How does he do it? Night after night, year after year, for four decades now? At his commercial peak in the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would typically play for close to three hours a night, with two 90-minute sets divided by an intermission. But today, with Bruce at age 63, there is no rest for the weary—i.e., us fans. Now it’s three solid hours or more, as the eight-piece E Street Band and nine additional musicians and singers (including Jake Clemons, the talented sax-playing nephew of the late great Big Man, Clarence Clemons) tear through a mind-boggling collection of old and new Springsteen classics, rarities and uplifting cover tunes with an intensity that borders on the maniacal, yet is so, so satisfying.
No wonder the band’s current Wrecking Ball tour was the second highest-grossing run of 2012. Springsteen always delivers; to paraphrase one of his songs, he “proves it all night for our love.”
Photo by Steve Jennings
With all due respect to James Brown, Bruce has been the Hardest Working Man in Show Business since he and the E Street Band exploded into the national consciousness in the summer and fall of 1975, following the release of Born to Run. In the years since that epic album—surely one of the greatest of the rock era—Springsteen has traveled down many different musical roads, while always remaining unmistakably himself. Even though this champion of the working class now lives in the “Mansion on the Hill” he once sang about, thematically he has rarely strayed far from his humble New Jersey roots.
His songs are filled with underdogs and the downtrodden, hard-working folks struggling to find a little light and life in an often-cruel world. There’s disappointment, desperation and resignation running through some tunes, but that is balanced by the hope, faith and determination that rings out from so many others. A few are just great party anthems. We’ve met unforgettable characters in his colorfully evocative story-songs, and also been privileged to dig into his psyche through his more confessional numbers. We relate to both of those strands of his writing—as well as his simpler song portraits, clear and uncomplicated as a Walker Evans photo—because they are all delivered with unbridled sincerity and soulful conviction.
If Springsteen had never played another note after his monumental Born in the USA tour in the mid-’80s, his legacy as one of the greatest rock artists of all time would have been secure. Few, if any, of his contemporaries can match the 11-year period that produced The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle; Born to Run; Darkness on the Edge of Town, The River, Nebraska and Born in the USA, for breadth, passion and insight.
But it’s a handful of dissimilar albums he’s made since the mega-Bruce period that show the true depth of his artistry. Coming after the at times bombastic Born in the USA, the more introspective Tunnel of Love felt like an unusual turn at the time, but it has weathered well. The dark and powerful 1995 album The Ghost of Tom Joad (and the accompanying solo tour) was a striking minimalist reflection of the hard times afflicting many in that decade. The Rising, released the year after the 9/11 tragedy, beautifully captured some of the zeitgeist of that horrific event and its aftermath, with deeply moving songs that tapped into our confusion, anger and deep sense of loss, while offering an uplifting message about the power of love and remembrance to heal even the deepest wounds. Then there was We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006), a raucous and joyful album of mostly traditional folk and spiritual songs performed by a big, loose band; a welcome relief. Some of that spirit (and approach) spilled over to last year’s brilliant Wrecking Ball, which is replete with melodies inspired by traditional Irish music, this time in the service of songs about the impact of the nation’s current economic woes on regular folks. Bruce has a unique way of making bad times seem better; just sing along and you’ll feel good!
On February 8, two days before the 55th Grammy Awards telecast, MusiCares—a philanthropic arm of the Recording Academy dedicated to helping musicians in need—is hosting an invitation-only gala event at the Los Angeles Convention Center to honor Bruce Springsteen as its Person of the Year, recognizing both his greatness as an artist and his many years of giving back to the community. Bruce doesn’t just do high-profile benefits for good causes (though he has certainly done many, from No Nukes to Amnesty International to 9/11 and superstorm Sandy relief). For much of his career he has regularly donated proceeds from his concerts to food banks, homeless shelters and other nonprofits in the cities in which he performs. As NARAS President/CEO Neil Portnow stated, Bruce is “a national treasure and an exemplary humanitarian.” Woody Guthrie would be proud. Pete Seeger no doubt is proud.
Among those performing to fete Springsteen that night are Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Alabama Shakes, Emmylou Harris, Elton John, Jim James, Mumford & Sons, Patti Smith, Mavis Staples, John Legend, Sting, Eddie Vedder, Tim McGraw and others. Sounds like a tribute fit for The Boss. He deserves it.