Monday, May 15, 2023

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band - La Défense Arena, Nanterre - May 15th, 2023

In the realm of rock concerts, Bruce Springsteen is in a category of his very own. His shows are more than just a music pageant. They are something like a communion, a transcendant experience that goes beyond the music or the performances and move you to your very soul, despite the apparent simplicity of his songs. Is it the energy of the E Street Band, the world's hardest working rock n' roll band? Is it the fans' fervor, singing every song, grooving to every beat, tripping to every solo? Is it the ringleader's earnest charisma? Is it his voice? It's all that and more. There is something undefinable, something you can't put into words, something you have to experience.

I've always enjoyed Bruce Springsteen's records. Some more than others, of course. But there are so many great songs in his his repertoire, his catalogue is so diverse, that there has to be something in there for everyone. But then you don't get it until you see it. It sounds cliché, and it is. But one night in 2012, late to the party as usual, I attended my first concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

I had already been to quite a few concerts by that time but this one floored me. Almost four hours, which would feel like torture for even my favorite artists, a mix of hits, classics, deep cuts and covers, and this incredible synergy between the artist and his audience. Like a junky chasing his first high, I went back a year or so later and, because I was seated at the very back of a gigantic, sterile stadium, I didn't have nearly the same life-changing experience, which is why I resisted going back to see him. Until now.

Because the man is now 73, and age is starting to take its toll. Carrying such a huge show is no longer as effortless as it once was, and you can tell. Oddly enough, this adds another layer of emotion to the performance: Bruce is human. We have that in common, too.

On this run, things are a little different: Springsteen and his 17-piece band are working with a predetermined setlist, which they slightly alter when they play multiple nights by peppering some lesser-known gems from the catalogue. Officially, this is a tour promoting the latest album of soul music covers, but by and large, this feels like a Greatest Hits set. Not that he plays every hit or classics, mind you. And not every song he plays is a hit or a classic. But it sure feels that way.

Another notable difference is the unexplained absence of Patti Scialfa, but with a 17-piece band behind him, her contribution isn't exactly crucial. Also, this might have been the first time that the Boss wore sneakers on stage. But this is jut a cosmetic concern: it won't be time to send this New Jersey senior citizen out to retire in Florida until he starts wearing track suits on stage.

The other thing that stands out is the burden of time. While previous tours could be seen as carefree, escapist ventures (despite the protest songs, the tragic ballads and an ever-present political subtext), this one explicitly references death and acknowledges the fact that this is nearing the end. And on a number of level, unfortunately, it does feel like a last hurrah for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, in this configuration at least.

It wouldn't be fair to judge other rock shows on the same scale as a Springsteen show because, again, a Springsteen show is its own thing. It's not here to compete with, say, the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan or the Grateful Dead, even though, like these artists, Bruce has a devoted following that travels the world to catch numerous shows on each tour.

Trying to pick out a highlight is futile: the show is a constant apotheosis, a celebration of all things rock n' roll. Music, friendship, family, love, sex, cars, teenage exuberance, work, death, and the ever-so important importance of believing in your dreams. It sounds corny, but delivered with such power and gusto, it would bring a tear to the eye of even the most jaded, cynical rock fan. And looking around the arena, on more than one instance, it definitely has.

I purposely resisted looking at previous setlists when I found out he was working with a template, so a lot of the songs were a surprise to me. Looking at them now, I realize we got quite a few unexpected nuggets, so let's unpack all this.

At 7:10, the house lights came down and the band members started populating the stage one by one, with the more "important ones" at the end: Roy Bittan, Jake Clemons, Max Weinberg, Nils Lofgren, "Little" Steven Van Zant, and finally, the Boss himself. And then it's the call to arms: One, Two, Three, Four...

Transitioning from the hum of the arena crowd to experiencing the full power of the E Street Band in action is one of the most exhilarating feelings and MY LOVE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN was a great choice for an opener. Not the man's most famous song, as the only studio version was only released on an outtake box set, but just as anthemic as the other songs from the Born In The U.S.A. sessions. 

Without time for a pause, the band then segued into DEATH TO MY HOMETOWN, as powerful, gritty and heartbreaking as when it was released over a decade ago. To me, this is the song that exemplifies the cultural and political misunderstanding of Springsteen's music, even more than Born In The U.S.A.: a tale of economical devastation in a small American town, this should be the kind of lyric and sentiment that every side could, and should, get behind. Yet Springsteen is forever branded a liberal. His opinions are known, but they rarely creep into his songs, which are really just simple stories.

Then came a splendid, heart-wrenching yet surprisingly uplifting rendition of GHOSTS. The theme of death starts to rear its head...

But then we're back in full rock bombast with PROVE IT ALL NIGHT. Like most Springsteen classics, this toes the line between life-affirming anthem and nostalgic complaint and conjures up the iconic images from the man's lexicon: small town, young lust, and inevitable fate.

DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN is one of the evening's surprises and showcases Bruce's incredibly versatile vocal talents, which haven't diminished in his advancing years.

LETTER TO YOU brings things down a notch in terms of volume but not in intensity. It's one of those songs that; although recent, feels like an old classic. A song about loss, memories and , Bruce deems its lyrics important enough to have them translated into French on the screens.

THE PROMISED LAND kicks things back into high gear, with the audience chanting and pumping their collective fist in the air, as on most of the high tempo numbers. 

This atmosphere carries over into the next song OUT IN THE STREET with Bruce, ever the man of the people, paying a visit to the crowd.

The next song was the night's first real curveball: a rollicking, extended rendition of KITTY'S BACK, one of the Boss' jazzier numbers, on which we were reminded of his talents as a lead guitarist. His choice of notes, his placement of them, are impeccable. "Mighty" Max Weinberg also got to stretch his big band drummer muscles. Of course, the E Street Band IS a big band but on this number, we were almost in Count Basie territory.

