"If you're here, and we're here, then they're here."
With this simple sentence, Bruce Springsteen turned Friday night's sold-out show at the First Niagara Center into that rarest of rare arena-rock experiences -- a concert that offered transcendence to those looking for it, a musical experience that moved beyond the music itself and toward a sense of shared community.
Tough work, but throughout his nearly 3-hour show with the E Street Band, Springsteen proved himself to be the man for the job.
These words came during a breakdown section a few songs into Friday's set, at midpoint of the elegiac soul-gospel tune "My City of Ruins."
"Roll call," Springsteen shouted, before introducing everyone on the stage -- the normally 17-piece E Street Band, minus Springsteen's wife, singer Patti Scialfa, who was taking a few nights off from the tour "to be at home and make sure our kids don't get into our drug stash," Springsteen joked.
"Are we missing anybody?" the singer then asked the crowd repeatedly. Without stating the case directly, Springsteen and the full house collectively mourned and celebrated the lives of those "missing" -- keyboardist Danny Federici and, most poignantly, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, whose final show with the E Street Band took place on this very stage, in this very building, in November 2009.
The marathon show was in the main a means of "noting what's gone and celebrating what's left," to paraphrase Springsteen, and as such, employed familiar Springsteen tropes to cover a vast array of emotional, philosophical and musical ground, from socioeconomic/political rage, to the simple and eternal joys of '60s soul music and plain old rock 'n' roll.
After taking to the stage with an impromptu, off-script rendering of the traditional "Buffalo Gals," a song he'd performed with his Seeger Sessions Band in the past, Springsteen, flanked by guitarists Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, tore into the guts of the evening's main course -- material from his new album, "Wrecking Ball," an angry, on-point, defiant collection of tunes calling out present-day America's failings and noting the disparity between what the country promises and what it delivers.
"We Take Care of Our Own" commenced the set proper, and laid the premise on the line -- "Where's the promise from sea to shining sea/That wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own" Springsteen sang, as the E Street Band wrapped the gorgeously simple chord progression in hues of anthemic yearning.
Bang, straight into "Wrecking Ball," a song that employs the tearing down of the old Giants Stadium as a metaphor for the indomitability of the human spirit. A Celtic theme emerged as the song hit its double-time stride, hinting at what was to come when the band made it to "Death To My Hometown," one the most visceral and defiant songs in the Springsteen canon.
"Get yourself a song to sing, and sing it till it's done/Sing it hard and sing it well/send the robber barons straight to hell/the greedy thieves who came around/and ate the flesh of everything they found/whose crimes have gone unpunished now/who walk the streets as free men now/They brought death to our hometown," Springsteen sang.
Again, without stating the case in a naked fashion, Springsteen captured the zeitgeist, at least for those among the crowd who've felt the pinch in post-Wall Street scandal America, and have indulged in the moral outrage that would seem to be the only fitting response to such internal economic terrorism.
There were surprises, too, principal among them the tour premier of "Point Blank," a gothic-noir slice of tragic genius culled from "The River," and delivered by Springsteen and the band with deep-blue, riveting conviction. This is a song about selling out one's ideals, caving to life's pressures and cashing in for easier but ultimately less rewarding pleasures, a theme taken up earlier by the "Darkness On the Edge of Town" piece "Prove It All Night."
Here, Springsteen laid out a code for the life lived with a dignified desperation, a dedication to living with unflagging passion. His guitar solo during "Prove It" echoed such fiery conviction.
"American Skin (41 Shots)" took its place in the set, an unspoken dedication to the slain Trayvon Martin hanging above the hushed arena as Springsteen and band cast light on our country's inability to deal with its deepest race issues. This was immensely powerful, in both composition and performance.
The absence of Clemons was dealt with eloquently during set-closer "10th Avenue Freeze Out," but it was addressed all night long by the late saxophonist's nephew, Jake Clemons. All five members of the E Street Horns lent magic to the proceedings throughout, but it was Clemons who most often had to deal with his uncle's iconic solos, and he did so with a dignified grace.
A close friend and renowned local musician said it best in a text to this writer following the show.
"Talk about a frontman," he wrote. "That was a lesson in dignity, nevermind music."
His point is so well taken, and can't be bettered by me. Springsteen gives until it hurts, and it had to hurt after Friday's show. One left First Niagara Center feeling enriched on a soulful, spiritual level. That's the greatest gift that music can give us.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
Friday night in First Niagara Center