Rockin’ in the Heart of Opulence
At a time when rock ‘n’ roll’s future is once again being questioned, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band showed Sunday at lavish new Staples Center just how glorious the music can still be.
But in his first Los Angeles concert with the band since 1988, Springsteen had to share the spotlight with the city’s new arena--at least for about two hours.
From 6:30 p.m., when the doors of the $400-million sports-concert palace opened to the public for the first time, until Springsteen stepped on stage around 8:40, the capacity crowd checked out the arena’s sparkling features. They gazed at the rows of glamorous luxury boxes and compared notes on the food choices.
But ultimately it didn’t matter to most fans whether the musicians were performing on the center’s massive stage or on the back of a pickup truck, as Springsteen and the eight-piece band played until nearly 11:30 p.m. with the trademark energy and passion that made them the most popular and acclaimed attraction in rock in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The question facing this reunion tour, which began in April in Barcelona and has since included some 70 shows in Europe and the U.S., is whether Springsteen can still stir audiences, or whether it’s just another hollow reunion exercise.
On one level, Sunday’s show was a welcome dose of nostalgia for fans who wanted to relive the excitement of songs that speak about youthful dreams with an eloquence almost unparalleled in rock, from “Born to Run” to “The Promised Land.”
Yet there is something in the best of Springsteen’s music (which also deals with struggles and doubts) that is enduring and life-affirming, and that’s why his music is able to touch audiences today in new and revealing ways.
It did, however, seem strange at times seeing this champion of blue-collar aspirations and rights surrounded by such opulence--a point he didn’t miss.
“Too many sky boxes,” he said, playfully but pointedly, early in the set. He drew cheers from the audience with his reference to the elite, private luxury suites, which cost up to $300,000 a year and allow tenants (including The Times) to enter the arena through a private entrance.
In remarks reminiscent of John Lennon’s famous “rattle your jewelry” remark to the rich concert-goers at a Beatles royal performance, Springsteen added teasingly, “It’s important for you folks up there [in the suites] . . . to come out of your rooms to see a rock show. . . . Mix with people.”
The luxury suite issue aside, Staples Center certainly seems state-of-the-art technically as a concert facility. But the will-call system was overwhelmed on opening night, as fans had to wait an hour or more in line--a situation that caused the show to begin at least 40 minutes late.
The sound, though, often a risky proposition in concrete buildings designed chiefly for sporting events, was quite impressive. The vocals, often the first casualty at rock shows, were clear, and there was no echo interfering with the music. Springsteen even complimented the sound.
Though Springsteen is likely to change the set list during the remaining shows in the four-day Staples Center stand, he went back Sunday to the blueprint that worked so well when the tour opened in Barcelona. Nineteen of the 23 song choices were the same.
To combat the nostalgia elements, he opened with the relatively obscure “My Love Will Not Let You Down” rather than one of the big hits. The tune outlines perfectly the themes of community and commitment that are at the heart of Springsteen’s music.
The robust “Prove It All Night,” which followed, not only reinforced the same theme, but also gave Springsteen a chance to showcase a lot of the elements in his music--from the Clarence Clemons sax solo to Springsteen’s own guitar dynamics to Max Weinberg’s explosive drumming to Springsteen’s vocal teaming with longtime sidekick Steve Van Zandt.
In “Two Hearts,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “The Promised Land,” Springsteen led the way through moments of youthful dreams, adult disillusionment and hard-fought redemption. He did the numbers with sharp-edged pacing, leading into the next song before the band even finished the last one. It was a sensational opening that served as Act 1 of the evening.
Act 2 was even more gripping as Springsteen, moving between acoustic arrangements and all-out rock assault, linked other stories that talk about class division in America. The series of tunes ranged from “Mansion on the Hill” and “The River” through “Youngstown” and “Badlands.”
From then on, the song selection was less formal, mixing moments of joy (“Out in the Street”) with social commentary (an especially haunting pairing of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and a stripped-down, bluesy “Born in the U.S.A.”).
The encores were highlighted by a spectacular version of “Born to Run,” a youthful anthem that was performed with the house lights turned up to accentuate the sense of community in the arena, and a poignant treatment of “If I Should Fall Behind,” in which various band members took solo turns at the microphone to pledge their mutual devotion.
By the end of the concert, Springsteen had done more than simply stir us once again with his music. He showed why he is such a major figure in the history of rock.
Springsteen came along at a time in the ‘70s when it was increasingly difficult to put your faith in rock performers. So many of the ‘50s and ‘60s generation of artists failed to live up to their ideals that an anti-rock-star attitude became the norm in the punk and alt-rock movements, many of whose members rejected any music with mainstream potential as corrupt.
Yet Springsteen accepted the challenge of trying to put his music and ideas in an accessible mainstream tradition, just the way his heroes, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles, had done. At the same time, he held on to his independence by writing songs of a uniquely personal and challenging nature.
Remarkably, he succeeded on both levels. Albums such as “Born in the U.S.A.” sold in the millions, while others--such as “Nebraska” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”--reached only a fraction of his larger audience.
On this reunion tour, Springsteen combined both mainstream and underground traditions splendidly in a performance that didn’t even begin to exhaust his vast repertoire. This tour isn’t just nostalgia. In living up to the faith that his audience has put in him all these years, he continued to give us rock ‘n’ roll that is both artful and playful, challenging and inspiring.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Thursday and Saturday at Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St., 7:30 p.m. Sold out. (877) 305-1111.
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