Sunday, March 09, 2008

1999: The E Street Band's Magnificent Return

Show #7 - October 1999, Oakland

With the April 4 concert less than a month away, it’s time to resume Springsteen Festival II. Picking up where we left off:

The 1992-93 “Other Band” tour would be Bruce’s last full-scale, full-band, fully electric tour for nearly seven years. He didn’t exactly drop off the face of the earth, but neither did he command the public spotlight, as had during the 1980s. He won an Academy Award for “Streets of Philadelphia,” and was nominated for one the following year for “Dead Man Walkin’.” And then, two days before Thanksgiving 1995, he released The Ghost of Tom Joad, widely viewed as a sequel of sorts to Nebraska, primarily because it was mostly acoustic and featured arrangements that were spare at their most complicated, and minimalist elsewhere. I don’t think the album sold that well (for Bruce, anyway), but to this day I think it’s one of his best. It’s his “California album,” one that came to be partly in reaction to the political atmosphere of the state in the mid-1990s.

Hit hard by a fiscal crisis at the turn of the decade (gee, does that sound familiar?), California was also entering an era when, for the first time, it would become a “minority majority state.” In other words, white people, for the first time, would comprise less than half of the state’s population. The governor at the time, Republican Pete Wilson, was elected as a moderate, but partly due to the economic crisis, saw his popularity drop to near-record lows during his first term. Running for re-election in 1994, he ran one of the most cynical, mean-spirited campaigns in the history of the state, one that was based primarily on fear-mongering against the “hordes of illegal immigrants” that were, according to the story that he told, poised on the border, ready to take jobs, fill up schools, and do just about everything short of rape and pillage. Wilson's campaign was successful in the short-term – he got re-elected – but proved disastrous in the long-term for his party, which entered into a tailspin from which it has never recovered. Now, people find it hard to believe that California, as recently as 1988, was a “red state.”

It is that California which Tom Joad addressed: the California that seemed to be paradise for those on the wrong end of the economic and political strata, but also the one that offered so little hope to those who needed it the most. Songs like “Sinaloa Cowboys,” “Balboa Park” and “Across the Border” portrayed a world (much like the one in Nebraska) where hopes and dreams didn’t really matter – just surviving on a day-to-day basis was the best which someone in that situation could hope for.

After that, there was very little new work, although there was a great deal of excitement in 1996 when Bruce got the E Street Band back together for a quick session, which resulted in four “new” songs (most of which had been heard before by die-hard fans) that were tacked on to the end of the “Greatest Hits” album. It wasn’t ground-breaking work, but it filled longtime fans with hope that if the band could be brought together for something like this, it could certainly be brought together for something bigger in scale.

In 1998, Bruce released “Tracks,” a 4-CD set of unreleased treasures (for the most part, at least) that went way back, all the way to the incredible set of demo tapes Bruce recorded with the legendary John Hammond in 1972. With a lot of these songs, you could tell why they got left off of whichever album was being recorded at the time, but with others, it was hard to figure out why they didn’t make the cut. From beginning to end it was fascinating, and in many instances, much more than that. Without question, there are songs on “Tracks” that can stand proudly alongside anything Bruce has ever recorded.

It was about this time that the rumors of an E Street Band Tour began, and soon those rumors were confirmed. The band would be getting back together in 1999, for a lengthy world tour that would begin in Europe and then cross the United States, playing multiple nights at many of the largest venues. There was a great sense of excitement about the announcement, because people immediately began to speculate about what songs the band would play. There was no new album to promote, so what would serve as the basis for the show? Would the “Tracks” songs be featured? Would it be little more than a greatest hits revue?

I suppose you could call the 1999 show a Greatest Hits revue, but that does not do it justice. The band, with Steve Van Zandt back in the fold alongside his successor Nils Lofgren, was a like a souped-up car that had been kept in the garage, in mint condition, for just a little too long. It was a monster that needed to be out on the road, in order to show all the young whipper-snappers that had risen in its wake that, yes, the E Street Band was all it was cracked up to be, nothing less than the greatest concert band in the history of rock and roll.

And so it was. It’s really difficult to put into words what an exciting night this was. We attended the show with our friends Tim, Carol and Chuck, all of whom had seen him “back in the day,” and on the drive from Sacramento to Oakland I felt like a kid on his way to see his first major league baseball game. The show was exquisitely paced, brilliantly played, and reached heights that I would have thought impossible. And all of it was made sweeter for the fact that none of us had been sure that we’d ever get to experience it again.

("My Love Will Not Let You Down," Milan concert, 1999)

The entire show was one long highlight, but for me these moments stood out above the rest:

• The opener, “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” driven by Danny Federici’s propulsive organ;

• The intro to “The River,” which allowed Clarence to show off a different set of chops than the E Street Nation was used to;

• The incredible three-headed hydra guitar attack of “Murder Incorporated;”

• Bruce’s long, incredibly funny sermon during the “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” medley;

• The heartbreakingly beautiful version of “If I Should Fall Behind,” which was transformed into a love song that Bruce and the band sang to each other; and

• The amazing new song, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” which essentially represents, in eight minutes of amazing music, everything that Bruce Springsteen is all about.

In short, it was one of those landmark nights that you remember for the rest of your life.


My Love Will Not Let You Down / Prove It All Night / Two Hearts / Darkness On The Edge Of Town / The Promised Land / Mansion On The Hill / The River / Youngstown / Murder Inc. / Badlands / Out In The Street / Tenth Avenue Freeze Out - It's Alright - Take Me To The River - Red Headed Woman / Where The Bands Are / Working On The Highway / The Ghost Of Tom Joad / Meeting Across The River / Jungleland / Light Of Day / Ramrod / Bobby Jean / Born To Run / Thunder Road / If I Should Fall Behind / Land Of Hope And Dreams

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