Shortly before I returned from vacation I received an email from my church treasurer. It had some updates on ongoing projects, nothing out of the ordinary. The last line, however, stood out. It said, “I would also like for you to be my guest at the Bruce Springsteen concert on September 2.” Accepting the invitation was a no-brainer.
Now, I'm not much of a concert-goer. Actually, I'm not much of a music-listener at all. I find listening to music too distracting when I'm trying to write, read, or do other work. As such, I don't find much time to partake. I appreciate good music, and I love to sing, but listening is not one of my frequent pass-times. Since I've been at Central, however, Larry has shared his love of Bruce's music with me. He's shared books on the Catholic themes found in his music, posited that we should get the choir or band to play some of his music during worship, and even purchased “Wrecking Ball” for me this past spring. Before meeting Larry, Bruce Springsteen had always been a cultural force I was aware of, but not one I truly appreciated. After years of being introduced to the depth of Springsteen's music, I can say I'm beginning to appreciate his artistry. Wrecking Ball, in particular, is an album I've listened to over and over and over again. With Larry, I think our Church should be introduced to Rocky Ground at some point. My growing appreciation for Bruce's music meant that, if I were go to any concert, it would be his.
I had never been to a concert at Citizen's Bank Park, so I didn't know what to expect when I arrived. The setup was impressive. Most of center field was filled by a massive stage and three screens. Ramps travelled down from the stage at the front and sides for Bruce and other band members to travel upon during the concert. The lighting and speaker rigs which adorned to structure were equally large. The lighting platform over the front of the stage actually held four or five people inside it's triangular frame. These guys climbed to the platform on metal “rope-ladders” and remained up there the entire show. It would not be a job I would want, especially given the humidity of the night – the heat on that platform has to be insane.
The sound system was adequate, but the treble was up too high. Bruce uses an impressive brass section, as well as some strings, in his music – which is one of most attractive points of the sound for me. In the concert, however, the over-loaded treble occasionally transformed the string and brass instruments into little more than white noise. As far as a stadium concert goes it wasn't terrible, but even Larry said he'd never heard the sound set up like that before.
Bruce's shows aren't about wowing people with gimmicky visuals, and the lighting choices reflected his style. The lighting was very good, and played with the music seamlessly. Actually, the lighting blended in with the show so well I forgot it was there most of the time. That's probably the best compliment I can give to the lighting director, it “just worked.”
Bruce Springsteen is insane.
There was no opening act, just Bruce listed at 7:30PM. He began about 30 minutes after the scheduled start, and played until just before midnight. Without a break. During songs he weaved in and out of the crowd to several platforms set up in the field. He interacted with the audience, and even paid compliments to folks as he passed them. At one point even he was taken aback a bit by the sight of a baby adorned in green ear protectors, “Hey look, there's a baby here!” he shouted.
As Bruce went around the crowd he began collecting people's signs, which I had never seen before. A bit later in the show he began to page through them, making comments – when he came across a sign with the name of a song he would show it to the band, prop the sign on his microphone, and sing it. About one song, “Rockin' at Night” he declared, “I don't think we've sung that in 25 years, but I bet we can still play it.” After working on some cords with the band, play it he did. From memory. After 25 years. Wow.
Bruce's comfort on the stage is what makes him such a good show-man. He loves interacting with the crowd, his band-mates, and has no problems going “off-script.” As he worked out “Rockin' at Night,” for example, he spent a good two or three minutes simply working with the band on the progression. Even as he did so, he was still very much present to the audience. He even kept a running commentary while he went through. Rather than being a moment of boredom, it became a brief moment of insight into how the band works together. Performers who are less sure of themselves, would never ad lib in that way – Bruce is so prepared he made it look planned.
The concert set ended around 10:30 or so with a bow and a brief moment of darkness. Then began the encore, which ended around 11:50. His encore was longer than some band's shows. By the end of the night, he was still jogging, crowd-surfing, dancing, and playing with the audience. Citizen's Bank Park turned on the lights three songs into the encore, but it did little to slow the party down. In fact, the sudden day-glow on the field actually seemed to draw Bruce out into the audience more. During “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” Bruce was 25-30 yards from the main stage, performing flawlessly with his distant bandmates. Then, at the line, “And the Big Man joined the Band” everything paused for a video tribute to Clarence Clemmons – 3 ½ hours in the show, the crowd took their roar up a notch.
