Is that you, baby or just a brilliant disguise?

Bruce Springsteen – Walter Kerr Theatre, New York City; January 23rd, 2018

As the lights went down at Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway at about 2 minutes after 8 pm on January 23rd 2018, I did not yet know my perception of Bruce Springsteen and his music would be forever changed after this night. Sure, seeing him at a small venue (by his standards) was certainly special and I knew he would get me eventually and make the evening worthwhile, but even in my wildest dreams I had not imagined this. From the first moment he stepped on stage and started talking until he finally said goodbye precisely two hours and 15 minutes later I was mesmerized. My eyes were fixed on Bruce, I barely moved in my seat, I didn’t think, my sense of time disappeared and I might have forgotten to breathe from time to time, but I felt – happiness and melancholia, love, hope, a sense of belonging. I knew in my heart I was witnessing something special and I felt in my soul that I was part of something bigger than myself, that somehow, someday everything would be OK. I was at peace with the world and myself and deeply grateful for the opportunity to be there. The performance was beautiful, heartfelt and most of all authentic. It felt as if Bruce wanted to give us a gift, a sense of community and he invited us on a journey through his life that had lead all of us to this point. It was perfect in every sense that matters and it surely was a night I will never forget.

Back in September last year, when my friend J. scored two tickets for us (after being locked out in the first round of sales) it all seemed surreal and very, very far away. Suddenly it was here and we found ourselves on a flight from Frankfurt to New York City. it still seemed surreal though, even when we took a walk to the Walter Kerr Theatre, saw the blinking sign that said “circus show” rather than “Bruce concert” and took pictures in front of the huge letters on the wall that read “Springsteen on Broadway”. We had two days of exploring the city before the show and I mostly forgot about it until it was time to go to the venue and I got nervous. Everything went smoothly though and when we finally sat in our seats in row Q, orchestra left I got excited about what was to come. People filed in, the staff constantly reminded us there was “no photography whatsoever at any time” and finally, as the clock approached 8, I started believing that I really was there and about to witness what I had been dreaming about for months. Having avoided all recent interviews and any reviews or even notes about the show I only had a very vague idea of what to expect and that was exactly how I wanted it to be. When it was showtime I was ready to take it in with my heart and soul wide open.

“I’m here tonight to provide proof of life to that ever-elusive, never completely believable, particularly these days, us.” By the time Bruce spoke these words I was already close to tears and with the first song, ‘Growin’ up’ they started to fall. It wasn’t sadness, quite the contrary, I was happy. Happy with being there, happy with the amazing sound, happy to hear Bruce’s voice tell me his story. That’s what this evening was all about: Hearing Bruce Springsteen tell us the story of his life in words and in music, with parts from his autobiography ‘Born to run’ intertwined with his songs. He told his story with good humor, just the right amount of self-depreciation, lots of heart, a dash of melancholia, wisdom and looking back gently at his life. Mid song he let us know he had never worked five days a week until just now and added with a smile “I don’t like it”. “I have become wildly and absurdly successful, writing about something of which I have had absolutely no personal experience.” I found myself laughing a lot, not only at this point. Yes, many words were taken right out of the book, but why not? It is well written. Hearing Bruce speak these words had its own magic. They became alive, they became real. I could see little seven year old Bruce with his first guitar posing for the neighbors. 😀

Not only did Bruce tell stories like a pro that night, he also sang really well. He often switched between the guitar and the piano and when he played the latter I had the feeling he might have practiced. 😉 But seriously, he was good, he was really good, the magic was there, the characters of his stories and songs became alive right then and there. We learned about his love-hate relationship with his hometown, his relationship with his parents and a lot more that night. From time to time, between scripted words, the real Bruce came out to play, the one that isn’t trying to make it a perfect performance, but just says out loud what crosses his mind. These moments of going off script made it the best show it could be. 😀 When police sirens from outside were audible during his story about leaving Freeholt he joked they were coming to get him and much later, when it happened again, he could barely suppress laughter as he quipped “They know I don’t belong here!”.

We were already way into the show (or it seemed like we’d already been there a while) and Bruce had only played two songs so far. It reminded me of my very first Springsteen concert on the ‘Ghost of Tom Joad’ tour over 20 years ago and it felt like everything had come full circle since. Everything I’d been looking for as a fan had led up to this moment and again I was crying. I’d missed his storyteller days. During ‘My Hometown’ I fleetingly thought of my friend A. who has never liked this song and wondered if he’d enjoyed this version. I certainly did. Every version of every song was exceptional, all of them were reinvented in one way or another. Perfect? Of course not, but nothing short of wonderful nonetheless or maybe just because of the slight so very human imperfections.

“I touched his forearm and I said ‘Look Dad, that guy on stage, that’s how I see you'” was how he ended his account about his dad and trying to emulate him when he was looking for his own voice, his identity. It was gut-wrenching to hear so much love and also so much pain in Bruce’s voice as he told his father’s story, where between the lines he said “I understand you now, dad and I am at peace with our rocky relationship”. Much about this night was about reading between the lines, hearing all the emotions and seeing our hero looking back at his life, reflecting on everything he has lived through with a sense of melancholia and longing for the youth that is gone, but also with a certain wisdom of age and finally being comfortable in his own skin.

