Ann Lawlor

Bruce Springsteen performs (Ann Lawlor)

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are 36 years into their career together. Last night at Madison Square Garden they did something Springsteen declared they’d never done before: played their whole beloved second album from 1973, “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle,” in its entirety from beginning to end. (Yes, kids, I have the original vinyl album right here, much cherished.)

The 45-minute-or-so album was introduced after the band — which started hot and kept getting hotter — seemed to play the first part of the show as if it were doing encores. First up was the rarity “Thundercrack,” which was recorded for but left off of “Wild, Innocent” for space reasons. Remember — ha ha — vinyl could accommodate only 20 minutes to a side. Anyway, “Thundercrack” was just the introduction to an amazing, a kind of perfect rock concert that ended three hours later with Elvis Costello joining in on Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.”

Also, keep in mind: It was only a week ago that Springsteen played both shows for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the Garden. Then on Wednesday night he and Costello appeared at newsman Bob Woodruff’s charity event at Town Hall.

But then, here’s Bruce, unquestionably the most outstanding showman of this generation, revved up and ready to go with raven haired wife Patti Scialfa — whom he romancedon stage — and his warriors: Little Steven, Clarence Clemons, Max Weinberg, Nils Lofgren, Suzie Tyrell, etc. There is no stopping them. They launched into “Prove It All Night” and, for “Hungry Heart,” Bruce marched into the “mosh pit” — the entire floor seating was standing only and jammed with older, balding, well-heeled fans — and Springsteen found himself on a small remote stage. To get back to the main stage, he simply let the audience hand him back, mosh style, on his back. It was utter genius, and cheap: Bono should learn you don’t need a lot of fancy moving bridges. Just wild fans.

The centerpiece of the show: “The Wild, the Innocent…” Seven longish songs from the era when albums were put together artfully and coherently. Side 1 of the album was about New Jersey and, said Springsteen, “our little circle.” Those songs are “The E Street Shuffle,” “Fourth of July (Sandy),” “Kitty’s Back,” and “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” Side 2 was about New York, circa 1973: “Incident on 57th St.,” “Rosalita” and “New York City Serenade.”

bruce springsteen 21 228x300 Springsteen Surprise: Elvis Costello, and Something Weve Never Done Before

Springsteen's handwritten set list

Some Springsteen fans of a certain age will tell you they’ve waited 36 years to hear this album live. Expectations were high, and they were not just met but exceeded. “Incident” on 57th St.” is a mini-masterpiece that ends in a bit of piano that segues into “Rosalita,” the most evocative of Springsteen’s rock songs. Hearing this little segue live was like a dream come true. The Garden audience roared, and sang “Rosalita,” at the top of its lungs. By the time “New York City Serenade” was done, I thought I needed a cigarette — and I don’t even smoke

For Springsteen it was almost a dare and a challenge — to resurrect a whole work composed a lifetime ago and hold it up for inspection takes courage. Luckily he had nothing to be afraid of as this album stands the test of time. It’s most vital and brilliant than anything remotely contemporary. I am still floored by the complexity of these compositions, although they were written in an environment of Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, etc. The real story is how music “decomposed” over time.

You do think about the 36 years — or 37 since Springsteen’s first album. No other band or rock act — not the Stones or Dylan – can lay claim to this kind of energy or freshness. Dylan at 36 years in — say, 1998 — was in a stupor. He was never a stage act, anyway. For all of Mick Jagger’s showmanship, he was never this accessible and artful. Jagger played it above the crowd. Springsteen is in it. Never have I seen anything quite like this show, even given past triumphs. As his manager Jon Landau may have said when he first saw him all those years ago, “I’ve seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s Bruce Springsteen.”

And that’s a little sad, too. If Springsteen is still the future, at 60, then where are we? There is no one in coming generations who speaks to a culture, a gestalt, a geographic demo, hearts, souls and minds this way. There are just a few of these showmen left: Billy, Elton, Sting, McCartney, Stevie. And certainly no one composes a sophomore album of such eloquence and poetry as “The Wild, the Innocent.” Particularly the New Jersey side — it spoke of the Jersey shore and carnivals, and decaying storefronts, of the boardwalk and the beach and romantic mysteries. Now we just get instant tie-ins to products, and tabloid stories.

But as long as Bruce Springsteen is around, I think we’re okay. After the exhausting full album — which required extra musicians — the E Street band roared into more modern material –”Working on a Dream,” “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” “Human Touch,” “Lonesome Day,” “Born to Run,” “American Land,” “Bobby Jean,” the extraordinary new “Wrecking Ball.”

He even threw in “Glory Days” as a tribute to the Yankees after a fan handed up a pinstriped sign with the number 27 (World Series wins) and the name of the song.

Before he wrapped it up with “Dancing in the Dark,” Springsteen the humanitarian’ managed to get in a plug for World Hunger Year.’ He actually mentioned the current economic climate — although it was implicit since his tickets are’ less expensive than those of other current touring acts. Springsteen’s money is where his mouth is — nice for a change.

Oh yes: the newly svelte Elvis Costello, who joined in on “Higher and Higher.” Nothing better. And considering the R&B and jazz underpinnings of “The Wild, the Innocent,” a perfect choice.

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