For the tenth show in a row Roy's strident piano kicked off the elegant and timeless "New York City Serenade" and in the words of fellow fighter Joe Strummer, war was declared and battle come down. Bathed in blue and perfectly still, Bruce hushed images of early-'70s Manhattan while the 2017 E Street Band recalled the remarkable maturity of the musical gypsies who cut the track in 1973. As is now standard, an impeccably dressed eight-piece string section showered grace on an audience expecting raw six-string power. Familiar lyrics — lyrics spray-painted on the souls of the old bastards who've followed Bruce over lengthening lives — were reset, a simple "Sometimes you gotta walk on" suddenly invigorated by the spectre of protest marches in the States following Trump's inauguration.
As a final denouement of strings brought the masterpiece to a close, Bruce cheerfully thanked his guest musicians as they left the stage and cut to the heart of the matter:
And the cannons roared with an immediate barrage of "Lonesome Day," "Darkness," and "No Surrender." Rockets red glare, indeed.
The adrenaline rush of these stalwarts also brought to mind Springsteen's response to a question posed by Mark Maron on his WTF podcast about whether Bruce had written anything specifically addressing the rise of Trumpism: "I've got a lot of songs that are about it right now… they're there already. I work from the inside out; in other words, I'm inspired by something internally and I make a record based on what I can write about at a given moment. Sometimes it ends up being topical, sometimes it doesn't. We've got a good arsenal of material right now that we can go out and put in service." Perhaps a younger Bruce would have elucidated on this point between songs, but it seems the older Bruce gets, the more impatient he is to put a maximum number of songs in service every night. Lucky us.
In case Bruce's declaration of solidarity with a new American resistance wasn't enough, the playing of only two songs from The River at an arena bursting with River-themed merchandise proved the good intentions of a feel-good retrospective had been kiboshed for the topical. "Out in the Street" started with a bang but ended abruptly when a lukewarm-at-best crowd response seemed to faze Bruce. He chuckled afterwards, acknowledging to the band his unexpected abandonment. It's at this point I hesitate to mention the crowd's enthusiasm because Aussies are, on the whole, less boisterous concert attendees than others around the world. But, aside from hearty pit disciples, this crowd was comatose for 75% of the night.
This American ex-pat was having none of that, however, especially when "Land of Hope and Dreams" rolled into the station. I was lucky enough to have heard its creation while sitting on the sand outside Asbury Park's Convention Hall, so this song always beats from within, but tonight it was a right cross to the face. Everyone on stage seemed to grow a couple inches in anticipation of the fight to come — this train was taking no prisoners. Get on or get the fuck out of the way. Steven's mandolin, Jake's sax, Max's kit, Bruce wailing "Bells of freedom ring," all indicative of a reckless conductor hurling his iron horse down the tracks. A song reborn for an uncharted age, Bruce's on-the-nose lyrical alteration "This train… carries immigrants!" a hammer blow to those who would vilify the historical lifeblood of the U.S.A.
The so-called time machine of songs from 1973 that answer all fans' dreams (well, almost all… there's always someone pining for "Queen of the Supermarket") followed. "Bus Stop" had Bruce contorting like a carnival barker hectoring passersby. "Growin' Up" featured the giddy confession of a 14-year-old Springsteen who "had nothing… but needed something" and so was soon mowing the lawn of his Aunt Dora for 50 cents an hour so he could buy the "cheapest guitar" in town. Once purchased he discovered that while he couldn't play it, he could pose with it — and pose he did, that 14-year-old outcast morphed into a 67-year-old windmilling rock god.
This story is hashed out hilariously in his autobiography, the lawn mowing job proving inadequate and leading to a house-painting gig across the street from Aunt Dora's house. Under different circumstances the Born to Run book would be hailed as a Rosetta Stone to understanding a guy we've all spent too much time analyzing from afar, the blood and bones of songs we like to say "define" our lives actually defined by the guy who wrote them. This "Growin' Up" tale certainly invited a plug for the book but unsurprisingly, there was none.
