The crowd is getting restless. Many of them have been on their feet for two and a half hours by now, crammed together against one another. But none of them are angry. Annoyed, perhaps, but never mad. Not at him.
Suddenly, the room goes dark, and the people’s anxious murmuring instantly ramps up into a symphony of praise, whoops and screams of every human frequency. In the darkness, dark forms glide onto a raised platform. They move quietly, but they don’t need to – no stomping feet or creaky floorboard could be heard above the croud.
The black figures solemnly raise their tools to their arms, lock themselves into their places. Eleven thousand heartbeats hit the redline as, at the center of the proscenium, one of the men steps forward to a microphone.
He opens his mouth. Some in this room have waited their entire lives for this moment, just to hear this man’s voice, this man’s words with their very own ears. It doesn’t matter whether they understand his tongue. His messages are universal.
And with a voice as famous as any, he asks one question.
“Is there anybody alive out there?!?”
A shock wave of affirmation smashes across the hall as everyone replies in unison. In that moment, there is no fear, no pain, no war or hate or evil. Only joy. It is a moment none of those assembled will ever forget.
He asks the question once more. The roar that follows could topple the walls of Jericho.
Satisfied, he lifts his guitar, and magic flows from his fingers.
Any unexpected seismic activity in northern Italy on Wednesday, November 28th could be attributed to my presence at the Bruce Springsteen concert in Milan that night.
When my throat grew too hoarse to bellow, I pounded my palms to the E Street rhythm. When my hands grew too sore, I stomped my feet to the beat of Max Weinberg’s drums. For two and a half hours, I pumped my fists until my arms burned. Every second of it was pure bliss.
I came to Milan from Prague for one reason: as Bruce puts it in “Radio Nowhere,” I just wanted to hear some rhythm. My hopes were admittedly high; the single time I’d seen him in concert before, during the climactic Washington, D.C. show of his 2004 “Vote for Change” tour, I easily rank as one of the ten greatest experiences of my life.
But that was a couple years ago, in a politically charged concert with 30,000 Americans, united by a desire to change the world – or at least, the tenant in the White House. We might not have given Dubya the boot, but for those seven hours (it was a very long show), it felt like the power of rock and roll could change the very course of history itself.
And the engine driving that crusade that night was Bruce. He didn’t just sing – he preached, weaving messages of hope and power with messianic fervor between the verses. In the midst of one song, he slid on his knees 20 feet across a wooden stage. It was Springsteen with a purpose, burning hot with the fire of the American dream he’s come to symbolize.
Three years later, I wasn’t expecting so much righteous fury. The show was in another country, the election was well past, and life had moved on. Still, I hoped there’d still be enough heat in the show to keep the memory alive.
I needn’t have worried. From the get-go, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band delivered everything I could have hoped for.
Interestingly, he didn’t play many of the hits from the era that initially raised him to the heights of popularity he’s reached today. Only a single song from Born in the U.S.A. was to be heard.
Instead, he mixed his newer songs with those from his earlier works. I wasn’t complaining. I’ve often preferred the more optimistic (though no less complex) songs from Springsteen’s earlier works. While Born in the U.S.A. will forever be a classic, I’ll wear out my copy of Born to Run well before I need to replace Bruce’s most famous album.
Unsurprisingly, given the nature of the artist, the concert was as much a commentary on the current state of America as the new album is. “Reason to Believe” did not follow “Magic” by coincidence. Instead, Bruce used the concert to show the world as he sees it: a leader who deceives his people, an unjust war that leaves people emotionally devastated, a nation adrift in apathy in spite of a million reasons not to be.
Perhaps it was these messages – so targeted towards the American land – that kept the Italian audience from reaching the level of enthusiasm I’d hoped for. While their love for the Boss was evident from the moment the gates opened and people sprinted to grab a spot by the stage, there were still quite a few people who remained seated throughout much, if not all, of the show.
(Many of them, in fact, were located in the “guests of the band” section with us. I may have accidentally kneed one unenthusiastic woman in the back a couple times.)
And despite Bruce’s best efforts to clarify the songs’ meanings to the Italian crowd –carefully reading from an Italian version of his usual explanation taped to the floor by his mike – the masses seemed more excited to raise the roof to “Badlands” than to grasp the subtleties of “Livin’ In the Future.”
But with Bruce, despair always comes hand in hand with hope, whether ironic or sincere. “She’s The One” and “I’ll Work For Your Love” spoke to the power of true romance. (“Any lovers out there?” Bruce asked before starting the latter.) “Girls In Their Summer Clothes” was pure old-fashioned Springsteen, celebrating the beauty of the middle of July in his native New Jersey.
Sadly, the concert didn’t feature any of the drawn-out pre-song soliloquies Bruce is known for (see the version of “The River” from the album Live 1975-1985 to see what I mean), perhaps as part of the measure to pare down the concerts from the marathon-length four-hour jam sessions they once were. But that’s understandable – after all, the entire band’s membership is now AARP eligible, and I’d rather see a shorter, tighter show than a drawn-out one.
While every song rocked the house, there were a few worth mentioning specifically. “Reason to Believe,” originally a quiet, acoustic reflection on humanity’s (seemingly foolhardy) optimism, was rebuilt into a rip-roarin’ badass rocker of a number with a George Thorogood beat. “She’s The One,” an underrated favorite of mine, was incredible to hear in concert. And “Last To Die,” a powerful song in its own right, hit ten times harder than it ever did on the album. Live, the song’s fury bursts free, revealing a heart shared with the greatest anti-war protest songs.
It was all I could have asked for.
The Magic tour will be traversing the U.S.A. again come this February for several months. Go. And you’ll find your own reason to believe.