Tonight, the man Bob Dylan once called Bruce Springfield — back when Bob could still pull rank — returns to the edge of town for a show that has local media salivating. Rave reviews are a foregone conclusion. Thousands will call it the concert of the year. I will not be attending. I’ve seen the man twice: once with band; once without. I’m covered.
Not that I didn’t enjoy the shows. Moreover, on both occasions I lobbied to be the chosen reviewer for the Sun, putting forth the argument that I could provide the public with something it had not seen since October 1975, when Time and Newsweek magazines anointed Springsteen boss, by simultaneously planting his working-class mug on the cover of both magazines. Since that week, opinions on the legendary rocker have been firmly cast. Consequently, no review of a Springsteen show, or album, has conveyed an effort to be objective.
Until 2005, that is, when I was dispatched to what was then called the Corel Centre, to pass comment on a solo performance by rock and roll’s most celebrated performer. Certainly, I expected to be entertained. I perhaps even expected to be converted. After all, the only Springsteen LP I owned at the time was the stark and dark collection of contemporary folk songs, Nebraska. Here was a chance to witness that one-man-show in the flesh.
I had nothing against the man; though, I’d never cared much for the legend. I had heard a bootleg of an early show that suggested a memorable concert experience. I had endorsed Tunnel of Love as a worthy pop record. I had endured thousands of airings of Cadillac Ranch and Glory Days at cottage parties without developing a deep hatred for the artist responsible for them. I had likewise endured descriptions of Springsteen shows that invariably left me more amused than curious, given that fans seemed to me to rate Springsteen shows more on quantity than on quality. “He played for three hours!” they would exclaim. Fine, I’d think. When he starts doing 90-minute shows, I’ll consider checking him out. I mean, there is a limit.
And so I boldly challenged Bruce Springsteen to impress me. Twice. And, frankly, he did. Not the greatest shows I’ve ever seen, but I came away from them understanding some of the phenomenon. The solo show, for me the better of the two, turned a cavernous hockey arena into an intimate coffeehouse. The E Street Band show, while heavy on bombast, was saved by a surprise Arcade Fire encore, a moment Springsteen clearly savoured. Say what you will, the man loves music. Sometimes, alas, a little too much.
And so, in honour of Springfield’s return, I offer these reminders of the two sides of the Boss. The first review is from July 2005; the second was originally published in October 2007. Thanks, Bruce, and I hope you’ll understand why I feel no need to attend tonight’s show.
The Boss lights a candle
by Allan Wigney
Call it darkness on the edge of town.
Bruce Springsteen was wrapping his raspy pipes around the final notes of Reno, one of several Devils and Dust songs that sounded much stronger when performed alone onstage by the Boss than on CD, when darkness came.
“The lights went out. Then they went on again. Then they went out. And it was the best part of the show,” a relaxed and in-control Springsteen joked once he was up and running again. And with that, he naturally eased into a tender reading of I Wish I Were Blind.
It was that sort of evening Wednesday, with Springsteen making the most of whatever was at his disposal. That included a band’s worth of instruments – piano, harmonium, organ, guitars, harmonica and a sturdy pair of working-man’s boots to keep the beat.
It was the best attitude for a show introduced as being of “an intimate nature.” After all, Springsteen couldn’t help but notice as he gazed around the Corel Centre at the crowd of nearly 7,000 that Ottawa’s idea of an ‘intimate’ show differed greatly from that of other cities on his solo tour. But then, this is the city that once sold tickets behind the stage for a Springsteen show.
And, despite his cavernous surroundings, the Boss successfully turned the building that will soon once again be a hockey arena into a cozy theatre, playfully singing off-mike during an inspired Long Time Comin’ and sharing tales of parenthood with the faithful.
This was a show forthe faithful. There would be no bombastic Born in the USA anthems this evening. Rather, this was the Springsteen of Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad and the acclaimed Devils and Dust – albums whose songs were sprinkled throughout the career-spanning set. When he did give us songs we associate with the E Street Band, such as The River and Racing in the Streets, they were presented with restraint. And as such, the beauty of said songs shone through the darkened theatre.
