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Bruce Springsteen, tour 2009: working on a dream

As he and the E Street Band kick off a world tour, the troubadour for troubled times reflects on where he's been and where he's headed.

April 05, 2009|Geoff Boucher

ASBURY PARK, N.J. — "There are a lot of ghosts in this place," Bruce Springsteen said as his boots clomped on an ancient staircase at the Asbury Park Convention Hall. It was here in this old seaside venue that Springsteen, as a teenager, watched Jim Morrison prowl the stage and Keith Moon thunder away on drums for the Who. It was also in the corridors here that he brushed past a wild-child named Janis Joplin. "Our elbows, they came this close," said Springsteen, somehow still amazed that a Jersey kid could come within arm's reach of rock history.

Unlike those lost icons, Springsteen was built for the long haul. He will turn 60 in September, and he'll do so while on the road with the E Street Band supporting their latest album, "Working on a Dream." The world tour (which comes to the Los Angeles Sports Arena on April 15 and 16) officially began Wednesday in San Jose, but it was in late March, here at this creaky boardwalk venue, that Springsteen began working on "the conversation" of the concert tour, as he calls it, trying out the new songs in front of a live audience for the first time.

On a blustery Monday afternoon, just hours before the first of two charity shows, Springsteen arrived at the venue with a 155-year-old surprise for his bandmates. During sound check he told the singers in the group to line up along the lip of the stage and, looking down at the lyrics, Springsteen coached them through a late addition to their opening-night lineup, a Civil War-era lament by Stephen Foster called "Hard Times Come Again No More":

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It's a song that the wind blows across the troubled wave

It's a cry that is heard along the shore.

It's the words that are whispered beside the lowly grave

When hard times will come again no more.

It's a song and a sigh of the weary.

Hard times, hard times, come again no more.

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Afterward, Springsteen leaned against a pockmarked wall and plucked at his Telecaster with a distracted look on his face. "We're sort of in search of the show," he said. "I've got half a thing planned in my head . . . mainly we're getting the new songs down and then finding the things that are in tune with the times and what's going on out there right now. But, you know, we are a band built for hard times."

Still, nothing comes easy these days for the E Street Band. The band prides itself on work ethic, but the struggles are different now. Two members are coming off of major surgery and then there's the hardscrabble nature of the music business these days. Album sales (494,000 copies in the U.S.) are good, not great, and the tour hasn't stirred the same sort of mad scramble as the old days. There are 3 1/2 decades in the band's rear-view mirror too, but Springsteen has his eye on the road ahead.

"The live show is a current event at all times," said Springsteen,who, more than any other performer, has figured out how to be Woody Guthrie and Elvis Presley at the same time. In January, he serenaded a new president by singing "The Rising," his wrenching Sept. 11 spiritual, with a red-robed choir at the Lincoln Memorial; a few weeks later it was Springsteen the showman, belting out a 12-minute medley with "Glory Days" and "Born to Run" between the fireworks and cheerleaders of the Super Bowl halftime show. "There were some requests for 'The Ghost of Tom Joad,' " Springsteen deadpanned when asked about his jukebox duty at the ballgame, "but we decided to save that one for a different day."

The inaugural event was a natural for a man who, as he puts it, has "been involved in national conversation" for a long time, but the Super Bowl appearance came with the risk of crassness. Springsteen said he took the booking because of his confidence in halftime producer Don Mischer (who also handled the inauguration concert), but there was another pragmatic motivation as well.

"I've said no for about 10 years or however long they've been asking, but, I tell you, we played on the last tour and there were some empty seats here and there and, well, there shouldn't be any empty seats at an E Street Band show. I hold pride that we remain one of the great wonders of the world . . . so sometimes you got to remind people a little bit."

For the singer, it's not enough to be an essential artist, he also wants to be urgent. He mocked the idea of "heritage" or "legacy" acts, the concert-industry jargon for aging bands that tour with just the old hits. "Resting on their laurels, resting on their . . . legacy," he said with a wicked grin. " 'Hey, I'm sitting on my legacy! Ow, my legacy's killing me!' "

The forever-young Springsteen seemed to be pulsing with new reasons to believe after watching the election of Barack Obama.

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