Be­hind the mask

Sta­dium rocker, au­thor, guardian of Amer­ica’s soul… for his next trick, The Boss took on Broad­way. This one will run and run.

Mojo (UK) - - Filter Albums - By Keith Cameron. Il­lus­tra­tion by Jen­nifer Dion­i­sio.

Bruce Spring­steen ★★★★

Spring­steen On Broad­way


IN HIS most fa­mous song, the one so em­blem­atic of his pub­lic self that he took its ti­tle for his 2016 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Bruce Spring­steen de­mands: “I want to know if love is real”. Dur­ing ev­ery per­for­mance of Born To Run, that lyric in par­tic­u­lar seems to cut to the heart of the mat­ter. Prove love to be noth­ing but an imag­i­na­tive con­struct, and ev­ery­thing else crum­bles. Spring­steen’s moral stature as an artist has been founded on his sin­cer­ity – to such an ex­tent that, when al­lied to his faith in the power of dreams, it has made him the most durably heroic rock’n’roll fig­ure of his time. In the era of fake news, if peo­ple can’t be­lieve in Bruce Spring­steen, then what the hell is left? Dreams and re­al­ity: these no­tions were cen­tral to Spring­steen On Broad­way, the show that be­gan in Oc­to­ber 2017 at the Wal­ter Kerr Theatre on New York’s West 48th Street and fi­nally closed on De­cem­ber 15, 2018. This was very def­i­nitely theatre, as op­posed to rock’n’roll. Apart from two songs where Spring­steen was joined by his wife, Patti Scialfa, he per­formed en­tirely alone, with ei­ther pi­ano or acous­tic gui­tar. Give or take a cou­ple of early tweaks, he de­liv­ered the same ma­te­rial for 236 shows, be­sides a few oc­ca­sions when Scialfa was ab­sent and the duets were re­placed. The repet­i­tive for­mat seemed to chal­lenge a key tenet of Spring­steen lore: the itin­er­ant rock’n’roller, in­spired by the mo­ment and di­rected by the muse to take his au­di­ence on a new jour­ney each night, seek­ing to spon­ta­neously con­jure magic. But Bruce Spring­steen knows bet­ter than any­one else in his busi­ness – the busi­ness of show – that there’s noth­ing spon­ta­neous about magic. “I come from a board­walk town where ev­ery­thing is tinged with just a bit of fraud,” he de­clared shortly after emerg­ing on-stage. “So am I…” With a run­ning time of around two and a quar­ter hours, S.O.B was es­sen­tially a pot­ted mu­si­cal ver­sion of Spring­steen’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, with songs de­ployed as re­lease valves be­tween a broadly chrono­log­i­cal se­ries of of­ten lengthy anec­dotes, some taken ver­ba­tim from the book, pre­sent­ing a ver­sion of his life story. This al­bum is its sound­track, or more ac­cu­rately, the sound­track of a Net­flix film, shot over two nights in July 2018. Like all record­ings of the­atri­cal events, it’s com­pro­mised by the ab­sence of vi­su­als, but Spring­steen’s gift for sto­ry­telling – ev­i­dent since the breath­less ram­bles of the early ’80s and since honed by ther­apy and rig­or­ous self-anal­y­sis – com­bines with an ac­tor’s abil­ity to make the re­hearsed ap­pear im­promptu, all in the ser­vice of send­ing him­self up. The almighty New Jer­sey shore scene? “I in­vented that!” The au­toro­man­ti­cist who wrote Rac­ing In The Street? “At 21 I couldn’t drive a fuck­ing block!” The sweat-stained jack­ham­mer-swing­ing hero of the pro­duc­tion line? “I’ve never held an hon­est job in my en­tire life! I’ve never done any hard labour. I’ve never worked five days a week un­til right now – I don’t like it!” He’s very funny. Who knew? “I made it all up! That’s how good I am.” Be­fore the end of the show, Spring­steen prom­ises he’ll de­liver the “magic trick” upon which his en­tire act is based: “I am here tonight to pro­vide proof of life to that ever-elu­sive, never-com­pletely-be­liev­able… us.” That ‘us’ was a rel­a­tive con­cept in the con­text of the Wal­ter Kerr Theatre. A 975-ca­pac­ity venue is small even by the stan­dards of pre­vi­ous solo Bruce pro­duc­tions, while tick­ets for the best seats cost 850 dol­lars. So his al­bum, and the Net­flix film, will be most Bruce Spring­steen fans’ only means to wit­ness this un­usu­ally in­ti­mate per­for­mance. Given the con­cept’s ex­clu­siv­ity, those same fans might won­der whether it rep­re­sents value for money, be­cause the track­list to Spring­steen On Broad­way looks like a pretty reg­u­la­tion Bruce great­est hits, with bonus talk­ing. (With 16 songs in 135 min­utes, a lot of talk­ing.) The songs fit the nar­ra­tive sweep well enough: child­hood (Growin’ Up) and roots (My Home­town); the au­thor’s con­trast­ing re­la­tion­ships with his par­ents (My Fa­ther’s House; The Wish); the as­pir­ing mu­si­cian’s jour­ney (Thun­der Road; The Promised Land); the spir­i­tual power of his band (Tenth Av­enue Freeze-Out); the chal­lenges and re­wards of find­ing a life part­ner (Tougher Than The Rest; Bril­liant Dis­guise); the ugly truths be­hind the Amer­i­can dream (Born In The USA; The Ghost Of Tom Joad); and on to that in­evitable amen (Born To Run). Only the Tun­nel Of Love-era out­take The Wish di­verts from the beaten path. And in truth, the the­matic co­her­ence of the con­cept wob­bles in the fi­nal third, when The Ris­ing is dis­pensed with­out a con­cep­tual set-up and then Danc­ing In The Dark is some­what tor­tu­ously ap­pended to a lec­ture-cum-ser­mon about want­ing his “magic trick… to be some­thing you could call on when things were good, and when things were not so good…” Yet there are so many lu­mi­nous per­for­mances, deft rein­ven­tions and some very mov­ing anec­dotes, not least how Spring­steen was even­tu­ally rec­on­ciled with his fa­ther Doug (“If I had a wish, I wish he could have seen this”). Tenth Av­enue Freeze-Out on pi­ano feels un­ex­pect­edly apt for a song that in its orig­i­nal guise rep­re­sents the essence of full-on E Street Band power; the Scialfa-Spring­steen vo­cal chem­istry on Bril­liant Dis­guise is elec­tric (though it would have been nice if Patti had a speak­ing part in the show). While the “GI blues” ver­sion of Born In The USA isn’t new, this in­dict­ment of the Viet­nam War kicks harder than ever thanks to Spring­steen’s tale of how he and band­mates ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez and Lit­tle Vin­nie Roslin avoided the draft in 1969. “I do some­times won­der who went in my place – be­cause some­body did.” With an airy yet in­ti­mate mix from long­time en­gi­neer Bob Clear­moun­tain, this 2-CD/4-LP pack­age car­ries the req­ui­site au­dio heft to com­pen­sate those who couldn’t see Spring­steen On Broad­way in its nat­u­ral habi­tat. It re­mains to be seen whether this is the fi­nal chap­ter in the story, or merely the end of a phase and thus the pre­lude to the next in­stal­ment (a new solo al­bum has re­port­edly been in the works for years). What’s be­yond doubt is how Bruce Spring­steen’s lat­est magic trick not only proved the tan­gi­bil­ity of “us”, but of­fered rea­sons to keep be­liev­ing for as long as he goes on. When­ever the spot­light shines, this method man will be mak­ing dreams come alive. That’s how good he is.

“He knows bet­ter than any­one else in his busi­ness there’s noth­ing spon­ta­neous about magic.”

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