WORKING ON A DREAM Matt Ryan (left) as The Boss and Matthew Sully as Miami Steve.
What a peculiar month for those of us whose boss is a singer from New Jersey! On January 14, Mr. Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen released his 18th studio album, an occasionally good, occasionally terrible hodgepodge called High Hopes, and on January 30, Bruce in the USA — a Springsteen tribute band — plays Port City Music Hall.
It’s the latter event that we’ll discuss, as it raises questions about authenticity and community, two vital themes in Springsteen’s work. (The album mostly raises the question of whether someone should have unplugged Tom Morello’s guitar pedals, and the answer to that is yes.)
Bruce in the USA traces its roots to Las Vegas, a place that’s about as genuine as a mid-winter tan on the Jersey Shore. Frontman Matt Ryan began playing “Springsteen” with Legends in Concert, a casino mainstay whose roster of ersatz stars includes “Britney Spears,” “Bing Crosby,” and 15 Elvises.
Now backed by “Little Stevie,” “Clarence Clemons,” etc., Ryan leads “a note-perfect and visually accurate recreation of a Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band show.” That’s according to Bruce in the USA’s website, which has as its tagline “the world’s #1 tribute to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.”
Smart advertising, but the real #1 tribute to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, currently touring South Africa and, no doubt, planning a fresh round of US dates. They’re characters and always have been, filling stadiums with elements of vaudeville, gospel theatrics, earnest balladry, blue-collar anger, and good old rock’n’roll. Nobody’s better at channeling Springsteen than Springsteen — witness his appearances on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where he’s played himself from the Born in the U.S.A days and circa 1973, complete with ragged hat.
As “Springsteen,” however, Ryan has won over a number of Springsteen fans, including several devotees who post on the Backstreets.com BTX forums. There, his Bruce-like moves and appearance have been described — in complimentary fashion — as “weird,” “scary,” and “surreal.”
It’s worth noting, too, that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are only part of the point of a Springsteen show. You don’t just go to see Bruce. You go because you hope he’ll play the song that made you fall in love with his music. You go to be with friends, or to meet new ones; you go to dance; you go because maybe you’ll make eye contact at the bar. You leave with your ears ringing, knowing you’re part of something that stretches from Asbury Park to Johannesburg to Brisbane.
Yes, tribute bands are cheesy. Yes, commercial motives are involved. Remind you of anyone? How about the guy who slid crotch-first into a Super Bowl camera in 2009? Same guy whose average ticket price in the first half of 2013 was $107.19. Springsteen, not “Springsteen.” (Tickets for the Port City show are $12-15, btw.) So maybe a night with the latter won’t be weird, after all — just because it’s fake doesn’t mean it’s not genuine, and if you don’t overthink things too much, a few sweaty hours among fellow fans may be just what you need to get through the winter. At the very least, it’ll tide you over until you can see the real deal.