Unparalleled in his ability to construct a single story out of new and catalog material, Bruce Springsteen made his first night in New York a two-chapter look at faith and disillusionment peppered with tales of escape and the reclamation of traditional American ideals. In the first 10 shows of the tour, Springsteen has about 15 tunes that make it into every set of about two dozen and, thanks to the songs that give each night a unique flow, Gotham was treated to a rare guitar-driven front section. That muscular and focused 50-minute block was distinct and had impact; second collection had more of a grab-bag feel, highlighted by a raucous reading of “Backstreets” and the intimate “Devil’s Arcade.”
For the first time since he reconstituted the E Street Band in 1999, Springsteen is not using the set as a reminder of glory days or a pitch for a new album disconnected sonically and lyrically from the ‘70s and ‘80s work. He spread out the selections, reaching back to 1972 for the unreleased “Thundercrack” and limiting “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to three songs (“The Promised Land,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Badlands”) and “Born in the U.S.A.” to two (“Darlington County,” “Dancin’ in the Dark“). He connected the dots between “The Rising’s” solemn and celebratory tones (“Lonesome Day” and “The Rising”) and “Magic’s” metaphor-drenched songs of disillusionment (the title track and “Livin’ in the Future”).
Eight songs from new disc “Magic” made it into Wednesday’s set, from the lonesome wail of “Gypsy Biker” to the breezy sentimentality of “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” and the album’s sharpest track, “Long Walk Home.” Ominous tone of the album took a back seat to a band having fun.
Collectively, the album contains Springsteen’s least direct writing. And musically, the Boss has never been so brazen about letting the roots and inspiration of his material reveal themselves — a touch of “Pet Sounds” here, some “Jenny Jenny” there — and while it makes an overall connection to his underappreciated “The River,” individual songs are descendants of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and the albums “Nebraska” and “The Rising.”
The challenge for Springsteen on this tour, and he is handling it well, is to insert the new material to enhance its effectiveness. (As an example, he did that brilliantly in ‘99 with “Murder Inc.”) “Magic,” preceded by a speech about living in Orwellian times that would surprise even George Orwell, had the sold-out house hanging on every word; “Last to Die,” on the other hand, felt like sprawling nonsense on the heels of the compact and deft “The Rising.”
Springsteen has assumed many onstage personas over the years, with the last E Street tour dominated by “the preacher.” This time out he’s a construction worker — the foreman of a crew that’s working hard and fast with no flashy moves. The work ethic is notable from the get-go as they plow through nine songs before they ever let the music fully fade and shut down the lights, Springsteen throwing and catching guitars among his roadies and then counting off the next song before the last has fully finished. Within those nine tunes are some behemoths: “Reason to Believe,” done in a John Lee Hooker boogie style; “Adam Raised a Cain”; and a spirited, performance-of-the-night rendition of “She’s the One” that amplified all of its Bo Diddley rhythmic elements.
Unlike “The Rising” tour, which gave fiddler Soozie Tyrell a hefty dose of the spotlight and relegated Clarence Clemons to tambourine shaker, this tour is spreading out the solo work. Clemons was a bright light Wednesday, and Nils Lofgren, working mostly with a slide, and Steven Van Zandt were distinguishable on every tune. Oddly, by emphasizing the guitar and its role in his music, the similarities in the styles of Springsteen and Van Zandt were magnified over and over.