A seemingly drunken Charles Barkley set the tone for Bruce Springsteen’s climactic performance on Sunday night. “Dallas, you are f*cking amazing,” he told the crowd before Springsteen and his band took the stage. He commended us for standing in the rain, but it seemed that too much had been made of the weather. “This is good playing weather,” said Springsteen later in the evening. It was fairly comfortable throughout the night, with an increasingly diminishing mist that nicely made for unintended dramatic effect. And speaking of which, there were plenty of sweepingly cinematic moments throughout the evening. But maybe I was just staring too long at the oversized video monitors. They certainly helped.
And on that note, congratulations to the event organizers for confidently establishing what a truly professional concert looks and sounds like. And it was free, though heavily subsidized with ubiquitous sponsorship. That ferris wheel was anachronistic and beautiful, dimming only slightly when you happened upon the gaudy logo with which it was adorned. There are few big money events like the Final Four in all of nonprofessional sports, so it is to be expected, however.
Springsteen finally takes the stage and walks out holding a basketball, which looks expectedly suspicious. A jump ball is declared and the set begins. Springsteen later admits that he knows nothing about basketball. “Basketball will change your life,” shouts a fan from the dense crowd. “I’m up for a life change,” responds Springsteen. “I played in a lot of basketball gyms. That changed my life.”
I’m almost shocked when the keyboard player reveals he isn’t merely making a typical soundcheck joke when the band launches into Van Halen’s “Jump” after he plays that instantly recognizable piece of 80s synth cheese. It really makes sense, as Springsteen seems to be able to reach David Lee Roth’s range with ease, and here is a man who firmly understands his place in pop history, giving a clever nod to his similarly successful peers who made their name in the music video age.
Then it’s on to “Badlands” and it’s clear that we are going to have a set that rewards both diehards and casual fans alike, but perhaps that’s easy to do when you play 25 songs in a row. It almost reminded me of a Guided By Voices set in its breadth. But that group came long after Springsteen was a star, and they’ve come again and left again since. Springsteen will be 65 later this year, and he’s seen many of his influences and many that he’s influenced come and go in that time. He clearly has had the late Pete Seeger on his mind, as his most recent work is more like the traditional folk that Seeger helped establish, and it lacks the melodic trickery that has been Springsteen’s trademark for so many decades. When “Badlands” is followed by “Death to my Hometown,” it seems like a surprisingly dark set.
Or is it surprising? The dichotomy of Bruce Springsteen is that he basically comes off like an every day guy, your buddy who works at a car garage with a flawless smile and a mildly dirty joke, a guy who just wants to have a beer with you when he gets off his shift. He’s crowd surfing at one point, and he could basically be the coolest classic rock grandpa on the planet. But is he actually that cuddly?
His lyrical content reveals otherwise; much of it is not just hand-on-shoulder sympathizing with the working person, but also an indictment of the institutions bearing down on each of them. He has a song that’s basically about killing a cop, (or at least threatening to—”Maybe you got a kid, maybe you got a pretty wife” is still one of the most subtly chilling lyrics I’ve ever heard from a mainstream singer) and it’s odd to me that a pop rocker doesn’t get the same treatment for discussing such a subject as a rapper does. Springsteen admits to being influenced by activist historian Howard Zinn, a hero of the left and pariah of the right.
It’s impossible to gauge the politics of a field full of college basketball fans, but I don’t know if some of the Boss’s political leanings would necessarily sit that well with each of them, were they more obvious in origin. It’s that Springsteen is able to take Zinn’s populist radicalism and make it merely populist that makes him so special. You even trust him with your kids, if the number of children onstage were any indication.
And yet Springsteen wasn’t even the most outspoken protest artist onstage last night. He was joined by Tom Morello, complete with conspicuous sickle-and-hammer fashion patch, and formerly of Rage Against the Machine. That would be the 90s band that single-handedly made Che Guevara a household name for frat boys, which would cause those same fans to suddenly take interest in capitalism’s role in geopolitical injustice. Morello’s cartoonish brand of activism has never sat well with me, but I have to say that in purely musical terms he was a boost to the proceedings. He finally got to really exercise the sound he helped popularize on “High Hopes,” which included stretches of Morello’s mostly percussive non-playing.
The pairing reminded me of David Bowie’s use of the also unconventional Reeves Gabrels, or Wilco’s use of Nels Cline. The ideas seems to be that having a more experimental hand along helps to illustrate the less attractive sentiments of the music, and it’s an understandable fit. Just as he has done with his tough criticisms of the American dream, Springsteen made Morello more digestible. Rage Against the Machine covered Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad,” and when the two performed it, it was interesting to hear them trade places, as Morello took on the vocals very much in the manner of Springsteen, while Bruce played some of his most standout leads.
The massiveness, both in number and sound of the E-Street Band is overwhelming in a live setting. There were different times throughout the performance where I wondered why other big concerts I’ve seen over the years didn’t sound this clear. The thought of Dallas getting the same stage and production for a three-day festival full of newer acts had me creating dream lineups in my head throughout the three-hour show.
At one point in the evening, a silver-haired man in a fitted Florida Gators baseball cap sees me taking notes. He gives me a polite earful of how he has seen Bruce and the E-Street band “ten times” over the years. “It gets better each time,” he said. “You always leave feeling good.” Once Springsteen left the stage, a fireworks display went off to a medley of top 40 music, while Reunion Tower and the Capital One Ferris Wheel and the Omni selfishly stayed lit long after they fizzled. I believed him.
Image credit: Elgin Edmonds, Courtesy of Newscom.