Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Frank Erwin Center, April 17

Live Shots

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band

Frank Erwin Center, April 17

Life is good here in the promised land. If Bruce Springsteen's themes -- rivers, cars, highways, girls, work, freedom -- have always been quintessentially American, the fundamentalist zeal of his music is outright Lincolnesque. There really is no retreat, no surrender. He may have been preaching to the choir at Monday night's sold-out "rock & roll baptism," but those three hours and 15 minutes still carried all the fervor of a lone voice crying out in the wilderness. Heavy on Born to Run and The River, the set traced the E Street Band's evolution from a gang of knock-kneed Jersey upstarts to international standard-bearers of old-time rock & roll fluidly and convincingly, making the absence of crowd-pleasers like "Hungry Heart" positively immaterial. Every member of the nine-piece outfit had ample opportunity to shine, starting with big man Clarence Clemons' epic sax break about two minutes into opener "The Ties That Bind." There was drummer Max Weinberg flailing away on "Prove It All Night," Nils Lofgren's poignant steel guitar work on "Mansion on the Hill," Sopranos star Steve Van Zandt's searing "Murder Incorporated" guitar solo, the keyboard tandem of pianist Roy Bittan and organist Danny Federci enlivening "Out in the Street," bassist Garry Tallent's eloquent standup work on "Meeting Across the River," and acoustic guitarist Patti Scialfa's red-headed cool on "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," her willowy nonchalance even managing to upstage her husband as he snorted and contorted across the stage in full-on revival mode. Vein-popping anthems like "Two Hearts," "Youngstown," and "Badlands" worked the band's outsize blue-collar aesthetic to the hilt, but the more reflective numbers were equally riveting. Spotlit by Clemons' smoky intro, "The River" was even more forlorn than on the album, and Springsteen's reworking of "Born in the USA" into a solo, Charley Patton-style blues was as pointed as the almost Middle Eastern twang of his 12-string bottleneck slide. He even stuck a social conscience in the midst of all the spectacle, sending "The Ghost of Tom Joad" out to Austin's Capital Area Food Bank. "We've come thousands and thousands of miles on a search and rescue mission," the Boss announced as the band turned the corner into "Light of Day," accomplishing said goal in a ripping flurry of sax, piano, six-strings, and drums. The encores pushed the needle even further into the red, starting with a guest shot from Lone Star stallion Joe Ely on a fiery "All Just to Get to You." "Bobby Jean" was a choice nugget from the underrepresented Born in the USA, and "Born to Run" climaxed in a sweeping U2-like singalong. After a sweat-drenched "Thunder Road," Springsteen, Van Zandt, Lofgren, Clemons, and Scialfa took turns singing lead on "If I Should Fall Behind," Little Steve's throaty rasp somehow sandpapery and tender all at once. Almost home, Federci's ocean-size B-3 swells helped "Land of Hope and Dreams" mutate into the Staples Singers standby "This Train," once again bringing the music's gospel roots to the fore. "Come on, Texas!" Springsteen exhorted, and as the double-barreled thrust of "Ramrod" closed out the night, it was clear his runaway American dream is as bound for glory as ever. God bless rock & roll, and God bless America!

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