Springsteen and the E Street Band
Union Center, May 14
The First United Church of Bruuuce (Springsteen, E Street
Band edition) held a wildly successful revival meeting in
Albany last week. The Hon. Rev. Springsteen preached love
and faith and understanding to a capacity arena crowd more
than ready to receive his word.
gonna build a house here tonight!”
gonna take despair and turn it into hope!”
No one can lead a crowd like Bruce Springsteen. Sure, guys
like Alice Cooper and Neil Diamond can hold crowds in the
palms of their hands, but the relationship between Springsteen
and his audience leads one to believe that if Bruce wanted
to lead a march from the arena, he could do it. (Instead,
he just encouraged them to donate to the evening’s designated
charity, the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.)
The crowd hangs on every gesture. It’s rock & roll and
politics and religion all rolled up in one, and Springsteen
is rock god, president and preacher—you know, The Boss.
And it’s an awesome thing to behold.
The show, which featured the promising debut of replacement
drummer Jay Weinberg (pop’s in L.A. working for the other
boss, Conan O’Brien, preparing for the relaunch of The
Tonight Show), mixed songs from across Springsteen’s career.
Predictably, the best-known tunes got the biggest responses:
opener “Badlands,” an affecting “Out in the Streets,” “Thunder
Road,” and main set closer “Born to Run.”
But there were plenty of other highlights. “The Ghost of Tom
Joad,” a powerful statement in and of itself, was elevated
to being the highlight of the evening by guitarist Nils Lofgren’s
blistering, extended solo. “The Promised Land” and “The Rising”
were emotional anthems; a cover of “Mony Mony” drove the crowd
a little nuts.
The encore set began with a powerful version of Stephen Foster’s
“Hard Times.” Resistant at first, the crowd soon were pulled
into the song as if Springsteen had written it himself. The
other highlight of the encore section was the bluesy “Kitty’s
Back.” A crowd request—the person who made the sign with the
excellent cat painting deserves a gold star, too—it gave band
members their best solo opportunities of the night. (Roy Bittan’s
spiky piano playing was the high point.)
If he’s part preacher, Springsteen’s also part gunslinger,
like the protagonist in the third song of the night, the anthem
“Outlaw Pete.” His guitar solos were intense and economical:
He got right to the point. Even when he wasn’t playing, swaggering
around the stage, both hands on the mic with his guitar slung
behind his back, Springsteen sang with his entire force of
Which is what people pay the big money to see.
To most performers, audio feedback is an unruly hobgoblin
that can rear its head without warning and spoil an otherwise
pristine musical moment. Even for those (many) rock guitarists
who deliberately conjure feedback, it exists as a chaotic,
elemental force just outside of human control. This is why
it’s raw, exciting, and blew so many minds in the early ’60s.
For Rafael Toral, who works in a genre he’s calling “post-free
jazz electronic music,” feedback is a musical language like
any other. His performance at EMPAC proved his mastery of
Unlike most contemporary electronic performers who rely on
mechanized tools (turntables, samplers, sequencers, laptops)
that by their nature hide the musical process in knob-controlled
boxes, Toral has invented a number of instruments that demand
physical technique—a technique that Toral has likewise had
to invent. Onstage, Toral’s body movements constitute a visual
corollary to the sounds his instruments produce, not only
making for a more engaging performance, but for a brand of
electronic music far more visceral and emotive than that of
his cerebral peers.
The first piece in his ongoing “Space Program” featured Toral,
backlit by a sterile blue screen, with a tiny portable amplifier
in his left hand. With his right hand, he manipulated a microphone-mounted
photocell (ostensibly a flashlight) over the amplifier’s speaker.
Depending on the angle of the microphone and its proximity
to the amp, a range of precisely controlled feedback was generated.
With gestures that seemed to evoke sewing, writing and, at
their most dramatic, swordplay, Toral was able to play the
device like a tiny synthesizer. With rapid motions, the device
would squabble in a voice akin to R2D2. With longer, subtle
gestures, Toral could manipulate oscillations in the pitch
and create wailing drones. As with the Theremin, a sort of
invisible grid describing pitch and volume eventually became
apparent to the audience as Toral’s technique became familiar.
While his improvisations were decidedly atonal, Toral’s motifs
were always broken into lyrical phrases that bore a conversational
quality. It’s this methodology that legitimately places Toral’s
work in the realm of jazz. The tongue may be one of Toral’s
invention, but it speaks in real time, striving to communicate
something from that musical locus called “soul.”
In another piece, Toral played what appeared to be a slinky
dangling from a guitar stand by striking the higher rings
and letting the open cylinder vibrate. This time, the sound
mimicked the structure of the instrument more than the actions
of the person playing it. In yet another, he produced a simple
gray box bearing a single green LED light. By rubbing his
thumbs and fingers across the top panel, he produced deep,
clean sine waves that had the classic burble and squonk of
early sci-fi soundtracks. As he throttled the box, one couldn’t
help but be reminded of either an overzealous Gameboy player
or someone trying to keep an angry bat inside a shoebox.
It’s unlikely that these analogies are entirely incidental.
In approaching electronic music with an unprecedented degree
of control and physicality, Toral seems to be encouraging
a new ethos for the technological age. The motions required
to play his amp/photo-cell call to mind the Blackberry, but
rather than retreating into a simulated, digital world, Toral
suggests we can use our gadgetry to engage one another in
real time (and space). Similar to the practice of circuit
bending, it’s a domestic sort of futurism that encourages
us to learn the alien languages of common and even archaic
tools, and so become more present in the ordinary actions
of our lives.