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March Madness Music Festival (Dallas, TX)
-Words by Jordan Buford // Photos by James Villa –

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If you asked me, “Jordan, what were you doing on April thirteenth, two thousand and eight?” without hesitation or thought I’d be able to answer you with, “I was at the AAC in Dallas watching Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band for the first time ever.”

That was almost exactly six years ago, and while they had put out two records during that time; however, those tours never found them returning to Big D. But with their newest, and third release since then, “High Hopes”, Dallas was making the list of stops. They even did one better than that, by making this their tour kickoff.

The NCAA was to thank for this, and since Dallas was hosting the Final Four, so, too, was the city hosting the March Madness Music Festival, and The Boss and company had been charged with closing out the third and final day of the festivities.

The weather hadn’t been to cooperative this day, and the rain often fell, drenching not only the fans, but also the members of all the opening acts here at the CapitolOne JamFest, which was taking place on the hallowed grounds that the old Reunion Arena once stood on.

No one minded it that much, though, especially once seven-o’clock rolled around, when everyone knew they were minutes away from seeing one of the few people that has ever walked this planet that is deserving of being called a rock legend and icon.

Oh yeah, this was a free show, too.

Watching The E Street Band take a stage is much like seeing a circus come to town, and the whole cast of performers, just a few of whom were drummer Max Weinberg, Tom Morello (who was filling in for Steven Van Zandt, who was busy filming something at the time), took their spots on stage. All the while, the enthusiastic crowd was greeting them with the deafening fanfare they are so deserving of.

Then came the ringmaster.

Springsteen strode on stage slowly; his arm outstretched with a basketball resting in the palm of his hand. “I think this has something to do with basketball. Am I right?” he said, sounding and looking like he legitimately wasn’t sure.

It was, yet it wasn’t. No one cared who had been eliminated the night before, nor what two teams would be playing the night after. This was The Boss’s time; and, as if the rain knew what it was suddenly being pitted against, it slacked up, and even ceased.

New Jersey’s favorite son and one of his guitarists had a tip off to start the show, complete with a “ref” who threw the ball in the air. They both batted it out towards the crowd, and instead tore right into an electrifying cover of Van Halen’s “Jump”. Giving the circumstance, there couldn’t not have been a better way to begin this epic show, and while it wasn’t one of his hits that everyone was craving, they all loved it.

For the most part, they threw the songs at the fans one after the other, and Springsteen shouted his customary count of “One! Two! Three! Four!” to wind them into “Badlands”. The crowd went crazy over that hit, and, as they often did this night, sang along to every word. “Oooo.” the fans crooned during a long instrumental break, providing some backing vocals while The Boss knocked out a wicked guitar solo, before eventually returning to the mic for the final verse.

Two songs in and the magic aura this outfit brings with them had already blanketed the crowd, and they still had hours left to go.

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They kept ‘em coming with the Celtic-rock sounding “Death to My Hometown”, which, despite the lyrics, left everyone’s hopes and energy levels higher than they had been thus far. It was triumphant sounding, and as soon as it ended, Springsteen proceeded to wail on his guitar, proving it’s an instrument he’s the boss of as he led the charge into “Cover Me”. Everyone’s chops were on full display during that guitar laden track, while The Boss belted, “…I’m looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me.”, reminding everyone why the 80’s such a brilliant time for music.

They weren’t done with ‘84’s “Born in the U.S.A”, either, and dove right in to “No Surrender”. It was another testament to his legacy and the staying power of just music in general, because the line “…We learned more from a 3-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school…” is still relatable even to this day. It always will be, too.

Fans went ballistic when they launched into “Hungry Heart”, and since they do this for their fans, Bruce catered to them. He left the entire first verse and first chorus up to the audience, resulting in a magical moment where everyone sang in perfect unison with each other, “…Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, I took a wrong turn and I just kept going…”. As they did so, he made his way to walkway that jutted out in the crowd on stage left, before making his way over to stage right, starting the second verse as he made the trek to the other side. He was mingling with the crowd, touching hands and such as he sang, and then he did something you wouldn’t think many 64-year-old rock stars would do, let alone one who has made such illustrious four-plus decade long career for himself: he crowd surfed.

