Regular readers of DennisKennedy.Blog will be familiar with the recent story line in which my friend Jeff and I decided that we had to try to get tickets to see Bruce Springsteen in both St. Louis and Milwaukee and then successfully got great tickets in both cities. Our plan, which we accomplished, was to take our wives to the St. Louis show (for which we had 4 tickets) and then go to the Milwaukee show (where we had two tickets) as a boys’ night out. It was a complicated strategy, requiring coordination of trips to and from St. Louis, Milwaukee and Rockford, Illinois.
As someone once said, mission accomplished.
To our credit, both Jeff and I will admit that there is a certain amount of youthful impulsiveness to our plan and we recognize that some people have quite puzzled looks when they heard what we planned to do. In fact, Jeff’s kids asked their mom if their dad had turned into some kind of groupie. On the other hand, it’s always good for your children and your friends to understand that there are some things that you are really passionate about. Hey, we’ve been going to Springsteen concerts for more than 25 years.
As I was driving back from Rockford today, I had the chance to think about the two concerts and my reactions to them.
First, I had to note that, somewhat ironically, our boys’ night out concert in Milwaukee ended up with both of us wishing we would have have two extra tickets for our wives. When we left the Bradley Center, one of the first things Jeff said was “Dawn would have really liked this show.” In my case, Springsteen played one of his true rarities, “All That Heaven Will Allow,” which is the first song Colleen and I danced to at our wedding reception. Heck, I would have liked to have my wife, my daughter and all of my friends with whom I’ve ever seen a show in the past or would want to in the future be there.
You might want to look at the set list for St. Louis and Milwaukee, or even the newspaper reviews for the St. Louis show.
The long-time fan will realize immediately that the set lists are nothing short of astonishing, with several rarities and a number of tour debuts.
Seeing two shows in two nights also helped me understand the bigger picture and the thematic structure to these shows. More on that later.
If I would have only seen the St. Louis show, I would have simply said that it was one of the best of all the shows I’ve seen. We had the best seats I’ve ever had for a Springsteen show and the show had nothing but highlights. My intuition that “Backstreets” would make an appearance proved to be right on target and it was a show-stopper. We also got some of my favorites like “Two Hearts” and “Lucky Town” and thorough treatment of the songs from Devils and Dust. Springsteen’s virtuosity as a musician and performer was on display all night and you couldn’t help but marvel at his approach to making a one-person show consistently visually, sonically and esthetically compelling. I learn to so much and am inspired at so many levels when seeing one of his shows.
So, move ahead a day and Jeff and I are driving to Milwaukee. My thought was that the St. Louis show was about as good as it gets. I hoped the Millwaukee show would be as good, but thought mainly about how it might be different. What I didn’t expect, and honestly could not comprehend because I honestly did not see room for much improvement, was that the Milwaukee show would not only be different but also markedly better, taking things to a whole nother level, as they say.
Anyway, Jeff and I are talking about the prospects for the show. Our mutual feeling is that we are along for the ride and that whatever he does will be great. I venture the prediction that we might get a “Racing in the Streets.” Jeff, although he thinks it will be unlikely, repeats his wish that he would get to see a version of “Point Blank.” We run through a couple of other possibilities, but mainly we are just two happy guys who are getting to see a second show. We also figure that the “Backstreets” and “Two Hearts” we got the previous night probably at least make us even with our friend Jim who got to see a version of “The Promise” in Cincinnati.
Now let me describe what happened:
1. Shut Out The Light – Here’s a song no one could have predicted as an opener. A rare song that I’ve always really liked. Played on the pump organ to set up bookends with the closing song.
