Bruce first took the stage at the end of the Zac Brown Band's three-song set. While Dave Grohl was introduced as someone Zac Brown loved to play with, Brown's introduction of Bruce was quickly drowned out by cheers of "Bruuuccee" — which was once again mistaken by many Springsteen virgins to be "boos." The trio [pictured in rehearsal above] launched into John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son," which was met by a roar of applause and enthusiasm by the crowd. Bruce played a blistering guitar solo before singing the final verse, and the crowd happily sang along to the song's final chorus: "I ain't no military son... I ain't no fortunate one." It's not clear whether Fogerty's anti-privilege anthem, which was so important to many Vietnam vets, most of whom were drafted, carried the same meaning to tonight's audience, most of whom seemed more interested in an upbeat song and a good jam.
The night's musical performances were interspersed with moving stories of heroism and valor from today's veterans. After a somber and moving short film about a veteran who lost both of his legs to an IED, yet came home and completed an Iron Man triathlon, Bob Woodruff came on-stage to talk about the work his foundation does for veterans and his own injuries covering the war in Iraq. Woodruff then introduced Bruce with a thanks for the consistent support Bruce has given to Woodruff's foundation since it was founded eight years ago.
Bruce's introduction resulted in a palpable attitude shift in the crowd. In a demonstration that American crowds could be as quiet and attentive as those overseas, the Mall fell soberly silent as Bruce opened his acoustic set with "The Promised Land." He sent it out as "a prayer for all of our recently returned vets, who deserve the best care this country can give them... we haven't gotten there yet. This is for you guys." As he played, the silence was broken by cheers only when Bruce returned to his harmonica at the end of the song.
Bruce then shifted to the 12-string with a slide and, as is typical with non-Springsteen crowds, the majority of the crowed responded with a puzzled silence, not recognizing the song in this bluesy rendition until the chorus. But they erupted into a cheer as Bruce intoned — almost to the point of spoken word — I was "Born in the U.S.A." The slower rendition matched the reflective tone of Bruce's entire set. "I wrote this 30 years ago," he said to introduce it, "I think it still holds."
Bruce closed his mini-set by returning to the six-string. Before launching into "Dancing in the Dark" he reminded the crowd about the support our veterans need: "Thanks for coming out tonight and supporting this cause. And remember when you leave, take all these men and women home in your heart with you. Because this is just the beginning: you can't start a fire without a spark." Once again, after taking some time to recognize the song, the audience erupted with a degree of recognition and joy, with the majority of people in attendance singing along to the chorus.
Bruce delivered yet again with a strong set clearly designed to reflect the more somber side of Veteran's Day, while also realizing that most of the crowd was less familiar with his body of work. While there are many songs deeper in the catalog that reflect Bruce's admiration and sympathy for veterans, he made the choice to deliver his message using reworked renditions of familiar songs. The stirring version of "Born in the U.S.A." is sure to be one people will remember. That was truly taking this moment into his hands: we've heard alternate arrangements of "Born in the U.S.A." over the years, driving home the meaning of the song, but never for this large — or this appropriate — an audience.
When Bruce did take the stage, he, as usual for this event, came armed with an acoustic guitar and some jokes.
This was the introduction for "Working on the Highway," a rollicking, loose version of the song.
While playing the familiar intro to "Growin' Up," Bruce told a short story (combined with a joke) about the early days of the E Street Band.
Midway through the song Bruce delivered another joke:
With the song finished — and the crowd admonished for its poor attempts to sing along ("Not bad. Not good. Kinda sucky.") — it was time for the next bit of comedy from Mr. Springsteen:
Calling Patti Scialfa onto the stage, Bruce introduced a lovely duet version of "If I Should Fall Behind" by saying, "We want to do this for the families, the families of our vets tonight."
As Patti exited the stage, Bruce delivered the final joke of the night:
"Born in the U.S.A." was next, the bluesy 12-string arrangement made even more powerful with the front rows filled with injured veterans.
