Springsteen Rises Above ‘Weak’ Stadium Crowd
After all these years I’m still fulfilled, not to mention energized, following a live performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band. Whether he’s playing somber, earnest songs about September 11, 2001, from his latest release, The Rising, or mining his treasured vault for crowd-pleasers, Springsteen and company know how to work an audience as much as the late Bob Hope. But when the audience fails to respond, something’s amiss.
I’ve seen Springsteen in concert no less than 15 times since 1973 when he was the unwelcome opening act for Chicago at Madison Square Garden. But, until last weekend, I never saw him in a stadium setting. They’re essentially for spectator sports with inadequate acoustics that can never be conducive to the pulse-pounding, decibel level of rock and roll. I was hesitant to attend his current, record-breaking ten-show stand at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, but my mild reluctance was surpassed for another opportunity to see The Boss in concert.
Before these shows in the rocker’s native state, there’s a fresh, clever element that enhances the Springsteen experience. It gives fans the option of arriving early for an amusing diversion rather than sitting in traffic on heavily congested arteries leading to the venue or anxiously waiting in seats for the show to begin.
In addition to the pre-event, stadium parking lot tailgating, a Meadowlands Boardwalk has been constructed on a 175,000 square foot section of the parking lot that kinda recreates the atmosphere of the Jersey shore — sans ocean, of course — where the Springsteen legend was nurtured more than 30 years ago.
The Boardwalk area, made up of real pine boards, is free to stroll and browse. There’s also a variety of refreshment and souvenir stands, live music from undiscovered bands, a Ferris wheel, carnival games, beach volleyball on a makeshift beach and a karaoke stage, sponsored by a local classic rock station, where rock star wannabes strut their stuff. Those I witnessed displayed no promise. Nevertheless some were entertaining, a few amusing, and some obviously had consumed an excess of alcohol, perhaps to find the guts to appear before modest crowds. To a degree, all were zealous, like the performer they came to see.
Bruce Springsteen is always wound up when he hits the stage. But his shows work best when the audience is equally energized and involved. From the distant vantage point I had in the first row of the uppermost tier, it seemed to take quite a while — nearly an hour — for the lion’s share of the crowd to become unglued from their seats, through no fault of Springsteen and band. They came on stage ready to party. However, some of the audience appeared detached for most the show, no doubt due to the lack of the venue’s intimacy. In fact, before launching into the first encore, following the 16-song opening set, Springsteen noted the absence of enthusiasm, mildly chastising the crowd of 55,000, calling them "weak" when it should have been in a full blown Saturday night party mood.
A friend who accompanied me was surprised when I agreed. It was her Springsteen concert debut and though she was awed by the crowd’s minor enthusiasm and how most of them sang every word to each song performed, I let her know it was nothing compared to the customary, high-energy reaction.
One of the biggest responses Springsteen got all night was when he made comments he’d been offering nightly before launching into the next to last song, "Land of Hope and Dreams."
"…There have been a lot of questions raised recently about the forthrightness of our government," he said. "This playing with the truth has been part of Republican and Democratic administrations in the past and is always wrong, never more so than when lives are at stake…Demanding accountability from our leaders is our job as citizens. It’s the American way. So the truth will out."
Giants Stadium sits under the flight path of nearby Newark Airport. Therefore, when Springsteen asked the crowd to be as quiet — as much as 55,000 people could be — for "Empty Sky," one of the tunes he wrote in the aftermath of September 11, I found it a bit creepy, less than two years from that fateful day, when he sang the mournful phrase "Empty sky, empty sky," as several commercial airliners passed overhead.
Regardless of that momentary distraction, the rather tame crowd and the stadium setting, seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert with a first-timer was a rewarding experience for this devotee of the Bard from south Jersey.