2. Reason To Believe – This other-worldly version of this song amazes me in both its concept and its power. In the album version, this dark song talking about people finding a reason to believe seemed only to offer a sense of hope in the music itself, not the lyrics. In the live version, Bruce deconstructs the song – to the extent you might have found something uplifting in the music, that has been replaced by a blues; the lyrics are sung through a voice synthesizer, giving them a sense of even greater alienation; and the lighting and the performance itself is other-worldly. I find this version incredibly powerful (and, interesting, it also serves the purpose of making the audience more receptive and quieter during what is to come). Jeff had seen this version a few months and go and had talked about its meaning. His idea, which I like a lot, is that by breaking away the pieces of the song which on the album could be interpreted to show why you might have a reason to believe and lighting the stage in red, Springsteen was emphasizing the negative elements – that there is an evil in the world and that your reason to believe or faith must come out of your dealing with the evil in the world. I’m intrigued by that interpretation, but it struck me too that this version of the song forces you to address the question of what gives you a reason to believe in a world where the traditional moorings you have relied on are broken, distorted and all but unrecognizable. It’s the question, or the questioning, that’s important. That sets up the two songs that close the show.
3. Devils & Dust – This is a great song. What if we are facing just devils and dust, even if God is on our side? I like the way this song works with Jeff’s interpretation of RTB.
4. My Father’s House – A rare gem. A treat to get to hear this one. Jeff has elbowed me and said, wow, two out of the first four are new ones for the tour.
5. Long Time Comin’ – This song has grown on me greatly in two nights. Springsteen talks about his own children and the lyrics here have quite a wallop for any parent. In the course of two nights, Bruce has done an interesting thing: although the song is clearly done in a character’s voice, Bruce talks about how he might be too cocky in his payoff line: “I ain’t gonna fuck it up this time” and, after talking about changing the line in St. Louis, sings the line as “I hope I ain’t gonna fuck it up this time.” By the way, you do get some adult language in this show.
6. Frankie – Oh my God! Frankie is probably my favorite of all of the obscure non-album songs. It’s rarely been play at any time. I might have even mention it to Jeff as something that it wasn’t even worth thinking about because the odds of it being played were to great. The show has just entered the realm of magic and I’m starting to wonder if it really is possible that the second show could be better than the first.
7. Back In Your Arms – A reprise of the opener from St. Louis. I’m really liking this song. I’m starting to wish Colleen had come with me.
8. Ain’t Got You – I had been thinking about “She’s the One” all day. Ain’t Got You is in the “She’s the One” family. Played on the coolest white guitar.
9. State Trooper – Can’t imagine a better version.
10. Nebraska – Four out of the first ten songs from Nebraska! Another rare treat. I really had no idea what could follow the crescendo that had been created.
11. Reno – Now I see that this song is one of the structural points of the show. It’s not that it is a logical follow-up to Nebraska, but it’s a return to the show’s structure – a touch-point. I’m somewhat uncomfortable with this song, more so because it is a story-song than because of its sexual explicitness, which is also somewhat discomforting. I’ve made some peace with the song, though, because I like it’s use of a film-noir style of flashback and visual imagery (hotel blonds, e.g.)
12. All That Heaven Will Allow – Bruce notes that the show has gotten a little dark and he needs to prove that he is a guy who writes happy songs. As I mentioned, performances of this song are extremely rare and it was the song we chose for our wedding. I would be the guy with tears running down his face. Very emotional moment.
13. Point Blank – I think I heard Jeff gasp. All of the comments I’ve read about the show point to this song as a highlight. We saw one of the earliest performance of this song at a concert in 1978 and the song is powerful just in itself and for the memories it evokes. I’m thrilled that Jeff’s wish came true.
14. Racing In The Street – Several people designated me to participate in that music survey thingy that a bunch of bloggers did. To be honest, I couldn’t have even limited myself to a top 5 Springsteen songs, let alone a top 5 of all songs, so I’ve never done the survey. If you forced me to pick one Springsteen song as my favorite, this song would be one of the finalists and might be the winner. It touches the great mystery in a subtle and endlessly fascinating way, ultimately proving more interesting to me because of its indirectness than the more direct “Something in the Night,” another song that I really like.
