There’s a moment in his Wrecking Ball Tour, when he is performing the new song Jack of all Trades, that only Bruce Springsteen could pull off free of irony or critic-directed derision. The song, which would have fit snugly into the narrative on his magnificent 1982 album, Nebraska, is a wrenching tale told through the voice of a down-on-his-luck blue collar worker pleading for any menial job someone is willing to throw him so that he can keep his family fed and his creditors at bay. Like much of the material on The Wrecking Ball it is angry, suffused with barely contained rage at faceless, nameless institutions that have gone unpunished and unchecked in a modern America that grows ever-more unforgiving and uncaring. “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ’em on sight,” he sings, before ending on a more uplifting promise to his family, “I’m a jack of all trades, we’ll be all right.”
So, to the moment: in the song’s break, longtime E Street guitarist Nils Lofgren comes out of the shadows for a piercing solo, while Bruce steps behind the drum riser momentarily before re-emerging with a marching band bass drum around his neck and a mallet in his right hand. For several minutes he joins drummer Max Weinberg in keeping the song’s dirge-like beat under Nils’ solo, and at first one is amazed at the sight: the 62 year old Boss is playing a marching band bass drum? But then it dawns: as he has done for forty years, Bruce is once again delivering on his promise to his fans, fulfilling on his mission and responsibility as an everyman born with once-in-a-lifetime, uncannily remarkable lyrical and musical gifts: ”I’ll take the work, that God provides, I’m a jack of all trades, honey we’ll get by.” As it has been since 1972 when musical jack-of-all-trades Bruce Springsteen first formed the E Street Band, when they are together on stage everything is just a little more righteous in the world… and we’ll get by no matter what comes our way.
I was in the pit for the fifth show of the tour, in Philadelphia – a destination that is only slightly less elevated in shrine status for the E Street Nation than Asbury Park and The Meadowlands. “It’s great to be back in the City of Brotherly Love,” Bruce shouted early in the show, “ we could all use a little more brotherly love these days.” Brotherly – and sisterly – love was in abundant supply from the stage Wednesday night. The E Street Band lost its two longest-serving members – organist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons – in the last four years. The physical absence of the “Big Man” stage right was, prior to the tour’s start, almost unfathomable (and the absence of such anthemic songs infused with the magic of his horn as Badlands, Jungleland, The Promised Land from any future set list equally unfathomable.) But Bruce has found ways writ both small and large to pay tribute to those old friends, to keep them close to our collective hearts, to celebrate the circle of life, and to continue to bring the power – and the brotherly and sisterly love – hour after hour…and to keep songs like Badlands and The Promised Land as concert staples.
With an E Street Band that now includes Clarence’s nephew, Jake, on saxophone together with a four piece horn section and two back-up singers, Bruce channels yet again new energies to excite, exhort, rivet and renew his audiences with the majesty, the mystery and the ministry of rock and roll. “Is there anybody aliiiive out there!” he yells, before tearing into songs with a fury, and furious joy, that demands we participate with him on this journey of life told through music infused and suffused with blistering guitar (We Take Care of Our Own), joyful harmonies (The Apollo Medley of soul classics The Way You Do The Things You Do and 634-5789), youthful abandon (his 1972 classic, Does This Bus Stop at 82ndStreet?), emotional resurrection (his stunning post-9/11 masterpiece, The Rising), gospel salvation (Rocky Ground), brotherly – and sisterly – love (a gripping, poignant, uplifting My City of Ruins, where he invites us in to celebrate Clarence and Danny, gone from this mortal coil but forever members of the E Street Band), restless spirit (the unofficial New Jersey anthem, Born to Run) and, of course, the ambition of unbridled dreams, with Thunder Road (“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night, you ain’t a beauty but hey, you’re alright.”) Like no other performer before or since, he brings an almost messianic passion to his craft and divine purpose to his relationship with his fans.
But Bruce also knows he is as fallible and tempted as anyone in his audience. For the Reunion Tour in 1999-2000, when he went back out on the road with the E Street Band after a 12-year hiatus, he wrote Land of Hope and Dreams, which he revives as an encore on this tour and which speaks of the America that he has always sung about and believed in: conflicted, blemished, imperfect but always inclusive, redemptive and restorative; and even as Washington and Wall Street abandon their respective responsibilities Bruce sings of the power in us all to come together, forgive and heal: This train carries saints and sinners, This train carries losers and winners, This train carries whores and gamblers, This train carries lost souls, I said this train, dreams will not be thwarted, This train, faith will be rewarded.
Faith, indeed, will be rewarded.
Brian T. Regan | GM, New York