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Bruce Springsteen proves it all night

Springsteen at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion May 2014
Springsteen at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion May 2014
Bob Langham

The true test of a great rock and roll concert is whether or not it stays with you well after the stage lights have been doused, the roadies have packed it up, and your daily routine is back into full grind with your sights set on the next big show.

The dream remains the same

Concert experiences, like dreams, are a cluster of vivid, flickering images that usually dissipate by morning, with waking life’s barrage of external stimuli - the excruciatingly intrusive BEEP of the alarm clock, the cold floor on the soles of your feet, the hot shower stream on your face, the treacherous commute to work, and the mindless, unnecessary banter of the ubiquitous commercial radio morning team.

It’s been several days since Bruce Springsteen touched down in Houston for one night and proved to the sold out crowd at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion what his music has the power to do. Even weeks later, the images and memories of that evening’s performance still resonate deep despite the drone of the daily routine and all of life’s trivial distractions.

What hasn't been written or said before about legendary Bruce Springsteen concerts?

Meet the new boss, same as old boss

If you’re not one to blindly follow the herd (or more appropriately the heard) mentality of the creatively sterile and soulfully bankrupt lead of popular music today, the merits of Springsteen’s concerts cannot be written and talked about enough. You must sing the praises even louder than ever before of the unrivaled virtues and transformative effects of a live Springsteen show. If you've seen Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live in concert, whether 40 years ago, last night, or anytime in between, you know he’s a non-stop lightning rod of musical energy, spirit, and soul, feeding off of the essential ingredients that birthed and nurtured rock and roll. Springsteen radiates this energy to an audience hungry for music that has the capacity to reach them deep down in places where nothing else can.

On May 9, 1974, rock critic John Landau was one of the first to publicly praise the true, unbridled wonder of a Springsteen live performance. Back then, Landau was unfulfilled and disillusioned with the vacuous state of popular music. He went to see a relatively unknown Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform that night as the opening act for Bonnie Raitt at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That evening, Landau's outlook on music changed. He came away from the experience with the following musical awakening:

I saw my rock ‘n’ roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.

Forty years later, almost to the day, in that rock and roll future Landau wrote about so many years ago, Springsteen proved to an ecstatic Houston crowd the truth of those prophetic words, and he proved it all night.

Reachable moments

Springsteen proved it to the already converted - the die-hard and loyal fans who've come of age to his music as it has guided them through all those last chance power drives on the highway of life over the last four decades. He proved it to the questioning - the superficial fans who only knew the hit-based, commercial radio Springsteen. He proved it to anyone who inexplicably was not in tune to the truth before the show - the uninitiated, word-of-mouth fans who came to see the show, not because they were fans, or even knew any of his song, but because they heard his concerts were the real deal. Springsteen proved, once again, the undying intensity and influence rock and roll music can have. He proved when it’s done right, rock and roll can reach into the heart and soul simultaneously, on an individual and group level, from the front row to the cheapest seat in the house and makes you feel young again, like you’re hearing music for the very first time. He proved the power of rock and roll is unparalleled when it's in his hands. The three-hour show was true to form for Springsteen but different from any previous show. The twenty-nine song set, including two encores, was full of fan favorites, many surprises, and countless reachable moments - those unforgettable instances during a Springsteen show when even the most jaded music fans in the most distant corners of the venue are drawn in by the allure of the music and the magic of the performance. Even the cynics are enticed to shed any social inhibitions toward celebratory public displays and seduced into singing, swaying, shaking, and gyrating as if that moment was all that mattered. And to all of those on the right side of the gates at the Springsteen show, it was.

If you've naively, or worse, willfully relied on commercial radio to define Bruce Springsteen for you and frame his body of musical works, you’d be under the mistaken impression, that the extent of what his music can do for and to you stopped with the randomly chosen, familiar radio rotation tunes “Born to Run,” “Hungry Heart,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Born in the USA,” and “I’m On Fire.” This would be a travesty to any die-hard Springsteen fan and probably Springsteen himself. However, you wouldn't have been completely disappointed if you came to the Houston show with the expectation of hearing the Springsteen library, as you understood it. You would've gotten to hear more than half of the tunes you knew (“Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “I’m On Fire”), but on this night, you would've come to know and love many more. There were far too many songs in the set list to mention everyone played in Houston, but each one was delivered with the intensity and dedication fans have come to know and expect from Springsteen. Click here to see the entire playlist for the Houston show.

