April 3, 2009 / 4:53 AM / 10 years ago

Springsteen opens tour with flawed but rousing show

SAN JOSE, California (Hollywood Reporter) - Opening nights drum up any number of feelings: anticipation, nervousness, optimism, trepidation. But mostly they are a peek at what’s to come, and Bruce Springsteen and company made a statement Wednesday night: Maybe we ain’t that young anymore, but we can still bring it.

Musician Bruce Springsteen performs during halftime for Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida February 1, 2009. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes

The first show of the new tour, at San Jose’s HP Pavilion, certainly wasn’t flawless; in fact, there was plenty to grumble about, from a cut-and-paste set list to Springsteen’s surprising lack of interaction with the crowd. But it provided enough moments of sheer rock ‘n’ roll glee to offset any shortcomings.

When they’re clicking, Springsteen and the E Street Band are among rock’s greatest live acts. Still, some of the elements that traditionally have separated them from the pack were missing Wednesday: For one, Springsteen didn’t offer any of those legendary tall tales of his misspent youth — or really any other chatter. That was curious and frustrating.

There was the usual pre-encore plea to support the local food bank, which supports “people who have fallen out of the middle class.” But if there ever was a time to expect a good ol’ political rant, it’s this tour. And the absence had to be a conscious decision, as was leaving “The Rising” off the set list. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”? Sure, we all are, but a call to action is more likely to resonate than “everything’ll be OK.”

In fact, there was no mention of the recession during the main set, but Springsteen showed that it’s on his mind with one bracing three-song run. He fairly spat out the bitter “Seeds” — the night’s big set-list surprise — and wrapped it with an intense, angry guitar solo; “Johnny 99,” among Springsteen’s most pliant songs, this time got a rollicking roadhouse workup; and a poignant, full-band delivery of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” drove its point home. The band later began the encore with a stirring take on Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” written in 1854.

Springsteen is a master of pacing — knowing exactly when to play a Big One or a new one. And the half-dozen tracks from the current “Working on a Dream” were positioned for maximum effectiveness with minimal intrusion.

But therein lies another bump in the roadshow. Springsteen’s new album lacks the memorable material that fuels anticipation for a tour. “The Wrestler” was the only new song that made any real connection — despite Springsteen’s efforts during “Good Eye,” with its gimmicky vocal distortion.

The polarizing new track “Outlaw Pete” came early. The odd “Jungleland” wannabe — with its tempo shifts, false ending and epic aspirations — came off a little better than on the album, but it’s not the live beast he seems to want it to be. New one “My Lucky Day” followed, with its choppy, familiar melody and a nuance-swatting five guitarists.

The crowd, ranging from pre-K to post-401(k), predictably ate up what they knew and politely applauded what they didn’t. Springsteen’s trademark monosyllabic sing-alongs got them involved as always, likely because they were eager for that communal, revival-like experience that long has been the hallmark of his concerts.

Meanwhile, the E Street Big Band — bulked up to 10 these days, plus two backup singers, worked hard, melding songs nonstop for the first 50 minutes. Soon-to-be-“Tonight Show” drummer Max Weinberg hasn’t lost a step, which meant everyone else had to keep up. That said, “Out in the Street” was a little slow, but the rendition of “Born to Run” — usually a beat or two behind in concert — was one of the most memorable in years as the band drove the song rather than simply riding it. It was a surprise highlight.

As Springsteen stares at 60 this year — and we should all look so good at that age — his legacy is secure. There’s really no need to dedicate almost 40 percent of his set list to post-2000 songs. But that’s a quibble when he and the band continue to deliver onstage.

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