BRUCE'S BETTER DAYS

Bruce Springsteen
America West Arena
October 2 and 3, 1992

For two hours, it sounded like Bruce Springsteen was finished as an artist. Refusing to play a single old tune, he piled on the weak new material from his bloated, two-album mistake. Flat and uninspired on record, the recent songs didn't play any better live. But when Springsteen finally dipped back into the past, into what is arguably the richest song catalogue outside Lennon and McCartney's, the crowd gave an audible sigh of relief. Both nights, as the familiar piano chords of the somber "Darkness on the Edge of Town" rolled off the stage, you couldn't help but think how lame his latest offerings stacked up against his classics.

Can it be that the same person who once wrote a wrenching melody like "Jungleland" or desperate lyrics like those in "Thunder Road" is now wasting time on meaningless dance tracks like "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)"? Like it or not, much of Springsteen's new material is a pathetic example of Bruce trying to follow trends, not set them.

Then there was his new band--the replacements for the beloved E Streeters. Actually, no one will ever replace the E Street Band, which explains Bruce's second biggest problem after his newly uninspired songwriting. Feeling the need for change and a fresh infusion of creativity, the Boss dismissed his band, which was also more or less his family and connection to New Jersey, last year. The extrasensory, blood-brother connection that Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, Little Steven Van Zandt and Max Weinberg all shared with Springsteen made them an incredibly nimble outfit and one of the world's last great live bands. With just a nod from the Boss, they could turn a boomer into a ballad or launch into one of Bruce's many unrecorded tunes. Matched with Springsteen's visceral words and music, they were the key element of his success. The bright spot in Springsteen's new ten-piece ensemble is pianist Roy Bittan, the sole survivor from the E Street days. The trim, shiny-domed Bittan is now the glue that holds the entire spectacle together. Perky multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Crystal Taliefero--who at one point pulled out a tenor sax and tried unsuccessfully to reproduce a Clarence Clemons lick--is the most promising new face. Unlike the E Street Band that ran like a jumpy, high-revving machine, Springsteen's new band mates are a beat-heavy, marginally talented bunch of hired guns whose major attributes are volume and a lumbering pace. The most noticeable sonic difference now is the lack of a second piano. In the past, the twin keyboards of Federici and Bittan fleshed out Springsteen's sound and gave him more of an R&B-soul edge. Now, all you hear are walls of guitar noise and a big beat. Kudos for cultural diversity aside--all but three of ten players are black--this band should not last beyond this tour. Guitarist Shane Fontayne is a rank poseur who isn't fit to carry Nils Lofgren's or Little Steven's sweaty towels. After seeing these shows, it's abundantly clear why Fontayne's pre-Bruce project, the Merchants of Venus, was going nowhere fast. Corpses have more life and quicker fingers than slow drag bassist Tommy Sims. And drummer Zach Alford needs to put away the Bad Brains records and try to learn something other the bass pedal. The most damning thing about this band is that the E Street camaraderie has been replaced by an empty, follow-the-set-list sullenness.

Worst of all, though, was the Boss himself. In years gone by, fans knew that at some climactic moment--usually the central piano glissando in "Rosalita" or the pregnant pause before the midsong "one-two-three-four" exhortation in "Born to Run"--Springsteen was going to leap off a PA stack or do a daffy from the piano. Although this pair of shows was plenty long, most of the old fire was sadly absent. Big gospel-soul-revue renditions of "Light of Day" and "Man's Job," both featuring burly back-up singer Bobby King, worked up the most froth. And apart from the few old songs that were different--though nothing from the first two records--everything was exactly the same in both shows. A few years ago, faced with a two-night stand, Springsteen would not only have mixed the song order but also would have spiced in all sorts of tasty old tunes, acoustic versions and untested new music. Lacking the usual imagination, this pair of shows was Bruce-by-the-numbers.

Part of that comes from the gaping hole left by the E Street Band. Without it it's obviously "The Bruce Show" and he's struggling to make up the difference. At one point, he stood silent at center stage with his arms folded while the crowd howled. The din rose until he began twisting his head like he was watching tennis at Wimbledon. The crowd understood and soon the sides of the arena were screaming "Bruce!" at each other as he snapped his head back and forth. It was the kind of classic rock-star ego fest that the shy singer who made "Born to Run" would never have indulged in.

After listening to the misfires from his two-album marketing ploy, seeing his lackluster band and watching his Axl-ego, the unthinkable became reality.

As much as music used to be Bruce Springsteen's passion, it is now only his business.

I remember thinking when Born in the USA came out: "Will Bruce ever fall? And if it happens, what will it be like?" On Friday and Saturday nights at America West Arena, both of those questions were answered, and neither was a pretty sight.

By intermission I was bored to tears--and angry that he'd kept ramming the new material down our throats. Propping up his badly sagging sales figures seemed to be at the top of Springsteen's concert agenda.

Although there were signs of life earlier in Saturday's show--the first half was enlivened by a rare performance of "The River"--the old inferno didn't flare either night until after intermission. In both shows, it began with a heartfelt performance of "Brilliant Disguise," his bitter ode to first wife Julianne Phillips and one of his most gentle and affecting melodies. On Friday night, there was a loping, glockenspiel-less "Bobby Jean" that fell into a wonderfully familiar groove. On Saturday there was a suitably rockin' rendition of "Darlington County" to feast on. Finally, the lights dimmed and the band filed off--often a sign of something spontaneous about to happen at a Springsteen show. The Boss pulled a harmonica stand over his head, picked up a black acoustic guitar and, after noting that he'd "been doing this tune for a long time," eased into an exquisite acoustic rendition of "Thunder Road." Suddenly, the old spark was back. The eloquent, unquenchable desire that separates Bruce Springsteen from every other figure in the history of rock n' roll was alive again.

But after two nights of Bruce in the Valley, the questions persist.
Is Springsteen done? Has the longest, sweetest and most storied run in popular music come to an end?

After weathering more than nine hours of Bruce last weekend, my answer is equivocal: not yet. His new "artistic direction" leaves a lot to be desired. And you can bet the ranch that the next album will determine whether it's time to start writing his epitaph. Because memories, even of Springsteen, can't guarantee a full house forever.

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