"Is anybody out there alive?" Bruce Springsteen's crack backing band were in the middle of a full-throttle sonic meltdown casually tossed into opening tune "Badlands," with three guitars wildly strumming open frayed chords like Sonic Youth at their most . . . Sonic Youthy. "I said, is anybody out there alive tonight?"
The Boss wasn't just asking a rhetorical question. He was pleading for adulation, screaming for some mania, searching for that crazed enthusiasm shared by performer and audience that can nudge a "show" into an "event." "Is anybody alive tonight in Massachusetts?"
As it turned out, quite a few of us were alive on Tuesday night, and we were willing to wear our feet out for a nearly three-hour standathon of prime Boss — a relatively short set by Springsteenian standards. The Springsteen experience is, if nothing else, a communal, cult-like affair where we the audience lose our collective minds and Bruce the living icon sweats and works and testifies. Together our shared exuberance holds the whole house of cards up. And it's hard work — which is probably why Bruce's new album isn't called Dreaming, it's called Working on a Dream.
In the middle of a riotous run-through of that album's title track, Springsteen brought it down a little to preach to us, and in so doing he acknowledged the peculiar and special nature of the phenomenon that is Bruce Springsteen. "Tonight, we're gonna build a house with music! We're gonna build a house with spirit! We're gonna build a house with noise! And people, we can't build it alone!"
At this point in human history, Bruce Springsteen could probably be airlifted into the middle of any city, suburb, or patch of farmland in America with nothing but a guitar and the shirt on his back and with a simple "Un, ooh, hee, fow!" have every man, woman, and child within a half-mile radius throwing their fists in the air. Such is the power of the Springsteen phenomenon, a curious amalgamation of American musical styles that has come to represent, for many, all that is anthemic and earnest.
Critics in the '70s who debated whether Springsteen was the "new Dylan" missed the point, on both sides. He wasn't a sneering intellectual smattering his contempt for humanity into an ever-escalating game of hide-and-seek with his own fans. Springsteen was and is a man who prides himself on total transparency of intent, on standing up there on that stage not as a character or a statement but as himself. Springsteen and Dylan may both be wordy tunesmiths, but Springsteen knows how to sell those knotted verses to a mass audience. How else can you explain the bizarre sight of 17,000 fans singing in unison to such tongue-twisting couplets of desperation as "Beyond the palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard/The girls comb their hair in rear-view mirrors and the boys try to look so hard" (from the 1975 classic "Born To Run")? Of course, the main difference between Springsteen and Dylan is that Springsteen's best work has the "whoa whoa whoa" that a mass audience craves. When he closed the night with "Rosalita," he barely needed to sing the words himself: the song seemed to reach velocity and soar away on a jetstream of "whoa"-ing supplied by the frothingly rabid audience.
The E Street Band were an impressive sight, matching the Boss beat for beat in an exhausting match of endurance and intensity. Time and time again a song would end with Springsteen standing centerstage, fist in the air, as drummer extraordinaire Max Weinberg finished off a final percussive volley with his trademark flourish, both arms flying from the kit and swinging past his left ear in a perfect arc, another masterpiece tucked into the annals of rock. Guitarist Nils Lofgren was in tip-top form, his bizarre banjo-finger-picking style allowing him to erupt into shocking displays of guitar pyro — especially during the monstrous coda to "The Ghost of Tom Joad."
Bruce and the Band were put to the ultimate test when they opened the set up to audience input. A superfan handed Bruce a posterboard request for the ZZ Top barn burner "I'm Bad, I'm Nationwide," complete with lyrics and chord changes; though the Boss claimed that the band had never played the song before (according to the Interweb, they'd played it once — in 1985!), it took him just a few tentative chord chops before they were all plowing through the tune. That summed up the show: these guys have never seemed like the rock-star hams they are because, gosh darn it, they just work so damn hard and play so damn well. As the ZZ cover ended with a graceful measure of wham-bam, Bruce pointed and issued a warning that none of the faithful has ever really required: "Don't try to stump the E Street Band!"