Building a House with Bruce Springsteen

May 28, 2009 at 8:30 am (Review) (, )

On the evening of May 23rd, halfway through a performance of “Working on a Dream,” the title track off of his latest album with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen addressed the audience at New Jersey‘s IZOD Center. In the hazy afterglow of the concert, I can‘t remember his exact words, but I remember the gist well enough to paraphrase. “We’re here to build a house,” he said. “To build a house of joy out of sadness. To build a house of love out of hate.” His house-building litany continued for quite some time, rising in fervor like a sermon. This wasn’t a house he could build himself, he explained. It was the combined energy of the thousands of people in that room who were building that house, that house of love and joy and hope and peace and inspiration and creation. And as the speech crescendoed, and Springsteen launched into the song’s optimistic chorus, those thousands of people cheered, and sang along, and believed it.

I’ve never been a music person. It isn’t that I don’t like music — I do, quite a bit. But I don’t understand it, and I’m not capable of producing it. I can’t sing, I can’t read notes on a page, and I’m so tone deaf that I honestly couldn’t tell if someone was singing horrendously off-key. I can’t identify different musicians in recordings — most of the time, I can’t even identify different instruments. And even my lyrical analysis skills are somewhat weak — poetry was never my forte in my literary studies.

But what I can do, with music, is feel it. Experience it. Let it lift me up and envelop me and change my mood and inspire me in a million mysterious ways that I am powerless to understand. And that is what my first Bruce Springsteen concert was: an awe-inspiring experience whose power I don’t possess the ability to explain.

I’ve only been a Springsteen fan for less than two years, when some friends introduced me to his music. But once they did, it immediately clicked with me. This was, in part, due to the New Jersey connection. Bruce Springsteen sings about a world that I know, a central New Jersey universe of highways and boardwalks and working class dreams. But I also found, in his music, reflections of even my non-Jersey-specific experiences. Friendship and adolescence. Struggle and confusion. Dreams of escape. The desire to create. During my senior year of college, the song “Badlands” helped me through the struggle of my senior thesis — “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” Bruce reminded me — and when my grandfather died near the end of that school year, it was “Mary’s Place,” a song about hope and happiness and survival even in the face of a loved one’s death, that helped me get through it. Springsteen came to mean a lot to me in a very short period of time, and when I finally got the chance to go to a concert last Saturday, it felt like something I’d been building toward all along.

The concert opened with “Badlands.” Nothing could have pleased me more. I was on my feet, dancing and singing my heart out, screaming that line that had helped me through my thesis at the top of my lungs. Next up was “Spirit in the Night,” a personal favorite. After that, the concert got more mellow — “Outlaw Pete“ and “Something in the Night.” I took the opportunity to sit down, and rest, and take everything in. But I and everyone else around me was up and dancing again during “Out in the Street,” and then there was that magical rendition of “Working on a Dream.”

The concert mellowed out again after that. “Seeds” was next, and it was the only song I didn’t know — I had to ask my friend, who’d come with me to the concert, to identify it for me. This was followed by a rollicking version of “Johnny 99,” and the spooky “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” And then there were the signs, when Springsteen collected requests from the audience members who had brought along posters with their pleas.

Before launching into the sign requests, the band played a cover of “Good Lovin’,” which made me smile. The last time I’d been to a concert in this particular arena was in 1998, the summer before 7th grade, and it was to see Hanson. I can say with authority that Hanson and Bruce Springsteen have absolutely nothing in common besides being adored by me. But during that concert 11 years ago, Hanson played a cover of “Good Lovin’.” As the E Street Band played the opening chords, I looked over at the section of the arena I remembered sitting in over a decade before, and it was a nice moment of circular nostalgia.

The first two sign requests were “E Street Shuffle” and “Cover Me,” both good songs but not ones that particularly excited me. But the third, and the one that created the biggest cheer of the night, was “Thunder Road.”