And yes, the darkness was the best part. Not physical darkness, but darkness that has lurked behind Springsteen’s urban folktales for three decades and that shrouds the defeated characters of Devils and Dust. The blackout-causing Reno, for instance, is a decidedly adult view of the world from an artist who has dared to mature with his audience, rather than seeking a new one.
It was an adult evening in other respects. Concession stands closed before the show. No one was admitted during songs. And thanks to oodles of tickets suddenly being released for sale Tuesday and Wednesday, even scalpers learned a hard lesson about life on the edge of town.
Meanwhile, the mature audience hung on every word during the two and a half hour set – no longer interested (for the most part) in lowering themselves to knee-jerk cries of “Broooce.” It has, after all, been 30 years. And every one of those came to life with stark clarity Wednesday, as Springsteen offered a generous cross-section of favourites and lesser-known material, performed not to elicit automatic applause but to take us on a journey.
A journey into, and out of the darkness. That was the best part.
by Allan Wigney
The last time Capital City saw Bruce Springsteen, the Boss appeared to us as a lone figure armed with acoustic guitar and piano. A travelling troubadour. A folk singer.
Such a solitary existence, longtime fans well knew, was destined to be temporary.
Springsteen, you see, is first and foremost a rocker – an arrested adolescent in the best sense, seemingly rediscovering the great glory of rock and roll with each sunrise.
True, he has stepped away from that public persona in recent years, striving to broaden his horizons and to further define the contemporary-dust-bowl-ballad territory tested on non-bombastic albums like Nebraskaand The Ghost of Tom Joad.
But the E Street Band has never been far from his mind. And even at his folkiest, Springsteen has never given fans reason to doubt his devotion to both rock and roll.
So it was that when the Boss bounded onto the stage at Scotiabank Place Sunday in front of 15,000 of the faithful to ask the musical question “Is there anybody alive out there?” all was forgiven by those about to rock.
(The line lies at the heart of Radio Nowhere, a song from the new album Magic that rocks to a riff not a million miles from Bryan Adams’ Run to You – that’s right – and that does a better job of questioning the relevance of radio today than 57 Channels did for television 15 years ago.)
And rock they did, as the Boss and his nine-piece (!) E Street Band ran through a lengthy set of favourites old and new, trading in the intimacy of his most recent solo visit to the Bank for a different kind of shared cosmic experience. All the pieces were in place – wailing sax solos from Clarence Clemons, wailing guitar solos from Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt and plenty of wailing from the gruff-voiced man himself.
Add to that tried-and-true veteran E Streeters Roy Bittan, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent and Max Weinberg, plus multi-instrumentalist Soozie Tyrell and of course Mrs. Boss Patti Sicalfa (whose mid-set solo spot at recent shows reportedly provided a welcome beer break), and you have the makings of a vintage Springsteen show.
And a particularly special one, at that, as that crowd-pleasing encore was further elevated by the assistance of Arcade Fire couple Win Butler and Régine Chassagne. (Evidently, even a 10-piece band has its limitations.) Hence, a version of the moody Springsteen classic State Trooper, a song Arcade Fire has been known to cover, as well as a return of the favour via an enthusiastic ensemble reading of the Canadian sensation’s Keep the Car Running.
All in a night’s work when you’re the Boss.
Oh sure, he has lost a step over the years. (Haven’t we all?) But if this wasn’t a manic too-late-to-stop-now late-1970s Springsteen show, it suffered not one bit for that lack of reckless youthful energy.
See reference to arrested adolescence and love for rock and roll, above.
The highlights came early and continued throughout the night: A cocksure Adam Raised a Cain; the footstomping Born to Run Bo Diddley homage She’s the One; The Promised Land, a gem from Darkness on the Edge of Town; a generous encore heavy on the hits; the hypnotic title track from Magic; plus the occasional diatribe against an American administration bent on “rolling back civil liberties.”
For, even when accompanied by a nine-piece band, Bruce Springsteen is and has always been a folk singer in the truest sense of the word.
And Sunday night, with a little help from his friends, this rock and roll savior had the people’s ear.