After finishing his five-song acoustic set with "Dancing in the Dark," Bruce began playing a riff on an electric guitar that was up for auction to raise additional money for the Bob Woodruff Foundation. When the bidding stalled at $60,000 Bruce promised a one-hour guitar lesson, which drove the bidding up to $250,000. Further enticements included a lasagna dinner at his house, a ride around the block in the sidecar of his motorcycle, and the very shirt off his back. Two competing bidders eventually negotiated a deal where they would each pay $300,000 and each would receive the prizes. With the bidding complete, and $600,000 raised, Bruce sang a few bars of "Mystery Train" to close the show.
Backstreets reader Miguel Pinto was there, telling us that Springsteen and the Stones went on to "drive the crowd mad. A great and unexpected moment in Portugal. Bruce was in Lisbon with his family — he was spotted in the city and posed for a lot of pictures with fans."
Video below — watch Springsteen sharing the verses with Mick and hanging with Keef while Ronnie takes the lead. Facing off with Mick for some improvised back-and-forth, Bruce injects some real soul into the proceedings as they strut out onto the thrust together. In fine form after two-plus years of chopping wood on stage (no matter how tired anyone might have thought he looked at the last couple gigs), Bruce really elevated this one. Compare it with 2012's first draft, which feels tentative and leaden by comparison. This is how it's done.
This was Springsteen's second appearance at Lisbon's Rock in Rio, after a Wrecking Ball set two years ago (6/3/12) with the E Street Band.
Bruce said, after that first song, "It's always nice to come to Pittsburgh and try something I haven't tried before." He added that every songwriter is good for about two or three songs their whole life, that "Cadilac Ranch" and "Darlington County" are really the same song, and that "it works if you refresh and rewrite them."
After "I'll Work For Your Love," Bruce explained that he'd had an anxiety attack that day and taken Ativan... perhaps too much Ativan. Did he say "chugged"? Was Bruce's appearance on stage simply an errant figment of one of his many selves, while he drifted in the ether looking for a fun place to touch down? He carried on, introducing an acoustic "Outlaw Pete" by saying, "This next song is a hallucination," and relating his childhood memories that launched the song. The acoustic version revealed to me, for the first time, the imagery of the song's lyrics. During the final verse Bruce brought down the guitar, and I could feel complete silence in the room; for all of the exhaustion, Bruce held the audience in palms of his hands.
After the song, Bruce retreated, walking very slowly and in apparent discomfort, as Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers took the stage for their own mini-set, including a call-and-response on "John the Revelator" that got the hometown crowd worked up. Bruce then returned to the stage for the remainder of the show, beginning with a typically searing version of "Adam Raised a Cain" and including another performance of "Racing in the Street '78."
Last night's show also took a noticeable look at Bruce's often ignored material from Human Touch and Lucky Town, eventually including both title tracks for a total of five songs from that period. This started with "Better Days," a song beginning almost in irony, considering Bruce's apparent exhaustion. But he got better, his voice got stronger, and it was time for some good fun. This started with Joe's song "I Still Look Good (For Sixty)," with Bruce and Joe doing plenty of mugging for the crowd, and then with an audible to "Pink Cadillac," with Bruce throwing in in lyrical references to ass-sizes and to Al Gore. Before "Frankie Fell in Love," Bruce tossed in a playful shot at the time he'd spent rooming with Little Steven, noting that Steven had been "awful" to live with.
The highest point of the evening for me was a three-pack starting with "Save My Love," a song Bruce seems to love playing with the Houserockers at the Pittsburgh shows. Then, starting "Savin' Up," he announced, "Ladies and gentleman, we got a little soul music for you!" Moving much better now and in full voice, Bruce came down the stage left aisle several rows in to the audience, explaining how soul music "administers to the soul, by imparting everyday wisom," and then picking out people in the audience to sing lines like "You may have diamonds, you may have pearls." Grushecky was the recipient of, "You may have a big backyard," as Bruce slapped Joe's rear end. Following was "Hearts of Stone," featuring Eddie Manion on saxophone and driving home, again, that tonight was a last dance of its own.
"Lucky Town" and "Human Touch," back to back, gave Bruce another chance to revisit material from those albums; "Human Touch" included an extended guitar solo. After the Grushecky family joined on "Twist and Shout," "Leavin' Train" rocked, making it easy to wonder why it had never been played in concert until these shows.
