Tuesday, November 3, 2009

If There's a Rock & Roll Heaven, Then I Just Had a Near-Death Experience (Part 4)

What started as a movie about folk music quickly became a biography of Bruce Springsteen. That his pre-set flick was so personal showed how high Bruce sits above the rest. In the same way, his feature topped them all, ending with four lines from "This Land is Your Land," the first sung by Woody Guthrie, followed by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and The Boss.

"10th Avenue Freeze-out" rang in the party, a perfect New York-y tune that the faithful ate up. Bruce couldn't wait to bring out his guests, the first being Sam Moore of Sam and Dave. Starting out with "Hold On, I'm Coming," it was hard to know which group was having more fun, the one on stage, or the one in the concert hall. Bruce was in his element, playing along with a hero of his youth who, he proclaimed, taught Springsteen much about being a bandleader. The backup singers were prancing around, having a hard time containing their joy. Sam was ready for the next tune and asked Bruce, "Can I talk to your man there?"

"Not yet," said Bruce.

"Can I talk to your man over there," Moore indicating Steve van Zandt.

"We gotta finish this first," Bruce smiled.

Finally Steve got into the act with the opening riff to "Soul Man," and I swear the roof of the Garden lifted just a bit.

Moore left and Bruce introduced Tom Morello. Morello, whose guitar heroics rocketed the sound of Rage Against the Machine to the stratosphere, duetted with Bruce on "The Ghost of Tom Joad," which RATM had covered on their Renegades album. Morello was insane, waving his hand around the guitar neck as if he were playing a theremin, using one of the cable plugs to push the strings, ungodly stuff that made Jeff Beck's dynamic solo for "Superstition" seem like a tasty Les Paul lick.

In "Him," Lily Allen sings that God's favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival and, well, who could argue? I remember a Springsteen show in Rochester, late '80 or early '81, where the band played CCR during sound check. Bruce brought out John Fogerty and it was clear there's a real bond between the two, even though, as Springsteen mentioned, he'd covered Fogerty's songs when he was 18 years old.

"Fortunate Son," the most perfect rock and roll song in tempo, duration and content, led off the mini-set. "Proud Mary" had the MSGer's singing their heads off. Bruce talked about Roy Orbison's influence on his songwriting and, because he didn't have the guts to do it alone, asked Fogerty to join him on "Oh, Pretty Woman." With that done, and well done I might add, Bruce said the band would do a "song by some other guy," and a ferocious "Jungleland" ensued.

Darlene Love, darling of the Phil Spector girl groups, was ushered in and, I gotta tell you, The E Street Band can do everything. For "A Fine, Fine Boy" and "Da Doo Ron Ron," the Spector studio created Wall of Sound was reproduced live. It was something of a sonic miracle. Bruce couldn't be happier.

Love left the stage after a smooch or two, and Morello reappeared. Springsteen announced they'd do a song from one of the greatest groups to come out of England. The Beatles? The Stones? The Animals? Nope, much to his credit, it was The Clash. "London Calling" segued into "Badlands" and, after all this, it was hard to not give 'em a smile.

But that's not all folks. Looking for an excuse to keep playing, Bruce said, well, since the Yanks won, we gotta do more. But first, he addressed the crowd behind the stage. "We see you back there. How much did they charge you for those tickets? Hope they were free. Anyone from New Jersey?" When a few applauded to signify their Garden State status, Bruce quipped, "That explains it."

That wasn't all for Jersey. Professor Springsteen gave a geological lecture explaining that, though not everyone knows it, Jersey and Long Island were once connected, way before the continental drift, which is why the populaces are so similar. Tonight, on the neutral ground of Manhattan, the kings of New Jersey and Long Island would have it out and the reunion of the two land masses took rock and roll form as Billy Joel joined Bruce on stage.

I'd come full circle. My first show ever was a Billy Joel show at the Garden, and that memory came rushing over me. I never think of these two together, Joel is Springsteen-lite. "You May Be Right" gained some sack given the E Street treatment and Bruce was positively gleeful belting it out. When Billy sings, it's a faux toughness, a posture. Bruce added heft to Joel's tunes. "Only the Good Die Young" is thematically the same as "Thunder Road," but more clownish. Everyone was having a ball and, when they flubbed the ending, Bruce said "it can't end on that," and they got it right the second time around.

"New York State of Mind" sounded fine, if you like that sort of thing. "Born to Run" laid everything in the dust. Billy Joel, searching for the balls needed for the Springsteen anthem, reached for a Bruce impersonation to do the trick. You may gather that I'm not a fan of Billy Joel. That's true, but having him onstage was a great surprise and a monumental moment, regardless of what I think of his crappy songs. It was a Tri-State music fans' wet dream.

Bruce brought everyone back out for the finale, including Jackson Browne from the CSN set, and Peter Wolf of J. Geils, who, once upon a time would have warranted a real spot on the roster. They left us with Jackie Wilson's hit "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" and, after six hours, we were as high as could be, sailing over the Garden, floating on a breeze of musical history.

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