8/21/08 Bruce Springsteen @ Sommet Center, Nashville, Tenn.

Bruce Springsteen

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It’s not much of a stage, no production, basic lights. As stripped down as a hockey rink stage can be. Lean, stark, unadorned. When you are Bruce Springsteen, though, what do you really need? Armed with the mighty, mighty E Street Band and a catalogue of songs that sweep the vistas of the flatlands, the flyovers, the blue collar, middle west and heartland, the bravura glory of a man in his element is its own juicy reward.

The Highway’s Jammed With Broken Heroes

It’s not much of a stage, no production, basic lights. As stripped down as a hockey rink stage can be. Lean, stark, unadorned. When you are Bruce Springsteen, though, what do you really need? Armed with the mighty, mighty E Street Band and a catalogue of songs that sweep the vistas of the flatlands, the flyovers, the blue collar, middle west and heartland, the bravura glory of a man in his element is its own juicy reward.

For it might be hard to be a saint in the city, but not on that stage or the backstreets, in the shadows and the cracks… those places you won’t ever be found, not because they’re for hiding, but because no one cares to even bother looking there.

And Springsteen’s audience? They are people who deserve a superstar who is faithful… who knows about being a skew, a bar code, a number… who understands the notion a pair of hands without a face – at a time even those hands don’t seem to matter because the works has been sent to cheaper places. They need someone who is really, truly in touch with the struggle to get by.

At the core, it’s not so much about jungle lands or magic rats, tramps and gypsies, but those poor stiffs punching a clock, punching the empty handed destiny dealt ’em. Because, ironically or not, what little bit that is, it’s all they got. Period. End of story. If there’s enough story to go around.

That’s the beauty of Bruce Springsteen: he is the commonest man with the biggest heart, the broadest shoulders, the deepest sense of grace in the degradation of realizing the American Dream isn’t one size fits all… and it’s shrunk to where most people can’t hope they’ll ever wiggle their way into it.

But Springsteen’s hold goes much farther back then that.

Growing up when desire was a band-aid you wanted to tear off clean, rip it away to feel the glorious relief of gone, there he was. Moaning. Witnessing. Creating a void you crawl into gasping, hoping to rub against whatever that was enough to be released.

“She’s the One,” with its lyrics about “her secret places that no boy could fill… with her hands on her hips and that smile on her lips, because she knows that it kills me…,” tells you everything you need to know about the tension and the need for culmination. Not necessarily carnal, but recognition, because after all, “French kisses will not break that heart of stone…”

Onstage at Nashville’s Sommet Center, “She’s the One” crawls out of the very Bo Diddley beating/”Not Fade Away” expansion “Mona” where he gives it up for the love he’s after. As sweat-stained as that hunger is, “She’s The One” doesn’t come merely from the urgency of hormonal centrifugal force, but more the recognizing the potency the promise of erotic potential delivers. It can be is so much more, that suspension of the unfilled on the brink. This is a revelation from someone who’s been there, understands, surrenders, even admires that which overwhelms him.

That wisdom transforms much of the Springsteen cannon. The bolt’n’tumble breakneck nature of what was is now a slightly slower habitation of lives lived to their edges. In the brazen jauntiness of “Spirit In The Night,” Clarence Clemmons’ sax honking and Roy Bittan’s strip house piano taunting the listener, it becomes the recollection of lost nights with vivid detail in the crossed headlights, the lake parties and exploration of limits sexual and otherwise. It is a survivors’ tale savored, and it fits him like the jeans that hang off those well-oiled hips.

Make no mistake: Bruce Springsteen is a sex symbol. As Muddy Waters howled, “I’m A Man.” And Springsteen is. In full. Indeed. He doesn’t pander, doesn’t do anything except luxuriate in the screams, the signs – including a “Boys In Their Summer Clothes” emblazoned with a shirtless, quite cut-offs-sporting early 70s Bruce mid-baseball swing – and the idea that he’s strong enough to be there, to stand tall, especially to like everything about the other sex without losing anything about musky virility.

That strength is an underlying, unspoken truth of Springsteen’s longevity. Yes, his shows come on like a locomotive: ever-pumping, never slowing, never pausing. The momentum builds, builds – and you hang on, maybe exhale when he slows it down, but even then, the blaze is white hot and slow burning, so throw too much oxygen at the flames at your own risk.