After concluding the band portion of the evening with a rollicking "Light of Day," Bruce returned with his acoustic guitar and harmonica. The room fell silent as he sang an achngly beautiful version of "My Beautiful Reward" that once again drove home the finality of the moment. The show could have ended there, but he had one more in him: "from New Jersey to Pittsburgh," a serenade of "Jersey Girl," Bruce joined by Eddie Manion on stage and inviting the crowd to sing along.
And with that, a conclusion to a long and wonderful chapter. The last dance has ended, we've gone down the road apiece, the train has left, and the reward has been searched for and maybe even found. Until we meet again, further on up the road.
As he has in past years, Bruce took the stage with an acoustic guitar to open the show, quipping that he was opening for Grushecky. He promised a night of unusual songs and rarities, and he immediately delivered on this promise by starting out with the extremely rare "Mary, Queen of Arkansas" from Greetings. Afterwards he remarked that the song was about a man in love with a transvestite: "Bet you didn't know that. Go back and listen to the lyrics." Who knew! Next up was the "Tunnel of Love" B-side "Two For the Road." Bruce had previously played the song four times on the Devils & Dust tour in 2005, all on piano; this was its first live rendition on acoustic guitar, a truly lovely performance with some very nice whistling at the end.
Bruce introduced the next song as a "song about time passing." He spoke about feeling overwhelmed that events keep occurring, and wishing they would stop, before launching into a gorgeous version of "Kingdom of Days." Just recently played in Albany, it was wonderful to hear again.
Springsteen then ceded the stage to Joe and the Houserockers. They started the rock 'n' roll portion of the show with "East Carson Street," "John the Revelator and "East of Eden" before Bruce reappeared to take charge on "Adam Raised a Cain." Joe took a second to welcome bruce back to Pittsburgh as they went into "Never Be Enough Time." A big crowd favorite, it featured extended guitar solos by Bruce, Joe, and Johnny Grushecky on acoustic guitar. The second performance in a week of "Racing in the Street '78" followed. Although not as impactful as the E Street Band's Mohegan Sun opener, Bruce's vocals and harmonica delivered the poignancy that makes this song so incredible. "Pumping Iron" followed, getting everyone out of their seats and featuring more extended guitar solos from Bruce; Ed Manion also had a nice solo. Another surprise was next, with "Leap of Faith."
A song never played previously with Bruce, "I Still Look Good (For Sixty)" is from Joe's recent album Somewhere East of Eden. They had a fun time trading vocals and engaging in general silliness — Bruce especially seemed to enjoy singing lines such as ''I wish gray hair would stop growing out of my ears." It ended with the pair assuring each other that they did still look good, and Bruce finally saying, "Its good to see you alive."
"Darkness" was followed by "Frankie Fell in Love," with the now-familiar opening suggesting that Shakespeare had it right, that one and one make three. Bruce also professed emphatically that there was too much analyzing going on! The rarities kept coming with "Hearts of Stone," sung just beautifully by Bruce, and "Savin' Up." Bruce started the song by walking up the aisle into the audience inquiring how everyone's bank balances were — their love accounts, not their money. It was a fun song performed well by the Houserockers.
Following the always fun Bruce/Joe classic "Talkin' to the King," the biggest surprise of the evening came with "Leavin' Train," the song's live world premiere. Bruce even confirmed that with an uber-fan he recognized in the audience. It was a fast, smoking version; Bruce and the Houserockers did it justice [video here]. Lets hope this one gets played again.
"The Promised Land" ended the main set, and the encores started with "Code of Silence," another classic Bruce/Joe G. collaboration. Joe sang lead on "I Was Born to Rock," taking a moment to introduce the band including "Bruce Springsteen from New Jersey." "Light of Day" continued the party, wrapping the main set with an onslaught of guitars.
Joe and the Houserockers said goodnight, leaving their friend from New Jersey alone again with an acoustic guitar. He first played "The Wall," perfectly fitting for Memorial Day weekend — the line "you and your rock 'n' roll band were the best this shit town ever had" received a particularly loud response from the local crowd. But Bruce saved the best for last, ending the night with an exquisite solo guitar version of "Incident on 57th Street" [video here]. He had the audience completely mesmerized, everyone still singing as we went out into the beautiful Pittsburgh night.
