By Mark Guarino
Is there any rock band on earth happier-go-luckier than the E Street Band? For 34 years, this tribe of eight players has not squared off in public feuds, thrown fits in front of the audience, let drink or drugs do them in, or seen road fatigue wear down a performance. The collective and persistent good cheer is worthy of The Partridge Family but without the curfew.
It is likely due to their boss, “The Boss,” Bruce Springsteen, who is the clear energizer of this group and continues to be one of the most galvanizing performers in rock. At the United Center Sunday, the first of two shows, Springsteen worked for just over two hours to defy the lethargy most likely associated with late middle age. (He is 58.) That’s not to say he’s become predictable. In recent years Springsteen has written more protest songs and been more open regarding his disdain of the current White House occupants, but that hasn’t left his live shows lacking. For Springsteen, the times have not changed for the better, but it’s better to take witness by standing at attention than passively nestled in your comfortable seat.
The band’s jubilation feels more vigorous because this time out the E Streeters arrived accompanied by the songs of “Magic” (Columbia), the best album from Springsteen in 20 years. He played a hefty dose of those new songs — opening with the power pop single “Radio Nowhere” and, much later, the more sedate and textured “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” The new songs are angrier and more impatient. While he included “The Rising,” a song debuted after Sept. 11, its rousing message of unity felt, this time at least, exhausted. It was eclipsed by what followed: “Last to Die,” a new song that sounded big, urgent and — considering its chorus asks “who’ll the last to die for a mistake?” — filled with outrage.
He also made an effort to refashion older songs by bringing them together with more recent entries. In an introduction to “Livin’ in the Future,” Springsteen dedicated the song to “all the things we love about America: cheeseburgers, trans fats, the Bill of Rights, Wrigley Field.” On a more serious note, he said the song was about “sleeping through changes that shouldn’t have happened here, but happened here.”
Bleeding the song into “The Promised Land,” Springsteen departed from the jovial bandleader role he typically plays to making a grand statement how personal and universal futures are inevitably intertwined, for better or for worse.
He also played lead guitar throughout the night. One of the more underrated guitarists, Springsteen played notes as if strangling them, leaving them to wash in the long sustain. He concentrated more on songs sure to please diehards more than casual fans (“Thundercrack,” “She’s the One,” “Adam Raised the Cain”), preferring his work from the 1970’s and 1990’s, and leaving the 1980’s mostly at rest.
That is, except “Reason to Believe.” The minimalist gem from “Nebraska” was revved up courtesy of a borrowed lick from John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillen’.” Growling through his harmonica’s microphone, Springsteen muddied the song, draping it with murky danger and — with E Streeters cued to kick in — a concluding jolt of electricity.