Talking about a man who’s “from here,” who’d cut a “few of my songs,” he offered they might not quite “get it,” but promised they’d head straight into something the always rapt, wholly powerful E- Streeters knew. Then with an attenuated torch groove, Bruce Springsteen then moaned, “I keep my eyes wide open all the time…”

Embracing Johnny Cash’s signature song of fidelity in the face of temptation with an almost Billie Holiday-esque ardor, it was bewitching. Suddenly, a song known to all turned into something even more aching, more taut, more consumed by its own intensity.

Without missing a beat, merely turning on a few chords, Springsteen neatly folded into his own consumed-by-want “I’m On Fire.” Oddly quiet, almost naked as a performance, it was a confession, but it was also a cage… a cage surrendered to if only for the hope of quenching that which was raging in his veins, his brain, his reason for being.

To own that possession beyond self so openly is to understand the truth so many deny. In a world where people strut and posture, Springsteen does neither. He shows up, shows you where these people are, where he is and judges nothing more than unfurnished honesty. Instead, he honors that truth by giving the fallible their clay feet, demonstrating what frailties and dam breaks are made of.

So when “The Rising” rises, almost shining, it is a reminder of our better self. Yes, we are base, slaves to the lower instincts, but also made of a greater goodness. It is just a matter of not losing site of that fact, embracing it, turning it up so that becomes what defines us.

What defines us is the decision. It is a theme that goes unspoken, yet permeates much of Springsteen’s career. To hear “Radio Nowhere,” it is not the venom of a man railing against a delivery system that is failing him, but rather a protesting cry of the squandering of something that once – blue light shining – gave definition to his prowls, his routines, most likely his breathing.

It is the same stand down that gave “No Surrender” its buoyant sense of “we’re all in this together.” It isn’t that the state of the nation isn’t oppressive, it’s that we all know – and in knowing we can come together to rally each other to higher ground.

That common field of lost souls and down trodden, too, is not some sad sack altar call. With the zeal of a carnie preacher, Springsteen canvassed that stage, inquiring if everyone was ready to go, “cause if you aren’t ready to go, you can’t get there…” From such a no-nonsense split rail exhortation, it was about jettisoning the worry for the revelry at “Mary’s Place.”

For all its feel good feeling, “Mary’s Place” isn’t just about blowing it up on Saturday night. Yes, his audience needs — perhaps more even than the have plentys — a let-off-steam moment, but they need the permission to believe they’re not suckers for thinking good honest work and telling the truth still matters. That is where the true pivot of letting go turns: knowing the values you hold are an anchor to ground the spin-out.

See that’s the deal about the music that’s built to last: there’s more to it than the euphoria. Ahhh, euphoria, you could see it on his face when the band undulated through a raucous “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” remembering every high time they had as kids. But memories are things that are gone, the endorphins released are gonna pass out of your bloodstream; in the end, only what you believe remains.

It’s what made the accordion-draped haunt of “Youngstown” such a jaw dropper early in. The pain was raw, torn, palpable. This is not a new song, but it is more current right now. It’s a chronic crisis spreading because no one paid attention… no one wanted to know… they shipped the jobs away, assuring there’d be plenty… until suddenly there weren’t.

In the tangle of titles that further embroidered that notion – “Loose Ends,” Last To Die” – the devastation gets demonstrated. If it stopped there, this would be “the drowning,” but it doesn’t. It never had, it never will, which is why the faithful still show up. The upper risers that weren’t full a testimony to the impact on the disparity of tax breaks for the wealthiest and the lack of trickle down and rising prices for those below the comfort line.

For them, it’s not even a raft, but a life jacket, the straw to float them ’til they can get to higher ground. It is a rallying cry to fire the beaten up for survival, and it works.

All these years later “The Promised Land” is a fist in the face of those who would take that last bit of respect away, the ones who’d strip what this country stands for bare – because you can raid the economy, sell of the debt, buy a Hummer and pretend that we’re prosperous ’til bankrupt, but you can’t wholesale the people. What they believe can never be taken from them, which is what makes the once youthful defiance of the declaration “I’m no boy, no, I’m a man… and I believe in the Promised Land…” into a refusal to let them trade away your faith in what you stand for as an America.

