Springsteen's Power Rock: Bruce is Back With Good Times, Hard Times & Songs From the Streets

springsteenBruce at the first of four sold-out Cap Centre shows in 1984. (Lucian Perkins/TWP File)

In advance of next Monday's Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert, we've been going deep into The Washington Post archives to pull reviews of previous performances by The Boss & Co. This one was published on Aug. 27, 1984, and written by Geoffrey Himes.

Archive Reviews

Bruce Springsteen, his biceps bulging under the rolled-up sleeves of his blue T-shirt, sprinted onto the Capital Centre stage Saturday night and counted off the beat for the title song from the year's best rock 'n' roll album, "Born in the U.S.A."

Over the surging synthesizers and hammer drum beat, this son of a New Jersey bus driver shouted out his bleak story of an unemployed Vietnam veteran. He climaxed the song, however, with the defiant, exuberant claim that he's still a "cool rockin' daddy . . . born in the U.S.A."

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

Indeed he is. Springsteen, who performed again last night and will do concerts tomorrow and Wednesday, proceeded to lead his seven-member E Street Band through an exhilarating four-hour show. It careened back and forth between boisterous celebrations of good times and stark reminders of hard times in a careful balance that enabled Springsteen to project both optimism and realism.

He is one of the few pop music artists today who have won broad, arena-sized popularity with realism rather than fantasy (the only others are Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and the Pretenders). Springsteen has accomplished this because he can balance the same set with a bitter song about a man forced into crime by debts ("Atlantic City") and a jangling anthem of a man who comes to life on the weekend streets ("Out in the Street").

The show seemed to contrast the Phil Spector-ish anthems of cars and girls from his 1975 album, "Born to Run," with the Woody Guthrie-esque ballads about crime and loss from his unaccompanied 1982 album, "Nebraska." It's been three years since he last played here, and so this was his first chance to play the "Nebraska" numbers with the band.

"Atlantic City" became a stately lament, as Springsteen talked some of the verses over the restrained band and screamed out the key lines about his character's dilemma. "Highway Patrolman" had a light folk-rock bounce. "Used Cars" was done by just a quartet, with Roy Bittan on accordion, Danny Federici on organ and Nils Lofgren on 12-string acoustic guitar. "Johnny 99" was reduced to just Lofgren's guitar and Springsteen's voice. "No Surrender," from the new album, was also done "Nebraska" style, as Springsteen with his acoustic guitar performed it unaccompanied and slow -- injecting a weary irony into the title boast.

By contrast, the older rock numbers were filled to the brim by the band. As new singer Patti Scialfa (from the Asbury Jukes) helped out, the band extended "The Promised Land" into a frenzied tag as Springsteen led the standing crowd in clenched-fist salutes. "Thunder Road" closed the first set with a roar of guitars, a rowdy sing-along and Clarence Clemons' blaring tenor sax; "Rosalita" did the same for the second set.

Springsteen did nine songs from "Born in the U.S.A." His new songwriting resolved the contradiction between his early romanticism and his later bleakness by recognizing both dreams and obstacles at the same time. This was reinforced in three songs -- "Born in the U.S.A.," "Cover Me" and "Dancing in the Dark" -- by modern synthesizer dance arrangements that gave a hard, cool edge to the pleas of the lyrics as well as a hint where Springsteen may be headed next.

Dressed in a black leather jacket, red sneakers and a skewed floppy hat, Montgomery County's favorite son, Nils Lofgren, looked like Charlie Chaplin playing Marlon Brando. This former leader of Grin, who just recently replaced Steve Van Zandt in the E Street lineup, was cheered on by his hometown rooters. He responded with the best guitar solos Springsteen has ever enjoyed, especially on "Prove It All Night," and with strong harmony vocals.

For the second encore the house lights stayed on, and the Capital Centre turned into a giant twist party. After a rousing version of "Born to Run," Springsteen replaced his usual Mitch Ryder medley with a British Invasion medley of the Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man," the Beatles' "Twist and Shout" (originally by the Isley Brothers) and the Dave Clark Five's "Do You Love Me" (originally by the Contours).

As much as the songs, the highlights of the show included Springsteen's spoken monologues, which used humor and understatement to provide a rich context for the music. He joked about the pain he felt when his dad bought boring hardtops at the used car lot. He suggested that the real temptation in the Garden of Eden was a pink Cadillac. He reminded the crowd that the best rock 'n' roll lets you think a little bigger and dream a little more, but that you have to fight to keep it that way.

The best monologue, though, began with a reminiscence about the Revolutionary War monument in the park where he played as a small child. It ended like this: "When I got my first band, we had to have some publicity photos taken, so we went down to the clothes store and got the leopard skin vests and frilly shirts, and then went down to the monument for the pictures. You couldn't smile, because that wasn't cool. Anyway, the drummer in my first band enlisted in the Marines and got sent to Vietnam.

"Just before this tour started, I went down to Washington and saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I found his name in that stone there. In a country where we spend so much time reviving the styles of the past, it's important that we remember the meaning of the past." He then sang "My Hometown," a powerful, unstinting description of the decimation of America's working- class neighborhoods.


By J. Freedom du Lac |  May 12, 2009; 6:08 PM ET Concerts , From the Archives , Springsteen
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