A staggering thirty years ago this week, Bruce Springsteen released his first solo album, Nebraska. Originally recorded on four-track cassette tape in his home recording studio, the song demos themselves ended up being what is heard on the record, which bore a black and white cover image of a bleak vista as seen through the dashboard of a car, an endless road going nowhere clear through to the horizon with an angry storm-heavy sky. Ten songs, stripped down, savage in their beauty, told real life stories of Americans falling through the cracks in our democratic system. "Sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world," Springsteen's velvety voice sings resignedly in the title song about serial killer Charles Starkweather.
Tonight, as he did Wednesday and will do tomorrow night, Springsteen brings his mighty E Street Band, augmented by a full horn section, a percussionist, and a choir, to New Jersey's MetLife Stadium to further -- in his words -- "consecrate the proceedings in this building with the power of rock and soul!" This tour, which began in March and has now taken in venues in this country (with more to come after a short break) and in Europe, has now become a three-and-a-half-hour-plus extravaganza every night. No costumes, no smoke machines, no over the top theatrics -- just rock and roll, R&B, and soul music -- and a setlist that effectively pivots on the songs from Springsteen's 2012 release, Wrecking Ball.
Similar to the characters who were hunted and haunted on Nebraska, the everyman and woman who have formed the core of Springsteen's oeuvre, these people are caught in their own worst nightmare. But there is hope. The beating heart of the record (and the live show) is "Jack of All Trades": "The hurricane blows, brings the hard rain / When the blue sky breaks / If feels like the world's gonna change / And we'll start caring for each other / Like Jesus said that we might / I'm a Jack of all trades, we'll be all right." Salvation is nigh, in album-closers like the spiritual "Rocky Ground," the glorious "Land of Hope and Dreams," and the gorgeously eerie call to arms of "We Are Alive."
Springsteen also devotes a good portion of the show's real estate to acknowledging those who are gone from his band and the stage, organist Danny Federici and most recently the larger-than-life presence of Clarence Clemons, who died last year. Towards the end of the night, Clemons' spirit is honored by a short film which is watched in silence by Bruce and the band as the audience cheers their hearts out in tribute to a man who was an integral part of the E Street Band as well as a living symbol of friendship and brotherhood across all that separates us from each other. It says a lot that Clemons' horn parts are not undertaken by one man, but by a full horn section.
Much has been written about Bruce Springsteen's live shows -- which are everything from a great night out, to the utter amazement of watching a band that can effortlessly turn on a dime, to a night that changes your life forever (ahem -- guilty as charged). The construct of this particular tour, though, makes it even more special. Springsteen himself has never seemed more charged with the power and glory of his vision. He's having the greatest time of his life up there and it shows. He skips around the stage like a schoolboy (and might I note here that on Sunday he'll be 63-years-old), he eagerly grasps the hands of fans and gazes into their eyes, he throws himself with abandon into the crowd and trusts them to hold him up, to carry him back to the stage so he can continue to rock them to their core. This is not a concert. What it is, is a medicine show: he's a shaman peddling a miracle elixir directly to you. And that elixir is life.