Phildalephia was one of the first cities, to embrace Springsteen's music, and decades later that bond still shows. During “Wrecking Ball” his lines about the Giants were lustily booed by the Philly crowd, and you could see Bruce laugh heartily at the response. Even though the song is about the destruction of the Meadowlands, during the performance he made sure to show a video of the demolition of Veteran's Stadium. He did say, “The Spectrum” in reference to it – but as I think it was his only mistake all night I'll let it pass. Knowing the iconic structure was part of his audience's memory, and seeing that it was paid tribute too, demonstrated the link Philly has with him.
Theology at a “secular” concert? Heck ya.
Bruce's music is rife with Catholic imagery and eschatological hope. During the concert he frequently made reference to “ghosts,” which were all those good things in the past which are lost to us and yet still part of us. The value of the the “ghosts” for Bruce, was the memory and presence of love. The echo of the “cloud of witnesses” was palpable.
Prior to performing “Spirit of the Night” Bruce took on the persona of a black preacher, and the audience a congregation. He shouted, “Can you feel the spirit?” The crowd roared back in affirmation. At this moment my theological mind kicked in – I looked around at the crowd lost in ecstasy and thought, “This is a moment of transcendance for a lot of these people.”
After the main set ended with “Land of Hopes and Dreams” Bruce came back and spoke of the “train” which is coming, and has been talked about for centuries, but never seems to get here. To help make sense of it, he remarked at how we went back to explore some of the people who had talked about the “train” over the years. These reflections led to the song, “We Are Alive.” This song continues the strong allusions to the cloud of witnesses, adding to them a vague hope of resurrection. “We Are Alive” is my favorite song in the Wrecking Ball album.
As I wrote in the previous section, attending a Bruce Springsteen concert is a a moment of trascendance for many in attendance. People come expecting an experience, and they recieve one. For many, Springsteen's spiritual musings may be the most religious thing they do all year, even for the church-goers in the audience.
Since the arrival of the entertainment culture in the 20th Century Churches have struggled with this transcendant expectation. Religious euphoria seems to be a built-in need for human-beings, and it seems that sports, movies, or a rock concert fill that need as good as any religious service. I'm sure many would say it fulfills the need better than any religious service.
In response, churches have tried to capture the religious euphoria of entertainment. Sanctuaries have become concert halls, sermons sound like the pre-game shows on FOX sports, and Sunday performances strive to capture the melodrama of the movies. “Contemporary” churches seem to be, in fact, the only ones which are growing.
As I enjoyed Bruce Springsteen on Sunday night, however, I saw again the folly of this religious response to the entertainment culture. As much as people did experience a taste of transcendance at the Ballpark, it was the fabrication of lights, sound, and the personality of Bruce which lead them there. People came expecting to have Bruce take them somewhere, and he did.
Many people come to church without any such expectations. They come expecting to sing some songs they like, hear a sermon they don't hate, and drop some money in the plate. Many “strong Christians” come to worship on Sunday out of grudging obligation instead of hopeful expectation. Even when people come to church in expectation they tend to come with the same mentality of a concert-goer. They come expecting the band, choir, dancers, pastor to take them somewhere. If they don't go anywhere – then those performers failed to deliver.
Worship, however, shouldn't be dependent on the people “up front” to take the congregation places. In fact the band, choir, organist, dancers, and pastors are actually supposed to be on the same journey as the congregation-at-large. When we come to worship looking for a transcendant experience, it shouldn't be based on the things we've set up. Rather, our hope to capture a glimpse of what Bruce calls, “the train which is always coming” needs to fall upon our Savior. Through the Spirit we can be taken places in worship, hear the “train” coming, and maybe participate in proclaiming it ourselves.
Seeing Bruce Springsteen in concert was an incredible way to end the Summer, and the experience has reminded me just how much the Church has to re-learn.