Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Boss

I saw The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, last night, for the forty-somethingth time. The show was at the TD Banknorth Garden, in Boston, and I went with my aunt, who took me to my first Bruce show back in 1987 at the Worcester Centrum.

My friends wonder how I can go to see the same guy so many times, especially because Bruce doesn't really mix up his setlist on tour like Phish does - when I go to Springsteen again tonight, 14 of the 20 songs will probably be the same. Anyone who has seen Springsteen live will understand though - he is a pure entertainer, and goes balls out each and every show.

Last night, Bruce produced one of the top concert moments I've experienced live. There is a part of the show where he pulls handmade signs from the crowd, which have song requests written on them. I was in the balcony on the side of the stage, and couldn't see this particular sign, but he held it up, and got mild applause from the crowd.

"The band does NOT know this song," Bruce laughed, as the crowd roared a little.

"They have NEVER played this song," he continued, chuckling, and then repeated, "The band doesn't know this song."

After cocking his head, standing stage center, and repeating one more time, "They have never played this song," Bruce rasped, "BRING ME MY GUITAR!" and his sound tech brought out a different guitar. Someone must have yelled, "Can they do it?" because Bruce answered into the mic:

"Can they do it? Fuck yeah! They're the E Street Band!"

I still couldn't tell what the sign said, but Bruce had it propped in front of him, as the fan who made it had included lyrics and chords on the back!

"I think I used to play this in bars! I'm gonna do the first round and then you guys come in," Springsteen instructed the band, and then started strumming his guitar and half-singing half-humming the first verse.

At first it seemed that Bruce was flubbing his way through a song he didn't know, but he then said "I'll figure this out in a second," and it became clear he was working it out in his head, half out loud, in the middle of the show in front of 20,000 rabid fans!

Suddenly, Bruce ripped into the guitar and began belting out the first verse: it was ZZ Top's "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide."

Well I was rollin down the road in some cold blue steel,
I had a blues man in back, and a beautician at the wheel.
We going downtown in the middle of the night
We laughing and I'm jokin and we feelin alright.
Oh I'm bad, I'm nationwide.
Yes I'm bad, I'm nationwide.

Now, it's not that this is a favorite song of mine, or that it happens to be a great fit for Bruce's 1980's muscle car rock anthems, but watching Springsteen figure this out on the fly, and having the band chime in flawlessly behind him 30 seconds later was simply tremendous. Magical.

After finishing the song to frenzied applause, Bruce stepped back to the mic and explained, "NEVER try to stump the E Street Band."

Without sounding all artsy and metaphysical, it's rare to experience this kind of "creation" in music. I see a lot of live music, including a lot of "jam" bands who are constantly improvising and creating new experimental stuff on stage, but I can only recall one time I had the feeling that Bruce and the E Street Band created last night - and it was a show I wasn't even at.

In 2004, Phish played a show at what was then the Tweeter Center in Mansfield, Massachusetts. I wasn't at the show, but i listened to the bootlegs. At one point, the band tried to play Smokey Robinson's "Tears of A Clown," but they didn't know the lyrics. Each member took turns flubbing and humming the lyrics, until I guess some girl in the front row claimed she knew the words!

Trey Anastasio, Phish's lead singer, pulled her onstage, and gave her the mic. The girl was rightfully freaked out, and sounded like she'd be a total trainwreck as she giggled and screeched while trying to compose herself. However, after a few seconds, the band picked up her rhythym and came in full throttle behind her, which inspired her to belt out the lyrics like a karaoke star. I wouldn't call her a top notch rock star, but this performance was truly amazing - listening in real time as the band simply CARRIED a random girl picked from the crowd to sing a song they didn't know the words to, and it worked. You can download to the song, and the rest of the show, here.

The best part of all of this is, I get to do it again tonight.


UPDATE: BruceSpringsteen.Net has a video of the performance of "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide," but they cut out the best part - where Bruce is trying to figure out how the song goes....

UPDATE 21: full version now on Youtube! not the best quality, but you can see where Bruce is experimenting at the beginning. Awesome.


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