The Boss led hope train through Pittsburgh

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In a way, I was glad during his concert Saturday night in Pittsburgh that Bruce Springsteen didn't play "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," my all-time favorite song from his vast catalog.

It might've sounded too incongruous, given everything that was about to happen to the boardwalk life the song celebrates, as the biggest storm in mid-Atlantic history bore down on the East Coast.

Still, the mood on the stage at Consol Energy Center that night was hopeful, even buoyant, as darkness descended and the rain-soaked crowd shook off the effects of the evening's chill in the warmth of the arena.

I can personally attest to the overwhelming generosity and good mood of the Boss' 18,000 fans as I wandered through the crowd before the show, blue bucket in hand, collecting donations for the Rainbow Kitchen with a dozen other volunteers.

Times are tough, but wallets opened readily, countering my natural-born cynicism by raining $1, $5, $10 and $20 bills into the coffers of a local organization assisted by Bruce Springsteen since 1984 in fighting hunger. One kind soul threw a $100 bill into a colleague's bucket.

There's nothing more life-affirming than a Saturday night at a Springsteen concert in Pittsburgh, where most people stood hijacking the chorus of their favorite songs during the bulk of the Boss' herculean three-hour set.

Two-thirds through the set, Mr. Springsteen and the 17-member, expanded edition of the E Street Band launched into a brooding, gospel-haunted rendition of "Land of Hope and Dreams," a song they've been playing live for a decade, although it only made its official studio debut this year with the release of "Wrecking Ball."

I was thinking about this country and our divisive election year drama when these powerful lyrics ran over me like a freight-train in the darkness:

"I will provide for you / and I'll stand by your side / You'll need a good companion for / this part of the ride / Leave behind your sorrows / Let this day be the last / Tomorrow there'll be sunshine / and all this darkness past / Big wheels roll through fields / where sunlight streams / Meet me in a land of hope and dreams."

It was an emotionally cathartic moment that few pop performances are capable of duplicating. It was followed by one of the most magnificent choruses he's ever constructed:

"This train / carries saints and sinners / This train / carries losers and winners / This train / carries whores and gamblers / This train / carries lost souls / This train / dreams will not be thwarted / This train / faith will be rewarded / This train / hear the steel wheels singin' / This train / bells of freedom ringin'."

"Land of Hope and Dreams" captures the contradictions that stamp the American experience like a hot branding iron. It is a song about the aspirations, both material and spiritual, of a people weary from chasing a train as it rumbles down the tracks. It shimmers with stunning beauty and disarming simplicity. An artist needs a lifetime of interpreting American life to write a song capable of reaching into an audience's chest the way this one does.

Standing in the darkness of Consol Energy Center surrounded by thousands of other amazed Springsteen fans, it evoked a hopeful moment in an otherwise dispiriting political season. That song, in all of its goosebump-inducing wonder, is a reminder that regardless of what happens on Election Day, we're going to get through that night and every day after that by holding onto our sense of what really matters.

That's why it's been amazing to watch the coverage of the storm this week and the destruction it has brought to landmark cities on the East Coast, especially the boardwalk towns in New Jersey immortalized in Springsteen's early songs. People are coming together and rising above their political differences, but I guess disasters will do that.

It has been especially gratifying to see Republican Gov. Chris Christie and President Barack Obama put aside partisan acrimony to deal with the devastation to the New Jersey coastline, something elected officials are supposed to do, according to their job descriptions. For being reasonable and pragmatic, Mr. Christie has already been denounced by the extremists in his own party after praising Mr. Obama's disaster response instead of reflexively kicking him.

Meanwhile, I'm reasonably sure that the American people will make the right choice on Tuesday. We're not going to stop chasing this train until we catch it.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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