Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Springsteen's still on fire

I've seen Bruce Springsteen dozens of times over the years -- the exhaustive workouts that bookended the 1978 release of Darkness on the Edge of Town; the glorious 1980 tour following The River; the post-U.S.A. arena gigs; the harrowing but sometimes hilarious acoustic shows in support of Tom Joad. I've seen him perform the soul standard "Raise Your Hand" in 1976 with its creator, Memphis Stax legend Eddie Floyd, both of them grinning like delirious, overjoyed fools. I've heard "Two Hearts" performed as both a pile-driving rocker and a contemplative, melancholy ballad. I've been moved damn near to tears during versions of "Backstreets," "Thunder Road," and "4th of July, Asbury Park." I've had my head practically cracked into pieces by "Adam Raised a Cain," and I've shimmied like a foolish, hapless dancer to "Spirit in the Night" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." After all of these shows, I've left feeling drained, speechless, rattled to the core by the experience of witnessing the embodiment of everything I believe popular music should do to the body and brain.

Last September, en route to Detroit for his pair of shows in the suburb of Auburn Hills, I expected to be similarly rattled and speechless. More than any artist I've loved and turned to for solace and release over the years -- more than the Who, the Clash, Prince, the Rolling Stones, and a host of others, who either died or called it quits before I could hear them live -- Springsteen has never disappointed me. I've never listened with blind faith, and I know a throwaway when I hear one. But as the man once said: "Faith will be rewarded." Springsteen has always made good on that statement.

Nothing, though, quite prepared me for those two nights at the Palace, a relatively comfortable arena that is the home of the Detroit Pistons. It wasn't just the power of the band, who turned in what may have been definitive versions of "Darkness on the Edge of Town," "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Murder Incorporated," and several others. It wasn't just Springsteen's vocals, which reveal a newfound gospel phrasing that makes them no less evocative and throttling than they were some 20years ago. It wasn't just the chills generated during "Point Blank" and "Youngstown," or the warm rush I felt upon hearing "Jungleland" and "Backstreets" for the first time in years. It wasn't the way Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt gazed at each other while sharing the mic during "Out in the Street." It wasn't even "The Land of Hope and Dreams," the tour's set-closer and the best song Springsteen has written in years.

No, what marked these shows as historic was one simple song: "If I Should Fall Behind," a nightly fixture on the tour. In its original version on Lucky Town, the song is a promise of commitment from one nervous lover to another -- an assurance that love will endure hardship through passion and dedication, and a plea to make it all work, come what may.

In concert the song is transformed from a dialogue between two newlyweds into something emblematic of the entire tour: the reuniting of old friends, the importance of enduring relationships. The song is shared by Springsteen, Lofgren, Van Zandt, Clemons, and Scialfa, with each taking a line and a chorus, huddled around the microphone, the lights suitably dim, close friends celebrating the ties that hold them together and the ties that brought the group back together after more than a decade apart.

The song becomes a kind of affirmation, a reminder that, despite the hardships Springsteen has so masterfully articulated over the decades, life can be a wonderful thing.

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