Springsteen got the evening at Cynthia Woods Pavilion rocking and rolling with “Seeds,” an angry tribute to the desperation of the working class, which appropriately for the evening included a mention of Houston in the first verse. If you didn't know better, (the questioning or not in tune camp, this means you) you might have dismissed this song selection as a gratuitous nod to Houston in an effort to cozy up to the crowd right out of the gate. However, genuine Springsteen fans, and fans of genuine music in general (those not caught up in the herd/heard) knew better, and their instincts would be validated (not that they needed to be) at the end of the show by Springsteen himself as he closed out his second encore, and his 2014 visit to Houston.*

Springsteen then went straight into a cover of the Havalinas tune “High Hopes” as if to reassure the crowd regardless of the height of their expectations for the evening’s show, they were in his hands, and he wouldn't let them down. He followed through on his promise with the first reachable moment of the night. He tore into his classic “Badlands.” And, as if they’d been rehearsing it for years (and many in the audience most certainly had been, in the privacy of their bedrooms and the semi privacy of their cars), the crowd - comprised of the spectrum of ages - carbon dated by concert tees of concerts past, and from all walks of life joined in at just the right moment. The hum and the rumble of the “WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOAs” vibrated beneath your feet, escalated through your body to your heart and reverberated throughout the venue and beyond. Springsteen eagerly encouraged the massive interactive accompaniment, waving it on like an eager third-base coach, motioning a runner home for the winning run. He offered the microphone to the crowd with a thoroughly satisfied “it doesn't get better than this” expression on his face. Springsteen and the enraptured crowd brought it all home with the final verse which encapsulates the core theme and collective appeal of Springsteen’s music and his live shows, and it set the interactively collaborative and lively tone for the night:

For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside, that it ain't no sin to be glad you’re alive…”

Click here to see the live Houston performance of “Badlands.”

The alliance between Springsteen and the audience continued with the first sign request out of seven for the evening. Sign requests are handmade posters or signs inscribed with a song title or lyric fervently displayed by fans in the audience in the hopes Springsteen will see it and include it his set list for show. The Springsteen sign request phenomenon, a physical, real world equivalent that captures the brevity and immediacy of a tweet, gives hope to everyone who has ever called a commercial radio station to request a song which holds a special place in their heart, only to have the deejay dismiss or disregard your request and spin a top 40 hit instead.

Springsteen plucked the first sign request out of the crowd four songs into his set and displayed it for the crowd before honoring the request to play “Adam Raised a Cain.” You could call a thousand radio stations across the country and request this song. If the station even pretended to take requests at all from listeners, they probably wouldn't recognize it or even have it in their “vast” musical library. Springsteen played it, and he played the hell out of it, as if he had rehearsed this song from 1978 minutes before the show. Immediately afterwards, Springsteen fished another sign from the audience and eased into another classic, “She’s the One,” the sign request, resting against the microphone stand at his feet - a reminder that it came from the people and remaining there even after the E Street Band’s wall of sound exploded in a surge of guitar, drums, and saxophone.

With the audience already worked into a frenzy, Springsteen gave them even more, a twofer - a sign request and a reachable moment wrapped into one. This sign request, more elaborate than the previously scrawled appeals, a 1980s close-up performance photo of Springsteen and Patti Scialfa sharing a microphone, with a caption that read, “Can we take a trip back to 88?” and a printed reminder along bottom that the song was last played live with the E Street Band in 1988. Bruce, read it out loud and questioned how many people in the audience were even alive in 1988. He pointed out that this would be the first time many in the crowd had heard the song played live with the band. Springsteen, Patti, and the E Street Band performed the song with all of the conviction and emotion as they had when they played two shows in Houston at The Summit on the Tunnel of Love tour in 1988.

After this tender trip back in time, Springsteen told the Houston audience he had just played the New Orleans Jazz Festival, noting its vibrant music scene. Then he launched into yet another reachable moment - a New Orleans style jazz cover version of the Bascom Lamar Lunsford tune “Jesse James.” At the most festive peak of the performance, Springsteen showcased the horn section by calling them to center stage for an all-out Mardi Gras, carnival-like celebration, demonstrating the versatility and unlimited musical range of the E Street Band and testing the stamina of the band and the audience as the revelry flowed out into the crowd and caught fire.

Springsteen continued the rapid pace, not stopping between songs. He charged through a cover version of a 1929 Blind Alfred Reed song which takes a hard look at the hard times of the common folk. He followed with two tunes from his 2012 release “Wrecking Ball” (“Wrecking Ball” and “Death to My Hometown”) with a similar socially conscious, empathetic theme connecting all three tunes.

