Bruce Springsteen missed the Great Depression - which no doubt bugs him every time he thinks about what a wealth of material those years provided for one of his idols, Woody Guthrie - but he seems determined to make up for it during these days of massive job-shedding, frozen credit and paper-thin stimulus packages.
Judging by 150 minutes of evidence at Toyota Center Wednesday night, the Boss has decided to turn the E Street Band into a traveling medicine show that, if it can't put money in fans' pockets - though, overall, his ticket prices at least took less out - can certainly remind them that, as he sang in vein-popping opener "Badlands," "it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive."
"Badlands" was one of many songs Wednesday powered by the twin turbines of "Professor" Roy Bittan's church-like piano and "Mighty" Max Weinberg's rafter-rattling drums, which served as rhythmic counterweights to the guitar army of Springsteen, Nils Lofgren, Miami Steve Van Zandt (better known these days, of course, as "Little Steven"), Patti "Mrs. Springsteen" Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell, who strummed a little rhythm when she wasn't sawing away on violin. All of them helped lighten the load for the ailing Clarence Clemons, whose duties were largely reduced to backup vocals and tambourine, but the Big Man managed to still work up a good head of sax steam for his signature riff on "Born to Run" and a few others.
Most of the time, though, it seemed like the saxophone sound was coming from Charlie Giordano, drafted after longtime keymaster Danny Federici (organ, synthesizer, accordion) passed away three days after the E Street Band's Toyota Center show last year. (Giordano had joined by then; Federici was already in a New York hospital.)
Between Federici and Clemons, mortality has to have been on the band's mind quite a bit over the past year, and several songs - both new and old - dealt with defiance, determination or hope of better days: "No Surrender," "Waitin' On a Sunny Day," "Working On a Dream," "The Wrestler," "The Rising." A few others were pure escapist exhilaration, driven by the band's Texas-size rock 'n' soul sound: "Cadillac Ranch," "Out In the Street," "Working on the Highway," a fumbling but fun "It's Hard to Be a Saint In the City" getting its tour premiere and, of course, "Born to Run."
Still, the most striking moments were also the most serious: a mid-set "Recession Trilogy" of "Seeds," "Johnny 99" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" ground deeper and deeper into the blues as it traced a down-and-out arc from Houston to New Jersey to the desolate desert Southwest. And after a lengthy shout-out to/appeal for the Houston Food Bank - Springsteen was quite chatty all evening, mentioning legendary Houston venue Liberty Hall several times - the band began its encore by transforming Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," written in the 1840s, from a musty old folk song into a stirring, stately gospel-rocker that didn't feel dated at all.
Nor should it, all things considered. But if the food-bank spiel and somber "Hard Times" was the catch, the rest of the encore was the release. The lights came up, the band lit into "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" - then "Land of Hope and Dreams," Irish flurry "American Land" and a gassed "Dancing In the Dark" - and Toyota Center sang, danced and shook itself into an exhausted frenzy. Hard times may be just outside the door, but as long as Springsteen and the E Street Band are onstage, Gary "U.S." Bonds is in the house and the clock is always frozen at a "Quarter to Three."
Out in the Street
Working on a Dream
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Working on the Highway
It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
Kingdom of Days
Born to Run
Encore: Hard Times
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Land of Hope and Dreams
Dancing in the Dark
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