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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Tuesday, April 18
During an extended version of his classic "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," Bruce Springsteen dropped to his knees in front of a bouquet-bearing female fan and, smirking, looked across the stage toward his wife, E Street Band backup vocalist and guitarist Patti Sciafla. Facing Sciafla, Springsteen put his hands together as if in prayer and mouthed the word "Please." After swaying her head to either side, her lips curled in mock disgust, Sciafla gave the okay, and the Boss jumped to his feet, plucked the bouquet from the concertgoer's hands and held the flowers aloft for the rest of the packed Compaq Center to see. The place exploded in applause.
No less than 24 years ago in this very building, then known as the Summit, another rock and roll icon (in fact, the rock and roll icon) was also, in the middle of performance, being offered tufts of flowers. Elvis Presley, only 41 years old at the time, had at this point of his career begun accepting such tokens of appreciation with the perfunctory air of a tax man collecting checks. A year later, in 1977, Presley was receiving roses from the cold embrace of his tomb.
Eight years older than Presley was at his death, Springsteen is blossoming into the Presley Presley left behind -- down to the well-timed karate kicks and hand orchestrations on stage.
The New Jerseyan's latest shtick, an equal mix rock and roll tent revival and tree-house boys' club, is lifted directly from the Book of King. All of the things that go into making the Reverend Springsteen are the same things that went into making Rocker Boss: energy, conviction and more energy. The only things missing are a crucifix, choir, collection plate and the Stamps. No other solo male performer since Presley has been so attuned to the messianic spirit of rock and roll. Like Presley, Springsteen and his loaded messages nestle in the ear as lovingly and sincerely as drops of Robert Pinsky's beloved Jersey Rain. But where Presley proselytized through song, Springsteen does it through impromptu sermons.
"I want a rock and roll exorcism," the Boss shouted during the intro tones of "Tenth Avenue." "I want a rock and roll," pause, "bahhhp-tism." Everyone cheered.
Like a Baptist preacher, Springsteen had been encouraging crowd participation all evening. Earlier, toward the end of a rambunctious "Badlands," the Boss shouted: "Is anybody alive out there tonight?" (Applause.) "Then get up off your ass." (More applause.) House lights revealed that just about everyone was, in fact, up off their asses. "I'm talking to you," Springsteen then yelled. "I'm talking to you."
Though he has lost a couple of inches off his vertical leap, and does not possess a black belt as Presley once did, Springsteen can act the part of ants-in-the-pants, karate-kickin' rock and roll savior perfectly. Toward the end of his three-hour set, and while steering his band through a crescendo, the Boss took a knee and, facing stage right, stuck his open palms out in front of him as if he were preparing to stop a moving train, and jiggled his hands in sync with Max Weinberg's splashing, crashing cymbals. Springsteen then punched the air with a fist, which Weinberg timed perfectly with a matching cymbal bash. "BAM." And again, fist-punch with "BAM." And again: Fist, "BAM." (At the end Springsteen even turned over his right shoulder and said, in his best Presley impersonation, "Thank yuh vera much.")
Anyone who had ever seen Presley live or on tape, especially in his '74 television special, Aloha from Hawaii, knew a show of power like this was exactly how Presley used to control his band -- which was really, in some existential way, just an extension of Presley, a means by which the King could achieve the sensation of actually being larger than life. When Presley swiveled a hip, which he would do repeatedly in a song such as "Fever," his drummer played a little roll to coincide with that pelvic motion. He did the same thing with song endings. When Presley punched the air, the entire band hit a note. "BAM." "BAM." "BAM." We've seen this movie a million times over, but it still rocks.
The average Springsteen fan is about as old as Presley's was in the late-1970s: old. If the thousands of Broooooce-heads at the Compaq last week were really "Born to Run," they'd be in trouble. Saggy all over and encumbered by cell phones, creaky joints and slippery loafers, most Houston fans could probably get only as far as the I45 entrance ramp before either doubling over in exhaustion or putting off their Springsteenian fantasies indefinitely for hot coffee and kolaches at a roadside diner. For them, the majority of Springsteen's stuff is a philosophy to return to, like a warm memory, about once every year, or whenever some personal tragedy befalls them that only pop music (and only Springsteen's empathetic pop) can help remedy.
This mix, highly idealistic rock with people whose ideals have mostly long since burned out, seems like an arranged marriage -- doomed to fail and egregious to casual observers. But what else is pop but a series of arranged marriages between artists and fans? What else is it but temporary distraction? Even the best, Springsteen, Dylan, Presley, are -- in the grand scheme of things -- momentary antidotes to the drudgery of everyday life. Once the CD player stops or the concert lights go off and the rock hero and his mates make for their next gig, and fans return to their cars, real life begins again. Springsteen with his odes to youthful exuberance just helps listeners put off reality a little while longer -- a little while longer than most other pop artists can or possibly ever could. The King is dead. Long live the King. -- Anthony Mariani
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