"Boooooooooo!" That's what the crowd sounds like at a Bruce Springsteen concert.
They're not hating, of course, they're actually chanting "Bruuuuuuuuuuce." But it can easily be mistaken for a disgruntled mob by the untrained ear.
His fans are a hardcore bunch, some of the best in rock history. They travel the nation to experience what some have described as an almost "mystical" live connection between the magnetic, pour-out-his-soul Springsteen and loyal concertgoers. And these fans were out in full force for another sold-out show by The Boss at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville on April 30.
The night began with a video tribute to original E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici who recently succumbed to cancer, set to the song "Blood Brothers" piped in through the speakers.
Dressed totally in black with a snazzy vest over his T-shirt, Springsteen then faced the crowd with his famous "1,2,3" and launched into "Loose Ends," a rarity from the album "Tracks." It was indicative of the nearly three-hour concert to come, a welcome look back at his earlier material (excluding most of his '80s output) that was sure to please hardcore fans. Having recently lost a lifelong friend in Federici, a guy who was in the original Springsteen outfits Child and Steel Mill, The Boss seemed to be in a nostalgic mood, and perhaps a little spent from a number of emotionally charged recent shows.
However, Springsteen, 58, was in good voice from the start. Chugging away at his guitar, he stalked the stage while exhorting the crowd of over 14,000 with quick little whips of his right arm. This nine-piece incarnation of The E-Street Band consisted of Springsteen, guitarists Stevie Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, pianists Roy Bittan and Charles Giordano, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, bassist Gary Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg and violinist/guitarist Soozie Tyrell.
Drummer Weinberg (from "The Conan O'Brien Show") sounded particularly strong tonight, as the bass and drum combination thundered away throughout the evening, laying a strong foundation for every number. Tonight was also memorable for some impressive guitar playing -- in particular an early, emotion-drenched duel between Van Zandt and Springsteen, as well as some sweet Nils Lofgren soloing on the classic cut "Prove it All Night."
It's an odd thing to watch a sweaty multimillionaire who has managed to retain his blue collar, Jersey guy image for decades. A lone video screen above the stage showed multiple camera shots of the concert as it played out, edited smoothly and with precision, like watching a live music video. But as a Springsteen virgin, I could instantly see the reason why he inspires such a rabid following. Every song of the night he sinks his heart into, emoting the lyrics to what are mostly romantic and hopeful songs. On several occasions, I could clearly hear the link to other famous troubadours, the social consciousness of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, and particularly, the realism of Tom Waits' piano ballads about recognizable, down on their luck, everyday folks from back in the 'hood.
I admit I felt the concert dragged in spots with a few too many mid-tempo songs with similar tone and effect. Springsteen broke up material with a few funny tour stories about Federici, and also gave a shout out to the local Blue Ridge Food Bank. But for a concertgoer like me who was mainly interested in hearing the time-worn classics, my favorite moments came during the encore, basically a performance of half of the classic 1975 album, "Born to Run."
Before the encore began, Springsteen mentioned his historic connection with Virginia and former bandmate (and Richmond musician) Robbin Thompson, who was at the show but not invited onstage to perform. In fact, there were no special guests tonight, a rarity for this tour -- many were probably expecting Dave Matthews to twinkle-step onstage. Instead, Springsteen praised Thompson as a wonderful singer and mentioned that back in the day, there were only two places he could play: New Jersey and Richmond. He then launched into a pretty, piano-and-bass-led version of "Meeting Across the River" before embarking on another fan favorite ballad, "Jungleland," one of the most powerful vocal performances of the night.
After those two poignant, but slow songs, came the money shot: a raucous version of his anthem "Born To Run" with the house lights turned all the way up. Taking his cues from Roy Orbison, Springsteen finds an almost operatic power in his best-loved hit that still manages to send chills, especially right after the guitar solo when he plows back into the verse: "The highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive/ Everybody's out on the run tonight but there's no place left to hide." It is arguably the greatest power ballad ever, about a simpler time when kids had dreams about biking away with their girlfriends to live out their fantasies, instead of automatically slaving away to pay off college loans, or work as cubicle drones for an ever-decreasing quality of life.
On the flipside, without this song, there may have never been a Bon Jovi. Tough call.
Next up came another of my personal favorites, the catchy soul rocker, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" which started with Springsteen bending over backwards until he hit the floor, knees locked around the mic stand. As usual, big man Clarence Clemmons added R&B cred to the song with his muscular sax playing, always a highlight tonight. The sweaty show concluded on another upbeat note with an Irish-style, fiddle-led ode to our country, "American Land" (from the Pete Seeger record) that offered a nice capper to a beefy all-American, heartland kind of show. Who else besides Springsteen has such loyal fans crossing all political boundaries? It's a testament to this legendary performer's belief in what he does that he still sounds credible and "so young and in love" with music.
But in reviewing Springsteen, or as I mistakenly typed his name into Google when researching his age: "Bryce Sprongsteen" -- it's best to get feedback from true fans at the show, like "Dave" from Richmond, who was seeing The Boss with the E Street Band tonight for his 16th time.
"It's was one of the best sets I've ever seen him pull," he says. "Particularly the middle run starting with 'For You' and 'Adam Raised a Cain' -- truly rocking. [His ode to 9-11] 'The Rising' was another major highlight. The whole night was just awesome."
The Promised Land
Adam Raised A Cain
Prove It All Night
She's The One
Livin' In The Future
Last To Die
Long Walk Home
Meeting Across The River
Born To Run
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out