At a time when folks are respooling their lives and recasting their priorities, it's awfully nice to have a guy like Bruce Springsteen living nearby.
Springsteen's concerts have always been a potent mix of familiar and exotic; always engaging, always entertaining, always striking the right balance with the particular mood of the populace. He's never been a cheerleader, this Bruce Springsteen, but he has offered his fans a moral compass, a political north star, reminding them to appreciate what good they do have in their lives, while encouraging them to scratch out a little bit more and hang on for dear life.
On Friday evening, Springsteen's star was shining down past Exit 105 on the Garden State Parkway, to Asbury Park, a faded beauty queen of a boardwalk town and its Asbury Park Convention Hall. The city itself, immortalized with the release of Springsteen's first album, Greetings From Asbury Park NJ, is poised for a renaissance, thanks in no diminished part to its reluctant local hero.
From the opening note of the fourth of five Holiday shows, it was clear: Bruce Springsteen was in the giving mood. Free of the professional obligations of being the larger-than-most lifetimes "Bruce Springsteen From New Jersey" (only Santa Claus and the Beatles have more recognizable landscapes), the man played it loose like a jazz riff, dusting off older classics and subbing them in for concert staples. Everyone benefited from the experience, most of all the local businesses and charities that Springsteen shamelessly pimped from the stage. ("Hope you never need it, but if you do . . ." he said laughingly, referring to a local pawn shop.)
The festive show opened against type: Springsteen, alone at the piano, coaxing the first solo version of "Incident on 57th Street" heard in twenty-five years. After a galloping rendition of "Jingle Bell Rock" and couple of other band numbers, Springsteen introduced his longtime sideman Clarence Clemons over the opening notes of his lost classic "Thundercrack," and pretty much all hell broke loose right there.
The song, left off Born to Run for some crazy reason and all wrong for any subsequent release, was both powerful and slinky, the horns evoking the white-boy soul era that helped establish Springsteen as a revelatory life performer. For those tape-traders who held their muffled bootlegged versions so dear for so long, it was a celebratory moment and very nearly worth the price of admission ($50 and $100 tickets) alone.
Over the next two-and-a-half hours, a ferocious Max Weinberg 7 and E-Street Band stalwarts Clemons, Danny Federici, Gary Tallent and Nils Lofgren added context, camaraderie and musical chops to the proceedings and gave Springsteen an even wider berth for improvisation, evidenced by such fresh-from-hiatus teeth-rattlers "Kitty's Back" and "Rosalita."
But this was not merely a Bruce Springsteen concert, as he made sure he deferred the spotlight to guests like Bruce Hornsby, wife Patti Scalfia and local legends Bobby Bandiera, Soozie Tyrell and Southside Johnny Lyon, in between gift-wrapping his own gems, including the old school "Seaside Bar Song" and the new school "My City of Ruins." Of particular note: the two Bruces' duet on "You Sexy Thing" was surprisingly funk-ified, considering that Hornsby is about fourteen feet tall, can't dance and was playing accordion riffs throughout. And the choice of "End of the Innocence" was both surprising and inspired. Local guy Bobby Bandiera's solo, acoustic "Here Comes the Sun" was arguably as powerful as any other music made on that stage that particular evening. Southside Johnny? The palpable undercurrent of sibling rivalry seemed to bring out his best and he ably dueted during his moments in time: "This Time It's for Real" and "I Don't Wanna Go Home."
Over the final bars of "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and with the stage crammed with spouses, kids, band members and two guys dressed like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Bruce Springsteen crouched low and asked his son what he wanted for Christmas. The kid paused for a moment, then yelled "Nintendo!" at the top of his lungs. Bruce shook his head, laughed, and it became clear that, although the world is a rapidly changing organism, some things -- like a child's request for the latest bells and whistles and a quality Bruce Springsteen concert -- remain a constant.