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Notes from the road: Charlotte

A darkened stage, the band entering one by one, and that sense of anticipation —what will tonight’s show be like? What’s the first song? Before there was time to think about it too much, spotlights illuminated Bruce Springsteen and Roy Bittan, and there were the opening chords of “Iceman,” a fan favorite from Tracks, which to this date had been performed live only once by Bruce and never by the E Street Band. The stunning performance was reminiscent of “Meeting Across the River” and featured Roy on piano, Charlie Giordano on glockenspiel and Garry Tallent on bass, with the backing singers adding vocal parts for additional effect. It was dark, desolate, moody, and absolutely exquisite.

A strong run of opening songs followed, including the first performance of High Hopes’ “Just Like Fire Would” in the United States, and a rollicking “Cadillac Ranch,” complete with full band dance routine at the front of the stage. “Cadillac Ranch” also featured not one but two shout-outs to the locale, both in the “Junior Johnson running through the woods of Caroline” lyric and the customized “driving alone through the Carolina night.” It was all greeted loudly by the enthusiastic Charlotte crowd, on their feet even in the upper levels.

Bruce then began to gather signs from the crowd, walking back and forth on the stage and peering into the audience, waving when a particular sign caught his favor. The first group of signs chosen turned the E Street Band into the best Saturday night cover band you’ve ever seen: “Louie Louie,” “Mustang Sally,” and later, “Brown Eyed Girl,” Bruce channeling Van Morrison as he prowled the crowd down front around the main platform.

The next group of signs would be for Springsteen originals, both for popular favorites such as “No Surrender” (for a group of very excited teenage girls in the front row) and “Out in the Street” (with a trio of backing singers from the crowd, who had to be specifically coached by Nils Lofgren to sing into the microphone), and also for rarities such as “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” dedicated to “the lady from Mahwah,” “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” and a commanding performance of “Racing in the Street.”

Bruce started the encore with a sign for “Darkness on the Edge of Town” from a group of Spanish fans, also noting that fans from many countries were in the audience — Sweden, Germany — before the crowd answered back with a “USA! USA!” chant. Bruce playfully acknowledged, “We’ve got a lot of fans from there, too!”

“Darkness” was followed by a heartfelt reading of “The Wall,” with Bruce giving a long introduction about his first exposure to a “rock star,” recalling Freehold musician and inspiration Walter Chicon, who was killed in action in Vietnam. “This is a short prayer for my country,” Bruce said, and then dedicated the song to the veterans in the audience, whether from Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq. A fierce, intense rendition of “Born in the U.S.A.” followed, Bruce gripping the microphone stand with both hands as he snarled the first verse. As the song built to its conclusion, Bruce turned to his right, encouraging Tom Morello’s incredible guitar solo, followed by Max Weinberg’s thundering drum break.

A playful rendition of “Shout” at the end of the night featured Bruce telling the crowd not once, but twice, that he was “just a prisoner of the everlasting power of rock and roll!” and also, after introducing the band, urging everyone in the house: “I want you to go tell your friends… wake up your neighbors… go up to strangers on the street… and tell them that you just saw the heart stopping… death-defying… E Street Band!”

- Caryn Rose, b=Backstreets.com

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American Beauty celebrates Record Store Day

American Beauty is a collection of songs I cut at home. Upon revisiting them for High Hopes I recognized their potential and Ron Aniello and I worked on them until we’d turned them into the music before you. In the song “American Beauty,” I get to sing in a part of my range I don’t often visit and that along with its ‘guitar wall of sound’ gives it a little ‘exile on E Street’ power. “Mary Mary” is a lovely mystery, a small piece of heartbreak poetry that sneaks up on you with its slippery grove, punctuated string section and spectral lyrics. It came closest to making the High Hopes cut. “Hurry Up Sundown” is a fun piece of modern power pop, while “Hey Blue Eyes” rounds out the EP with one of my darkest political songs. Written during the Bush years, it’s a metaphor for the house of horrors our government’s actions created in the years following the invasion of Iraq. At its center is the repressed sexuality and abuse of power that characterized Abu Ghraib prison. I feel this is a shadow we as a country have yet to emerge from.

Enjoy the music.

- Bruce Springsteen

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JUMP!

Highlight from Dallas: this is a great rock song!

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Notes from the road: Nashville

The first “moment” of every show has become a question: does the host city get a special song relevant to the region?  With its rich musical history, Nashville would have been an obvious choice to receive a unique opener; instead, Bruce opted for the basic out-of-the-gate option, the title cut from High Hopes. But while he may not have had honky tonkin’ on his mind, the show in Music City was filled with special moments. “High Hopes” was followed in rapid succession by a trio of songs that showed that Bruce came to Nashville ready to rock — “Badlands,” “No Surrender,” and “Death to My Hometown” — and the crowd-surfing exploits of “Hungry Heart.”

A sign in the front of the pit stated that the concertgoer had traveled 400 miles to ask the city of Nashville one question.  Bruce handed his microphone over to the signholder, who sang boldly, “Can you feel the spirit?” With that sign proving a success, after “Spirit in the Night” Bruce took a large collection of signs and sorted through them, looking for the next number.  Not finding what he wanted, he went back to the crowd for yet another sign, which led to the next special moment: a version of “Burning Love” complete with numerous Elvis moves and poses thrown in.

On a roll now, Bruce went into the seats stage left for yet another sign, coming away with not only the next song, but a backup singer as well.  A young girl, maybe 10 or 11 years old, had a sign for “Satisfaction,” complete with the Rolling Stones logo.  Not only did she get her request played, she shared a mic with Nils, contributing backing vocals and tambourine. She returned to her seat with the tambourine as a souvenir.

Springsteen being an expert at shifting the mood, soon we were out of classic rock ‘n’ roll rave-up territory and into something more contemporary and intense for more special moments: guitar solos from Tom Morello and Nils Lofgren on “American Skin (41 Shots).” More understated than his trademark flourishes on “Because the Night,” which followed two songs later, Nils’ solo on “American Skin” particularly fit the mood of the song.

The double-shot of “I’m on Fire” and “Downbound Train” was yet another special moment.  Played in the reverse order than they appear on Born in the U.S.A., the songs still appeared as two parts of the same story. And lest things get too dark, in came “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” this time with a choir of little girls up from the crowd to sing, presided over by kindergarten teacher Mr. Springsteen.

However, the best moments of the evening were still to come. Springsteen encores are typically loud, boisterous affairs, filled with his most well-known hits. But the encores started last night with the elegiac “The Wall,” dedicated to “Brian” (presumably Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem, who was in the house and who had previously expressed an interest in covering the song). The haunting memories of the soldier killed in Vietnam hushed a great crowd at the Bridgestone Arena.  Bruce then doubled down on this mood, following up with a somber reading of “Point Blank.”  The catharsis came in the form of the first version of “Born in the U.S.A.” performed in the United States since November of 2009.

This trio of songs, so atypical of a standard Springsteen encore, worked together to build a specific mood, making the impact of each song greater than if each had stood on its own.

Perhaps recognizing what he had asked of the crowd at the beginning of the encores, Bruce waved off the pump organ which had been set up for “Dream Baby Dream,” opting to close the show instead with a lovely acoustic “Thunder Road,” a reward for an attentive crowd that shared many special moments over the course of the evening in Music City USA.

- Lowell D. Kern, backstreets.com