Nothing got out of hand, and he directed them to get him back to the stage, because for a minute everyone kept passing him to the side. You could tell it was a joyous moment for him, because the grin he wore stretched from ear to ear. It even out did my excited smile, which didn’t leave my face until they finished (actually, a day later, I think I still have it.)

Weinberg rolled them into the next song, and joining him on his drum solo was one of the other band members, who now was beating his hands against a djembe. Springsteen swapped out to an acoustic guitar as they got ready for the title and lead track from their latest album, “High Hopes”. It may be a cover of The Havalinas, but it fits with what The Boss has always sung about, and it’s clear they’ve made it their own. The song belonged to the brass section, with the exception of those few moments where Morello raised his guitar to his face and did a blistering solo, all with his teeth, no doubt channeling some of the skills he honed with Rage Against The Machine.

After all that, they were deserving of a break, and The Boss ditched his guitar and took a seat on one of the monitors. “How’s the weather?” he asked, as the rain (more drizzle) had again began to fall. That wasn’t even on anyone’s mind, though. “It’s good weather to play in…” he added, saying that it cleansed you. “Dallas, I’ve been here many times, but never in the honor of basketball.” He went on to say, confiding in everyone that he didn’t know much about the sport, except that it was about “spirit”, and whoever was the hungriest wound up the victor. “We were hired here tonight to bring the spirit to Dallas.” He stated, repeating that a few times, raising his voice each time, until it became an exclamation.

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“Can you feel the spirit?” he asked, channeling his inner gospel singer. He sang that several times over, and hit an incredibly high note one of the times he sang “feel”, doing so with ease, while each time the spectators screamed back at him, “YEAH!”.

That was the lead in to “Spirit in the Night”, which again found him mingling with fans, particularly the younger ones. He held a little boys head during the first verse and pressed his forehead on his while he sang, then grabbed a young girls hand towards the end, both of whom were still little enough they probably don’t even realize what an icon this man is. That’s good, though, because you know it’s a moment they’ll never forget, and one day they’ll look back on this with a whole new appreciation.

“Do you feel the spirit?!” Springsteen shouted at the end of the song, while the fans began chanting “Bruce!” in the deeper tone that they do, that could almost be mistaken for “boo”. Of course, there’s no reason to ever boo this great, though.

“Is anyone from New Jersey in the building?” Bruce asked, before saying a few things about his home state, which soon brought them “Wrecking Ball”, a song that meant a little something special to the Dallas residents, given the arena that once stood here. An arena Springsteen had even played back in the day.

Upon finishing it, he again handed his guitar off to one of his roadies, then descended the stairs to the walkway at the center of the stage. He slipped a harmonica from his pocket, then pressed it against the microphone he was gripping. There was wonder in that brief moment of silence, as everyone picked their brains as to what might be coming next. They then rejoiced at the unmistakable harmonica notes, notes that every Springsteen fan knows all too well. It was “The River”.

Fans even got to sing the second half of the first verse; and the song was one of the standouts from their set. It ended with Springsteen hitting some gorgeous falsetto notes, and at the end, he tossed his harmonica to a little girl in the crowd who sit atop her dads’ shoulders. She didn’t catch it, though, but luckily the person who did did the right thing and gave it to her. Otherwise, I think people would have jumped on him for being so selfish.

Weinberg again bridged them into their next song, while The Boss returned to the main area of the stage and again armed himself with a guitar. With all the concerts I go to involving local bands, I’ve heard my favorite songs from countless acts played numerous times live, but tonight was different. I never dreamed, or really even wanted to hope that they’d do “Atlantic City”, yet here they were, starting it.