Let's start, as Bruce did, with the celebratory. Huge cheers as Bruce and Steve took the stage together arms around each other. Gearing up for a rare dip back into 1992, he asked the Mohegan Sun crowd, "Did you lose your money? You must have lost your money!... Either way, we're gonna make you feel lucky tonight!" Eschewing his guitar for the moment, Bruce's first instrument was a bottle of champagne as Roy began his "Roll of the Dice" piano riff. Bruce shook it up and popped the cork, shooting several sprays of the bubbly across the pit before taking a swig himself, then grabbing a tambourine to start singing. And damn, that sounds good wth the E Street Band, blaring horns, Stevie and Bruce trading off "just another roll" at the mic.
Strapping on the guitar and sticking with '92, Springsteen asked, "Are you feeling lucky tonight"? Not "Lucky Town," but a song from Lucky Town, it was the tour debut of a jubliant "Leap of Faith," backup singers on the chorus to take it higher. As with so many rarities tonight, the whole thing played so well with this band, you could stand there asking yourself "Why does he wait until the end to break these out?" Or you could just soak it in and enjoy it. I couldn't help going back and forth.
The only song that wasn't a tour debut in the first stretch of seven was still something they'd only tackled exactly once, Van Halen's "Jump." After that it was on to "Frankie," really stretching out the quiet middle break before the whole thing exploded, with some glorious sax from Jake Clemons. It's worth nothing that on the setlist, "Frankie" was back-to-back with "Frankie Fell in Love" (as if you hadn't already connected them in your head). Tonight Bruce played them both, but threw some audibles between. "Let me see what you've got out there tonight!" As he pulled signs from the stands, the deafening audience reaction for a huge "Santa Claus" placard made it a no-brainer, despite the season. This place was ready for some holiday cheer: a soccer chant even rose up from the crowd, singing along with the opening keys. Also cool here was the double sax solo, as both Jake and Eddie Manion came down front. It was so nice they did it twice, flanking Bruce at the end — a neat trick.
Pulling a sign for Tracks Disc Four's "Seven Angels" sent some shockwaves of elation through a certain portion of the crowd, as one of very few Springsteen songs that he had still never, ever played live. Bruce himself wasn't entirely sure — "I think we might have only played this once before..." "Never! Never!" came a cry from the pit. Springsteen took the cue immediately: "Tonight we have the tour and E Street Band world premiere! Out of all the hundreds of songs that have been played, this has never been played!" And again, the performance would prompt the question, why the hell not? "Featuring Garry Tallent!" And sure enough, there was the Tennessee Terror plugging in funky bass fills between the riffs. The whole thing kicked ass, and at the end, Bruce agreed: "That was pretty good! That one should be played, that one should be played."
"We're breaking out all the rarities tonight — all the rarities!" And it was clear, this was a night and a stand for avid fans. Not one last chance to cement the songs and themes of the last two years — in fact, this was the first night to not feature a single cut from Wrecking Ball — but to blow some hardcore minds. And judging by the volume in the crowd, the arena was full of them.
Out came a sign for "Don't Look Back," another seldom heard Tracks cut, and the last song bumped from Darkness. In a group huddle, they took a moment to work out the chords, the modus operandi being: figure it out, then kill it. Done. "Don't look! Don't look! Don't look!" This night was thrilling so far, even when it took a turn back out of Cloud Cuckoo Land for the next sign request, "Darkness on the Edge of Town" — a perfect pairing even if it brought us back to earth.
We didn't stay there long. Another "Stevie double-header!" brought "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" at breakneck speed, Stevie rocking the solo and exchanging "You can look"s at the mic, into "Frankie Fell in Love." And still, at song's end, we were hardly pausing for breath, or to get sentimental, as Max kept up a thunderous drumroll and Bruce dragged his strings across the mic stand, bringing the noise as they geared up for a four-song guitar onslaught. Starting with "Adam Raised a Cain," with fierce fretwork from Bruce, it was a run that seemed designed to show off the expanded E Street Band's four lead guitarists and their individual styles on one song each: after Bruce on "Adam," it was Tom Morello's turn on "High Hopes," again playing with his teeth; then Nils Lofgren's signature solo on "Youngstown"; and finally, Stevie's tommy gun lead on "Murder Inc."
