Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band delivered
An hour into his Sunday afternoon New Orleans Jazz Fest tour de force with the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen issued a statement of purpose. "We are here to summon up ghosts," he said, "and to stimulate the sexual organs."
Over nearly three hours at the Acura Stage, Springsteen and company alternated higher purpose with baser instincts, salvation with sin, courtroom with barroom. It is a testament to his power, purpose and presence of mind as a performer that he can orchestrate such disparate moments and moods within a single, nearly non-stop performance.
Springsteen, of course, has a history with Jazz Fest. At the 2006 festival, the first after Hurricane Katrina, he and his largely untested Seeger Sessions Band rose to the occasion with a show for the ages. Equal parts exorcism, outrage and embrace, it stoked and soothed still-raw emotions.
His return with his veteran E Street Band was the most anticipated booking of the 2012 Jazz Fest. The vast audience that overflowed the Acura Stage field, rendering the dirt track all but impassable at points, spoke to that anticipation.
Thus, Springsteen was allotted two and a half hours, the longest set of the festival. It was time, and money, well spent.
He and the E Street Band opened with the one-two punch of the anthem "Badlands" and "We Take Care of Our Own," the first single from his recent "Wrecking Ball" album.
"Wrecking Ball" crackles with righteous indignation, some of it inspired by Katrina and its aftermath. As he sang "from the shotgun shacks to the Superdome," he raised a fist in the direction of downtown. He pumped that fist through the "hey, hey!" coda, as the band played loud and long.
Rock 'n' roll is not perfect, and neither was Springsteen. Squinting at the tens of thousands of faces that stared back at him, he noted, "We're used to playing in the dark. Seeing everything is completely (screwing) us up."
He aborted the first stab at the "Wrecking Ball" title track to swap guitars. "Can't be too far out of tune at Jazz Fest," he cracked. After a suitably exuberant run-through -- and after he and guitarist Nils Lofgren stumbled -- he exclaimed, "It's dangerous up here!"
But at 62, he invests, and expends, more onstage than many musicians half his age. He directed his bandmates, altering arrangements on the fly. Those bandmates brought much to the table, from drummer Max Weinberg's mighty strokes to Lofgren's slide guitar solo to Garry Tallent's robust bass.
This is the first E Street Band tour since the death of Clarence Clemons, its longtime saxophonist. In his place is a five-piece horn section that includes Jake Clemons, Clarence's nephew. He acquitted himself in the spotlight, starting with his "Badlands" solo.
"Anybody here back in 2006?" Springsteen asked, to cheers. He embarked on a long monologue about calling up ghosts, and that New Orleans is full of them, "ghosts that are powerful enough to haunt the rest of the nation."
With that, he swung into "My City of Ruins." Initially written for Asbury Park, N.J., it hit especially close to home at Jazz Fest in 2006. Many listeners wept.
As befitting the city's progress, Sunday's "My City of Ruins" was not so dark as in '06. It swayed like a gospel choir, couched in church organ and goosed by trombone, sax and muted trumpet solos. "Are you missing anybody?" Springsteen shouted. "Then raise your voices and let them hear you."
He resurrected "O Mary Don't You Weep" and "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," both highlights of the '06 Jazz Fest. Those evocations of hard times segued into more recent economic hard times with his new album's "Jack of All Trades." "Crimes were committed, damage was done," he said.
Such sentiments are a tough sell in a festival setting. Changing course, Springsteen called out Dr. John, who preceded him on the Acura Stage. Dr. John led the E Street Band through an extremely laid-back "Something You've Got."
"It's all about the groove," Springsteen said afterward. "We can't make that groove in New Jersey. Everybody (would say), 'That's too slow! That's too slow!'"
"Prove It All Night," spiked with Springsteen's own jagged electric guitar solo, signaled another shift. He let his horn section off the chain in "Johnny 99."
In an exuberant "Waiting on a Sunny Day," he briefly crowd-surfed, then pulled up a teenage boy to croak his way through the chorus. "The Rising" and "Lonesome Day" lived up to their reputations as big songs meant for big gatherings.
Finding a happy ending for the "Wrecking Ball" CD was not easy, he said. He came up with "We Are Alive," which considers death little hindrance to the spirits and souls who carry on the good fight. At Jazz Fest, it lifted off like an Irish pub - or Irish wake -- singalong.
In the joyous "Pay Me My Money Down," Springsteen joined a woman down front for a hips-to-hips dance. "My sexual organs are stimulated," he announced, grinning.
Building momentum, the E Street Band uncorked a powerhouse "Born to Run," followed by an all-out "Dancin' in the Dark." The Boss took dancing lessons and sign language lessons from two women, then retreated to a bin of water and sponged himself off.
"Thank you for making us feel at home again," he said, before downshifting one last time. Vocalist Michelle More stepped up to sing the gospel - and the rap - of "Rocky Ground." Face clenched, eyes closed, Springsteen whispered of "traveling in the footsteps of those who came before/All will be reunited on that distant shore."
In a Moment with a capital M, he slipped into the obscure verses of "When the Saints Go Marching In" deployed so effectively in 2006: "Some say this world of trouble is the only world we'll ever see/but I'm waiting for that moment when the new world is revealed."
Out on the vast field, there was silence. Thousands stood riveted. Very few performers could pull off such a moment. Few would even try.
Mission accomplished, it was time to have a little (more) fun with "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out." Springsteen retrieved a "New Orleans Loves Clarence" sign from the audience and posted it onstage. He also retrieved a can of beer, popped the top, slurped it, then poured the rest down his back.
Short of levitating, he could have done no more. It might not have been quite the religious experience that 2006 was. But rock 'n' roll rarely gets any better than the Boss was on Sunday.
Keith Spera can be reached at email@example.com or 504.826.3470. Follow him on Twitter at keithsperaTP.
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