Concert Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band in San Jose – Over three hours of intense, non-stop Rock n’ Roll heaven
Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band at the HP Pavilion
My feet are in agony, there’s a loud ringing in my ears, my voice is so hoarse I can barely speak, and I am physically and emotionally drained to an incredible degree. But I wouldn’t trade this feeling for the world. I just saw Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band play a solid three hours and ten minutes (from 8:19 PM to 11:29 pm) of music in San Jose, California, and my life will never be the same.
Seeing Bruce and the band live has been one of the biggest dreams of my life for years now, ever since I became a fan in High School. Without ever having the opportunity to attend a concert, it’s always been clear to me – mostly from the wealth of excellent live recordings available (legally and otherwise), but also due to the critical consensus that Bruce is the best Rock performer in the business – that the E-Street Band is a live act like no other. Watching a concert DVD or listening to an old bootleg is a magical, spiritual, transportive experience, and because of the incredible times I’ve had with those recordings, I knew I absolutely, positively had to attend the first show I could. It was my pilgrimage to Mecca, and by God I was going to make it.
Not even Bruce’s decision to stick to the coasts on the first leg of the Wrecking Ball Tour could deter me; I just picked the place I had the most family to stay with – which turned out to be San Francisco – and flew there for the Concert. Never mind that schedule-wise, it was the single worst week to miss College classes. Education is insignificant compared to the sway the Boss and his music holds over my life.
Suffice it to say, my excitement and expectations were sky-high, and Bruce, naturally, shattered all of them. Tonight’s San Jose show at the HP Pavilion was a long evening – possibly the longest of the tour – filled with wonderfully surprising song selections, wildly intense performances, a largely passionate audience, and most importantly, loads of genuine, heartfelt emotion coming from and towards the stage. It was just an amazingly special night all around, and I constantly felt like I was reevaluating how I view each song, every member of the band, and my own personal relationships to the music. Considering what a large part of my life Bruce Springsteen’s material is, I learned so much from the experience, and can honestly say that I walked away a different person, with a dramatically more rounded understanding of this crucial piece of my existence.
For more in-depth thoughts on the concert – including the setlist and a top-ten list – continue reading after the jump….
That's me, in my fancy new Springsteen shirt
The number one thing I learned watching the San Jose show is that no matter how prepared you might be, no matter how many concert recordings you’ve watched or how well you’ve memorized every last measure of every last song, nothing can quite prepare you for your first E-Street Band concert. There are things that knock you flat watching the Band live in the arena that you simply won’t comprehend anywhere else, and to make sense of all the new experiences I absorbed, I’ve made a handy top-ten list of the most important things I feel learned tonight about the world of Bruce Springsteen:
10. “Jack of All Trades” should probably be dropped – I feel I should, in the interest of journalistic integrity, try to give the band one piece of constructive criticism; so here it is, the only negative thing I could think to say about tonight’s performance: “Jack of All Trades” just isn’t connecting with the crowd. It saddens me to say this, because I adore the song and think the live version is incredibly compelling, but I was definitely in the minority. Audience members fled the arena in droves, either for bathroom breaks or drink runs, as soon as the song started, and people chatted loudly from start to finish. The song just wasn’t holding the audience’s attention, and it’s not just that it’s the “slow” song of the set. “American Skin” and “Rocky Ground” are both slower, sit-down numbers, but the audience was generally held in rapt concentration for them; there’s something about “Jack” specifically that simply isn’t igniting concert-goers the way it should. Given how good Springsteen is at eliciting mass interaction and energy from thousands of people in one go, it’s obvious when something isn’t working, and I think – based on my experience and what I’ve heard from other performances – “Jack” is sadly one of those cases. I understand exactly why Bruce wants the song in there – I do too – but it may not be worth the effort going forward.
9. The sound team is doing a positively awe-inspiring job – The argument could be made that Bruce has the volume up a bit too much (though it’s not an argument I would make), but other than that, it’s impossible to deny that tonight’s show sounded incredible from start to finish. Every instrument came through loud and crystal clear – Bruce’s voice, in particular, had a power behind it I frankly didn’t think possible from even the best of sound systems – but more importantly, the mix was sublime. Every time a player did anything of interest, from a big show-stopping solo to a casual, interesting little lick, the sound team made sure we heard it. The concert wasn’t a messy wall of sound, as big shows like this often are, but a precise, controlled aural landscape made up of unique sonic elements. The end result was an incredibly immersive soundscape that must be heard to be believed.
8. The E-Street Chorale hasn’t gotten a lot of hype, but it’s an essential new piece of the ensemble – In case you didn’t know, the “Chorale” is a team of three talented back-up singers now assisting the E-Street Band, and they’re very, very good at adding texture to the performances. What I noticed is how invaluable they are in getting the crowd to interact; you can’t expect every person in the arena to know all the lyrics by heart, but people want to sing along, and it’s so much more fun when everyone’s throwing their voices in the mix. That’s what the Chorale accomplishes: they begin and repeat simple, easily digestible musical phrases that anyone can pick up on and chant, and so the people who don’t know the words – or simply aren’t comfortable with singing anything too complex – can join in on these pieces. It really helps build atmosphere and character in the arena, and on stage, the Chorale also does a great job strengthening melody and rhythm. This is a talented little group that really fleshes out the E-Street experience, and I’m so happy Bruce added them to the ensemble.
