It’s easy to make fun of Bruce Springsteen. He’s so damn sincere. He traffics in overblown metaphors and clichéd Americana. His face is a perpetual grimace of effort and intensity. His fans moo “Broooce” after every song. Critics swoon every time he releases an album, wheeling out the kind of literary exegesis normally reserved for Bob Dylan. He keeps letting Clarence Clemons play saxophone solos and, after The Sopranos, it’s hard to take Steve Van Zandt seriously.
But Springsteen’s live show obliterates all that. At 58, he is still a force of nature, the centre of a majestic wall of sound that simply can’t be resisted. Back with the
E Street Band again, he steamrollered Madison Square Garden with massive riffs on Wednesday night. There was little room for nuance, only shameless romanticism, furious intensity and endless energy. The crowd, which hummed with anticipation before the show, went palpably nuts. The evening was a proof of the power of belief: Springsteen’s in music, the audience’s in him.
His new album, Magic, may not be quite as good as critics say, but it is good enough to earn its extended place in his live set. And how many golden age rockers can make that boast? No one else has been as consistent. The sequencing reinforced that point, weaving new songs with mostly 1970s classics. A clutch of the punchiest Magic songs segued into a series of Bo Diddley riffs from the early period – “Reason to Believe”, “Adam Raised a Cane”, “She’s the One”, the last two immensely powerful. Then a moodier passage, including an epic, surreal “BackStreets” that drifted when it reached some of the less tuneful songs on Magic. Springsteen has talked about it as a pop album full of hooks. Perhaps it is, in relation to the Pete Seeger covers on his last album.
But the title track was one of the highlights of the evening. “Magic” is a political song that doesn’t preach. Set to a pretty, eerie acoustic guitar melody and superficially about a magician, it deepens quickly into dark mistrust with overtones of violence. Springsteen prefaced it by talking about “Orwellian times that would have surprised George Orwell”, clearly in reference to the Bush administration. Later, before another new song, “Living in the Future”, Springsteen listed civil rights abuses while the crowd murmured uneasily (and cheered when he praised American virtues). With the anti-Iraq war song “Last to Die” and the cover of Pete Seeger’s immigrant anthem “American Land” that closed the show, the show had a serious undercurrent of social commentary.
All that made it more fun to hear “Thundercrack” – “this used to be our closer at Max’s Kansas City” – which reminded us that Springsteen could be playful, once upon a time.
It’s a shame he has let that part of himself fade out, to be replaced by the solemn chronicler of American history. But he still engages the audience like almost nobody else, exhorting cheers, beating his guitar, running up and down the stage, making you empathise with him by sheer dint of effort. I lost track of the number of times he shouted “C’mon Steve”, then leaned into the mic to take another chorus with Van Zandt.
Finally, there came a magnificent “Born to Run”. For all its bravado and pomposity, it’s a song that only sounds more powerful with age. Springsteen should be tired of it by now; the fact that he seemed just the opposite, rejuvenated, is a testament to his commitment. That melodramatic descending riff blasted, everyone bawled the lyrics, and Springsteen sang like he wanted to do it for another 32 years.