Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 5/6/2014
Photos by Jim Bricker
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion May 6, 2014
It's fitting that the rooflike shelter hanging above the seats at the Woodlands Pavilion is shaped in a tent spire. Because no one has ever merged the concepts of rock and roll show and religious tent revival like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Sure, the usual aspects of a Springsteen concert are well-known even to non-fans, taken for granted now and almost a parody: marathon running times, inhuman energy, hits, deep cuts and choice covers. And at the head pulpit is the Reverend Bruce himself, shouting and shaking and sweating and testifying like a rural Pentecostal preacher on amphetamines, only holding aloft his guitar instead of some writhing reptile.
Yes, it's the Springsteen stereotype. But to actually witness (or give witness) to an event brings it to live, shocking reality: This guy is 64 years old and exudes more firecracker energy and explosive rock and roll fervor than most anyone else ever could or did, at any age. And Tuesday he did it for three hours straight -- with no intermission or bathroom break -- wearing a T-shirt and olive military jacket that had both been turned shades darker with perspiration by the end of the evening (which was past the Pavilion's 11 p.m. curfew, I might add).
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Springsteen and his 17-piece 2014 backing band (take that, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom!) were only bereft on this leg of the tour of guitarist/onstage foil Steven Van Zandt, off in Norway filming episodes of his Netflix TV show Lilyhammer.
Nonetheless, the band came raging out of the gate, fully locked and loaded with "Seeds" -- with its reference to a can't-catch-a-break workin' man living "on the streets of Houston town" -- the title track to most recent record High Hopes and crowd-pleaser "Badlands."
It was clear early on that a couple of new faces would get plenty of musical and personal attention: cut-and-slash guitarist Tom Morello (living on E Street after Raging Against the Machine), and saxophonist Jake Clemons. Uncle Clarence, of course, was Springsteen's blood brother for decades before his death, but the cheers for the younger Clemons were well-earned on his own and not just exhorted as a tribute to his late uncle.
Both, along with a crack horn section and an energized longtime guitarist Nils Lofgren in the Van Zandt-foil position, added a newer vitality to the lineup since the band's last show in Houston, in 2009.
Review continues on the next page.
And if Springsteen is the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, drummer Max Weinberg must rank high somewhere. All night, the 63-year-old pounded away at his signature sharp, crisp beats on a no-frills kit with a punishing physicality. His face was such a mask of deadpan concentration that it was hard not to laugh when the video screen showed his huge, stern visage, sharply contrasting with Springsteen's wild facial contortions even when the latter wasn't singing.
Every Bruce show, of course, is unique in terms of set lists. And on recent tours, audience members have brought signs with requests, knowing that Bruce will pick them up from the crowd and shuffle through them in a little game called "Stump the Band" that brings an edge of rock and roll risk-taking. And while Tuesday's show did not bring any left-field surprises (like, say, previous shows' Ramones or Lorde requests), at least a couple of audience members found their posterboard dreams come true.
One held aloft a professionally made sign with a large blow-up photograph of Bruce and wife/guitarist/vocalist Patti Scialfa singing close at the mike. It asked, "Can we take a trip back to '88?" in requesting the first "full-band" performance of Tunnel of Love track "One Step Up" since nearly a quarter-century ago.
"We don't know this one!" Bruce said, but his nearly solo acoustic take showed a practiced flair. And when he called Scialfa, who was singing on the other side of the stage, to his mike, it added a nice and unexpected romantic touch, despite the song's actual hard-bitten lyrics.
But the request-sign highlight came when Bruce pulled up a crudely drawn one saying, "I busted my brother out of class to sing 'No Surrender' with 'The Boss'!" And soon, a teenage boy and his older brother -- both sporting Bruce shirts and insanely happy -- were onstage unashamedly belting out the driving tune on one mike with Bruce.
It will likely be the highlight of their lives, and proved a sheer delight to the crowd, though the brothers did stretch out their moment a bit by hanging out to high-five much of the band after the song as well.
Other highlights included folk standard "Jesse James" dressed in a new suit of second-line New Orleans glow (Nils on the electric banjo!), a defiant "Wrecking Ball" -- where Bruce's shout-out to the New York Giants elicited friendly boos to his delight. The appropriately smouldering "I'm On Fire." And a hugely powerful "Because the Night" with Lofgren's fervent twirly dance -- and this guy had double hip-replacement surgery in 2008!
Two other songs have taken on some new life on this tour. "The Ghost of Tom Joad" from somber acoustic number to the fiery, caustic and urgent version re-recorded for High Hopes. It featured Morello on co-vocals and some apocalypse-siren guitar playing. "Light of Day" was buoyed with power by the larger band lineup and instruments.
As the show wound to a close, out came Big Guns "Born to Run," "Rosalita," "Dancing in the Dark" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" -- the last featuring a video tribute to Clemons and the late organist Danny Federici (his visage almost shoved into the Clarence footage, though). And even the party favorite "Shout."
Amazingly, Springsteen's energy seemed to grow this late in the game, feeding off the ecstatic crowd that got to paw his famous guitar as he lowered it into the masses, them grasping at it like a religious relic with mystical powers.
That modified '50s Fender Esquire, which he has played for decades, has got to be music's most famous long-serving axe, even more than Willie Nelson's "Trigger" and Eric Clapton's "Blackie."
A Springsteen show in Houston also brings with it two guarantees: a guest appearance by Joe Ely (check) and a name-checking of Liberty Hall (check), a favored venue from the band's early days.
Before closing services with a solo harmonica-and-acoustic-guitar reading of "Thunder Road," Springsteen thanked Houston for supporting the band in its early days. He noted that this year marked the 40th anniversary of their first appearance in the city, and told an amusing tale of the group -- frightened off by an earlier airplane incident -- choosing to take a train from New York City to Houston.
"Two days...sweating in our seats in unbearably hot cars!" he laughed. Needless to say, they soon took to the skies again (or at least a more air-conditioned vehicle) for between-show travel.
And then, after three straight hours, Service with Springsteen was over. As the sold-out crowd filed out of the Woodlands, the faithful and converts alike often looked dumbfounded at what they had just seen.
"HOUUU-STON! HOUUU-STON!" Springsteen shouted. "Tomorrow, be sure to tell everyone that you've just seen...the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, lovemaking, Le-gen-dary E-Street-Band!"
And I'm sure they will. Even if it's with a hoarse voice and ears still ringing with the words of that itinerant holy man. Who must be wholly exhausted.
Review continues on the next page.
Special Classic Rock Bob Shout-Out! To Miss Bonnie Koops, mother of Classic Rock Bob's Lifelong Bruce Buddy, Mace Wilkerson. Attending her first Springsteen show since she took us to see the Tunnel of Love tour at the Summit (where we got to meet the Houston Post's legendary music scribe, Bob Claypool), she got to hear the Boss do her all-time favorite song, "Shout."
Personal Bias: Would you like a copy of my Live at the Main Point 1975 bootleg?
The Crowd: White, white, white thirty- to sixtysomethings, many sporting Bruce T-shirts, and many of those vintage. Less smart-phone picture taking douchbaggery than normal.
Overheard In the Crowd: (from me): "Hey, isn't that former Houston Press writer and current Houston Chronicle scribe/Newsfix fixture Craig Hlavaty sitting next to me? Man, that fucker has a LOT of tattoos!"
Random Notebook Dump: Somebody should really write a parody song called "The Ghost of Tom Jones"
Take a bow, Bruce.
Seeds High Hopes (Havalinas cover) Badlands Adam Raised a Cain She's the One One Step Up Jesse James (Pete Seeger cover) How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live? (Blind Alfred Reed cover) Wrecking Ball Death to My Hometown Night No Surrender Backstreets/Drive All Night/Backstreets Because the Night Downbound Train I'm on Fire All or Nothing At All Shackled and Drawn The Ghost of Tom Joad (with Tom Morello) The Rising Light of Day Great Balls of Fire (with Joe Ely, Jerry Lee Lewis cover) Lucille (with Joe Ely, Little Richard cover) Born to Run Rosalita Dancing In the Dark Tenth Avenue Freeze Out Shout (Isley Brothers cover) Thunder Road (solo acoustic)
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