Last week, some peculiar and fortunate alignment of the planets brought both of my favorite musical artists to my home state of Connecticut within two days of each other. This same alignment also had some influence on the capricious Ticketmaster gods, as I was able to get really great seats for both shows. It was, simply put, quite a week.
On Wednesday, June 20, Bruce Springsteen played the Arena at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. This relatively new sports and entertainment complex, literally in the shadow of I-95 in this historically troubled city, seemed like an appropriate setting for this show, hinting as it does of rebirth and renewal amongst the urban blight. Touring solo in support of his recent release, Devils & Dust, Springsteen treated the sold-out house to a setlist that spanned his 30-plus year career, reaching as far back as “Lost In The Flood” and including lots of selections from both the new release and 2002’s The Rising. Springsteen accompanied himself variously throughout the show on guitar, harmonica, piano and pump organ. Stripped of the bombast and occasional excess of the E Street Band, dependent entirely on Springsteen’s raw voice and the sparseness of the accompaniment, the lyrics stood on their own merit, and the familiar songs took on a more personal, almost prayerful, significance. I found “The River” and “Racing In The Street” to be among the more moving moments of the evening. The quiet of the performance was broken by the strange stage rush (I’ll get to that in a minute) at the end of “Matamoros Banks”, and the encore finally had the faithful on their feet while Springsteen walked the edge of the stage, grasping outstretched hands and reminding us why he’s still one of the best performers of all time. His choice of Alan Vega’s “Dream Baby Dream” as a closer was an inspired one.
Friday, June 22, brought Elvis Costello and The Imposters to the newly-renamed Chevrolet Theater in Wallingford (formerly the Oakdale Theater), accompanied by Emmylou Harris. The evening found Costello and company charging their way through a thirty-nine song setlist that kept them onstage for a full three hours. Costello and the Imposters opened the show in their usual machine-gun fashion, blasting quickly and proficiently through the first few songs. A minor guitar malfunction at the beginning of “Monkey To Man” had Costello switching instruments and launching into “Clubland” while the guitar got fixed. After a while, Costello introduced Emmylou Harris and the evening changed from a typical Imposters outing to a bit of a country one. Costello and Harris sounded wonderful together, and for me, a highlight of the evening was their pairing on “Wild Horses”. Then Harris left the stage and we were alone with Elvis and the guys again for a while until Harris re-joined them for the end of the show. The crowd was on its feet by then, and Elvis showed little inclination to leave the building during the encore. While there were no musical surprises here (it was a pretty conventional selection of songs, with not much in the way of obscurities for those who keep track of such things), the level of musicianship and enthusiasm was high, and the result was one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time.
As an aside, both evenings had their humorous moments. Most people who have followed Springsteen for any length of time know that his performances often seem like a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the level of seemingly pre-scripted audience participation they contain. I had read on one of the fan boards that the song “Matamoros Banks” was the signal for a stage rush on this tour. As Springsteen sang it, I was half-expecting barely controlled pandemonium to break out, but it didn’t. We were seated on the aisle, and as the song was drawing to a close, we watched in amusement as large numbers of people came creeping silently down the aisles toward the stage, crouched low to the ground so as not to disturb the performance. As the last notes sounded, they all stood up and crowded the stage. At the Costello show, I looked over to the very center section of the orchestra seats and realized that Elvis was looking out at a sea of overweight, balding middle-aged men who were pumping fists in the air with abandon and dancing in place. I couldn’t help but laugh.
Concert antics of middle-aged fans aside, Springsteen and Costello are arguably two of the best songwriters of their generation. The chronology of Springsteen’s career parallels that of my adult life, so his music pushes all of the memory buttons. It’s music for my heart. Costello, certainly one of the smarter lyricists around, appeals to my intellect. If he hadn’t been a musician, he certainly would have been a writer. They are both consummate performers and good storytellers, and if they promise to keep on doing what they do so well, I promise to keep buying tickets.