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The resulting feeling was one I’ve never experienced. It’s not even a song I (nor probably anyone) can relate to. It has no sentimental meaning to me. It’s just a song that I love, and I was so overjoyed to hear it this night, I shed some tears of pure excitement. That is exactly what music is about. It’s about having a profound effect on the listener one way or the other. By the way, the full-band version of this song was absolutely killer, and they fleshed it out with some truly dark tones to match the story. “…Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

They stuck with the “Nebraska” album, doing an exhilarating version of “Johnny 99”, complete with a trombone solo, while the rain started falling from the clouds once more. The rest of the brass section joined in on the solo portion, before nearly everything fell silent at the line, “Now judge, I’ve got debts…” while Springsteen sang over the sounds of a cowbell.

They kept the upbeat pace going with “Darlington County”, which again saw Springsteen roaming almost every inch of the stage. At one point, he even brought a little girl on stage with him, and while she seemed a bit shy, she was still loving it. Next came “Working On the Highway”, during which The Boss again interacted with the fans, getting down on the ground and leaning against the guardrail, indulging some girls by being a part of the selfies they started scrambling to take.

Audience participation was again encouraged on “Shackled and Drawn”, from the shouting of “Yeah!” before the track even got underway, to everyone raising their hands in the air later on, all the while The Boss moved about stage as if he were wearing a pair of shackles. At first he took small steps, since he didn’t have much slack, and at another point he sidestepped and half jumped, keeping his legs right together, like they were indeed bound. “…The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt…” he sang, going so far as to use his acoustic guitar like it were a shovel.

“I need help! We got to stop this rain!” The Boss exclaimed while looking towards the sky. That led to a song that was a good fit given the day Dallas was having; and since “The Rising” was the first Springsteen album I ever got, it was a song I loved more than most this night (and that’s saying something). The line “It’s raining, but there ain’t a cloud in the sky.” seemed almost ironic as they fired up “Waitin’ On a Sunny Day”, but the cherry tune elevated the mood to new heights. After the first chorus, Springsteen, who again stood on the platform out in the crowd at center stage, took off his guitar and slung it at the roadie who stood all the way at the back of the stage. He caught it. The Boss then grabbed the mic stand and swung around it, almost as if it were a stripper pole, before going back to one of the flanks on the side.

He again brought a young child on stage towards the end and let her sing part of the chorus, a cappella even. He then leaned in close and whispered something in her ear. She turned around, and with Bruce holding the mic in front of her said, “Come on E Street Band.” Talk about a hysterical, but heartwarming moment.

They trudged on, showing not even the slightest sign of being tired as they began the now electrified version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” from “High Hopes”. I must admit, in listening to this new record, I haven’t been to crazy about that one, just since it’s so different from the one found on the record of the same name. But live, live it was extraordinary, and out of all the memorable moments this show produced, this was right up there at the top. Morello even got to display more of talents on that one, and no, I’m not just referring to the outstanding solos (yes, there were multiple) he cranked out. He even sang the full second verse, and added some more vocals later on, demonstrating what an incredible set of pipes he’s got.

Fans had little time to applaud the efforts before Springsteen began tackling the first verse of “The Rising”. “This is a good one!” one girl who stood fairly close to me exclaimed as she turned around to her friends; while nearly everyone sang along with all of the “Li, li, li…” parts.

“This is Land of Hope and Dreams!” Bruce shouted, as he and The E Street Band kept the train rolling with what appeared to be their final song of the night, especially since the entire band came to the forefront of the stage and bowed to everyone, who were in turn clapping and screaming for them.

That wasn’t the end, though. No one even left the stage; they just resumed their spots. “We got to keep it moving. We’ve got to keep it warm.” With that, they opened up “Born to Run”, and the fans went wild. The collective voices of the fans even overpowered The Boss, who, during a break, raced down to the guardrails where he allowed some fans to touch his guitar, then did the same thing out on the center platform. He then counted his band back in with that “One, two, three, four!”, leading to a strong finish of one of the most iconic songs ever penned. They didn’t stop there, either, and followed one huge hit with another in the form of “Glory Days”.

