Ten thoughts about my first full Bruce Springsteen concert, March 13th in Oakland:
1) Brilliant, fantastic show. Emotionally rich and tremendous fun.
2) Bruce Springsteen WORKS HARD. With no opening act, no intermission, and often no rest between songs, the band roared at full throttle for three and a half hours. There are very few things I want to do for three and a half hours in a row, but I had a great time and was reluctant to leave.
3) Bruce occasionally speaks to the audience, not just introducing a song but giving it a context within the show, within his own life, and in life in general. There’s a sense that he’s giving the audience what they need to understand the music – whether for the first time, or in a new way. At some rock shows, the audience might feel obliged to indulge the performer (e.g. “Here’s one off our new album…”), so it seems very considerate of the performer to be so concerned for the audience’s needs.
4) His stories and concise explanations feel spontaneous, but they’re supremely beautiful in their precise wording and impact. The bar is set very high for music critics to describe the meaning of the songs, or what role each might play in the show, as well as Springsteen himself does.
5) The focus was very clearly on the audience – not as lucky witnesses to an exclusive performance, but as the very reason the show was taking place. Accordingly, the band played most of the last half of the show with the house lights on. The musicians might face each other or execute some planned move together, but with every gesture came the sense that the party wasn’t on the stage: every seat in the room was invited to take part.
6) For this tour, the band played every song on Springsteen’s 1980 double album The River. One review from years ago observed that keeping only half the 20 songs from that collection might have produced one of the best single records ever, but the scope of Springsteen’s ambitions led him to include several weak or silly tracks – all of which would now be performed.
Some songs were less effective than others, but the variety also gave the evening a sense of history and place. A powerful dirge like “The River” or a radio staple like “Cadillac Ranch” might speak to this moment and many others like it, but a half-dozen steps into less inspired bar-band rock and shadowy musical drama somehow illuminated all the space between this enormous show and the small stages the band had played decades before.
7) As our swim through The River began, Springsteen described his original ambitions for the album: it would explore all those things that tie us to our lives – stories, sadness, parents & children, funny stuff, jokes, sex, romance, loss, hope. Most of his songs work on several of these levels.
I cried through five or six of the songs – from the scope and righteousness of Badlands, the familiar sense of loss in The River, the tragic vitality of The Rising, all the hope of Thunder Road, and all of the above that now seems overdue or lost or out of reach for me. I might have been responding to the sadness and commitment and hope in the songs, or the experience of calling together so many moments from my own past and present all at once.
8) Prove It All Night might have focused entirely on sexual bravado, yet it digs down to find what is authentic and human in that drive, for better or worse. Springsteen’s more pedestrian rockers may not always hit the target, but he’s written some of the most literate and perceptive songs we have.
9) My favorite track of many was “Because The Night”, which Bruce wrote for Patti Smith. (He apparently gave Smith co-writing credit, for which she has expressed gratitude.) It may have been my favorite song that evening because it pushes past Springsteen’s focus on the emotional depths of modern Americana, into murkier, artsy territory.
10) This is the second Oakland Coliseum show I’ve seen for which seeing the whole show directly conflicted with catching the last BART train. Someone should fix that.