, Springsteen is well-armed to battle the most difficult and inevitable of subjects.
This brings me to one related observation, which is that tonight’s show felt to me as if it was a show about age. The show is shorter and less acrobatic than previous shows, and although Springsteen appears quite fit he did look like a man his age. During “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” he no longer hangs upside down on his mic stand. The show was not a Rolling Stones-style denial of age. Many of the songs on Magic are about age and the frustrations and sometimes wisdom it brings. And the show itself, without saying so, was about the aging of a magnificent band and its magnificent audience. The E Street Band played to their peers tonight. Springsteen has reached the point in his career that he no longer picks up casual fans who heard a recent single, say “Hungry Heart” or “Glory Days,” and figured they’d check out the show. The fans at these shows tend to be lifers, people who have known the words to “Thundercrack” for decades. At its best, Magic and this tour appear to be honest about getting older, both the good and the bad, and offer the audience a shotgun seat to come along and find out how it all ends up. Onward!
(Thanks to Bill for the ride and the great company. Great to see you, Tim. Missed you a lot, Owen.)
[Setlist:Radio Nowhere/The Ties That Bind/Lonesome Day/Gypsy Biker/Magic/Reason to Believe/Night/She's the One/Livin' in the Future/The Promised Land/Town Called Heartbreak/Darkness on the Edge of Town/Darlington County/Devil's Arcade/The Rising/Last to Die/Long Walk Home/Badlands//Girls in Their Summer Clothes/Thundercrack/Born to Run/Waitin' on a Sunny Day/American Land]