It was also a night of contrast where after heartbreaking stories, Bruce broke the spell and joked about it, showing us that life is beautiful and good too. Like the contrast between his mom and his dad who seem to have been opposites, the stories he told were light and dark, happy and sad. “She gave the world a lot more credit than it deserved, but that was her style” he said about his mom and his voice was full of pride, you could hear him smile and with every word he thanked her for the things she had taught him. Transitions between words and songs were seamless, it was all one big story he told. I might have heard him perform ‘The Wish’ before, but if I did, it surely can’t have been as amazing as it was then and there. <3

Bruce’s account of leaving Freeholt and trying to get discovered had everyone at the theater laughing and in case anyone had any doubts we were reassured that he was the one who put New Jersey on the map. It was a tribute to his bandmates and his old manager “Tinker” West as well as to the beauty of the country. At this point he kept it all light-hearted and driving across the US sounded like a fun road trip. From the youthful, no care in the world attitude of going to ‘The Promised Land’ the story went to dreams broken or ending in Vietnam, the disillusions of those who made it back and the loss of the people who didn’t. Bruce spoke about visiting his fallen friends at the Vietnam Wall, happy his name is not on there and wondering who went in his place “because somebody did”, followed by a slide-guitar version of ‘Born in the USA’ that sent shivers down my spine.

Some songs I’d felt were overplayed and some I had never cared much about took on new life that night. I don’t think I have ever heard such a perfect rendition of ‘Tenth-Avenue freeze-out’. It was a beautiful, piano only tribute to Clarence and everything he had meant for Bruce and the E Street Band, including a nod to all the other members. Nothing else could have fit any better. <3 It’s all about finding the right people and keeping them in your life. In the man’s own words: “When 1+1 equals 3 that’s when your life changes. That’s when you experience visions, that’s when the world around you turns to magic and you feel blessedly, righteously and finally alive. It’s the essential equation of love, the essential equation of art, the essential equation of rock ‘n’ roll.” I think it was at this point of the show that somebody yelled “Amen!” 🙂

The next chapter was about finding the right partner to walk through life with and Bruce invited Patti, his Jersey Girl, on stage to sing with him. Together they performed a piano version of ‘Tougher than the Rest’ and a guitar version of ‘Brilliant Disguise’. Both are songs I love very much, but the latter was the one that made me a fan in the first place and again I had the feeling of all roads leading up to this point and everything coming full circle. Bruce spoke about the difficulty of trust, the realization that “all of this is finite” and that in life “you make your choices and then do your best to hold on to them”. There it was again the melancholia of a man who knows he has lived most of his life, but can look back happily and is at peace with the choices he has made. I loved seeing and hearing them together, their voices harmonizing wonderfully. <3

He told us he believed people came to remember the best times they have seen and the best in them, “…to be reminded of who we are and who we can be collectively. Music does those things pretty well.” Then he went on commenting on the state of he world and the things he has seen in the recent year that he’d hoped never to see again, quoted Martin Luther King “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” and concluded that he’d livd just long enough to see that happen. What followed was ‘The Long walk Home’ and a powerful version of ‘The Rising’ and Bruce told us he wanted to know the full American story and learn his history.

The serious moments were blown away by the reminder to put on our dancing shoes, especially in dark time and ‘Dancing in the Dark’ complete with the call for “A love reaction” and our loud response. There were a few of these typical Bruce concert moments throughout the night, some clapping along and some “BROOOCE!”ing was going on too. It was a nice contrast to the quiet moments when he spoke without the microphone and people listened attentively. Most of the audience was quiet and respectful, cheering at just the right times and just listening otherwise. The exception were those who apparently could not hold their beer and got up to go to the bathroom even during the most quiet parts of the show. Really? You could not wait until people were clapping? It got pretty distracting at one point, but there is no use crying about it and nothing could have destroyed my enjoyment of the show, I just wish there’d been a bit more respect for the artist and the performance.

‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ lead us towards the finale. I cannot remember the last time I was so happy to hear that song. 🙂 For a moment I thought it was the last song. It would have been a fitting closure to the show, but it wasn’t over yet. Going back to the beginning of the show where he’d talked about the tree in front of his house, Bruce told us how it had been cut down and he stared at its roots. It was gone, but something remained, just as something remains of all the people we have lost in our lives. Like he had in his childhood he felt surrounded by God. It sounded very much like a prayer. “You know what they say about Catholics” he chuckled and then ended with a real prayer and the song that brought the first success and eventually brought us all together in this theater that night, ‘Born to run’.

He thanked us, Patti came out again to take a final bow with Bruce and we all stood, cheering and thanking them, thanking Bruce, each of us for our own reasons. Even now as I write this, tears are still running down my face and I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to be there. The one thing I would have loved to do after was go up to Bruce, give him a big hug and thank him for everything he has done for me, for the good company his music, his songs have been in my life, for hope when there was none and a guiding light in dark times, for countless happy memories, for a home among my fan family, dear friends and a sense of community I have experienced at his concerts and yet, if I’d had the chance, I probably would have just stammered “thank you for everything” and after what I have heard and seen on this surprisingly mild January night, I do believe that goes without saying. :’)

Slowly we gathered our belongings, stood up again, noticed how uncomfortable the seats had been (my butt hurt ;)) and walked out to where others had already gathered waiting for Bruce. He did walk out the main door, shook a few hands, signed a few things and waved to everyone before he got in the waiting car and left. We were too far in the back to actually speak to him, but it was a nice gesture and felt like closure. 🙂 On the walk back to the hotel, we were lost in our own thoughts mostly, but agreed it had been worth the trip. Mind blown and my faith in Bruce restored I returned home, carrying the memories in my heart. Thank you Bruce, you have been a good companion on my journey through life for the past 31 years and I hope you will be for many years to come.

Setlist

Growin’ Up
My Hometown
My Father’s House
The Wish
Thunder Road
The Promised Land
Born in the U.S.A.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Tougher Than the Rest (with Patti Scialfa)
Brilliant Disguise (with Patti Scialfa)
Long Walk Home
The Rising
Dancing in the Dark
Land of Hope and Dreams
Born to Run

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