I wasn't really looking forward to NIGHTSHIFT. On record, this cover is pleasant enough but adds nothing to the song or to the Bruce Springsteen canon. But on stage, the reverent take on this Commodores classic took on a whole other dimension thanks to the elegant horns and the breathtaking backing vocalists. This not only served as a tribute to classic soul, a genre that undeniably informs the sound of the E Street Band, but also as an elegy to musicians that have left us, and by extension to all of our dearly departed. Tight yet supple, funky yet subtle, that band can groove.

MARY'S PLACE is "only" twenty years old yet is another one of those songs that have been around forever. How Bruce keeps writing songs that seem to have been part of the collective unconscious since the dawn of time is a mystery. His complicity with drummer Max Weinberg was an absolute joy to witness.

Another curveball was a cover of the old traditional work song PAY ME MY MONEY DOWN, maybe intended as a reply to the uproar caused by the Ticketmaster debacle... Starting out as part singalong sea chanty and part country blues, the song transformed into a New Orleans-style second line dixieland tune with the help of the E Street Band's fabulous horn section. Bringing together every style of American musical traditions and idioms is part of what makes Springsteen's music so precious.

The dirty, gritty funk of THE E-STREET SHUFFLE gave Bruce the opportunity to indulge in his bandleader leanings. He is the Boss for a reason. It was also the last good-time number before things took a somber turn with the tragic LAST MAN STANDING, performed acoustically by Bruce alone, until a heartbreaking trumpet chorus brought the audience to tears.

BACKSTREETS was also imbued with an aura of loss, regret and nostalgia despite the bouncy musical accompaniment. Musically and thematically, this story of teenage romance segued perfectly into the following song BECAUSE THE NIGHT. But instead of passion and lust, this version exuded a feeling of bitterness and regret. 

That same darkness imbued the bouncy, Bo Diddley beat of SHE'S THE ONE which had the audience jumping up and down until the next number, an apocalyptic version of WRECKING BALL where even the fast jig sections felt cataclysmic and confrontational. Dancing and singing as a catharsis, and a way to stave off the inevitable.

THE RISING, despite originating in tragedy, was always a positive, galvanizing number about resilience, and this is when the dark clouds over the show started to part, finally allowing the feel good vibe back into the brotherhood formed by the band and its audience.

BADLANDS has my all-time favorite Bruce moment. That bridge after the solos and the breakdown, with the audience chants, and Bruce starts belting out: "For the ones who have a notion a notion deep inside..." Goosebumps. Every. Time.

The band waved goodbye after that, but we knew it wasn't over. In fact, they didn't even bother to pretend to leave the stage and wait for the audience to call them back. So technically, this isn't really an encore. It was the pay-off. It was time for the band to play the hits. But this is not a populist, demagogical move. This is what the band is hard wired to do: give the people what they want. And the people want to hear BORN IN THE U.S.A. in its original, anthemic guises, complete with 80's synthesizer. You want it? You got it. And if that's not enough, here's a little BORN TO RUN for you. 

You'd think the band would stop after these two hits and 170 minutes of music. Most other bands would. But the audience was still singing the glockenspiel riff from the previous song when the band veered into BOBBY JEAN, working the crowd up to a frenzy and I swear a saw a woman in the bleachers standing up from her wheelchair... Such is the miraculous power of the legendary E Street Band.

Please, sir, I want some more. Sure, kid. Here's GLORY DAYS before the barrage of hits comes to an end with DANCING IN THE DARK.

Next is TENTH AVENUE FREEZE-OUT, usually a feel good anthem, transformed here into a eulogy for all the people who've left the building. On the screens are photos of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, a powerful reminder that you don't leave the E Street Band when you die: you leave the E Street Band when WE die. Unfortunately, this would be the band's last song despite both "Little" Steven and "Mighty" Max' insistance that "I don't want to go home!"

After the band leaves the stage, Bruce returns to play a solo acoustic version of I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, as if to wish to audience good night... and farewell. Yes, it feels like a farewell of sorts but if this is the last time we see Bruce Springsteen and the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, booty-shaking, love-making, earth-quaking, Viagra-taking, legendary E Street Band then it was an absolutely magical send-off.

So that's the setlist picked apart for you.What else? Jake Clemons  "Little" Steven is still one of the coolest motherfuckers in rock n' roll, part buccanneer, part gypsy, and his on-stage guitar collection had connoisseurs salivating. Nils Lofgren is also an under-heralded beast on the instrument. These guys have chops for days but know how to keep their contribution to what is essential to the songs and performance. Max Weinberg is a rock n' roll drummer cut from the same cloth as Charlie Watts: an inimitable swing, incredible restraint, sudden outbursts of flash and of course impeccable timing. And the star of the show, Bruce Springsteen, whose vocal talents often get overshadowed by his songwriting and stagecraft. What an incredible and polyvalent singer he is, whether belting out heroic rock songs or crooning soul numbers, singing delicate country ballads, his voice has lost none of its power and emotivity. Even his crowd-pleasing antics and pre-written stage banter were delivered with enough sincerity to keep the show from becoming yet another Las Vegas jukebox farewell reunion tour.

Was it better than my first time? Well, in retrospect, no. But nothing ever is. And why compare? When it unfolded, I was in the moment, enjoying every note, every joke. And despite the darker subtext in parts of the show, I was transported. I danced, I sang, I laughed, I cried and then I danced again. And as I left the arena, I felt elated. This is the gift of music, and this is the gift of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Re-live the show by playing the setlist in the embedded Apple Music player below.

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