It was no accident that on tax-reckoning day, the same day Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was holding a forum in downtown L.A. to address the Golden State's buckling economy, Bruce Springsteen put a decidedly California spin on his overarching musical message about holding onto hope even in the face of such hard times.
Springsteen invited local political firebrand Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine/the Nightwatchman fame, to join him on stage Wednesday at the first of two consecutive nights at the Los Angeles Sports Arena for a savage duet on "The Ghost of Tom Joad," the Boss' 1995 Steinbeck-inspired treatise on those who've been let down or forgotten in the promised land:
He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box 'neath the underpass
He and Morello traded impassioned verses, with E Street Band guitarists "Miami" Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren ceding the spotlight to Morello for a rapid-fire solo that screamed outrage. During the encore segment, Morello returned for a choir-like reading of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More."
Springsteen might have stumped for then Sen. Barack Obama and played in Washington to celebrate his election, but he knows that systemic change doesn't happen overnight and that hope remains a fragile thing in troubled times.
Rifling through his ever-expanding songbook, he stitched together a set focused less on promoting his latest album, "Working on a Dream," than on shoring up hope while acknowledging how much work still needs to be done to fulfill the American dream.
"We're here with a mighty purpose in mind!" the 59-year-old Jerseyite told a sea of cheering onlookers after the first handful of songs. "We're gonna rock the house! But we're not only going to rock the house, we're going to build a house. We're going to take fear and build a house of love; we're going to take sadness and build a house of joy; we're going to take doubt and build a house of faith; we're going to take despair and build a house of hope."
Springsteen's two-hour-and-45-minute show before a sellout crowd of 15,000 roared to life with "Badlands," one of four songs from 1978's "Darkness on the Edge of Town," the album that provided the backbone for the first of the Sports Arena concerts. The lyric, "For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside, that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive," set the tone for the evening, and led directly to that album's title track, a 1-2 punch of raw emotion.
From there he shifted to the musical present with "Outlaw Pete," the eight-minute epic from "Working on a Dream." The attempt seemed to be something akin to director Sergio Leone's leap from the brute force of his early Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns to the expansive elegance of "Once Upon a Time in the West." But "Pete," for all its shifting tempos and allegorical language, ultimately reaches beyond its own grasp.
Desperate times call for desperate music, which on Wednesday swung the pendulum in favor of clarion-call tunes such as "Johnny 99" and "The Promised Land" over the pop balladry of "Working on a Dream" and even the romantic dedication of "Kingdom of Days," his ode to life with wife Patti Scialfa, who was absent without explanation from the band.
The most successful current selection was "The Wrestler," its testament to the resilience of the human spirit playing out as an update to the impassioned youthful idealism so prevalent among the characters in Springsteen's '70s and '80s tunes.
Ever the populist, Springsteen honored a few requests from fans handed to him in the form of placards listing desired songs. On this night, "Raise Your Hand" injected a vintage R&B feel into the mix, and "Spirit in the Night" took longtime listeners back to his debut album.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about the characteristically invigorating performance is that on returning to L.A., the site of so many high-watermark Springsteen performances, America's quintessential classic rocker had to compete for the title of king of the emotional marathon concert with a 74-year-old Canadian poet.
During soul-stirring three-and-a-half-hour tour de force shows at the nearby Nokia Theatre less than a week before, Leonard Cohen had used his mastery of language and spiritual understanding to zero in on humanity's eternal struggles.
To be sure, Springsteen and company provided plenty of deeply felt music Wednesday, but he delivered something more earthbound: a much-needed message of optimism to counter the daily doses of grim news bombarding us.
If Obama decides the time is right for an inspiration czar, Springsteen would be the logical person to step up and proclaim, "I'm your man."