Features | Concerts

Bruce Springsteen

By Matt Stephens | 21 July 2005

“But, you know, an E Street Band show is in many ways just the greatest party on earth, like 20,000 people from all walks of life coming together to celebrate, like, the strength and beauty of the human race through rock and roll. It’s indescribable. I don’t think this kind of thing will be quite as life-affirming, but it should still be just as interesting – stripping his songs naked in front of a few thousand yuppies who just came to pump their fists…”

Here I go again, babbling about the Boss, this time to a girlfriend who by this point has long since stopped feigning interest. Fortunately for her, the house lights have now gone out, and the nearly-filled Air Canada Centre erupts with all-too-familiar cheers of “Brooooooooce”; already, a few assholes screaming for “Thunder Road.” Springsteen walks to the stage – now with a noticeable limp, probably the result of decades of leaping and diving through his legendary four-hour marathon sets – and, quickly dispelling any notion of this being any kind of “party” show, asks the audience for “as much quiet as [he] can get.” He then makes his way over to a small organ on stage left and opens his set with a stirring, down-tempo version of the formerly Brendan O’Brien-ravaged “Into the Fire,” his eyes closed virtually the entire time, his voice (in this range at least) as forceful and dramatic as I’ve ever heard it. He stands motionless for all of the song’s five minutes, singing his words such unforced conviction that even the biggest cynic in the house (possibly my girlfriend) couldn’t help but be moved.

After “Into the Fire,” he moves centre-stage, and with only a harmonica and his right foot as accompaniment, launches into a mutant, virtually unrecognizable rendition of Nebraska’s “Reason to Believe.” The song is transformed into a grimey blues dirge, and the Boss’ mic is so distorted and reverb-y that if you didn’t already know the song, the words would probably be indistinguishable. I am, you see, practically wetting myself with joy at this point, not because this version is superior to the original or even very good on its own merits, but because one of the biggest and greatest rock stars in history is standing in front of 10,000 people – people who have grown up, graduated, got married, had kids, and eased into middle age with his music as a soundtrack, often without fully understanding it, and people who have paid upwards of $100 to see him tonight – and saying “fuck you; you don’t own me.” The bewildered faces of about 90% of the crowd are alone worth the price of admission.

While the rest of the show isn’t quite as revelatory, it’s no less compelling. Strangely, most of the songs that work best are either very recent or very old. Freed from O’Brien’s airbrush, “Devils and Dust” takes on a gloomy, doomsday vibe, and the call-and-response bridge of “The Rising” sounds pleasingly psychotic when performed by Bruce alone. At the same time, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ album cuts “For You” and “Lost in the Flood” sound positively epic performed on piano, with the Boss sounding as enraptured singing them as he did in 1973. The show’s biggest standout, though, is Nebraska’s “State Trooper,” performed on a palm-muted electric guitar, which builds momentum so effortlessly that it’s ghostly climactic caterwauling seems to drop the temperature in the muggy arena about five degrees.

What strikes me most about the concert, though, is that even on his own, with minimal accompaniment, and playing a relatively obscure setlist (not a single Born to Run cut, and a combined four between Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River and Born in the USA), The Boss commands the same unwavering reverance from his audience as he does with his band mates. Even during the quietest numbers, sometimes with nothing but empty space between lines, you can practically hear a pin drop, even in a venue as stale and gigantic as the ACC. And by the end of the 2-hour plus show, closing with Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream,” he has completely won over the once-befuddled crowd, who applaud lovingly as he exits.

So was it as thrilling and life-affirming as an E Street Band gig? Was it a party? Not even close. But for anyone with a serious appreciation for Springsteen’s music, it was as revealing and daring a show as one could have hoped for. It’s rare for a star of Bruce’s calibre to test his audience so boldly, and rarer still for one to do it in his fifties, when most are content to rest on their laurels and churn out expensive crowd-pleasing tours bi-annually. That he was able to win over such a conservative crowd with such strange and unfamiliar music, all while still maintaining the same warm rapport he has at any E Street concert, proves conclusively, if there was ever any doubt, that The Boss is, in any setting and under any circumstances, one of rock’s greatest living songwriters and performers.