His forearm held above his eyes to shield the lights, Bruce Springsteen read a sign in the crowd held aloft by a young couple. He read part of it to the crowd, though it was a bit hard to make out. Something about an engagement.
"Come on up," he invited.
The young man and woman slowly worked their way toward the Royal Farms Arena stage. In front of the sold-out crowd, the man got down on one knee and proposed. She said yes.
"You are now pronounced, in the church of rock 'n' roll, husband and wife," Springsteen said, moving his hand in the form of a cross as if to bless them.
The "newlywed" couple posed for pictures with The Boss—taken by E Street guitarists Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren—and then the band launched into "The River" cut 'I Wanna Marry You,' a doo-wop influended lullaby about young love.
Writing about a Springsteen concert as if it's a religious experience is basically a tired cliche at this point, and yet the singer still believes in it. His followers do too.
Of course "The River"—the 1980 double album the band is playing in full on this tour—is about good times and party music, but it's also about darker things—about death, fractured relationships, anxiety, and struggle.
So when the band played the title track next, it came with a narrator who sees his marriage as a trap and can only find comfort in reminiscing about his younger days.
This brief part of the show was itself a perfect representation on the duality contained in "The River": The onstage wedding ceremony was a moment of joy followed by a cryptic warning. The evening was filled with this constant back-and-forth, and it played out on the stage as well as in the seats.
The crowd would be up and dancing for energetic favorites like 'Hungry Heart'—complete with the an emphatic fan-led sing-along of the first verse, which includes the opening line "Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack"—'Out In the Street,' and 'Cadillac Ranch.' Springsteen, a seemingly endless well of energy and charisma, never relented during these songs, whether it was mugging with Van Zandt, walking toward the front rows to extend his hand into the sea of people, or strutting along a catwalk that took him around the edges and into the heart of the crowd on the floor. As has become custom, he crowd-surfed back to the stage while standing in the sea of people at one point.
More somber cuts like 'Independence Day,' 'Stolen Car,' and 'Wreck On the Highway' were met with darker lighting, sometimes making it seem like Springsteen's face was partially in the shadows, and solemn vocals sung with eyes closed tight. For these songs, many fans chose to sit.
But Springsteen always ends his sermon with an enlivening bit of uplift. And so the band ripped through songs about the virtues of love and sex ('Prove It All Night,' 'My Love Will Not Let You Down,' 'Because the Night,' 'Rosalita [Come Out Tonight],') and a future that has not yet been written ('Badlands,' 'Thunder Road,' 'Born to Run'). Sprinkled in were crowd favorites 'The Rising,' 'Backstreets,' and 'Dancing in the Dark.' The show ended with a feel-good cover of the Isley Brothers classic 'Shout,' at the end of which Springsteen surrendered: "I'm just a prisoner of rock 'n' roll!"
The show ended and people left feeling alive, energized. The church of rock 'n' roll can offer such healing powers, and Springsteen does everything possible in his live show to conjure them up.
Still riding the wave of the previous evening's stirring show, I settled in to write this review when news broke that Prince had died. The church of rock 'n' roll was now being prepared for a funeral.
Springsteen and Prince are fairly different musicians, but they are two artists in a wide array who have been canonized. Where Springsteen is earnestness and old-school rock, Prince is enigmatic and an alchemist combining rock, pop, R&B, soul, funk, and electronic music for a sound all his own. Both are immensely talented writers who took on multiples subjects, but they are known for these staples: Springsteen and his empathy for the workingman, Prince and his explorations of love and sexuality.
In a 1990 interview Rolling Stone, Prince admitted he was "not real into Bruce Springsteen's music," but he had immense respect for the way he could command a crowd. That is where they are most closely aligned: epic live performances and the belief in the transformative power of those shows.
It was a central part of his Rally 4 Peace show, held in the same Royal Farms Arena weeks after the death of Freddie Gray. As our reviewer Evan Serpick wrote at the time, Prince told the crowd "I am your servant tonight, Baltimore" and later launched a rally cry of "No curfew!"
"For two and a half hours, Prince celebrated Baltimore and its resilience, and even if it was short on specifics, the concert did raise money... and gave the city a chance to let loose after several very tense weeks," he wrote.
Among the many online tributes, Prince's own evangelizing, from the opening of 'Let's Go Crazy,' kept reappearing: "Dearly beloved/ We are gathered here today/ To get through this thing called life."
The best artists, like Springsteen and Prince, can do that, shape your life and give you a welcome distraction from it. In the church of rock 'n' roll, their music echoes on an on, while they're on this earth, and even after they've left it.