On the Beat

Concert review: Springsteen rises to the occasion

Bruce Springsteen onstage at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan Stadium, September 2003.
Bruce Springsteen onstage at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan Stadium, September 2003. N&O staff photo by Ethan Hyman.

From the News & Observer archives -- Sept. 15, 2003

If ever there was going to be a night when Bruce Springsteen mailed it in, Sunday probably would have been it. He was playing in a stadium with a lot of fans disguised as empty seats, without a day off from a draining show the previous night in Washington, D.C. A lesser mortal probably would have looked to get through the evening with a minimum of exertion.

But that would be assuming that Springsteen looks at music as a job rather than a calling. So he rocked Kenan Stadium with his usual marathon extravaganza, a 26-song set that clocked in at just under three hours. It had been 20 years since Kenan played host to a rock concert, and this was extravagant enough to take care of another two decades if it comes to that.

Springsteen began the show on a solemn note with country singer Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” in honor of “The Man In Black,” who died Friday (Wednesday in Toronto, he did the same for the recently departed Warren Zevon by opening with Zevon’s “My Ride’s Here”). It wasn’t the tightest version you’ve ever heard, but an affectionate tribute.

Then it was on to “The Rising” and “Lonesome Day,” from his 2002 album “The Rising.” After more than a year on the road, Springsteen’s E Street Band is tight enough to bounce quarters off of, and the ensemble provided one seamless transition and turn-on-a-dime segue after another. Springsteen did let the band carry things more than before -- in contrast to his electric-guitar fireworks in Greensboro last November, he played more acoustic guitar this time. But he still looked fit enough to run a triathlon and actually hung upside down from the microphone stand during “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.”

Songs from “The Rising” formed the heart of the set, making up more than a quarter of its songs. “Empty Sky” was effective, beginning with ghostly vocal wails from Springsteen and Patti Scialfa. “You’re Missing” benefited from Soozie Tyrell’s violin (and also had Springseen’s face so large on the video screens, you could practically count every pore). And “Mary’s Place” is still no “Rosalita,” but all the live work has tightened it into a more-than-worthy successor, and it’s still a good vehicle for his patented soul-man band introductions.

“You wish you could be like him,” Springsteen said in introducing saxophonist Clarence Clemmons. “But you can’t! ’Cause tonight, there’s only one big man on campus!”

The weather was perfect for either football or a concert, although Springsteen seemed bemused by the size and quantity of flying insects swirling around the stage.

“What...is this?!” he asked, holding up a cicada for a closeup on the video screens. “The school mascot?!”

As always, the big guns came out on the oldies. “Darlington County” and “Badlands” were both crushing, and the walloping “She’s the One” might be the best stadium-rock version of the classic Bo Diddley beat that there has ever been. “Jungleland” was beautiful, perfectly paced and dramatically lit.

Things got serious during the encores, especially the one-two punch of “My City of Ruins” and “Born in the U.S.A.” The first song is grounded in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the second in Vietnam. If anyone missed the linkage, Springsteen prefaced “Born in the U.S.A.” with an introduction that touched on recent events in Iraq, calling for “truth and accountability” from those in power. Then he and his band charged into a full-blare rendition every bit as grand as the original 1984 version.

He is still The Man.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi