Halfway through Thursday night’s miraculous revival meeting cum concert at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, Bruce Springsteen stopped to recall his beginnings in the ’60s and early ’70s playing with a bar band. There was one type of music that was guaranteed to move a Jersey Shore crowd.
“You always had to have a little soul in your pocket,” said the 62-year-old artist with the vigor of a 30-year-old. Then Springsteen led the E Street Band — at 16 pieces, it’s officially a big band, not a rock band, now — through a medley of vintage Temptations and Wilson Pickett tunes.
Testifying from a platform in the middle of the audience (the concert was sold out, as is Friday night’s), Springsteen stopped to guzzle a beer. He tossed the empty plastic cup, then fell backward on the outreached hands of fans, who passed their (tipsy) messiah up to the stage.
Springsteen has always been a killer showman, someone who’s closely studied the great acts of R&B (the Rev. Al Green and James Brown) and learned how to preach a story, milk a call-and-response affirmation, and play dead then get on up. But increasingly, the gospel roots of this soul man have made themselves manifest. It seems like this Catholic son has been spending time in black churches.
By the point — two jaw-dropping, career-spanning hours into the 26-song night — that Bruce and the band boarded the train to the “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” he had some 40,000, mostly white, hands up in the air, vibrating with the spirit of the Holy Ghost.
Another ghost was very much present in the arena, acting as the night’s guiding spirit, so to speak. Springsteen lost his musical soul mate last year when Clarence Clemons, the band’s saxophonist and the bandleader’s right-hand man, passed away. Judging by his repeated direct and indirect references to missing persons — culminating in a powerful screen tribute during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” — Springsteen feels the loss keenly.
Clemons’ nephew Jake has stepped in to ably fill the Big Man’s shoes on sax. But it was a gifted guest who drew out of Springsteen the kind of emotive, inspired interplay that made the old Boss and Big Man chemistry so joyous to watch. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and the Nightwatchman joined the band for several songs, adding his bent-metal cries to their already stellar guitar lineup. (All hail Nils Lofgren and Little Steven Van Zandt. Springsteen ain’t no slouch at the ax either.)
On the haunting 1995 protest ballad “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” Morello proclaimed the lyrics inspired by “The Grapes of Wrath”: “Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand/ Or decent job or a helpin’ hand / Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free / Look in their eyes, Mom, you’ll see me.”
Then stroking, beating, hugging and pounding his custom Arm the Homeless guitar, Morello made it a sword, a trumpet, a beat box, a megaphone. It was an ear-shattering, time-stopping performance to which the audience played mesmerized witness. Tom Joad was there, and Clemons, and deceased E Street keyboardist Danny Federici too.
The evening was not morbid. Ultimately, it was about love and life. Springsteen dusted off “The Ties That Bind,” finding its doo-wop heart with his wife Patti Scialfa on harmony. There were “new faces and old faces,” as he said early on. A horn section and the two-membered E Street choir added new blood to the storied band. Most of the players — the mighty Max Weinberg, good-guy bassist Garry Tallent, mastermind pianist Roy Bittan — have been with their boss for decades.
One of the things that makes Springsteen the greatest musical performer of our time is the deep love with which he ministers to his flock. The arena was filled with a rare vibe, a feeling of brotherly and sisterly (Springsteen danced with his younger sibling on “Dancing in the Dark”) love. When’s the last time the big Canadian strangers next to you bought you and your husband a beer during an arena show?
From “The Rising” after 9/11 to “My City in Ruins” post-Katrina to 99-percenter testimonials such as “Jack of All Trades” (performed with stark, brutal power Thursday) off his new album, “Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen has an unmatched gift for expressing our national pain — and also delivering us from it. “Keep pushing till it’s understood and these badlands start treating us good,” he sang in the show’s opener, his 1978 classic “Badlands.” The magnitude of his personal loss made the catharsis Thursday that much more deeply felt.
Springsteen and the band barely paused during the 2 hour and 40 minute concert. Dripping sweat, the sexagenarian even slid across the stage on his knees in his trademark fashion.
This was perhaps the most inspirational show I’ve witnessed in 30 years of attending thousands of concerts, including at least a dozen by Springsteen. There was maybe one better: When he played Jazz Fest in New Orleans after Katrina and turned the city of ruins into a city reborn. But Morello’s lead on “Ghost of Tom Joad” will be forever seared into my conscience as a testimonial, and a hope.