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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have spent decades bringing rock 'n' roll to life onstage.
IN 1974, rock critic Jon Landau saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Cambridge, Mass. In his review, he said "I saw my rock 'n' roll past flash before my eyes. I saw something else: I saw rock 'n' roll's future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
Tuesday night in Charlottesville, I saw Bruce Springsteen live for the first time. Landau was right.
Springsteen, unlike any performer I've ever seen, oozes rock 'n' roll history. He is a chameleon who maintains his original form as he teases the sounds and mannerisms of James Brown, John Lennon, Woody Guthrie, Frankie Valli, Ike and Tina Turner, and Irving Berlin.
His current band, with its horn section and backup singers, polished some of his rough-and-tumble New Jersey roadhouse rockers to an unexpected Motown sheen, a move that came off as more reverential than patronizing. Even his recent forays into folk and Celtic music paid dividends in a live setting. "Death to My Hometown," which sounds stodgy and forced on his latest album, was kinetic and inspired onstage.
Credit the man's unswerving energy and his devotion to his craft. Much is made of his age--63--how he defies it and the fact that he still does a passable power slide on his knees (after a few awkward stutter-hops to gain momentum). But having vitality is beside the point. He's not peddling youth, he's peddling passion--the only thing that makes rock vital.
Springsteen isn't rock's prophet or poet (Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, probably), he is rock's preacher. He is an evangelist for the religion of rock 'n' roll, steady banging his fists on stacks of worn 45s and LPs. "Don't believe in me," he seems to say with every cathartic wail, "believe in this."
As much as that is an essential part of the future of rock 'n' roll, and I believe it is, I learned something else at Tuesday night's concert. Rock 'n' roll has no future.
Other bands have followed closely in Springsteen's footsteps and deserve to be heard. Titus Andronicus, Drive-By Truckers, Japandroids, Arcade Fire--all of them play in the same sandbox as the E Street Band, and all will presumably make great music for years to come. But while critics turn themselves into pretzels trying to anoint the "next big thing," Rock cares for nothing but the present moment.
That's where Springsteen lives. He does what other stars of his wattage wouldn't dare: He walks into the crowd. He soaks up the moment by entering it bodily, letting people paw his hair and slap his guitar. He crowd-surfed across half the stadium floor. In a live performance, Springsteen crosses the line of doing things for the fans and does things with the fans, all in the interest of creating a more perfect present.
I can't blame critics for falling madly in love with Springsteen and his music. When he came on the scene in the 1970s, his throwback style was a cathartic, reassuring sight--something substantial in a world of sequined hot pants and bombastic bass solos. But Springsteen wasn't the future, he was the heir--a lifeline for music fans drowning in the cocaine glamour of excess. Springsteen was the antidote--a poor boy with a guitar, a fast car and a broken heart.
He's not the future of rock 'n' roll, and he never was. When he plays, he just is rock 'n' roll--and that's the best anyone is ever going to do.
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036