Bruce Springsteen might just be the most quintessentially American rock musician of our time. From the explosion of working-class angst in “Born to Run” to the sleek and sophisticated synth-beats of “Tunnel of Love,” the Boss has made a career out of capturing both the glamour and the grit of our national landscape.
And at age 63, he’s still at it, churning out album after album and tour after tour with unrivaled energy and passion. But Springsteen’s recent studio efforts have come across as more clichéd and overproduced than fresh or creative. Even the rock legend’s latest acclaimed record, Wrecking Ball, is too overwrought and preachy to earn a spot among the year’s best albums.
That said, when it comes to live concerts, the Boss remains, well, the boss. Springsteen wowed a packed audience at John Paul Jones Arena Tuesday with one of the hottest live shows to hit Charlottesville this year. From start to finish, Bruce delivered rousing renditions of old standards and new hits alike, taking no breaks and maintaining an incredible level of intensity throughout.
The politically active artist led a free, six-song rally for President Barack Obama downtown just prior to the evening’s show, but you’d never know it to hear the Boss shake, rattle and roll for three hours and 25 tracks of ecstatic joy.
In fact, “ecstasy” might as well have been the operative word for the evening in general. Alternating between Wrecking Ball tracks and old-school classics, Springsteen put special emphasis on the “ghosts” within the arena and his music; at times, he seemed to take up the mantle of a revivalist preacher, demanding that the audience “feel the spirit.”
The show’s song selection, which bore heavy gospel and spiritual overtones, reflected this same sense of transcendent joy in the midst of grime, sweat and labor. In addition to a spectacular, albeit over-the-top, performance of 1973’s suitably titled “Spirit in the Night,” the Boss offered up a tear-inducing tribute to the band’s late, great saxophonist Clarence Clemons in the midst of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the E-Street Band’s lively origin story, which concluded the concert’s encores. Earlier in the show, “My City of Ruins” made a similarly strong emotional impact, as Springsteen used the song to introduce his band, pay homage to its fallen members and send forth a striking signal of hope and love that propelled his music through the rest of the night.
Songs such as these, which have infested the ears of Bruce’s biggest fans for years, were the true highlights of the evening. From the upbeat enthusiasm of “Hungry Heart” to the swelling saxophone solo of “Jungleland” — taken on admirably by Clemons’ nephew, Jake — the American spirit resonated in every one of the Boss’s older picks. And while it’s disturbing to think that Born to Run hit shelves for the first time almost 40 years ago, Springsteen wailed “Born to Run” and “Backstreets” with the same vigor and vocal euphoria that propelled him to larger-than-life status back in 1975. The man’s dance moves also don’t seem to have suffered at all in the past few decades — his trademark knee slide was supplemented with a choreographed line dance in the show’s opener, an indescribable microphone stand back bend and a brief but priceless “Gangnam Style” dance break.
Unfortunately, like any concert, this performance did stumble at times. Since the show was part of Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball Tour, we had to endure a cumbersome handful of tracks from the Boss’ new album. When you’re singing along to the incomparable “Badlands” one moment and sitting through an obnoxiously politicized rock ballad about the malice of big businesses and bankers the next, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for a time when Springsteen was compelled to be a bit more subtle with his musical messages. Nevertheless, politics has always been an important aspect of Bruce’s music, and the man’s rendition of “Dancing in the Dark” alone was enough to make up for the heavy-handedness that weighed down some of the show’s other tunes.
Despite the shakiness of some of Wrecking Ball’s offerings, the album’s gritty titular track has the potential to join the ranks of solid, if not stellar, Springsteen songs such as “Tougher than the Rest” and “Human Touch.”
It’s difficult to complain, though, about a couple of eyeroll-inducing moments when you’re watching a true American legend inspire a massive crowd of diehard fans and newcomers alike. Even without “Thunder Road,” “Glory Days,” “Rosalita” and “Tunnel of Love,” the show’s set list was almost too good to be true. I may be an upper-middle-class kid from the suburbs of Baltimore, but for three hours, I felt like an underpaid blue-collar man, ready to experience an ecstatic release after a grueling week of labor. And I liked it.