2016 was not a great year to be a rockist. One could argue that it’s never a good year to be a rockist — that you should always be open to all kinds of music — but hey, people like what they like. And for folks whose drug of choice is straightforward, muscular rock music, there wasn’t a ton of good stuff to go around the past 365 days. Just look at our Annual Report. A great year for hip-hop? Absolutely. Pop and R&B? Without a doubt. Even emo and metal — rock sub-genres, but still much different from the no-frills umbrella term — had much-deserved moments in the sun. But rock? 4/4 rock with an emphasis on classicism, a thousand guitars, pounding drums, and a million different voices speaking in tongues? Not so much.
But at least we had Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. They had some notable moments, sure: The Boss’ autobiography and its fix-up companion album, his Presidential Medal of Freedom, and an alternate-history version of The River, to name a few. But those are all legacy achievements — events and masterworks that couldn’t have existed without the 67-year lifetime that preceded them. And E Street isn’t our Band of the Year for these accomplishments alone, but for how the musicians re-contextualized these benchmarks in a way that made them relevant to the present.
By that, I’m of course talking about the E Street live show. It’s funny, because when it comes to classic rock acts, the concert element — at least its setlist — often gets lambasted for the nostalgia factor, even for an artist like Springsteen, who’s continued to put out home-run albums like Magic and Wrecking Ball in his latter-day career. His critics (and yes, the man does have critics) could point out that most fans aren’t shelling out big working-class bucks and lining up early for his general-admission lottery for “We Take Care of Our Own”. They’re doing it because they want to hear “Born To Run” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” one more time, up close and personal.
And yet, even the throwback rock show is still one of the most present, in-the-moment activities one can take part in in 2016. You’re still with a group of people — thousands of ‘em — that you’ll never be in the same room with again. E Street continued to play to that most unique sense of community this year with the usual stage tricks, but with adjustments that embraced the group’s diversified age instead of running away from it. When Springsteen crowd-surfed during “Hungry Heart”, he did so with crossed arms and a ceiling gaze, as if he was a dead outlaw being paraded through a ghost town after a gunfight. It was an acknowledgement of his age, and that somehow made the act — simple as it was — more honest and joyful.
And how can you not be joyful when watching a near septuagenarian (let that sink in for a second) break his own record for longest American concert over and over again? It happened twice in a row this past August at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey (how fitting), with the first show clocking in at three hours and fifty-two minutes and the second at precisely four hours. But why stop there? The third show beat that second record by one minute and a subsequent Philly concert blew them all out of the water with a runtime of four hours and four minutes.
Of course, all this would mean nothing if the shows themselves weren’t electrifying, and you don’t need me to tell you they were electrifying — Tom Morello, marriage proposals, and all. Most younger bands couldn’t harness this kind of energy in a 90-minute show. Age ain’t nothing but a number, but it’s a number that matters when you’re 67 and battling off the forces of deterioration with a guitar in hand.
There was youth, too. A more fearful band would have kept Jake Clemons relegated to the corner of the stage, as if to fool the audience that it was still his late, great Uncle Clarence up there blowing over the crowd during the solo on “Jungleland”. But Springsteen often put the 36-year-old front and center, a proclamation of the band’s new saxophonist. He’ll never be the elder Clemons, and that’s a good thing. Leaner and greener than The Big Man in his twilight years, his presence reminded the crowd that yes, the E Street Band is still here in 2016. Even better, they’re still vital. They still appeal to several generations of rock fans. They still have the power to transform the lives of their audience, if only for one night.
If that sounds like a cliché, well, it is. Then again, rock ’n’ roll was born on cliches — something that may not seem like a very hip thing to say in 2016. But it’s true. If you want to transform your own life through music, you have to be willing to give into them. Capital-R rock is histrionic. It’s primal and sexual and stupid and campy, but it’s fun, goddamnit. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band never lost sight of that this year, even as the world continued to get a little darker. Hell, especially when the world continued to get a little darker. It was hip to cover David Bowie and not so hip to cover Glenn Frey, and yet New Jersey’s finest did both of those things when each musician died.
All of this is living proof that, at the end of a long, long day and an even longer year, it feels good to just do what comes naturally — cheesy sermons, Viagra jokes, and all. Rock ’n’ roll will never fade away. Not completely. It might go dark for a little while. It might go out of style. But it won’t fade away. Sometimes, it even comes back for a series of record-setting marathon concerts. Anyone who saw E Street or even listened to them with open ears in 2016 can attest to this power.
So all rockists, rejoice. And the rest of us should, too.