If you aren’t very familiar with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, I’m sorry. As I found out last Wednesday, the writer of such hits as “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark” puts on a live show like no other, an almost transcendent musical experience lasting three solid hours. His energy would be impressive for a man one-third his age, yet the 62-year-old still controls the stage and the crowd effortlessly. The New Jersey native never mails a concert in, giving Newark all he had in his last US stop before his tour moves to Europe. His rabid fan base crowded the edges of the stage, roaring “Bruuuce” at every opportunity, singing along, handing him beers, and in a few lucky cases, being pulled up on stage to dance. It was, in short, the perfect rock concert.
If you aren’t very familiar with the B Street Band, well, you aren’t missing much. When I showed up to the Prudential Center on May 2nd, the doors were still closed. This left thousands to awkwardly mill about near the entrance, subjecting themselves to overpriced barbeque and Newark’s other delights. And there was a band playing outside, an opening act. It took a good couple minutes before I realized that they were playing Springsteen songs.
A tribute act opening for the band that they cover? That seemed weird to me, and to at least one middle-aged woman who I overheard complaining about it. The B Street Band wasn’t horrible, but I also wasn’t particularly impressed. Their only conceivable function seemed to be making Bruce sound better by comparison. Frankly, the whole scene was mildly pathetic, and I joked to a friend that they’d been touring with Springsteen since 1973.
As it turns out, I wasn’t far off. The B Street Band (originally called “Backstreets”, which was the name of a Springsteen song years before Nick Carter and the rest of the Boys adopted the moniker) triumphantly declared that they had been performing since May of 1980. Twenty-two whole years! They claim to be the world’s longest running tribute band, and I sincerely hope that’s true.
Apparently the B Street Band was one of the first tribute bands to cover an artist while said artist was still alive and performing. They seemed quite proud of this fact, but I can’t imagine why. Springsteen’s protracted career can’t have helped their business model; as long as the Boss himself is still out giving incredible shows, what use does the world have for what amounts simply to a much worse version of that? Springsteen’s continued dominance is what relegates the B Street Band to such low-reward gigs as “Tim and Jenn’s Wedding” and, you know, opening for the real E Street Band in Newark.
Or so one would think, but luckily for the denizens of B Street, one Bruce Springsteen isn’t enough to go around. In a bizarre turn of events, the B Street Band ended up playing at New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s inauguration. This was after Christie’s first choice, Bruce Springsteen, turned him down. In the words of the band’s Springsteen look-a-like, Glenn Stuart, “You don’t say no to the governor. Unless you’re Bruce Springsteen.”
This raises an interesting question about how much liberty a tribute band should have. It’s hard to blame them for taking the job; it’s a wonderful gig to get. However, Stuart admits that “it was political—it was a big Republican night.” This fact is probably why Springsteen declined—the notoriously liberal rocker has performed at Obama events but has repeatedly denied Republicans access to his songs. And his music, most noticeably his most recent album, is often charged with an Occupy-level derision for Wall Street. So, regardless of what the band members—Glenn Stuart, Willie Forte, and the four Steves (two of which are ridiculously nicknamed “the Count” and “the Phantom”)—may believe politically, they risked betraying the man to whom they literally owe their entire career.
Now, not all of Springsteen’s stuff is ideological in nature; in his extensive catalogue one can of course find less politicized odes to women, youth, and working America. And if the B Street Band refused to do every show that their idol wouldn’t do, they literally could not exist. Most importantly, I’m not really sure how tribute acts work but I’m pretty sure Bruce could have swept in and denied his biggest fans the rights to perform his songs for the inauguration. Clearly, he didn’t care enough to merit taking action. But by placing the money and publicity over the message, the B Street Band may have compromised some of its integrity.
Although, let’s be honest, I’m not quite sure how much integrity a tribute group has. Glenn Stuart seemed to not care a whit about the political factors when he told the Melrose Free Press that “We (also) played for (Christie) on election night at his campaign headquarters — we were actually on national TV that night, because they kept cutting in and out, and every time they cut in we were playing.”
Hey, they were on national TV! A group of local boys making good on the coattails of a local boy who made better. I want to just say, good for them. But when I saw those gray-haired dudes outside of Newark, I couldn’t help but feel sad. As I was entering the building I heard a desperate voice cry out, “You can come closer to the stage!” and my heart went out to them.
Their website doesn’t help. “The dream of a lifetime come true…sing and perform with the band on stage along with your friends,” it tells us. Whose dream is that, exactly? That of the fan, dreaming of dancing on stage with a Springsteen look-a-like? Or that of the band, dreaming of one day having fans who will swarm the stage without having to be asked? I suspect the latter.