Monday night at the Greensboro Coliseum, Bruce Springsteen opened his own school of rock for the only scheduled North Carolina date of his current tour. The Boss taught a master class in rock writing and performance that had the near-capacity crowd on its feet for most of the two-hour-and-45-minute concert.
Taking a page from master showman and godfather of soul James Brown, Springsteen took the stage to the strains of "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag." Springsteen lampooned himself in an introduction loosely based on Brown's over-the-top introduction at his classic 1962 performance at New York's Apollo Theatre.
Brown billed himself as the hardest working man in show bidness. Springsteen claimed to be "sexy and he knows it," mock boasting that "he's had a number one album on the charts for a whole week now." Both claims stand up. The first speaks for itself. The second is backed by the fact Springsteen's new album, Wrecking Ball, which debuted at number one on Billboard, is his tenth number one, tying him with Elvis.
Overall, Springsteen's concert was a mix of old and new, kicking off with "We Take Care Of Our Own," a jab at the Bush administration's do-nothing politics: "From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We yelled "help" but the cavalry stayed home/Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own."
It's a big sound this time out. The E-Streeters are now 17 strong with a horn section, an extra percussionist and two gospel-throated backup singers. But when the band stormed into "Badlands," it seemed there was going to be a big piece missing. For the first time, there was no Big Man for Springsteen to lean on, to get that mighty blast of wind to hold him up. But just as the Big Man part came around, departed saxman Clarence Clemons' nephew Jake stepped up and knocked it out of the park, as he would continue to do all night.
The night was full of anthems. Many of the new songs have "whoa ho, ho yeah" choruses built for crowd singalongs, and this crowd already knew the lyrics and bellowed along lustily.
The recent tour warm-up shows at the Apollo apparently affected Springsteen deeply. He cited the famous theater that gave Brown his biggest career boost, referring to it as a teaching facility with sex ed taught by Marvin Gaye and poetry by Smokey Robinson. He then kicked off what he called the "Apollo Medley," starting Robinson's "The Way You Do The Things You Do" a capella, until the band jumped in and punched it through the roof.
Although he doesn't have Wilson Pickett's panther screech, Springsteen's soulful growl on his cover of Pickett's "634-5789" runs a close second to the crusty original. But Springsteen doesn't just take chances musically. In an amazing display of confidence, he hurled himself into the audience backwards for some crowd surfing, passed on his back all the way from the middle of the runway jutting out into the audience up to the main stage, where he was unceremoniously dumped on his butt, boots jutting in the air. Unfazed, he did a clumsy somersault and got up laughing.
He changed gears drastically with another new one, "Shacked and Drawn," bellowing "freedom, son, is a dirty shirt... my shovel in the dirt keeps the devil gone/I woke up this morning shackled and drawn," as the floodlights lights bathed the performers in a bloody red glow. "Rocky Ground" featured the first rap (by backup singer Michelle Moore) to take place in a Broooce show.
But there's still plenty of the good old stuff dished out to celebrate to. You could feel the seats shudder beneath you while the crowd stomped along with the band's thundering rendition of "Born To Run."
Everybody in the joint was on their feet for "Dancin' in the Dark" doing some form of self-expressive shaking, with one gray-haired fan actually demonstrating the '60s dance the Twist. "Rosalita" is an easy one for Springsteen. The crowd sang most of it with the Boss just walking around waving his arms, conducting his own vocal orchestra, finally getting excited at the end, getting into a "ay yi yi" vocal battle with Little Steven.
"We ain't done yet," Springsteen yelled, as if anybody would think of leaving. After jumping on top of a white baby grand, he counted off the final tune. Once again, Springsteen didn't have to say a word as the crowd sang "Tenth Avenue Freezout" for him, but he jumped in on the line, "Big Man joined the band." The band stopped and Springsteen stood in the middle of the crowd with clenched fist upraised, unfurling it and waving his fingers to beckon the crowd to keep erupting with cheers and whistles, going on for a full five minutes as a fitting final tribute to Clemons. "Thank you for such a beautiful night," Springsteen said by way of benediction, as a dazed-but-satiated crowd stumbled out, smacked down willingly by the Boss of all wrecking balls.
We Take Care of Our Own
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
E Street Shuffle
Jack of All Trades
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
Apollo Medley (The Way You Do the Things You Do/634-5789)
Shackled and Drawn
Because the Night (tour premiere)
We Are Alive
Rocky Ground (with Michelle Moore)
Land of Hope and Dreams
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) (tour premiere)
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out