The reachable moments continued with another sign request and the most emotional musical wish granted for the night. Springsteen flashed the flimsy poster board to the audience with its urgently scrawled “I busted my brother out of class to sing No Surrender.” It sent a ripple of recognition from every fan in the audience who’d ever taken refuge from the complications of the world in their favorite record and who knew the first lines of the requested song by heart. A palpable surge of anticipation welled up from the crowd as to what Springsteen would do next, but deep down, everyone knew. He motioned the sign makers (two brothers) on stage to accompany him on their favorite tune. As Bruce and the band tore into the beginning chords of “No Surrender,” the brothers were overwhelmed by the moment, celebrating on stage, trying to grasp the believability of the moment. However, the brothers didn't miss their cue. They stepped up to the microphone at the precise moment the lyrics began to sing the first two lines of the song - their sign request coming to life - along with Springsteen and thousands of other fans, who were just as happy to sing along from off stage:

“We busted out of class had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school”

Despite the fact that the song had been released thirty years earlier, before the 28 year old young man and his 16 year old brother were even born, they knew all the words to the tune. Springsteen was visibly moved and overjoyed that his music served as a bond between the brothers from different generations. He surrendered the microphone and let the young men take over. They belted out a key line from the heart: “We swore blood brothers against the wind I'm ready to grow young again." to the amazement of Springsteen and the audience. As the song was drawing down and the band played on, the brothers, greeted and profusely thanked all of the members of the E Street Band for given them this moment. When it was all sang and done, it was a toss-up as to who was more affected by the moment, the brothers, the overjoyed crowd, or Springsteen and the band. Click here to see the Houston performance of “No Surrender.”

Springsteen honored another sign request next for the classic “Backstreets” from the “Born to Run” album. However, he took the intricate, tormented tune of young urban romance to the next level by infusing it with a textured interlude of “Sad Eyes” from his “Tracks” box set and “Drive All Night” from “The River” album, eliciting cheers of recognition from the crowd as they soaked it in and relived the distant memories these tunes evoked.

The next surprise Springsteen pulled out of his rock and roll bag of magic was “All or Nothing at All” from the non-E Street Band album “Human Touch,” a premiere for this tour and a rare rocking full E Street Band performance of the tune. Then Springsteen gave Houston yet another reachable moment by revisiting his originally acoustic tune “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” about economic injustice and income inequality, and the reflection of the archetypal Steinbeck character in today’s world. Tom Morello, (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave), filling in for E Street mainstay Steven Van Zandt on guitar and vocals, joined forces with Springsteen to ratchet up this normally subdued tune into an angst-driven, guitar heavy interpretation of the original. This reworking of the song elevated it into a call to action for the oppressed. It was a not so gentle but welcome reminder that there’s still plenty of unfairness in the world which can’t be ignored. The feverishly aggressive rendition demonstrated the power music has to entertain while simultaneously raising social awareness without putting a damper on the evening. Click here to to see a video of the spirited Houston performance of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

Springsteen finished out the set with another high energy rocker “Light of Day,” priming the enthusiastic crowd for the impending encore. He didn't waste any time kicking off his first encore with another surprise for Houston. He summoned legendary Texas musician Joe Ely to the stage, and they ripped through a back to back performance of the classic rock and roll tunes, Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire” and Little Richard’s “Lucille.” Springsteen and Ely burned up the stage and worked the crowd into an old school rock and roll fury the way a real rock and roll lover should. Ely was barely off the stage, riding a wave of thunderous applause, when Springsteen and The E Street Band gunned it full throttle into “Born to Run” without taking a breath, or allowing the crowd to catch their second wind.

Springsteen honored the last sign request of the night, “Rosalita,” the classic encore friendly tune. The fan favorite kept the crowd on its feet, prepping them for “Dancing in the Dark,” the next song in the encore. However, the enthusiastic crowd was several dance steps ahead of him. They’d been dancing even before the sun went down, feeding off the energy emanating from the stage and coursing throughout the Pavilion.

Next, Springsteen took a nostalgic trip down a familiar memory lane, specifically Tenth Avenue for the next reachable moment. In thrilled anticipation for what was to come, when the notes to the extended intro to “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” began, the audience joined in with their own vocal instrumentation to the popular tune which colorfully details the formation of the E Street Band. The performance took on a personal, more profound meaning as past concert images and video clips of long time E Street Band members Danny Federici, and Clarence Clemons (The Big Man), who have both passed away, were projected on the large video screens as the song played. It was a poignant moment that went beyond a memorial to become a celebratory tribute to these two musicians who had been such an integral part of the E Street Band and helped make it the powerhouse it is today. The performance of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” brought home the inevitable truth that musicians don’t live forever, but fortunately, their music does. This was a truth all the more powerful since the spirit of Clarence Clemons lives on through his nephew Jake who has stepped up to fill his legendary uncle’s shoes on saxophone. Those are some Big Man shoes to fill, but Jake proved throughout the evening’s show that they fit just fine. Click here to see a video of the Houston performance of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out."

