Everything dies, baby that’s a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back?
Those lyrics from Bruce Springsteen‘s “Atlantic City” about dreams that refuse to quit are played on a loop on a promotional recording for visitors strolling the Boardwalk of the frequently counted-out Jersey Shore resort town that inspired them.
The song’s hope-against-hope attitude has rarely seemed as appropriate as it did this weekend, when two shuttered casino properties in the South Inlet section of the city simultaneously sprang back to life.
One of those, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, builds its brand around music, and country star Carrie Underwood was the inaugural act Friday night at the sprawling resort’s 7,000-capacity showcase venue now known as Hard Rock Live at the Etess Arena.
Miami rapper Pitbull, who also tops the bill at the Wawa Welcome America festivities on the Ben Franklin Parkway on July 4, was scheduled to be Saturday night’s Hard Rock Live headliner at the property known as the Trump Taj Mahal until 2016, when it went out of business. (The big weekend for the resort town was to be topped off with country-pop singer Sam Hunt kicking off this year’s AC Beach Concert series on Sunday.)
Meanwhile, just a few blocks farther down the Boardwalk, the curvilinear Ocean Resort Casino (formerly known as Revel) also rose from the dead this weekend, with a marketing push that emphasizes sports betting that is less reliant on live music acts.
>> READ MORE: Atlantic City Holds Its Breath As Hard Rock, Ocean debut
The stylish building’s Ovation Hall, which hosted Beyoncè and Kanye West back in 2012, is dark until it hosts a Top Rank boxing card on Aug. 18 and comedian Wanda Sykes on Sept. 8. On opening weekend, former Philadelphia deejay Diplo, electronic dance music act Kaskade, and R&B/hip-hop producer Jermaine Dupri were slotted at the posh dance club HQ2.
On Friday at the more mass-market Hard Rock, where the pugnacious marketing slogan emblazoned on Boardwalk trams is “Born to Defy,” the casino floor and surrounding concourses were packed.
>> READ MORE: Brake Shelton, Amy Schumer in Hard Rock’s concert lineup
All Trump signage is gone, but patrons waited in line at an outpost of the White House, Atlantic City’s fabled sub shop, and along with ogling Nicki Minaj’s boots and Ed Sheeran’s sneakers, checked out a Jersey-centric exhibit with displays on Springsteen, Lauryn Hill, Frank Sinatra, Dionne Warwick, and Debbie Harry of Blondie.
Also on Friday, Springsteen drummer Max Weinberg played a free show at the smaller Hard Rock Cafe. He led Max Weinberg’s Jukebox, featuring singer Glen Burtnik, with video screens showing a rolling list of hundreds of songs that the four-piece band will cover on request. Always wanted to hear Mighty Max play AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell”? You came to the right place. Original E Street Band drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez joined the ensemble for “Glory Days.” Weinberg is back on Aug. 3-4 and 18.
Inside the Etess Arena — named after Mark G. Etess, a Trump executive who died in a helicopter crash in 1989 — Underwood took the stage in her first full-scale show since she fell outside her home in Nashville in November, breaking her wrist and requiring 40 stitches to her face.
No mention of the former American Idol winner’s accident was made, although the personable star who attracted a probably 75 percent female crowd did go into detail about her all-black stage clothes, all purchased in Atlantic City retail outlets this week after her luggage was misplaced en route from London.
The Etess Arena is essentially the same cavernous airplane hangar-sized rectangular hall that it was during its Taj Mahal reign.
The sight lines are clean except for the extreme side stage views on the left and right where the video screen behind Underwood was difficult to get a clear look at. The sound did not project all that well to those areas. Chattering fans could be heard over the music even when the 35-year-old singer was belting out hits like “Blown Away” and “So Small.”
The venue, though, is a welcome addition to Atlantic City’s entertainment portfolio, fitting nicely between other marquee venues such as the Borgata’s 2,500-capacity Event Center and the barrel-vaulted Boardwalk Hall, which holds 10,000.
The Hard Rock plans to present 100 shows a year at the Etess (as well as 200 more in smaller venues) and the lineup so far is full up with mostly country headliners, with Florida Georgia Line on July 13 and 14 and Blake Shelton on Aug. 18. Maroon 5 is set for July 15, and comedian Amy Schumer plays Sept. 1.
There was a long, snaking line to get into Underwood’s show, which was advertised as being sold out. But even after everybody got in, there were plenty of empty seats, surely more than Underwood is accustomed to seeing.
Not that the less-than-full house affected the 100-minute show. Underwood isn’t much for quiet moments or subtlety, but she’s a seasoned performer with a big voice and a confident stage presence.
Thirteen years after her Idol victory, Underwood still projects the self-styled “All-American Girl” image she mapped out for herself on her 2008 hit of that same name. She’s one of the extremely few female artists who get regular play on bro-heavy country radio playlists, and her spirited set had its share of songs that overtly signified an adherence to Christian beliefs, including “Jesus Take the Wheel” and the baptism conversion saga “Something in the Water.”
But along with those testimonies of faith, Underwood also has a taste for melodramatic struggle and strife. All sorts of unsavory, untrustworthy dudes appear in her songs, most of which she cowrites.
The best of the bunch Friday was the tire-slashing, headlight-smashing, intensely satisfying revenge song “Before He Cheats.” But there was also an abusive husband who gets his just reward in “Church Bells,” an unhappy relationship that needs to end in “Undo It,” and a good-for-nothing “Cowboy Casanova,” who is “like a disease.”
The band includes a banjo, fiddle, and dobro, and you can hear the Oklahoma in Underwood’s voice. But while retaining a mainstream country identity, Underwood really operates as a full-throated rock stylist, with a big back-beat sound that can recall ’70s country rockers like Marshall Tucker, a vocal delivery that leans toward Janis Joplin, and a predilection for story songs that suggests a taste for Bobbie Gentry.
Underwood has a tendency toward the too slick, but she’s grown steadily as an artist. She caught the audience by surprise by playing a wailing harmonica solo on “Choctaw County Affair” and announced that she’s making her debut as a producer of her own music with Cry Pretty, her new album due in September.
The Celine Dion-worthy power-ballad title song from the forthcoming album worked well enough as an over-the-top anthem of feminist solidarity. But “The Champion,” which made its debut in the telecast before the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory in February, is an awkwardly over-determined attempt to engineer a music-and-sports crossover product, not aided by a guest rap from Ludacris. Still, Underwood’s declaration that she’s “a fighter like Rocky … knock me down, I get up again” was well-suited for a comeback weekend in Atlantic City, when the struggling resort is attempting to get up off the canvas, one more time.