After "Johnny 99," a River doubleshot brought the horns right back downstage on "Cadillac Ranch" (as we rode "through the Connecticut night," of course), before the tour debut of "I'm a Rocker." Silly or not, it absolutely smoked. Garry stepped right up to share the mic with Steve as everyone chanted "I'm a rocker, baby I'm a rocker," while Bruce played to the back of the stage: "With you!" "Loose Ends" kept us in the River era, a fan favorite that sadly can tend to leave some crowds scratching their heads, but not here tonight. As with "Hearts of Stone" on night one, Steve added subtle but crucial backing vocals.
Skipping over the setlisted "Shackled and Drawn" (and the non-setlisted "Waitin' on a Sunny Day"), it was time for one last Morello spotlight on "Joad," and one last guitar plug solo — still as cool as the first time we heard it. Audibles of "The Rising" and "Badlands" closed the main set. But the energy of "Badlands" didn't have time to subside before the house lights came all the way up for an encore-opening "Born to Run." No acoustic songs here after the four last night, just straight-up roadhousing as Bruce next called for "Steve!" and went into "Ramrod." "Look over yonder see the casino lights?" And for posterity, the classic, no clever twists, "Steve, what time is it?!" "It's BOSS TIME." No mucking about with selfies or gaggles of fans on "Dancing in the Dark," either, but one special dance: Bruce beckoned Steven's wife Maureen up for the honor. "Let's hear it for Mrs. Van Zandt!"
"Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" was Springsteen's first and only foray into the crowd, where he stood one more time on the pit divider, there amidst the fans as images of Clarence and Danny flashed on the screens one last time. "This is the important part."
And so we come to the melancholy. A hush followed the "Freeze-out," Bruce making sure the band was ready for his audible before speaking into the darkness, "For the last dance." He conducted Soozie and Roy in, and we were off to "Jungleland."
So much of the last 26 months has been about moving through the loss of Clarence Clemons, finding a way to "begin again," breathing new life into the E Street Band and integrating Jake among the new players to carry on his uncle's legacy. "Jungleland" tonight felt like the culmination of that journey. Lit by a single spot, Jake poured heart and soul into that solo, shedding tears by the end. Bruce took a quiet moment with Jake before returning to the mic for the last verse, and for those final wordless howls that seemed to take as much out of him. At song's end, with the crowd roaring, Springsteen led the band down front once more for bows. But along with the sense of triumph in the air there were also some blues that would prove hard to shake.
As a rule, this would be where you'd expect him to blow it all out with "Rosalita" or something, "Rockin' All Over the World," or at least the setlisted "Shout." But again, this night didn't follow the rules. As a rule, you'd anticipate a speech thanking the cast and crew. As a rule, you'd expect one last roll call, and a litany of heart-stoppin', pants-droppin' descriptors. Instead, Bruce seemed to chuckle as he remembered and kept it brief — "You've just seen the legendary E Street Band" — before ushering them offstage for the last time on the High Hopes tour. We can't know Springsteen's state of mind at that moment, but if we had to guess, we can imagine him fully spent by that "Jungleland" — and by a show that didn't have an ounce of fat, no kids on stage, minimal shtick — and rightfully ready, for now, to fold up the tent.
Still, there was "One more before we move on down the road." And sitting at the pump organ for "Dream Baby Dream," Springsteen did muster up words of thanks, and a parting wish: "We want to take a moment and thank yourselves for coming out and seeing us, I appreciate the support after all of these years. And I want to thank all the four million-plus people that have seen us on the Wrecking Ball/High Hopes tour. They made this simply one of the greatest musical stretches of our lives, when we're coming out of hard times, and I can't thank all of them and all of you enough. So while we're apart, just remember... Dream baby dream..."
These two incredibly spontaneous shows brought us 49 songs over back-to-back nights, with 19 songs not played the night before. Looking at the overall numbers for the High Hopes tour, we're talking 182 different songs at just 34 shows this year. Other things are much harder to quanitfy. The closer eventually found Bruce down on his knees, bathed in light, beseeching, "I just want to see you smile... I just want to see you smile." Hope you saw it, Bruce. We've all been beaming. Thanks to you and the legendary E Street Band, and everyone behind the scenes who made these last 26 months an astounding, inspiring magic trick, the alchemy of turning devastating loss into pure, uplifting, life-affirming rock 'n' roll.