On "Spirit in the Night," Bruce plucked a cider from a fan who offered him four cans ("Is this for the whole band?") and then chugged its contents back on stage to Max's thunderous prompting. "Lost in the Flood" completed the Greetings portion of the night with head-banging oomph and the night's first blistering guitar solo from Bruce.
What followed may have once been considered a Holy Grail but is now, blessedly, practically commonplace: three Wild & Innocent songs in a row. "Kitty's Back" shined a spotlight on Charlie, Jake, Roy and an extremely hip-looking Garry and ended with Bruce and Steve injecting the sprawling tune with psychedelic guitar work. "Incident" followed. A full-on, blown-out "Incident." Gorgeous, melancholy, rousing and on this night offering a soothing "Good night, it's all right" to a world waiting for shit to go down. Roy's long outro guaranteed "Rosalita" and the folks in the pit getting Bruce, Steve and Jake up close and goofy.
Big finish, big applause, and bam… "The Ties That Bind," the second and last River song of the night. The song melted from E Street Band heat, a furious rendition that set up rousing redneck rockers "Darlington County" and "Working on the Highway." Bruce handed the mic to Nils to sing a "Darlington" refrain, his high-desert vocals an absolute treat; while on walkabout, Bruce pointed his guitar at the band from the rear of the pit and orchestrated the intro to "Highway," a song fuelled, fired, and finished by Max's slapping snare. This double shot of swagger ended with the harmonica intro to "The Promised Land," another song rebooted by current events. Bruce punched the air a la "Jungleland" during Jake's solo, and the crowd, buoyed by the two previous Born in the U.S.A. songs, found its legs. Bruce stalked the stage like a revival tent preacher, shaking his right arm in rhythm to words written 40 years ago but that fit in with the new American resistance just fine, thank you.
The brilliant 2016 release American Band by Drive-By Truckers features a song called "What It Means" that includes these lines: "If you say it wasn't racial / When they shot him in his tracks / Well I guess that means that you ain't black / It means that you ain't black." Fighting words, for sure, and yet mild compared to the raw and ferocious "American Skin (41 Shots)," tonight played at a quick pace but with aching intensity. The image of the lone African-American on stage — and quite frankly, possibly the only African-American in Perth Arena — with his hands up throughout the song nearly broke me in half. As he played the song's sax solo, I began to dread him finishing the solo and returning to his place beside Charlie and putting his hands back up. When he did, and his arms rose far over his head, my heart genuinely sank. Nils ripped a solo that screamed for mercy, the song ended, and Jake's hands fell. Gut-wrenching.
"My Hometown" followed, another song made fresh by the autobiography. On "Candy's Room," a Bruce solo circa 1978 began a roar straight out of Wall Speedway that continued with "She's the One," "Because the Night" (featuring another searing Nils solo), "The Rising," and "Badlands." Signs had been ignored up to this point, but after taking bows Bruce strapped on an acoustic and pointed at a sign asking for "Blood Brothers," an en masse request for a fan named Matty who'd passed away. After running through the chords a few times in practice, Bruce played the song standing perfectly still, locked into the words, perhaps lost in emotion, perhaps not, but playing it like he was standing before all of those he's lost and seeking their blessings.
After this gift of a performance the show rocketed through encore favorites "Born to Run", "Dancing in the Dark," and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" before "The Boss" cape came out for a spectacularly campy "Shout." "Bobby Jean" ended the proceedings at 11:20 with the crowd on its feet, tired and happy. A clarion had been blown, the battle commenced, a shot heard 'round the world. On Wednesday night in Perth, the reckoning continues with night 2 of 3. "So walk tall… or baby don't walk at all."
January 12 / The White House, East Room / Washington, DC
The event, which feels like a fever dream now, was a thank you for current White House staff with a full eight years in the Obama Administration. We lined up at the southeast gate, behind the Treasury building, and they started letting us in a little after 7pm. There was a lovely reception in the State Dining Room for an hour or so. The vibe in the room, and all night, was very familial. The crowd consisted of people who had worked together for years (I'd estimate 200 or 250 in attendance), and it was nice to see many happy reunions and farewell hugs. There were no special celebrity guests or anything — just staff folk and their significant others. No sign of the President until later. After about an hour, the doors to the East Room were opened, and we filed in to take our seats in rows.
