I got a chance to see Springsteen the other night, in New Jersey no less, and it was transcendent as always. As Nate Chinen wrote in the New York Times about the same show, "He gave his usual force-of-nature performance." The man is a whisper away from 60 years old and he still rocks the house like no other human being. His shows are an hour shorter than in the old days, but the intensity is still breathtaking. To my mind, it's more difficult to understand his stage energy now than when he was in his 20s or 30s.
It's also mind-bending how Bruce transforms a giant auditorium into a back patio. An 18,000-seat arena seems tiny when he's on stage. I think it's because you can actually feel him connecting with every person in the room. It's a cathartic experience, a celebration of the struggle and sadness of being alive. I used to run away from the comparison of music to religion; but now I think they are often the same thing.
I could go on and on about Springsteen's virtues, but that would be boring. You've heard it all before. It also wouldn't be completely honest, because the truth is that I've come away from the last several tours feeling quite critical of him too. Being in the presence of greatness can have that paradoxical effect: it can raise a person's standards and expectations to such a level that small disappointments become a part of the experience. Some call it being "picky," but really it's just holding certain things you love to a higher standard. I wouldn't want to waste thirty seconds of my life critiquing the production of a Barney episode. But the sublimity of Springsteen invites a passionate and critical assessment. It's so close to perfection that you can't help but notice what's missing.
What's often missing these days, sadly, is the NOW. In this latest whirlaround with the "legendary" E Street Band, Springsteen is waste deep in his fans' nostalgia. He spends an extraordinary amount of energy trying to live up to the Legend of Bruce -- striking the expected poses, playing the expected tunes, giving the audience not just the spirit of what they came for, but the precise letter of it as well.
I'm not saying the man doesn't care about his music. He does, deeply, and it doesn't suffer in these performances. But in his and the band's preening, Springsteen is moving away from the raw and powerful experience of a *Springsteen show* and replacing it with a pitch-perfect template of The Bruce Springsteen Experience.
This may be inevitable. Though still a vital musician -- he's as original as ever in his recent records -- Springsteen recognizes that he has dug a very deep groove in the American psyche. He's a known and revered quantity, and audiences badly want to hear those old songs; they want to see Springsteen leap on the piano. They want Clarence to lean on Bruce's shoulder. They want Steve to share his mic. It's harder to be Bruce Springsteen now than it was thirty years ago. All he had to do then was worry about creating vital music. Now he has to worry about being vital and meeting very specific demands.
I was lucky enough to see Springsteen many times in his prime (from the mid-'70s to the early '80s). Those shows were all-consuming and exhausting. But they also had an organic pace. They would explode out of the gate with two or three roof-shaking numbers, and then we'd all catch our breath. The musicians would tune. Bruce would tell a little story, or send one out to a local fan he'd met the night before. Then another great song, and then another breath.
Today's shows don't catch a breath. There's no space to talk, or drink, or tune. The pace is relentless, as if taking a few moments here would someone deflate the experience. Even the song requests are incorporated into the show without actually stopping the music -- Springsteen plucks a sign from the audience, shows it to the band, and they storm into it.
This relentlessness strikes me as ironic, because what Springsteen and the fans have come together to relive was actually a very different sort of experience. Back in the day, the band was well-prepped, but each show unrolled in the moment, with plenty of real interaction between the band and the crowd. Bruce was conversational, humble, and willing to let moments of reflection creep into his head and onto the stage.
Taped to the side of my desk is one of my favorite Springsteen remarks: "I cannot promise you everlasting life, but I can promise you life RIGHT NOW." That, to me, is the essence of what Springsteen has been able to deliver all these years. The show I saw the other night was powerful, and spiritual. But it was also staged to the nanosecond. No room for error, no room for reflection, no room for the NOW.
It's easy to be a critic and hard to be an artist. I know Springsteen would be criticized for whatever he does, or doesn't do. I offer these thoughts more out of affection than anything else. Greatness is terribly difficult to achieve, and perhaps even tougher to manage.
 The "legendary" part is now official:
 One nostalgic decision does actually hurt the music: One the giant anthems (about half the show), the band often now features an oppresive melange of five guitars: Bruce, Steve, Nils, Patti, and Soozie. The music usually calls for two, or a carefully arranged three.
 First show: 10/10/1976, Oxford OH.
 Thanks to Dan L. for the ticket and for his thoughts, some of which I've stolen here.