June 21, 2013

Notes from the road: Coventry

Everyone knows what a great guitar player Bruce is, but when he took the stage alone at the top of the night for a solo version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” he reminded us that he also plays a mean harmonica. This set the stage for the evening’s showcase of instrumental wonders to come as the multi-talented E Street band took their places for “Long Walk Home.” Without a break or a breath they dove into “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” during which Bruce collected up a bevy of audience signs requests. He held up the first one and said “I like this,” revealing a sign that said “Play Anything.” Knowing his friend needed a boost, Bruce shouted, “Come on Steve,” and they were off into “Two Hearts.” If this week’s death of Steve’s “other Boss,” James Gandolfini, surely weighed heavy, it was good to see some rock ‘n’ roll catharsis work its magic.

The requests continued with “Seeds,” “Trapped,” and a particularly special one, the E Street premiere of “Long Time Comin’.” The sign read “For my new born baby Ruben,” prompting Bruce to give some practical parenting advice: “Don’t fuck it up, now, don’t fuck it up,” he said with a chuckle. Before playing the song, he told a funny story about how people create two-sided signs, hoping at least half of it will get his attention — the “Play Anything” sign, for instance, had “I’d look good playing your guitar” on the other side. “Sometimes they are just trying to cheer you up,” he said, showing a sign proclaiming, “Miami, still looking good!” which prompted a Stevie! Stevie! chant from the audience.
During the “Hungry Heart” sing-along, a fan in crowd caught Bruce’s attention with a sign asking, “Bruce, can I have a man hug?” Yes, you can… he was rewarded with not one but four hugs, and a little dance too. Bruce was working hard to keep his fans happy, including the little boy who was called up on stage next. Whle the lad was retrieving his sign, Bruce said he was practicing for hosting a Saturday morning television show — “for when this all goes to hell!” No chance of that happening any time soon based on the reaction to “The River,” the song on nine-year-old Joseph’s request.

After all these signs, Bruce said it was time to change things up a bit and announced that Born to Run would be played in its entirety, dedicated to “Our great friend James Gandolfini.” “Thunder Road,” of course, kicked it off, and with horns wailing left no doubt that this wasn’t the lullaby version of the song. “Backstreets” with “Sad Eyes” worked into the middle… remember how you would listen to this album over and over to cure a broken heart? With this version of “Backstreets,” an audience of enraptured Brits learned that it still works for that.

A blistering “Born to Run” and high-energy “She’s the One” made “Meeting Across the River” — played with only Bruce, Curt Ramm, Roy Bittan, and Garry Tallent on stage — seem all the more hauntingly mesmerizing. Jake Clemons captivated the audience with a note-perfect solo on “Jungleland,” and Bruce proved that he still has the best howl in rock ‘n’ roll.

Thirty seconds later everyone was listening to what their butts were telling them, up and shaking it to “Pay Me My Money Down.” There was a lot of fancy dancing by the horns and colorful New Orleans-style umbrellas hoisted by the choir. It was an absolute visual and aural delight that reset the stage and got everyone ready for the dance party to follow.

Cindy Mizelle, featured on “Shackled and Drawn,” just gets better and better, her honey-sweet voice blending perfectly with Bruce’s gruffness and then soaring to encourage us all to rise up. “Lonesome Day” returned to the setlist, the “It’s alright” refrain like a comforting pat on the back to a troubled friend. “We are Alive” seemed to do the same. The encores brought us out the other side, pure rock ‘n’ roll bliss from the heart-thumping, chest-pounding “Born in the U.S.A.” through “Raise Your Hand” and “American Land.”

—Brenda VanHorn, Backstreets.com