It was an equally impassioned “Badlands,” an outlaw song of sheer rebellion, the kind that brews where there’s too much room and not enough opportunity. If the fervor that ignites it – “Gonna be a twister… to blow everything down… ain’t got the faith… to stands its own ground…” can translate for a demoralized less-than-land-of-expectations to a place where we can perhaps create changes that give people back their more meaningful humanity.

For a man who truly doesn’t stop, the amount of meaning he packs is deceptive. It is concentrated, but it is close to three hours of full-tilt witness to who we can be – if we will think beyond ourselves. The deeply sad “Long Walk Home” – a song that tinges with the saddest kind of beauty in the wake of the recent passing of core E Streeter Danny Federici – is tempered by that same power of owning where you are and what you’re feeling.

As Little Steven, pirate scarf tied across his head, eyes sparkling with the vigor of the truly alive, takes his verse, there’s a slight roughness to the voice that cuts through one of Springsteen’s prettiest melodies the way a lone street light dissolves the abyss of the night where it falls. What could be an elegy becomes a song of consideration – of what we lost, what we can maintain, how we came be more right here where we are.

If “Long Walk Home” suggests one thing… it’s that right here, right now is all we have. For the man who proclaimed in the set culminating “Badlands” that “it ain’t no sin to be glad your alive,” this is the aware person’s ownership of knowing that truth in a far fuller way.

Not that this was one long sermon on the bandstand. No, Bruce Springsteen is above all a rocker. He comes to swerve and thrust and bring his fast ball.

With an encore that opened with Magic’s seasonally appropriate “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” a song where innocence and invisibility give you a whole other set of reasons to believe, it was a slalom of the fan’s perfect merge of everything they would ever want: “Thunder Road” straight into “Born To Run” with an – in honor of Joe Strummer’s birthday – Clash-fueled revved up “I Fought The Law” and a free-for-all “Rosalita.”

What was once a song for young adults realizing their life as youth is fading, “Thunder Road” played to a very basic set of insecurities once upon a time. What’s amazing is how much the quest for connection, the brittleness of being alone and the mocking way unattainable standards steal that right now from you resonates even louder, echoes even further inside your core as you grow up.

When Springsteen intones, “Don’t run back inside, darlin’ you know just what I’m here for…” and “You can hide ‘neath your covers, study your pain… waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets…,” it’s a gentle enjoinder to not lose your life, not merely the quest for a flesh connection. Yeah, sex is part of it, but it’s also to not have your moments washed away.

With the lights ablaze, it was urging a friend as much as a paramour, someone who sees the future and knows these moments may be the best there is. It’s what gives the press-down and gun-the-motor rumble of “Born To Run” such gusto. Many of the people there – graying hair, pleated pants, 30 pounds or more past their prime weight and not in shape – came to believe, even for a moment.

What they walked away with was a new energy. Not just the momentary rush of being in that moment, but the idea that it is worth the fight, it is about digging in. If “Thunder Road” is the ghosts of the ghosts of who we were, a well-worn naugahyde lounger that is cracked and peeling from the years of sweat, smoke and sagging flesh, “Born To Run” is the super-hero self, the one that declares “We can.”

And in empowering people, Springsteen reminds us that people do have the power…that making a difference doesn’t mean sour and overly serious. You need to pay attention, to be conscionable; to speak up and honor what you know is right… It’s what gave the kerosene to “I Fought The Law”: the beat may’ve been the matches, but it’s the righteousness that burns.

Still, there has to be fun, a reason to live, a bit of cotton candy dissolving on your tongue as the ferris wheel ascends. It is momentary, but it is saturated and adrenalin-fueled. Like that first thrashing make-out session with the one you could never have or the big deal that you close when everyone said you couldn’t.

That is what “Rosalita” was, is and shall ever be. The defiance of “make you mine,” the Romeo and Juliet teeter totter of the parents who don’t like the rocker – and the rocker who just doesn’t care. We’ve all been there, blown through it, savored the fruit right off the vine.

Three chords and a cloud of dust, Dan Baird from the Georgia Satellites – the Replacements’ Southern cousins – would say with that tilted ally cat grin. Indeed. That’s what else Bruce Springsteen knows: leave ’em gasping. Not in shock, but in joy – because in the end, all we have is that moment. Think, yes. Feel more. But especially rock.

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