Bruce Springsteen’s Garden Party: Kurt Loder Reports

Like his pile-driving concerts of yore, his New York show had the feel of a rock and roll event.

NEW YORK — I understand that there are people, particularly young people, who are unable to connect with the Bruce Springsteen Legend. It’s been 18 years since Springsteen distilled the American Zeitgeist with Born in the U.S.A., an album that sold more than 10 million copies — a stratospheric number back then. And because he broke up his fabled E Street Band in 1989, there’s many a youth who’s never witnessed one of their thunderous, marathon concerts. For these people, Bruce Springsteen is a part of the long-ago past, and they’re tired of hearing their dotty elders gabbing about the guy.

I wish all of these doubters could have been at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, when Springsteen and his great band, back together again at last, put on a virtually non-stop two-and-a-half-hour show that lent fresh resonance to the tired old cliché “earth-shaking.” (Click here for photos) Like the group’s pile-driving concerts of yore, this one had the feel of a rock and roll event, the likes of which probably won’t be seen until … well, until the next time these guys play New York.

At an age (52) when most rock figureheads (the Rolling Stones, the Who, etc.) are either creatively faded or reduced to hustling the nostalgia market, Springsteen is making some of the most galvanizing music of his 29-year career. He seems completely contemporary. The Rising, his new album, with its vibrant songs and moving reflections on the terrorist attacks of last September 11, debuted at #1 on this week’s Billboard chart and seems likely to become one of his biggest hits. The record had been out less than a week when he played the Garden, but a surprising number of the 18,000 people in attendance were already singing along with the new songs.

Springsteen is so impressive in so many ways — gifted hitmaker, Blitzkrieg guitarist, masterful singer and showman — it’s hard to imagine who among the current roster of rock-concert performers might credibly constitute his competition. His voice alone seems a force of nature, whether ringing out in a rapturous chant-along like “The Rising” (the song with which he opened the Garden show) and such still-wondrous classics as “Badlands” and (especially) “Glory Days,” or gearing down to a tremulous murmur for new songs like “Empty Sky” (a spare, breathtaking duet with his wife and longtime backup singer, Patty Scialfa).

He is also a superb arranger, as was evident in his performance of another of the new songs, “Worlds Apart,” a gorgeous wash of Middle Eastern melodicism that was one of the show’s several dramatic high points. (It also constituted an in-concert first for Springsteen, I believe: unable to bring along the Pakistani singers whose ecstatic vocals underpin the recorded version of the song, he carefully blended in their parts digitally.) In Springsteen’s hands, every song is a set-piece, and very often a show-stopper. (Happily, the show doesn’t actually come to a stop.)

Springsteen commands the stage in a way that recalls past masters like James Brown, among very few others. He’s entirely mesmerizing even on those rare occasions when he puts down his guitar and stands alone at the microphone (as he did for one of The Rising‘s most heart-stirring 9/11 songs, “You’re Missing”). And when he straps a guitar back on and steps out for one of his electro-shred solos (as he did on “Prove It All Night,” to name just one example), it kicks the performance up to a spellbinding new level.

Springsteen is of course abetted in all of this by the E Street Band, a group that’s been honed to an uncanny precision by decades of playing together. Guitarists Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren — rock virtuosos on their own albums — add crunch and filigree to the mix, in close association with keyboardists Danny Federici (mainly on Hammond B-3 organ) and Roy Bittan (piano and synths). Titanic drummer Max Weinberg and bassist Garry Tallent anchor and propel the music; beloved sax man Clarence Clemons contributes his patented honk and wail; and new recruit Soozie Tyrell, a veteran session violinist and singer, adds rich waves of harmony to the mix. Conducting the band with a lift of his hand or a leap in the air, he plays them like a single, mighty instrument, leading them to converge on a tidal riff or to stop on the stomp of a boot. This unparalleled ensemble display is itself pretty much worth the price of admission to any Springsteen show.

Springsteen recently told MTV News that he likes to think of his songs, with their abiding themes of love and community and spiritual connection, as being accessible to just about anyone, of any age, beyond transient musical fashions. I think this should certainly be the case for anyone open to hearing them.

More oddly problematic for younger people might be one of the man’s most endearing attributes — his undiluted identification with the roots of rock and roll music. Onstage, in full frenzy, he recalls everyone from the primordial Elvis Presley and Little Richard to Solomon Burke and the aforementioned James Brown. His Garden show was burnished with gospel overtones, and there were unmistakable references throughout to such now-departed stars as Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield (including a brief rendition of Mayfield’s 1965 Impressions classic, “People Get Ready”). It would be understandable that people in their late teens or 20s might not get all these references. It would be sad, though, if they didn’t care.

The Rising — and the first U.S. leg of the tour supporting it, which’ll run through mid-December — could bring Bruce Springsteen back to the rock mainstream in an undeniable way. His concerts are still (I use this word advisedly) astonishing, and will surely convert even the most determined skeptics. Those who’ve never witnessed his live act are in for a transcendent musical experience. And even first-timers may find that, somehow, without knowing it, they’ve really missed him.

For more sights and stories from concerts around the country, check out MTV News Tour Reports.

Kurt Loder