Soul Crusaders

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's reunion tour proves that there's still magic in the night

"In a way, they are, flesh-and-blood caricatures who remind us of a more innocent time, even as they confront what it means to be alive in the waning hours of the 20th century. On this tour, Springsteen is reclaiming something far deeper than a rock 'n' roll band. He's trying to remind himself of what matters, under the guise of a reunion show that trots out most of the hits (and plenty of obscurities, too)."

Indeed. This is no mere revue; U.S. tour stats to date report 34 concerts at an average of 22 songs per, with a total of 76 different songs trotted out. A lot of Springsteen's biggest hits (most noticeably, those from Born in the USA and Tunnel of Love) are absent from set lists. In their place has been an unexpected treasure-trove of material culled from Springsteen's deep catalogue ("Blinded by the Light," "Meeting Across the River," "Candy's Room"), rarities from last year's Tracks boxed set ("Loose Ends," "Rendezvous," "My Love Will Not Let You Down"), and even some unreleased numbers ("Red Headed Woman," "Light of Day," "Freehold"), all turning up in well-paced sets that make for a fine buzz, nostalgic or otherwise. Some material has been overhauled, such as a the moody, jazz-noir-tinged arrangement for "The River"; some songs have been fleshed out, including powerful full-band renderings of "Youngstown" and "Ghost of Tom Joad"; and still others simply pack a new, revived punch -- 1978 war-horses "Prove It All Night" and "Badlands" in particular -- not experienced since their heyday.

One pure Springsteenian moment comes during an extended rave-up during "Light of Day" wherein the singer, band riffing mightily behind him, climbs into the pulpit of the Ministry of Rock 'n' Roll and bellows in his best holy-roller voice, "Have you ever been dis-gusted? Dis-possessed? Over-analyzed? Factionalized? Fractionalized? Stigmatized? Retropsychedelicized? I wanna tell you that I cannot offer you life everlasting. But I can, however, offer you life -- right now!" Corny? Sure. But it brings the house down.

It is, perhaps, significant that Springsteen ends his '99 concerts with a three-song encore that underscores his relationship to his audience, how it feels to be reunited with the E Street Band after more than a decade, and the way everything is wrapped up together into a shared journey that, even at age 50 (he just crossed the half-century mark last month), isn't quite over just yet.

"Thunder Road" may have initially been about breaking small-town shackles and hitting the highway, and, implicitly, how rock 'n' roll is the catalyst that helps us visualize our personal dreams; but over the years, the scope of its message has expanded to include what it means when a community of dreamers -- Springsteen counting himself among that community -- learns to face together the challenges that life throws up. "So you're scared and you're thinking/That maybe we ain't that young anymore/Show a little faith, there's magic in the night. . . . Well now I'm no hero/That's understood/All the redemption I can offer, girl/Is beneath this dirty hood/With a chance to make it good somehow."

Tellingly, the tune has, over the years, also become the one guaranteed to prompt a nightly audience sing-along, an anthem in the purest sense.

Audience-performer bond attended to, Springsteen next transforms one of his most eloquent expressions of love, the ballad "If I Should Fall Behind," into a pledge of band unity. Against a gently fretted guitar melody and a heartbeat pulse, first Springsteen, then Van Zandt, Lofgren, Scialfa and Clemons each take a verse: "We swore we'd travel, darlin', side by side/We'd help each other stay in stride/But each lover's steps fall so differently. . . . Should we lose each other in the shadow of the evening trees/I'll wait for you/And should I fall behind/Wait for me." And a bond of comradeship once broken has now been cemented anew.

Finally, to the last number, a new composition titled "Land of Hope and Dreams," whose folk-rock arrangement, gospel lilt and lyrical snapshots of saints, sinners, losers and winners all embarking on a train toward the promised land are clearly aimed at invoking images of Woody Guthrie ("This Train Is Bound for Glory") and Curtis Mayfield ("People Get Ready"). Rather than going out on a wave of Dionysian tumult, Springsteen instead aims for something more spiritual, more transcendent -- and, true to his nature, the ties that, in the final estimation, bind us all.

"Well darlin' if you're weary, lay your head upon my chest/We'll take what we can carry, yeah, and we'll leave the rest/Big wheels rolling through fields where sunlight streams/Meet me in the land of hope and dreams/This train -- dreams will not be thwarted/This train -- faith will be rewarded . . ."

Springsteen steps to the microphone near the end of the song, thanks the crowd for coming out and humbly announces, "These shows have been kinda the rebirth and rededication of this band -- and of our commitment to serve you as best as we can."

This "commitment" is a rarity, and a precious one. But it's a consistent thread that has run throughout Springsteen's career, a commitment that he takes very seriously. In an interview conducted in late '98 for the BBC-TV Springsteen documentary Secret History, Springsteen acknowledged just that, revealing the essence of what connects him, as an artist, to his audience.

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