Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
at Times Union Center, Albany, NY
(15 November 2007)

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer no doubt had a better view from his seat than I did. Then again, there's really no bad seat at a Bruce Springsteen concert. His energy is infectious; and for more than two hours on this night, it rocked its way into every steel seam of that arena.

As the lights dimmed and dark shapes advanced to the stage, our attention was diverted to a colorful old-fashioned calliope, which was barking out "The Man on the Flying Trapeze." Perhaps we were being warned that what we were about to witness was not something mere mortals could achieve without a net to catch their fall.

Backed up by the eight-piece E Street Band, the 58-year-old Boss offered a variety of new songs and old, a mix of slow ballads and kickin' rock anthems -- literally something for anyone who's followed any portion of his 30-plus-year career. He was savvy enough to alter his set list a tad for this outing, generating anticipation and excitement for his avid fans.

Since this tour was linked with the release of the album Magic, the night began with the album's first single, "Radio Nowhere," familiar to many due to the airplay it had already gotten on classic-rock radio stations. We would hear a total of nine songs from Magic throughout the evening, including "Gypsy Biker," "Magic," "Livin' in the Future," "I'll Work for Your Love," "The Devil's Arcade," "Last to Die," "Long Walk Home" and a tribute to warmer weather, "Girls in their Summer Clothes." For the benefit of those of us who weren't quite up to speed with the new album, Bruce offered occasional cryptic lines of explanation about how certain lyrics came to fruition.

More familiar sing-along tunes alternated with the new numbers. "No Surrender" marked the first of many times Bruce would share the mike with Sopranos star and guitarist Steven Van Zandt. It segued into "Lonesome Day," featuring E-Streeter Soozie Tyrell on violin, her blonde tresses flying to and fro in time with her bow. "Gypsy Biker" began with Van Zandt on acoustic guitar and Springsteen on harmonica, then built to a frenzied guitar solo by Bruce. The tempo slowed down with the mournful "Magic," which the songwriter clarified as "not really about magic -- it's about tricks." Toes were tapping again to the shuffle beat of "Reason to Believe," then slacked off for the more temperate "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and picked up once more for "Candy's Room."

If Springsteen's music could be defined and boiled down to a single style, "She's the One" would be a good example of it. With a theme of love and an auspicious beginning, the melody worked itself up into a chanting chorus that played tag with Clarence Clemons' raucous saxophone slices. Through it all, Bruce leaned forward in his runner's stance, launching himself into each measure, hitting the chords as sharply as if the six-stringed instrument in his hands was instead a flat-faced drum. And when he finally tore off the guitar and tossed it blindly to a roadie 10 yards away, the crowd gasped in near-horror. Emotions were running high, to say the least. (The stagehand did catch it.) Next up was "Livin' in the Future," a political entry from the new album, featuring another chantable refrain and the requisite sax solo.

If Brother Bruce hadn't won over the congregation in that first hour, then the simple opening duo of harmonica and piano for "The Promised Land" was sure to bring everyone to their feet, arms lifted to the skies. And when we raised our voices with "I ain't a boy; no, I'm a man; and I believe in a promised land," it was the equivalent of a big "Amen, brothers and sisters!" That was followed by "I'll Work for Your Love," dedicated to the lovers in the audience. With Patti Scialfa attending to a personal matter elsewhere, her husband was able to sing this tune to her in absentia, his mouth crinkled at times in a sly secret smile. Then he took us all the way back to the New Jersey boardwalk with "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)." When the "E Street Shuffle" started, the young 20-something sitting behind me grabbed my hand and insisted I dance with him, although I could have been his mother. It was tricky going, what with our sneakers stuttering over the sticky cement surface and dozens of steep steps threatening serious injury just centimeters away. We weren't the epitome of grace, but we swayed and twirled for the duration of the song. And I never got a chance to thank him.

"The Devil's Arcade" featured a haunting Springsteen solo in one of the middle verses, and an even more haunting refrain that echoed throughout the hall: "The beat of your heart, the beat of her heart, the beat of her heart, the slow burning away of the bitter fires of the devil's arcade." Six years after the fact and 150 miles north of the World Trade Center site, we were transported back to the 9/11 aftermath with the driving beat of "The Rising," mirroring the collective pulse of the thousands in attendance. It became another show-stopper in this E Street tent revival with its chorus of "Nah-nah, nah-nah-nah-nah-nahs" that even tone-deaf folks could mimic.

Speaking of E Street: Tyrell, Van Zandt and Clemons were joined by Roy Bittan and Danny Federici on keyboards, bassist Garry Tallent, guitarist Nils Lofgren and drummer Max Weinberg (who didn't miss a beat when he splintered a stick on the last crescendo of "Last to Die"). "Last to Die" and "Long Walk Home" were new songs that seemed almost familiar, written as they were in Springsteen's singular style. The last official song of the concert was "Badlands," which guaranteed a standing ovation as everyone in the arena punctuated the air twice with their fists in time to the title (and chorus) syllables.

Springsteen detractors and music purists may claim he doesn't enunciate, he slurs around his melodies and at times doesn't quite hit the right pitch. They would have been pointing fingers and nodding their heads when the band returned to the stage for a five-song encore, beginning with "Girls in their Summer Clothes." The last of the new songs for the evening, it was nicely paced and followed an easy enough chord progression. Even though the song was unfamiliar to many of us, it was clear where the correct notes should have been in Bruce's rendition of it. And I am probably the only person who thought it sounded a bit like "Sometime in the Morning," a Gerry Goffin-Carole King collaboration that the Monkees recorded on their second album. (Go get out your old LPs. You might agree.)

Once again an initial combination of harmonica and piano incited the crowd to get prepared to sing again, this time with "Thunder Road." It was a good thing, too, because once he began the lyric, it was obvious Bruce was losing his voice. The audience filled in for him and sang the whole second verse on its own as he gratefully stepped away from the microphone. He accepted our help throughout the song, until Clemons' sax solo finally closed the number. ("Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk," raised an additional cheer.) But before anyone could take a breath or sit down, it was time for "Born to Run," the hit that started it all. Bruce focused on the lower-pitched verses and didn't reach for the notes that were at that point unattainable. Did the crowd care? Not a lick. Amazingly enough, that wasn't enough, and the next sounds we heard were the five opening notes of "Dancing in the Dark." Surely the steel rafters high above us were even bouncing by that time. "Can't start a fire: can't start a fire without a spark; this gun's for hire, even if we're just dancing in the dark." But we weren't. The house lights had been brought up; and for most of the encore, the musicians could finally see the multitudes that they'd been performing to all evening.

The concert closer was "American Land," selected from the Seeger Sessions album. In karaoke fashion, the words appeared on the screens around the arena, so no one had an excuse for not participating. It was the culmination of a true group effort for the evening, both on and off the stage. By then, Springsteen's voice was so far gone he could barely croak out the introductions of the E Street Band members as the crowd roared its final approval. It didn't matter. He was exhausted, and so were we. And isn't that the way it should be?

by Corinne H. Smith
1 December 2007

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