December 1, 2012

Notes from the road: Portland, OR

At Portland’s Rose Garden on Wednesday night, Bruce was gathering requests in the silence that settled after “Spirit in the Night.” Typically, he seeks out less flashy signage — here he grabbed a small piece of posterboard and beckoned eagerly to be handed a heart-shaped bit of flimsy pink foil. But some fans, bless their hearts, go the other way, and Springsteen takes note of that, too. “This sign got a round of applause, all for itself!” he announced, hauling to center stage a contraption roughly the size of a compact car. The sign was an ingenious spinning wheel, unwieldy but gorgeous, adorned with a host of superbly-selected obscurities. “Feelin’ lucky?” he asked with a carnival-barker grin, inviting a woman to clamber up and give the wheel a spin. The pointer went ’round and ’round, past one marvelous possibility after another: “Pay Me My Money Down,” “Higher and Higher,” “Roulette”…  There was electricity in the room as we realized almost anything could result.

It was an apt metaphor for the night. Portland found Bruce in freewheeling mode, from the instant he kicked things off with a house-lights-on run through “Land of Hope And Dreams.” The crowd could be forgiven for being a little stunned by this, and Steve labored mightily to get folks clapping along. You got the sense he had a dog in this fight, having lobbied backstage to put a show-closer at the top of the set, and wanted to prove he was right. He was — the song proved a surprisingly fit rave-up. The lights dropped just as the band settled into the “People Get Ready” gospel coda, and what usually reads as a breathy benediction now came off like a punchy promise of great things to come.  “Are you ready for the train tonight?” Bruce asked repeatedly, to roars of affirmation.  Next up was a soaring “No Surrender,” followed by a party-hearty run through “Hungry Heart.”  It did feel like we were indeed bound for glory.

But one of the most impressive things about this tour, and this is even more true now than it’s been in the past, is the confidence with which Bruce turns the mood of the show from the jubilant to the contemplative.  The train leads us through the darkness, even as it heads inexorably towards the light. He flirts with this dichotomy in the core three-pack of Wrecking Ball songs — “Death to My Hometown,” in particular, with the band forming a set of lockstep lines dancing in almost martial fashion across the stage, feels like the moment at dawn when the black horizon becomes flooded with sunshine — but it’s never clearer than in “My City of Ruins.”

Things veered back to the raucous after that, with the request segment culminating in a storming “Growin’ Up,” played to honor a guy up front who was celebrating his 50th. The birthday boy was invited up to share Bruce’s mic, and the little-boy look of amazement on the guy’s face as he realized what was happening belied his age considerably. “I was the cosmic kid!” he belted out perfectly, 50 years young, and looking at the smile on his face you suspected he really had found the key to the universe.

And so it went all night. “Jack of All Trades” came back off the bench, palpably refreshed and the perfect showpiece for this expanded version of the E Street Band. The horns are perfectly understated, Soozie’s violin haunting and snakelike, and Nils’s solo, in a quiet way, is as magnificent as any he might offer, in a different set, during “Youngstown” or “Because The Night.” Then we’d swing the other way, to an almost out-of-control “Darlington County,” which saw Bruce plucking a group of women — and one young man — out of the crowd to dance alongside him.  All were clad in shirts that read “LESBIANS LOVE BRUCE.”  Ah, Portland! For the record, they had some pretty nice moves.

“Drive All Night,” requested on that pink foil heart, proved once again to show-stoppingly romantic, Bruce and Steve duetting on the “heart and soul” line with enough glorious anguish to set the greatest soul singers to pangs of jealousy. Portland must have been pretty good this year, because both Rosie and Santa Claus paid us a visit. But the night’s high point was the first encore, a request from some newlyweds, which saw Bruce alone with a guitar, strumming an exquisite “If I Should Fall Behind.”  Reminiscent of the “Save the Last Dance” that capped the Kansas City tour-ender in 2008, this performance was ethereal and time-stopping, with Bruce singing in a more mannered voice than we usually hear from him that late in a show. “That was for the honeymooners,” he said, sweetly, upon finishing.

But what, you may be wondering, was the result of that wheel-spin?  Well, after chiding the spinner for cheating — she reached out to force the arrow towards “Roulette” — Bruce had her spin a second time, and it landed on a space labeled “EMPLOYEE APPRECIATION NIGHT: STEVE’S CHOICE.”  Bruce turned with mock horror towards Little Steven, who hammed it up, ruminating at length over what he wanted to play. Finally Bruce acceded: “All right, this is one of Steve’s all-time favorites. Steve says I always leave the best songs off the albums…” as they went into the great River outtake “Loose Ends,” released on 1998’s Tracks. The fact that such a performance comes as little surprise these days is a reminder that, every night, Bruce is spinning a wheel very much like that in his head on this anything-can-happen tour.

— Steven Hanna,