The President and First Lady were announced, and they came in from the Green Room to take their seats front and center. POTUS was in a suit and FLOTUS in a typically stylish tailored black gown, nothing overly formal. Patti Scialfa was already seated in the front row, next to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Then Bruce was announced and came in from the Green Room himself in dark jeans and a very typical Bruce outfit otherwise (tight dark vest, shirtsleeves, bracelets, etc.). Kevin Buell was set up stage right with a tech area to tune and feed various acoustic guitars to Bruce throughout the night. Pete Souza was seated in the front row to the stage-left side; he was up and down and around the room all night taking photos (and also singing along silently to all the songs).
It was a dream of a setlist. Bruce opened with a very brief note of thanks to the President and the staff who were being honored before launching into "Working on the Highway." That opener led into an incredible "Growin' Up" for a lively start, but not much of the set was so upbeat, with haunting readings of songs like "My Hometown," "My Father's House," and "Devils & Dust." The mood in the room the whole night — both reception and concert — was not exactly somber, but it wasn't festive, either. It was elegiac, I'd say. There was a clear sense of something ending, both with the conclusion of an adventure for the staff and the silent presence of the coming political transition. Bruce's demeanor was definitely in line with that overall vibe.
Springsteen spoke between most of his selections, talking about politics a bit before "Born in the U.S.A." and calling it a "protest song," one that had been misunderstood before and would be misunderstood again. Before "The Wish" he referenced the President's own family and talked about how he'd written this one for his mom, who now had dementia, but had taught him so much "about how to be in the world." Bringing Patti up for "Tougher Than the Rest," Bruce talked about the example set by the President and First Lady through the tough years of the Administration and dedicated this one to them. Patti remained onstage for "If I Should Fall Behind."
"Long Walk Home" — pause a moment and consider this recent masterpiece actually being performed in the White House — was preceded by commentary about being in a difficult moment and maintaining optimism. And then a masterful final pairing of "Dancing in the Dark" and "Land of Hope and Dreams." There was no gap between these two, as Bruce segued right from one to the next. "Dancing" did get almost somber and dark in a way that I've always thought those lyrics merited. The song has some of my favorite Bruce lines, actually, and this was the performance of a lifetime, wrenching and taut, with self-doubt and anxious fire on full display. "Land of Hope and Dreams" was the perfect, fitting closer.
A few final words of thanks from Bruce, and then President Obama hopped on the stage. He thanked Bruce in turn — something to the effect of, "he's been with us for some time now, performing his craft to show his support." But POTUS mostly focused on thanking the staff and their families for all they'd given and given up, "missing kids' soccer games," etc. He wrapped up fairly quickly. Then FLOTUS and Patti took the stage as everyone clapped and the two couples spoke privately among themselves. POTUS led the foursome off the stage and back toward the Green Room, and out they went.
The crowd filed back out into the Cross Hall for some final mingling before the Marine escorts started shooing us toward the coat check and out into the warm winter night. We were among the last folks out the door, and as we strolled up East Executive Avenue toward Pennsylvania, we saw Bruce and Patti walk out of the East Wing toward their car. We were by the northeast gate as they pulled out. I gave a modest "BRUUUCE" and received a nice wave from both Bruce and Patti from inside the car. Outside the White House, you'd have no idea any event had been going on. The street was quiet and empty.
I have seen Bruce Springsteen a lot of places: front row at MSG, rehearsal at Convention Hall, summer runs at Giants, the last show at the old Giants, a surprise appearance in a shopping mall, 2004 Vote for Change, second row at the Lincoln Memorial in 2008, arenas all over.... But this one was a real personal thing, this thing for staff who sacrificed so much over the last eight years. It was a humble, quiet gesture from Bruce to say thanks to President Obama, the staff, and their families. No pomp, no ceremony, no press. Just the man, the guitar, and the songs.
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