This time around, a young boy was brought up on stage, picked out of the crowd after The Boss spotted him singing along to the song. He had the band (at least those who could) line up and they turned their backs to the crowd, along with the young fan, then proceeded to shake their asses at the fans in an entertaining moment. And of course a bevy of girls of all ages were brought on stage halfway through “Dancing in the Dark”. Al of them wanted pictures to remember the event, and he posed for as many as he could during the song and even at the end, before eventually rushing the others off so they could continue entertaining everyone.

“Selfies, selfies, selfies.” He repeated while hitting his hand against his forehead (the face he made during each of the selfies also looked priceless, and he feigned a semi-grumpy look).

He hurled his guitar at the roadie, then climbed atop the baby grand piano on stage left; surveying both his band mates and the audience. Leaping off it he made his way back to the mic stand, where he grabbed it then bent down, doing a backbend that looked like it had him resting his back against the floor. He then arose, and started making the rounds for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.

“This is the most important verse, right here.” He informed everyone, before getting to the line, “…And the Big Man joined the band…” A montage of pictures of Clarence Clemons began to show on the video board at the back of the stage. That was neat. After all, Clemons wasn’t just a part of the band, he was the band, at least every bit as much as Springsteen is, and maybe more so. That said, it’s cool they’ve found a way to honor him and still make him a part of the shows; and I feel privileged to have seen them just once when Clemons was in the band.

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“Dallas, are you ready to go home?” Springsteen asked, being met with a resounding “NO!” He got the same response after asking everyone if they were cold and wet. That was all insignificant at this point, and music was doing such a great job of warming the peoples souls, they didn’t even notice if they were cold.

“Are you sure you don’t want to go home?” he then asked, before asking to see everyone’s hands, which quickly shot into the air. They closed their set just as it had began, with a cover, and the fans were treated to vibrant take on The Isley Brothers “Shout”.

Two hours and forty-five minutes was how long the “…earthquakin’, booty shakin’…” E Street Band had been on stage, and Spingsteen used a plethora of other adjectives to describe the group. “I want you to go home and tell all your friends you just saw the…(inset descriptive words) legendary E Street Band.” He proudly said, then struck another chord. “I’m just a prisoner of the everlasting power of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Boss remarked. Really, in way or another, aren’t we all?”

“Play Thunder Road!” a guy behind me shouted while the band filed off stage. Bruce and wife Patti Scialfa stood firm, though. She was a backing vocalist for this final song, turning the song into a beautiful duet at times; and for one last time this night, Bruce wielded an acoustic guitar.

That guy behind me was getting his wish, and a seven-minute long acoustic version of “Thunder Road” ended the night. “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night. You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright…” the crowd chanted, before Springsteen took back over. He later changed one of the words, and it was no longer “boys” that Mary “sent away”. “There were ghosts in the eyes
of all the men you sent away…” he crooned.

“…The E Street Band loves you…” Springsteen told the crowd, and with one final wave, he and Patti disappeared backstage, the lights came back on, and folks knew the show was over.

Well, with the spot I had claimed early on in the day, which was just about twelve people deep from the stage, I’d say this beat the nosebleed section of the arena I last saw them in.

As for the show, I’d say it was stupendous, but even that word feels like it doesn’t do it justice.

They’re known for putting on exceptional shows that outdo anyone and everyone else, and those who braved the elements were treated to just such a show.

Bruce Springsteen knows how to work a stage better than musician, and aside from almost never staying still, he made sure to pay attention to all sides of the audience, making sure no one felt left out. And can I say what a class act he is to get so many little kids involved with the show? Really, that brought a smile to everyone’s face each time it happened this night.

He’s The Boss, he’s a legend, and he’s very easily the best thing that ever has or ever will happen to Rock ‘n’ Roll.

 

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