15. The Rising – My opinion of this song keeps going up. I like the whole The Rising album (and would love to have heard the acoustic blues version of “Counting on a Miracle”), but if we only get one, this is a great one to get. And, hearing “Nothing Man” the night before was another rare treat.
16. Darkness On The Edge Of Town – Yet another version of this song. This one, back on guitar, may be the best of all.
17. Jesus Was An Only Son – Part lecture, part song, derived from the version he did on VH1 Storytellers, this is nothing but great.
18. Leah – A beautiful, beautiful song. If I could learn only one song to play well on guitar, I’d be more than happy for it to be this one.
19. The Hitter – Not my favorite on the new album and another story song, I’ve grown to appreciate it more. Interestingly, it has some of the out-of-body imagery that you find in Reno. That continuing sense of other-worldliness, of being separated from what is stable, trusted and what you are accustomed to.
20. Matamoras Banks – Another story song, which keeps me a bit detached (by this, I mean that I basically learn the story – it has a beginning and end – and that it becomes to easy to focus on and grow tired of the narrative over time). Here Springsteen makes a political comment about the need for a humane immigration policy that is more strongly made by the song. After the build to this point, the last two songs don’t seem to have the energy to cap off the show, but the version of Matamoras Banks is a beautiful one and definitely appreciated by the audience. Today, I began to think about the theme of connection that runs through this show and understood how MB really works well as a thematic capper. The sense of alienation set out by “Reason to Believe” reaches a nadir of sorts in a song about someone who dies in the effort to cross over into a new kind of connection.
21. Open All Night – Amazingly, the fifth song from Nebraska. A rocking, cool version that’s a great encore stopper.
22. Growin’ Up – You’ve gotta be kidding me. Another special and rare treat.
23. Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? – The show now seems almost historic with a second song from the first album. Fascinating line: “What’s the dope? The dope is there’s still hope.”
24. The Promised Land – The first three songs are encore songs. Now, we turn to the two-song set conclusion. Here I think the thematic circle gets closed. In this version, this well-loved classic gets slowed-down and each line of the lyrics emphasized. The guitar is turned into a percussion instrument. The performance is both virtuoso and shocking innovative. I’m not sure what else it is like. So, here we have arrived at deconstructed “Promised Land.” What does “promised land” mean in today’s world? Reason to believe? Promised land? What have we gotten ourselves into? What do we teach and pass on to our children in a world that has stopped making sense to us? Where have we come to?
25. Dream Baby Dream – The resolution, perhaps. In recent tours, Bruce has closed with one of my favorite songs – Land of Hope and Dreams. That song now seems incongruous for where we may now find ourselves. Reluctantly, it has to go. What replaces it is an astonishing parallel “Reason to Believe,” in its own way as other-worldly and strange (it’s not the closer anyone could expect – I’m not sure how many people would have the vision to conceive, image and produce this performance and then have the courage to actually do it). A simple description will not do it justice. It is repetitive, like an incantation, almost shamanistic. You will not see anything like this at any other concert you will be going to this year. The phrase “dream baby dream” and similar phrases are repeated over and over in a swirling fashion, layered over a earth-shaking swirling pump organ soundtrack. It builds and builds until Bruce walks off the stage and the unattended organ finsihes the song. Then the lights come up and the show is over. It is disconcerting as hell, but it does present an answer to reason to believe. The answer is in the questioning, the mystery, the courage to face it and give voice to efforts, to search, to test, to put out in front of the world what you have, at least so far. Ultimately, it’s about using your voice, your creativity and your art to deal with any increasingly alien world of terror, fear despair and a sense of brokenness and to create a new world through communication and new connections.
Summer is here and the time is right
To go blogging in the street.
Jeff: Thanks for talking me into going to these concerts.
Note: This is a first draft that was posted without editing and probably will be revised, cleaned up or otherwise changed in the future. Typos, alas, probably made it through to the published post.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]