Earlier that day, I’d watched the VH1 “Storytellers” episode that Springsteen had been on, and in that episode he talked about how “Thunder Road” is an invitation — an invitation to the listeners to take a ride, to take a leap of faith, to do what they’ve always wanted to do. At that moment, all I wanted to do was create — to run home and write a novel and apply for my dream jobs and maybe even save the world. That is the power of his music.

After that, the rest of the concert was almost a blur. “Waiting on a Sunny Day” was only notable for the part where Bruce let an 8-year-old girl in the pit sing the chorus into his microphone. “The Promised Land” was excellent. “Incident on 57th Street“ was a rare treat. “Kingdom of Days” was lovely. Then there was the one-two punch of “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising,” and all the hope and inspiration the crowd had felt during “Working on a Dream” came back in spades. “The Rising” is an inspirational song to begin with; in a crowd of thousands of people singing along, it’s transcendent.

And the final songs continued to ride that wave. “Born to Run,” my “driving New Jersey highways” favorite (I live right off of “Highway 9,” after all). A cover of an old folk song called “Hard Times.” The instrumental craziness of “Kitty’s Back.” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the song I listened to on repeat on election day, crying from hope and worry. The dancing optimism of “American Land.” “Glory Days,” the old standard. And then, finally, a jubilant cover of “Mony Mony.”

I’ve been focusing largely on Bruce himself in this write-up, but it’s worth noting that the E Street Band was as excellent as I’d always been told. They had so much energy it was almost unbelievable — during a pause in “Johnny 99,” Bruce, Max, and Little Steven had a gag where they just stared at the audience, turning their heads from side to side and looking confused, and I can honestly say that that was the only moment during the concert where I thought, “Oh my God, they’re tired old men.” In the next moment, they were back, bouncing and grinning and transformed 20 years younger. The various instrumental solos during “Kitty’s Back” were absolutely amazing, especially for so late in the 3-hour show, and I was really happy to see Max on drums, since I know he wasn‘t there for parts of the toru. It disappointed me slightly that Patti Scialfa wasn’t present, but I’m glad she was able to be with her daughter in her own travels, the explanation Bruce gave before “Kingdom of Days.”

And the band was fun, too. I know I’ve spoken a lot about how inspirational and magical the concert was, but there were silly moments, too — dancing and mugging for the camera and the moment during “Thunder Road” when Bruce let the audience sing “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right” to him.

Finally, there was the crowd, which I can’t possibly forget to mention. Because Bruce was right — he couldn’t have built that house by himself. It took the combined energy of every single person in that arena to build the experience that that concert was. At various points during the night, I just looked around me — looked at the thousands of people of literally all ages, from 8-year-olds singing along to every word with their parents to young adults around my age to people Springsteen’s age and beyond — and I saw them all singing and dancing and waving their arms and having the time of their lives. There was no pushing, no anger, no mockery — everyone I encountered was happy and polite. We were all there, having the same experience, feeling that same glorious energy, and at that moment everything was ok in the world.

There’s a moment — my favorite moment of any concert — when an artist inserts an unexpected pause in a song, and the audience, so used to the studio recording, continues to sing the words before the artist gets a chance to. This happened for the first time during “Spirit in the Night,” and there is nothing quite as awesome as thousands of people simultaneously singing the words “gypsy angel row.” Everyone knew the words, and everyone, for that single moment, was thinking the exact same thing, and inspired to say the exact same thing, even without the band‘s prompting. The power of that collective consciousness was almost overwhelming.

I’d be lying if I said the Springsteen show changed my life. The wave of inspiration and fervent urge to create and go after my dreams dissipated somewhere on the south side of New Jersey Turnpike as I struggled to stay awake for the ride home. But the feeling still surfaces, periodically, whenever a song comes up on my iPod or I remember a particularly excellent moment from that night, and I have a feeling that the house that Bruce and I built will shelter me for quite some time.

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