Ministry of Rock 'n' Roll
United Center - Chicago
September 30, 1999
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 1999, Volume 6, #11
Written by John Metzger
Bruce Springsteen's roots are those of the pure working man. Even after all these years of fame, glory, and tremendous monetary gains, he still hasn't lost that connection. His most recent effort, The Ghost of Tom Joad, was a portrait of an America that remains largely unseen by the upper and middle classes. Furthermore, his sparse, acoustic arrangements made his tales of a country unraveling at the seams all the more haunting as he captured a gritty photograph of America's sad, neglected underbelly.
Though it wasn't exactly the poor who filled Chicago's United Center to capacity for three nights in September, Springsteen proved he was still there for the common folk. It was one of the hottest tickets in recent memory, but the artist found a way to connect with his fans without selling out.
It would have been oh so easy to charge $300 or more per ticket, but that would go against everything in which Springsteen believes. He not only kept the prices reasonably low, but he implemented a purchase plan guaranteed to make life at least a little more difficult for both the legal and illegal scalping operations as well as the rich, who are accustomed to purchasing whatever they desire. The result was that everyone had an equal shot at being in close proximity to the stage — a truly rare occurrence for a venue that generally sits the biggest fans in its upper reaches.
It also would have been easy for Springsteen to waltz through a 90-minute set, but that too goes against his work ethic. Not surprisingly, all three shows clocked in at three solid hours of music, and covered a song selection that spanned his entire career.
It has been more than a decade since Springsteen has performed with the E Street Band, and since breaking up the group, his own tours have been few and far between. On September 30, the final night of the group's three-show run in Chicago, Springsteen laid it all on the line, baring his soul in a performance that was truly epic. His songs of commitment seemed to speak not only of the bond between two lovers, but of those between an artist and both his fans and his band.
It's no wonder that The Ties That Bind made such a perfect focal point for the beginning of the concert. Driven by the simple, yet overwhelming drum beat of Max Weinberg, the song bounded out of a rambunctious Take 'Em As They Come and plowed full-steam into a raging rendition of The Promised Land. Yet, Springsteen was merely warming up. He pulled two more songs out of his hat — the furious assault of Adam Raised a Cain and a fiery Two Hearts — before taking a momentary respite.
The band has gelled considerably since their reunion at the Rock 'n‘ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony earlier this year, and they also appear to have buried any differences they may have had with each other in the past. The group was loose and playful, and Springsteen clearly led the way by dancing, twisting, turning, jumping, bouncing, and tumbling about the stage with the unbridled energy of a man half his age. His antics only fueled the intensity of the music, lifting the songs to heights not quite achieved by their studio counterparts.
The group molded Youngstown into a churning wall of moody atmospherics, punctuated by the blazing guitar pyrotechnics of Nils Lofgren. Murder Incorporated raised the bar yet again, as Lofgren, Springsteen, and Steve Van Zandt stood side-by-side in an earth-shattering triple guitar attack. Born to Run catapulted through its climax with breathtaking intensity, and Badlands floated jubilantly on the hope for a better tomorrow. Springsteen's vocals were guttural roars coming from deep inside his heart, unleashing the pain and agony of life itself.
Providing perfect balance for the evening were the softer selections like the country twang of Mansion on the Hill, which paired Patti Scialfa with her husband on a gorgeous vocal duet, and the mandolin-laced Atlantic City. Roy Bittan's piano served to underscore a transcendent rendition of New York City Serenade, providing the inspiration behind Springsteen's passionate vocal delivery.
Perhaps, though, there was no better moment than on Independence Day. The group captured the desolate loneliness of song by setting the majestic keyboards of Bittan and Danny Federici against the weepy sound of Lofgren's pedal steel guitar. Floating through the song with a soulful grace was the saxophone of Clarence Clemons, while Springsteen's harmonica drove home the inherent sadness with a rain of notes that fell like tears as he connected with the young man who wrote these words to his father.
Indeed, Springsteen had managed to throw a huge party for those in attendance, making the audience a huge part of his performance. Yet, behind all the fun stood a message to America. At the center of this stood The Ghost of Tom Joad, which began with a whisper of Springsteen's voice against the gentle strum of acoustic guitar. Gradually he was joined by other members of the band. First, Federici added a soothing accordion accompaniment, then Lofgren began to flavor the song with pedal steel, while Garry Tallent added a steady rhythm on upright bass. It was a truly haunting rendition, made all the more so when Springsteen dedicated it to the Greater Chicago Food Depository — a not-for-profit organization stationed in the arena's lobby to collect money to feed the homeless.
The message became clearer as Springsteen interrupted a rousing Light of Day to deliver a sermon about the ministry of rock 'n‘ roll. It all boils down to this — love and compassion are the ties that bind us all together. It's not every man for himself as big business would have us believe. Instead, our spiritual journey is a team effort, and Springsteen is offering redemption through his music. As he sang on Badlands, "I believe in the love that you gave me/I believe in the faith that can save me/I believe in the hope and I pray that someday it may raise me above these badlands." If we all climb on board and share his vision and give him one last chance to make it real, Springsteen promises we will emerge not in a cold and lonely world but instead will escape from it into a promised land full of hope and dreams.
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