7. Songs from “The Rising” absolutely slay the crowd – When I made my “Top Ten Favorite Springsteen Albums” list, I (expectedly) took some flack for putting The Rising at number two. I did so for very simple reasons: I feel more emotionally connected with that album than all but one of Bruce’s records. The Rising goes for the heart, and it does so with expertise and grace. This is why I love it, and judging by tonight’s crowd reactions to selections from the album – “City of Ruins,” “Sunny Day,” “The Rising,” and “Lonesome Day” – I’m certainly not alone in feeling deeply connected to that music. In the main set, each of those four songs seemed to keep every last member of the crowd riveted (which, in a concert, means dancing, cheering, and singing with wild abandon). There were positively palpable levels of good energy flowing through the arena whenever Bruce broke out a Rising track, and it’s not just for gimmicks like bringing a little kid out for “Sunny Day” (which is friggin’ adorable, I don’t care what anyone else says). People love those songs, and it’s not surprising; in a time where increasing numbers of people are feeling sad about their daily lives, music about overcoming grief is more important than ever. And Bruce, as always, is the best at it, turning each Rising track into a profound healing experience.
6. No amount of hype can prepare you for the power of the E-Street Horns – I’ve heard a lot of good things about the new horn section in the last few weeks; hell, they even blew me away during the Apollo show just listening over the radio. But in concert, they really are a transcendently talented group of musicians, and what they bring to each song is truly incalculable, both as individuals (go Eddie!) and as a unit. “Death to My Hometown,” in particular, threatens to blow the walls off the arena, and it’s primarily built around horn power. And I would, of course, be remiss if I didn’t admit I and everyone else in the building lost their minds for Jake Clemons. He’s doing so much more than flawlessly imitating his Uncle; he’s embodying so many of the very things we all loved about Clarence. There’s true character to his playing, he’s got a tremendous stage presence, his chemistry with his band-mates is fantastic, and he’s always willing to let loose and have some fun. Whether coming up front to harmonize on the Apollo Medley, perform some smooth dance moves, or goof around with Bruce in ways undeniably reminiscent to Clarence, Jake is doing his Uncle proud, and we all love him for it.
5. No matter how much you’ve heard about them, Max Weinberg’s skills must be seen to be believed – We’ll talk about the rest of the band in a moment, but Max deserves special attention, because in many ways, he’s the glue that ties the entire E-Street experience together; he watches Bruce like a hawk for any indication of tempo changes, and therefore keeps the rest of the band on the same page. When Bruce is off interacting with the crowd, it’s Max who keeps things going musically, and when the performances are at their zaniest or most intense, it’s Max who’s at the heart of it all, keeping the rhythm in check at all times. Words can’t do his talent justice; Max Weinberg must be seen, live and in person, to be believed, and I will never take his skills for granted again when listening to a live recording.
4. When you know every inch of every song by heart, you should probably get a GA ticket – Truth be told, this is part of a bigger lesson: that when you are unabashedly, enthusiastically into Springsteen’s music, the concert is a supremely physical experience. I spent all but two of the songs on my feet, and kept vigorously moving – dancing, singing, clapping, and other miscellaneous gyrations – for most of that time. It’s incredibly intense, and by the end, I doubt I could have been more exhausted. I don’t mind in the slightest, because personally, getting into the music physically is an essential part of the experience. But I realized pretty quickly that not every member of the audience shared my enthusiasm for singing, dancing, and shaking. After the first couple of songs, most of the people in my section only stood for the really big, well-known numbers like “Promised Land;” I was the only person in my row, for instance, to go wild over “Thundercrack” or “Murder Incorporated.” I’m certainly not mad at them – we all enjoy the music in different ways, and not every fan is required to be a wacko nerd like me – but when I see Bruce again, I’m definitely going for General Admission. The standing-room-only section was filled to burst with people sharing my level of enthusiasm, and given how much I surely annoyed the people around me, I felt like the floor – where dancing would be embraced, not judged – is where I truly belonged. Now I know, and I’m eager for that experience in the future.
3. Making “Dream Setlists” is stupid, because Bruce will come up with something so much better – Seriously, when it comes to putting together a show, Bruce Springsteen always knows best. Tonight’s setlist was an absolutely magical concoction of new material (“We Are Alive,” “Shackled and Drawn”), reliable standards (“Promised Land,” “Born to Run”), pleasant surprises (“Rosalita,” “American Skin”), and mind-blowing shocks to the system (“Thundercrack,” “My Love Will Not Let You Down”). Given that I love nearly every song in the catalogue, I’ve definitely a biased opinion, but to me, this was as good a setlist as Bruce could ever put together to demonstrate the range and talents of the E-Street Band. The performances were so uniformly intense, passionate, and grand that any song as “Jack of All Trades” could have served as a suitably epic finale. They all packed that much of a punch, but the show just kept on going and going at its non-stop, breakneck pace, and the results were endlessly invigorating. And the crazy thing is that I have to keep reminding myself that Bruce probably does this at every show. Keeping such an impossibly high level of energy up for that long is unattainable for most acts, but for Bruce Springsteen, it’s just another day at the office.