Springsteen earned the nickname “The Boss” early in his musical career from the guys who worked for him. He was the leader of the band and the guy who paid them. Springsteen never really liked the friendly moniker, but it has come to encompass grander proportions than just the guy who writes the checks, specifically his unrivaled work ethic in the studio and more noticeably on the concert stage. The best boss you can ever hope for is one who knows the job inside and out due to experience and trial and error, someone who’s at home on the front lines and down in the trenches with you, getting his hands dirtier than yours and working by your side until the job is done. This is what makes Springsteen “The Boss” in the eyes of his fans and in the world of rock and roll. He works hard, and he doesn't stop until everyone is done and the job is done. This was readily apparent as the Houston concert was reluctantly nearing its end.

Springsteen knew the job still wasn't done for the evening. He still had another reachable moment in him of huge proportions. He wasn't ready to let the Houston crowd, or the band clock out and call it a night. He had a little more to ask of his fans. He wanted and needed them on their feet - the few, if any who hadn't been standing since the show began. He needed to know from everyone in the crowd if they felt “all right now.” A thunderous wave of affirmative responses echoed throughout the Cynthia Mitchell Woods Pavilion. He wanted the crowd to raise their hands. He was answered by a sea of waving hands upon which he dove head long into a cover of the Isley Brothers “Shout,” which he proceeded to turn into an exuberant, spiritually exhausting, rock and roll call and response between him and the jubilant audience. He paused to shout out one last thing he wanted from the Houston audience - He wanted everyone in attendance to go home and wake up their friends and neighbors and stop everyone on the street and testify that they had seen the legendary (among a string of other adjectives) E Street Band. He closed out the song confessing at the top of his lungs that he was a prisoner of rock n’ roll, not unlike the audience which he had brought to its collective feet over the course of the evening. He elicited some more shouts out of the audience for good measure before bringing the song to a close. To the deafening cheers and rumbling chants of “BRUUUCE!” from the crowd, Springsteen dismissed the E Street Band from the stage, thanking them individually for their tireless contributions as they left. Springsteen paused briefly to take a drink of water (his first and only “break” of the evening) as the stage went dark, and the crowd screamed for more. Click here to see the Houston performance of “Shout.”

Springsteen returned to the stage in a matter of moments with his acoustic guitar and harmonica for his second and final encore.

Days of thunder

He thanked Houston for being such a great audience. He reminisced about coming to Houston for the first time 40 years ago, shortly after signing his first record deal. He related to the crowd how he and the band were afraid of flying, so they took a train all the way from New York City, to play their first Houston shows at a place called Liberty Hall, where they played seven sold out shows over four nights. Click here to listen to a recording of one of the Liberty Hall shows.

*It was these early shows that planted the seeds for the special bond between Springsteen and Houston. On that summer night, 40 years later, Springsteen praised and thanked Houston for being so supportive of his music and the band since the beginning. He dedicated his final song of the evening, an acoustic, heartfelt version of “Thunder Road” to the town that adopted him so long ago. And with that final musical debt of gratitude, he ended his 2014 visit to Houston.

Houston Chronicle columnist Ken Hoffman, admittedly a superficial fan of Springsteen’s commercial radio familiar tunes, wrote in his review of this Springsteen concert that he was lucky enough to watch the show from behind the sound board with guests and family and friends of the band. He had an up close perspective of the show most in attendance would have given anything to have. Hoffman wrote that near the end of the show, a Cynthia Woods Pavilion executive motioned him over to the front of the stage. Hoffman ended up being ten feet away from Springsteen as he performed the last three songs of the first encore. Hoffman describe the experience, making sure to stress that he wasn't kidding. He wrote that the floor literally shook during the monumental performance of “Shout,” and he could feel it through his shoes. The beauty of this Springsteen show was you didn't have to be ten feet away from Springsteen to feel this electricity Hoffman described. You could feel it throughout the venue even on the outskirts of the lawn seats.

Hoffman, wrote that the pavilion executive turned to him during the performance of “Shout” and said, “What do we do now? We will NEVER be able to top this show.” Probably not, but everyone in the crowd, left Cynthia Woods Pavilion knowing that if anyone would surpass the impact of this concert, it would be Springsteen himself the next time he comes to town, and then he'll prove it to Houston once again.

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