Lifted or The Story is in the Soil....
Hunched over a black acoustic guitar, Springsteen began solo, playing tense, knotted chords in a twitchy triple-time. The Francis Scott Key motif emerged slowly from under a thicket of strumming, and by the time Springsteen finished the anthem, the E Street Band was already stomping out another - "Born in the U.S.A." You half-expected a flag corps and marching band.
Instead, what followed was a sustained blast of the true-believer rock that Springsteen and his band have brought to an awe-inspiring level of refinement.
The Jersey rocker didn't need to make long speeches: His songs, about faith and overcoming adversity, capture the grit of American life lost on politicians, and in this setting acquired mythic resonance. From the first refrain of "Badlands" through the resolute vow of "No Retreat, No Surrender," Springsteen's zeal and determination transformed simple slogan-size chorales into rousing, purposeful music.
His one speech came during "Mary's Place," which found Springsteen, 55, talking about a river of change and reminding his listeners that "tonight we're here for a reason."
The evening held several surprises. John Fogerty, 59, appeared during Springsteen's set and, with the E Streeters behind him, took "Centerfield" and his '70s warhorse "Fortunate Son" down new avenues. After that, Michael Stipe of R.E.M. returned to the stage and joined in on "Because the Night." It, too, achieved blistering intensity.
For his encore, Springsteen involved many of the evening's performers and looked beyond his own writing for inspiration. He beamed when Fogerty kicked off "Proud Mary," and he directed traffic on the crowded stage during a loose, inspired treatment of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." The evening closed with what sounded like the Vote for Change theme song: Patti Smith's two-chord sing-along "People Have the Power."
In its set, R.E.M. pulled out its most overtly political rockers, including 1988's skeptical "World Leader Pretend" and the maundering new post-9/11 ballad "Leaving New York."
Most effective was "Final Straw," an expression of exasperated anger set atop a sanguine country beat, that lead singer Stipe, 44, said was released the week the U.S. began military operations in Iraq last year. The crowd cheered when he sang: "Love will be my strongest weapon."
The band was more compelling on its artier, less literal material, particularly the 1991 hit "Losing My Religion"; "She Just Wants to Be," a showcase for Peter Buck's inventive, stemwinding guitar melodies; and the statement of defiance "Walk Unafraid," which caught Stipe at his most theatrical.
R.E.M.'s performance ended with another highlight: "Man on the Moon," which featured Springsteen on guitar and singing the second verse. The crowd went wild and nearly drowned out the Boss, but once Springsteen got started, his deep voice gave the song added dimension.
The evening began with a proclamation in song from Conor Oberst, the 24-year-old singer and songwriter of Bright Eyes. "The future hangs over our heads, and it moves with every current event," the Nebraskan sang in a slightly frayed and sullen voice on the opener, "Landlocked Blues."
From there, Oberst and his six-piece band let those current events filter into song. He practically shouted as he sang: "When you're asked to fight a war that's over nothing, it's best to join the side that's gonna win." And he closed with a heartbreakingly bright new song, "Road to Joy," that neatly encapsulated the idealism of the evening.
LP / CD / MP3
LP / CD / Deluxe CD / MP3