Tuesday, January 5, 2010


In the '00s, who stood taller than Bruce Springsteen? No one, really. On so many fronts, he was the man. It is so interesting that he had to get back with The E Street Band to help him figure out what to do when he wasn't working with them. Let me explain.

He spent the '90s in a weird kind of artistic mid-life crisis. I am a big fan of the Human Touch and Lucky Town albums, but in retrospect, they weren't albums that The E Street Band couldn't have done. His tour, at least in the U.S., saw fans less than willing to give his new band a chance, and the tour played smaller places than Bruce had done in years. There was supposedly a full album of "electronic" type stuff like "Streets Of Philadelphia," but he decided not to release it. The Ghost Of Tom Joad didn't really catch on with fans, and the tour was really tense. I saw two shows: it looked like Bruce was trying to get away from being "Bruce." He wanted it to be A Serious Performance and for the fans to behave accordingly. There were near reunions with The E Street Band (for the Greatest Hits album and the opening of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland), but they were kind of one-offs.

In 1999, when he decided to reactivate the band, it was unbelievable. The shows blew minds: how powerful this band was after all these years, and after all these years of not playing together. As the new decade started, they were in the middle of thier tour. There was no new material, and they leaned towards their '70s output. But by the end of the tour, new stuff was surfacing, notably "Land Of Hope And Dreams," and, more controversially, "American Skin," which earned him some beef with law enforcement, as it had the nerve to look at the Amadou Diallo shooting from two angles (something he had done as far back as his first album with "Lost In The Flood"). It was sort of a taste of what was to come: Bruce had his political convictions, and instead of obscuring them, he was putting them out there, damn the consequences.

After 9/11, Bruce opened the America: A Tribute To Heroes telethon with a new song, "My City Of Ruins," one of his greatest works. It seemed like it was written after 9/11, when in fact he had performed it at a fair that he just showed up at in Asbury Park a few weeks earlier. It was written for Asbury Park, but it worked just as well after 9/11. Supposedly, soon after 9/11, someone on the street yelled out to him, "We need you, Bruce." That's a big responsibility, and Bruce was up to the challenge, with the help of both The E Street Band and producer Brendan O'Brien. 2002's The Rising is one of his greatest albums, and one of the very few to be able to really address the aftermath of 9/11. People reacted to it in a big way. He was alone among his peers: he was big enough to play multiple nights in stadiums, and he was able to play lots of new songs to crowds of 50,000 and have it mean something. No mean feat. During the tour, he spoke in interviews and from the stage about his dissatisfaction with the bush administration, pretty controversial given the time and also the fact that a good portion of his audience booed him for this every night and he kept up with it. The tour ended in 2003, but in 2004 Bruce and the band hit the road for two weeks on the Vote For Change tour, and after that, Bruce did some solo acoustic dates "opening" for John Kerry. We know how that turned out.

In early 2005, Bruce released a more stripped down album, produced by Brendan O'Brien but without The E Street Band, Devils & Dust. Supposedly, some of the songs were from The Ghost Of Tom Joad era. I like a lot of the album, but it isn't one of my favorites. Like Tom Joad, he supported it with a solo acoustic tour, but it was a totally different tour. In '97, as I mentioned, the shows were a bit stiff and dry. Bruce just played acoustic guitar. On Devils & Dust, he played acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano, organ and uke. He also had a better time with the shows. I felt that he really came into his own as a solo acoustic performer in a way that he didn't in the '90s.

In 2006, he surprised everyone by announcing another new album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. I've mentioned this before, but I felt that the album was always given short shift by people who mistakenly thought that it was going to be a very dry, serious, folk album. It is actually garage rock, Depression-era style. So, maybe "barn rock." You can hear how much fun he is having when you listen, which isn't always the case on Bruce Springsteen albums. The tour was phenomenal. Unlike with his ‘92/’93 band, this one really worked. You could see why it was people other than The E Street Band (although with Patti Scialfa, Soozie Tyrell, Charlie Giordano, Curtis King and Cindy Mizelle all in both touring bands, they are getting closer and closer) and it worked. At least half the songs were not written by Bruce, and he rearranged most of his originals that made the setlist. He wrote one new song during this era, and it is one of his best: “American Land.” He said in a recent interview that he hopes to work with them again, and I hope he does.

The following year, another surprise. He had another album with The E Street Band. Magic was, in my mind, another classic. “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” is one of the best pop songs of the past decade or two. On the other hand, there were some great, angry, political songs: “Living In The Future,” “Last To Die,” “Long Walk Home” and “Magic.” And the intensely personal: “I’ll Work For Your Love” and “Terry’s Song,” in tribute to his late assistant, Terry Magovern. The tour saw even higher highs from the band. Again, they were playing lots of new songs, and those songs meant something to the audience. And they were playing old songs. And requests! These were some of their best concerts yet.

Around this time, he also contributed “The Wrestler” to the film of the same name, winning a Golden Globe.
Once again, Bruce went on tour as an “opening act,” this time for Barack Obama. We all know how that turned out. Thank God. While on that tour, he debuted a new song, “Working On A Dream,” which turned out to be the title track of his next album. I wish I liked the latest album more than I do, but there are some great moments, like “What Love Can Do,” “My Lucky Day,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Good Eye” and especially “Surprise, Surprise” and “The Last Carnival” (a tribute to late E Street member Danny Federici). And on the tour for this album, the shows, impossibly, got even better (although Bruce wasn’t playing many new songs, with “Outlaw Pete” being the new album’s sole representative many nights).

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Bruce mentioned that, although he’s 60, he has the tools to do whatever he wants in the years ahead. He can do solo acoustic stuff, he has the Sessions Band and of course The E Street Band. And he’s right. It’s amazing that he is still hungry after all that he’s done, and now he has three distinct different ways to tour and record. I know I say this a lot, but I can’t wait to see what the guy does next. On a personal level, what an inspiration: to see someone who could easily coast (or retire) being as vital as he’s ever been at age 60.

No comments: