Last month, The New York Times Magazine published an essay decrying "The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism," defined by critic Saul Austerlitz as the trend among rock critics to embrace the shallow lifestyle-reporting aspects of pop culture while disregarding or distrusting "music that is about something other than the whoosh of a catchy riff."
Here's this rock critic's response to poptimism: his name is Bruce Springsteen, and he demonstrated the undiminished redemptive power of rock and roll before a huge all-ages crowd Saturday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
The show was two hours and 45 minutes long -- far longer than any set I've ever seen at Jazzfest, yet still compact by Springsteen's epic standards.
Springsteen, who will play the Woodlands Pavilion on Tuesday night, performed with his E Street Band, augmented by former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and a New Orleans-influenced horn section. The set list seemed to be constructed specifically for Jazzfest, from John Fogerty's guest appearance on "Proud Mary" to an encore version of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In."
But it also included a slugger's row of singalong anthems from every decade of Springsteen's 45-year career, delivered with the passion and polish of a band that views the serious business of great rock and roll as a lifetime commitment, not a whoosh.
The set opened shortly after 4:15 p.m. with "High Hopes," the title track of Springsteen's latest album. Originally recorded by the Javelinas, the song is a call to hang tough in a world where "before the meek inherit they'll learn to hate themselves..." This was followed by "Johnny 99," in which a laid-off factory worker who drunkenly shot a night clerk asks the judge for the chair instead of 99-to-life, and "Badlands," in which the defiant singer declares, "Poor man wanna be rich/ Rich man wanna be king/ And a king ain't satisfied/ 'Till he rules everything..."
These songs have always had political dimensions, of course, but Springsteen has become more outspoken about his populist views since he wrote them back in the 1970s and '80s. They now stand side by side in his repertoire with Depression-era folk songs such as Woody Guthrie's "Jesse James" and Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," putting Springsteen in the potentially awkward role of the rich rock star as working-class hero.
It's enough to make a snide poptimist gag, as if fame and wealth should disqualify artists from expressing a social conscience and as if Bruno Mars' music is somehow more honest by virtue of being self-consciously apolitical and authentically inauthentic.
Besides, it's not as if Springsteen's blue-collar roots are not real.
The first indication that Springsteen was up to something special Saturday came on "The River," a song laden with emotional significance for post-Katrina New Orleans, introduced by Springsteen's lonesome harmonica and sung in a quietly intense down-tempo. The next chill-on-the-spine moment was during "Wrecking Ball," written for the demolition of the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey but with obvious implications of spiritual survival for a city that has come back from a flood of Biblical proportions.
The next of several inspired segues occured when "Death to My Hometown," an Irish-flavored lament with Bruce sharing vocals with Morello, led immediately into "The Promised Land," the song on which Springsteen most emphatically pledges allegiance to the transcendent power of rock and roll. "Mister, I ain't a boy, no, I'm a man/ And I believe in the promised land..."
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"Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" and "Shackled and Bound" employed gospel back-up vocals and the Seeger Session Band horns. Then it was back to take-no-prisoners rock and roll with "The Ghost of Tom Joad," on which Springsteen and Morello squared off on guitars, with Bruce eventually giving way to Morello's jaw-dropping display of pyrotechnics. The title track from Springsteen's mid-'90s solo acoustic album, the song is based on the last lines of John Steinbeck's classic novel of Dust Bowl desperation, The Grapes of Wrath. Morello previously covered it in a ferocious rock-rap version with Rage, so this meeting of the minds, musical and political, has been coming for a long time.
"Tom Joad" segued straight into "The Rising, written for New York after 9/11 but also relevant to New Orleans after Katrina, with the crowd chanting along on the chorus, "Nah nah na na na na nah," arguably the most widely repeated and elementally profound lyrics in rock and roll history. "Land of Hope and Dreams," which interpolates verses from the gospel standard "This Train," featured the first of several fine tenor solos by Jake Clemons, nephew of the late E Street saxophonist Clarence "Big Man" Clemons.
Fogerty, who headlined the festival on Sunday, entered wearing a familiar plaid shirt, plugged in, and bit down hard on the chugging guitar riff that kicks off Creedence's "Green River." Springsteen shared the vocals, and four guitars representing three generations -- Fogerty, Springsteen, Morello and Nils Lofgrin on slide -- traded solos. Fogerty stuck around for "Proud Mary," with the crowd roaring at the references to New Orleans.
Then it was into the home stretch with "Born to Run"; "Dancing In the Dark," on which Springsteen, who is in great shape for 64 (or 34), brought a woman up out of the crowd to dance with him; and "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," which featured a moving video montage of The Big Man as the four horns it took to replace him rode the groove to a frenzied climax.
At this point, Bruce had been playing for more than two hours without coming up for air. He introduced the band, and thanked New Orleans, "the place where it all began." A gasp of recognition rippled through the crowd as Springsteen sang the first lines of "Saints"; "We are travelling, in the footsteps, of those who've gone before..." This was no tossed-off attempt at an easy crowd-pleaser; this was a carefully rehearsed arrangement. The horns entered slowly, funeral-style, and built to carnival ecstasy, with everyone blowing at once. They didn't sound quite like Preservation Hall, but it was close enough to succeed as a heartfelt tribute.
The show closed with an orchestral, elegantly triumphant "Thunder Road"; Redemption beneath this dirty hood. Huge crowd, beautiful day, job well done.
So go ahead and smirk, all you wannabe dance club divas and post-punk professional cynics. Bruce Springsteen is a man, not a boy, mister, and he is unafraid to profess his faith. He has high hopes. He still believes in the promised land, and that promised land is called rock and roll. He'll take you there if you let him.
Rick Mitchell is the former music critic for the Houston Chronicle and former Performing Arts Director of the Houston International Festival. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band perform Tuesday, May 6 at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Dr., The Woodlands. Gates open at 6 p.m.
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