The E-Street Band (well, way off in the distance),
playing "Dancing in the Dark"
2. Whatever your level of adoration for the band members is going on, you will walk away with a newfound appreciation for their talents – I could have made every item on this top ten list a celebration of a different player, they all blew me away so completely. And I thought I knew the E-Street Band, felt I was intimately familiar with what they were capable of. But nothing can prepare you for what it feels like to watch Nils go to town on his guitar like that live, or how effortlessly Steve exudes cool, or what grace and precision Roy brings to the piano, etc. Their talents seem so much grander and more awe-inspiring in person, and that’s especially true of Bruce himself; I never realized what a truly fantastic singer he is until tonight, as he powerfully delivered every lyric with flawless style and true conviction, and his guitar skills are legendary for good reason. But it’s hit ability to effortlessly control a crowd that is most impressive; he makes a cavernous arena feel intimate, and his band-mates are invaluable in creating that personal atmosphere. When Bruce, Nils, and Soozie dove into a three-way solo on “Thundercrack” with Jake wailing away in the background, I felt like I was watching three incredibly talented friends jam together for fun, rather than performing for a crowd. The E-Street Band is the best for good reason, and tonight, I feel like I fully comprehend why.
1. You will inevitably come away with a deeper understanding of what these songs mean to you – This is the hardest one to explain, but I really do feel it’s the most important point I can make about what this concert meant to me. Bruce didn’t play any songs I didn’t already know by heart, but I still found myself having entirely fresh emotional reactions to each number, and I’m sure that from this day forward, those songs will always be tied to memories of this concert. In the concert setting, being sonically and physically immersed in the music like never before, my heart and soul absorbed the meaning behind Bruce’s words more powerfully than ever before, and there were several moments where I became a complete emotional wreck.
For that reason, “Lonesome Day” was the most impactful piece of the concert for me. See, I’m going through a rough time right now with my family; my father is sick, and I am now living my life knowing my time with him is limited. Grappling with that reality feels like an insurmountable challenge most days, and I’ve found myself dealing with those feelings by listening to Bruce with increasing frequency. Tonight, when Bruce jumped into “My City of Ruins” early on, I started to think about all of this, but it wasn’t until “Lonesome Day” that I really, finally understood why this music touches me so deeply, and why I need it more than ever as I deal with my father’s illness. “Lonesome Day” is a song about someone in my position, who has lost (or is loosing) a loved one, and is just desperately searching for the strength to move on. But Bruce doesn’t believe in defeat in many of these songs; he knows it will all be alright in the end, and that’s what the song’s chorus is all about: insisting to oneself that no matter what the challenge, you will find a way through it.
It’s endlessly inspiring, and tonight, it cut right down to the core of my being, to the deepest and most personal of the issues I’m struggling with, and I couldn’t help myself; I openly wept for a minute or two there. But many of those tears were of joy, because in that arena, with that wonderful music blaring, surrounded by thousands of people who share my passion, I absolutely believed in the force of the chorus: “It’s alright, it’s alright, yeah.” It is alright. Or, at least, it will be, because in this moment, I have what I need: the concert, the music, the fun, the excitement, the community, etc. It’s just a fleeting moment of happiness, one that will fade into memory after Bruce leaves the stage, but it was real, and powerful, and everything I needed to be, and I can carry that with me into the future, and use it when I need it. The same goes for any moment in our lives, bad or good; it’s all fleeting in the end, pain and pleasure pass in equal measure, but we’ll be alright in the end because we have the strength to endure to the next moment of empowerment, with the best memories of the past there to keep us going.
That’s a very new interpretation of “Lonesome Day” for me. And I came to similarly revelatory conclusions about every one of the 26 songs Bruce played tonight, because – and this is probably the biggest thing I learned – the songs are simply better and more impactful live.
As a Bruce fan, tonight was everything I hoped for and so much more. Endlessly fun, deeply spiritual, intensely meaningful, and a truly life changing experience all around.
I recognize that I’m probably incoherent at this point. It’s 3 AM and I’m so exhausted my vision is blurry, so I’m going to call it quits, and maybe come back for Springsteen Sundays this weekend with more thoughts. For now, let me get you that setlist….
San Jose, California
April 24th, 2012
We Take Care Of Our Own
Death To My Hometown
My City Of Ruins
Jack Of All Trades
My Love Will Not Let You Down
Shackled And Drawn
Waiting On A Sunny Day
The Promised Land
American Skin (41 Shots)
We Are Alive
Rocky Ground (feat. Michelle Moore)
Out In The Street
Born To Run
Dancing In The Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Did you attend the San Jose show? If so, what did you think? Sound off in the comments!