red lights

The Boss Turns Preacher

The Bradley Center
November 9, 1999

Story by Tony Bonyata
Photo by Phil Bonyata

"Are you ready, brothers and sisters?" bellowed Clarence Clemons, a large well-dressed behemoth of a man, as if announcing a Southern preacher to the pulpit. "I said, are you ready brothers and sisters?" he continued.
As the plugged in choir began their musical service at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee last Tuesday evening, out walked Bruce Springsteen. Although he looked like the same old Bruce - black vest over a blue denim shirt rolled-up mid-arm, black jeans and looking a bit more stocky yet fit for a man of 50 - there was something a little different this time. Bruce Springsteen and Clarence ClemonsGone was rock's spokesman for the working class, blue collar everyman that we've known over the years. Instead what we got was an impassioned "born again" Bruce who had all the trappings of a Southern Baptist preacher.
Just as Springsteen has transformed himself from The Boss, a moniker given to him by his devout fans, to rock's Preacherman, his audience has apparently changed as well. Once a time-card punching set of working-class stiffs, his audience seems to have settled into an almost yuppy-ish group (the announcement just minutes before the show attested to that as a voice came over the P.A. system, "Ladies and Gentlemen, could everyone carrying cell phones, pagers and laser pointers please turn them off as it could interfere with the band's sound system. And for those of you in skyboxes we would appreciate it if you would please dim the lights." With an intro like that it made it difficult to tell if this was going to be a corporate seminar or a rock concert.) It seems as time has passed a good number of his fans have changed their priorities and have traded their blue collars in for white ones. Luckily Reverend Bruce was there to show them the light.
"Are you ready, Milwaukee?" Springsteen yelled out through clenched teeth to the sold-out crowd before tearing into a riveting version of "Ties That Bind" along with his reunited E-Street Band, which featured original bandmembers Clarence "Big Man" Clemons (saxophone), "Little Steven" Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren (guitars), Danny Federici (keyboards and accordion), Roy Bittan (piano), Gary Tallent (bass) and Max Weinberg (drums). After more than a decade of not playing together Springsteen's question to Milwaukee may have seemed a valid one, but, not surprisingly, his Wisconsin congregation rose to their feet for almost the entire three-hour musical sermon.
Springsteen's wife, mother of his three children and E-Street guitarist and background vocalist, Patti Scialfa, was not present at the show in Milwaukee as she recently had an eardrum perforated on an airplane flight. "It's gonna be just the boys tonight!" he exclaimed to the crowd as if he was going on a weekend bender with his buddies.
Without any new studio material to perform, Springsteen's show was instead filled to the brim with older material from his glory days.
Bruce Springsteen Long known for his last minute set changes on tour, Springsteen's shows vary greatly from night to night, making it almost impossible to know what he's going to be playing (even when pulling up last minute set-lists on the internet) and makes it fun for the hardcore fans who see multiple shows.
On his 8th visit to Wisconsin, Bruce mixed up rowdy crowd pleasers such as "Prove It All Night", "Cadillac Ranch", "Thunder Road" and "Born To Run" ,which was virtually drowned out by the eager crowd chiming along, with softer, more introspective numbers like "The River", "My Hometown", "The Ghost of Tom Joad", a more recent number that he performed alone with just an acoustic guitar, and "Born In The U.S.A.", a once rocking MTV anthem which he surprisingly turned into a poignant slice of Delta blues with his slide guitar and raspy, honest voice.
"Promise Land" best exemplified his factory-working Dylan persona with his intense, soulful voice as he blew his harmonica next to Clemons wailing sax. He soon fell back into his preacher role as he exorcised the evil spirits out of the gospel-infused number "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out", as he jumped on Bittan's piano and stripped away his vest and denim shirt down to a black t-shirt and then skipped and flirted with the front row of the crowd. He then proceeded to introduce the band in a rambling, possessed sermon before falling to his knees in honor at the feet of saxman Clemons.
On "Out In The Street", from his 1980 album The River, Springsteen stomped his leg in time, pounded his fist in the air, worked the stage - performing for the crowds to both sides and behind the stage and engaged the crowd as he pointed out to a select few. On "Working on the Highway" he threw his acoustic guitar out to a fan in the crowd to play and surprisingly, instead of running out of the building and immediately loading it on an e-bay auction, the pleased fan threw the guitar back to a grateful Springsteen who finished out the number.
Although often touted as one the hottest outfits in rock, The E-Street Band, who are long on jams and at times are able to fire on all cylinders, are really nothing more, or less, than the world's greatest bar band. With guitarists Van Zandt and Lofgren's proficient but often noodling and predictable leads mixed with Tallent's straight-forward bass-lines and Weinberg's technically solid but empty drumming style they sound as if they could be backing up just about anyone at the state fair. It's the honky-tonk piano of Bittan, the swirling organ and colorful accordion of Federici and, probably more than anyone else in the band, Clarence Clemons, with his rafter-busting sax solos, that really characterize this band, however. When they did lock into a groove, it paid off well, most notably on the guitar mayhem of "Murder Incorporated", "Two Hearts" and the raucous end of "Prove It All Night".
It didn'tseem to matter that The E-Street Band wasn't the Mormon Tabernacle Choir of rock that night anyway, because Reverend Bruce made sure that the brothers and sisters of his congregation were not only ready but willing for his rock-n-roll baptismal.

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