Bruce Springsteen knows that healing is a painful journey, but not one without its joys. He knows, too, that dealing with grief isn't linear or logical. Pain precedes celebration, which precedes more pain and then a sort of reluctant acceptance.
Pick the wound that needs healing. The death of a loved one. The loss of national innocence. A crisis of faith, religious or otherwise. He's just ambitious enough and just humble enough to think that in three hours he can push us towards understanding and reaffirming our hopes for the better future.
That's why his traveling revival show, which comes to a sold-out Richmond Coliseum on Thursday, may be the most emotional rock and roller coaster ride ever, plunging into despair then breaking through to joyous, affirming highs.
When I saw him last August in Washington, D. C., Springsteen and the E Street Band drove us to our knees with that first harsh slap of grief, let us up for that celebratory realization we’d been spared, plunged us back into despair and finally carried us along on a celebration of the hope central to life.
When the lights finally came up for the last time and the band had descended into the black netherland below the stage that night, faith had been restored, if only fleetingly. How else can you explain 22,000 souls shouting joyously along to the line from "Badlands" that "it ain't no sin to be glad you’re alive?"
While shorter than the marathon three-hour concerts of the past, Springsteen's current show packs a more powerful punch. At the MCICenter, he rarely spoke, abandoning the often-long stories that once introduced tunes. He seemed to realize there was nothing he could say that wouldn't sound trite.
Instead, he spoke with his hands, often his right hand displayed on the overhead video screen. At times, he needed supplication, his palm up, beseeching. During other songs, his fingers stretched out, offering comfort. And often, very often, he raised his right hand overhead, volunteering a benediction.
What will be interesting on this second leg of "The Rising" tour is how Springsteen adjusts the set list for the times. His 1988 tour for "Tunnel of Love" explored the often contradictory themes of that album intensely early in the tour, but by the end he had largely slipped back into the rock and roll house party of the "Born in the USA" shows.
Springsteen performances appear spontaneous when they are carefully constructed, down to the last detail. The set list he created for "The Rising" show was masterful.
He opened with "The Rising" followed by "Lonesome Day," songs chronicling the first moments of loss, that deep, bottomless empty feeling. When he launched into "Prove It All Night," the song in this context was transformed from its appearance on "Darkness on the Edge of Town." This night, it was about faith, about getting through to that first night with the bed empty next to you.
I've always felt "Darkness on the Edge of Town" was Springsteen's best album. Proof on this tour is how well four tunes from the album fit with a set list dominated by songs centered on the 9/11 tragedy.
"Darkness on the Edge of Town,” performed early in the set, takes on a larger meaning. "I lost my faith and I lost my wife," Springsteen sang, substituting the word "faith" for "money," which is in the original. "Them things don't seem to matter much to me know."
"Darkness" provided the entry into the most chilling part of the show, with Springsteen stepping to the microphone and asking the audience -- the audience at a rock and roll show -- to be silent for the next two songs. "I know," he said, "that you can do it." We could.
When silence and darkness descended over the arena, he began a mournful, suffering acoustic version of "Empty Sky" with only Patti Scialfa's harmonies for accompaniment. He followed with "You're Missing," a second, chilling body blow. They were a risky and extraordinary pairing. It's one thing to explore loss before an audience in a small club or theater. It's another to prod 22,000 souls intent upon reliving their rock and roll glory days to do it in the MCICenter.
From the depths, Springsteen brought us into the light, following with a bright, acoustic guitar-army sing-along of "Waitin' for a Sunny Day." Like several songs from "The Rising," it works better in the new, less-cluttered live arrangement.
With the light, there followed a search for understanding, pairing "The Promised Land" from the "Darkness" album with "Worlds Apart" from "The Rising."
"There's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor. I've got my bags packed and I’m headed into the score. Gonna be a twister that blows everything down that ain't got the faith to stand its ground," he sang, joined lustily by the crowd. They are lyrics from 1978, but they could easily be from Sept. 12, 2001.
Two songs later, "Badlands," another "Darkness" gem, speaks to today perhaps even more eloquently than it did when released 25 years ago. "Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland," he sang. "Got a head-on collision mashing in my guts, man. I'm caught in a crossfire I don't understand."
But he's not lost for long. "I believe in the love that you gave me," he affirms. "I believe in the faith that can save me. I believe in the hope and I pray that someday it may raise me above these badlands."
"Badlands" artfully segued into the house party centerpiece of the show, a rollicking version of "Mary's Place," destined to follow in the steps of other live workouts like "Rosalita" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out."
"Mary's Place" is deceptive, more than a simple sing-along. It's about a wake, about gathering around the family with food and music, a reality Springsteen highlighted by grasping the microphone, crumbling to his knees and singing the coda, "you're missing, you're missing" before launching into the final verse about having a picture in his locket leading him through the dark and then letting the audience sing along: "Seven days, seven candles lighting your way. You're favorite record's on the turntable. I drop the needle and play. Turn it up, Turn it up Turn it up."
He knows the celebration of a wake eventually gives way to the lonely reality of loss so the show featured another dip into grief with "Into the Fire." It’s a rock and roll meditation that could easily take its place alongside Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" and Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer's "Gentle Arms of Eden" in a modern hymnal.
"The sky was falling and streaked with blood. I heard you calling me, then you disappeared into dust. Up the stairs, into the fire. Up the stairs, into the fire," he sang. "May your strength give us strength. May your faith give us faith. May your hope give us hope. May your love give us love."
At the MCI Center, as well as throughout the tour, "Into the Fire" closed the show. With Springsteen, of course, the last song is just a table setter for the encores.
"Thunder Road" and "Glory Days" opened the first encore. But the climactic catharsis, the rock and roll rapture of the evening was delivered by "Born to Run." The house lights came up full as the band charged into the anthem, transforming the cavernous coliseum into a cozy little revival tent. It's hard to describe it as anything other than the release of pure joy, thousands of true believers standing, pumping their fists and screaming along. We're all getting old, facing the inevitable, but for four minutes, the past vanished and we could imagine that the future was still boundless and tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.
Before we left, there were reminders that nothing is assured -- "American Skin (41 Shots)," Springsteen's brilliant look at the Amadou Diallo killing from the viewpoint of the cops, the victim and his mother -- and "Born in the USA," his indictment of the treatment of Vietnam vets.
If that took us down, Springsteen didn't leave us there. He went to the piano alone to open "My City of Ruins" then the tune built into a gospel band number worthy of the late Curtis Mayfield.
In Washington, as on most tour stops, the band closed with "Land of Hope and Dreams," symbolic of the journey Springsteen takes his audience on over two and a half hours.
He'd opened the show singing: "Can’t see nothing in front of me. Can't see nothing coming up from behind. Make my way through this darkness. Can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me."
By the end of the evening, he'd managed something rare in music today, a night of purpose, meaning and a soothing dose of rock and roll redemption.
For the close, he transported us, inviting us aboard the train of saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers, and lost souls to meet him in the land of hope and dreams. “Leave behind your sorrows. Tomorrow they’ll be sunshine and all this darkness past,” he sang, offering succor.
Fittingly, he and the band closed with an acapella verse from another revival train tune, Mayfield's "People Get Ready:"
"People get ready; there's train a comin'. Don't need no ticket. Just get on board."