Springsteen blew kisses to the four corners, and with one last "We'll be seein' ya!" he was gone.
That alternate "Racing," released on The Promise, opened the show. Only previously played live at the Carousel shows in 2010, it threatened to fall back into the well-worn "standard" version early on, but Bruce and Roy fought through it and found the groove. It's a big, muscular version of the song, and with the backup singers and the horns also playing a part, along with Soozie ably handling David Lindley's fiddle, it was a stunner. "Clampdown" followed, all five horn players banging drums, Tom Morello completely committing to the vocal. "Working hard in Hartford!" And with "Badlands" in slot three, the tone was set for a hard rocking night.
This night was also about the return of Steve Van Zandt. In the band intros, Bruce congratulated Steve on his Norwegian Emmy for Lilyhammer (the commitment that's kept him off the stage since early March), but everyone was glad to have him back to E Street business tonight. Steve himself not least of all — when his hands weren't on his guitar, they were most often skyward, in celebration, egging on the crowd. Huge cheers greeted him as he took the stage. And after "The Ties That Bind" (which was already pointing us to Steven territory), Bruce called out "C'mon, Steve!" for the inevitable and wonderful "Two Hearts." During the "It Takes Two" coda, there was a hilarious impromptu exchange as Stevie played up trying to catch his breath. Steve: "You do this every night?" Bruce: "He's a little out of shape." "Every night you do this?" "Every fuckin' night!"
That wasn't all. "I think we need a Stevie double header!" And out came the seriously underplayed "Frankie Fell in Love," done just once with Steve prior, in February in Perth. "Now Steve," Bruce began, "in school, one and one was two. But not here. Here, tonight, in Connecticut, one and one here tonight — and in art, and in prayer, and in love — one and one always adds up to three. Because here, math isn't math at all — it's magic." Bruce and Steve spent most of the song out on the thrust, sharing a mic with arms slung around shoulders. That was magic, too.
Bruce repeatedly called his consigliere to center stage to share vocals throughout the night, with back-and-forths on songs like "Prove It" and "Radio Nowhere." But not every Steven "moment" was loudly advertised. On the goosebump-inducing "Hearts of Stone" — just the second time Bruce and the E Street Band have done it, ever — Steve added crucial harmonies from the shadows. When Bruce hollered "Doubleshot of Southside!" and "Talk to Me" followed, it was more of that one-and-one make three magic.
While Bruce went wayyy off the roadmap in terms of setlist tonight, he was mostly winging it himself, rather than looking to signs in the crowd. Following "High Hopes" he quickly called out "Raise Your Hand" a couple times to the band and used the audible as the crowd-surf song. Returning to the stage, though, he selected signs for a couple more covers. One was a clock on a paper plate: "This is a very small request for a very old song, used to be one of our encores." And with that, we were swingin' with Daddy G on "Quarter to Three." Or with Daddy E: Eddie Manion stepped up here as he did several times this night, a perfect day for Kingfish. And then a sign for "Stayin' Alive" picturing Springsteen in Travolta's iconic white suit; Bruce struck the Saturday Night Fever pose before taking the band into his ingenious arrangement of the song. And they killed it: Garry and Max holding down a groove, singers down front, Soozie handling disco strings, Morello on wah-wah guitar, and those horns going nuts. Solos from Curt, Clark and Jake before the whole line was down front, wailing away like it was "Johnny 99." But it was "Stayin' Alive." Magic.
The magic reached a peak with "The Price You Pay." Played for only the fourth time since the River tour, it's a song that Bruce has perhaps reluctantly come to realize is special, and he treated it that way tonight. "Everybody ready?" he asked he band quietly before taking them into it, and it was clear that they had really worked to refine it at soundcheck. Some fans have bemoaned the loss of the pure E Street sound in recent years, but here it was in full glory — and not despite the extra players, but because of them. The backup singers, in particular, helped truly bring "Price You Pay" to life, adding the choral effect throughout that's a hallmark of the studio version, on both verses and choruses. Mighty horns at the end were a grand punctuation mark.
While that may have concluded the holy-shit-wow factor for the main set, performance didn't drop a notch. Nils and Tom shone on "American Skin," and we got practically Platonic ideals of "The Promised Land" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Only "Jesse James" took a bit of wind out of the show. Great song, fun to get — and to see Garry on standup, Soozie fiddling away at center stage, Everett wearing the washboard — but it was the one selection that interrupted the flow of the night. By the set-closing "Light of Day," we were very much back in action. Bruce began it in total guitar hero mode, riffing away and wrenching chords and train whistle whines from his guitar as Max pounded away behind him.
An unusal encore brought four solo performances. Not an acoustic set, exactly, the standard encore classics were sandwiched between, but Bruce bookended the encore with two solo numbers on either side. "I'll Work For Your Love" to start was a lovely tour-end summation, and then Bruce kept the band at bay to do a little storytelling. "A good song should work with just a guy and a guitar singing it," he said following "I'll Work for Your Love." He talked about testing songs throughout his career by playing them alone. "If they come to life, if they breathe and without all the production, I knew I had something lasting." All the while, he picked out the broken chords of "Growin' Up" as he continued his story:
Alone again for a lovely "If I Should Fall Behind" and "Thunder Road" at the end, after how talking about how "I started out as just a guy and a guitar," it was hard not to wonder if we're already seeing what's on Bruce's mind for his next project. But we're not thinking about that too hard. And we also tried not to dwell on how much emphasis he put on the lines in "Hearts of Stone": "this is the last dance... this is the last chance..." Because only heaven knows what the future will bring. And after all, there's still "another spectacular tomorrow night!" Who's bringing the fuzzy dice?
Since Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band first performed there about six years ago on the Magic Tour, Hersheypark Stadium quickly has become one of the best venues for that "magic in the night" that happens whenever Bruce and the band connect deeply to an audience. Last night's show was no exception. Thousands of fans young and old, from both the Central Pennsylvania area and elsewhere (including the major neighboring Springsteen fanbases of Philly, Pittsburgh and, of course, New Jersey) filled the 75-year-old stadium. They came ready both to participate and to listen intently, key requirements for any audience seeking an extra-special Springsteen/E Street performance.
Bruce and the band, currently with Tom Morello along for the ride, responded in kind. They opened with their searing, horns-enhanced cover of The Clash's "Clampdown" that has been a highlight of several recent shows, followed by intense versions of "Badlands" and "Wrecking Ball." The Hershey performance of "Clampdown" marked the first time that the "workin' hard" roll-call near the end of the song actually began with Harrisburg, just as The Clash's original version did. (Pennsylvania's capital city is only about ten miles away from Hershey.) The anti-war lyrics of "Clampdown" also would set the stage for later powerful performances of Vietnam-War-themed songs from both Bruce's first album ("Lost in the Flood") and his most recent one ("The Wall"). Before that, however, the mood was lightened a bit with "Hungry Heart"... at least until the crowd surfing began. There was a brief but genuinely scary "Don't drop The Boss!" moment when it appeared as if Bruce's entire upper torso, as well as the man's head, were heading rapidly towards the ground. Fortunately, fans reacted quickly enough and before long, Bruce was standing back on stage, giggling about the whole moment and looking completely unharmed by it.
A sign request for "Candy's Room," rewarded with explosive drum/guitar work by Max and Bruce, was likely inspired at least in part by the venue's location near one of the world's largest candy manufacturers. The next song, the stateside tour debut of "Roulette," was just as explosive and also inspired by a nearby locale, though a much more notorious one: the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, still in operation 35 years after its near-meltdown. Springsteen wrote and recorded "Roulette" for The River in 1979 in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster. It remained unreleased until its 1988 appearance as a B-side. Last night's version was especially impressive as Bruce sang one of his most difficult, word-heavy lyrics in lightning-fast, punk-rock speed, not slipping up for a second, the band keeping up with him all the way. They then segued perfectly into the equally appropriate "Death to My Hometown."
Other stateside tour debuts in Hershey last night included "The E Street Shuffle" (featuring a wonderful percussion duel between Mighty Max and Reverend Everett), a gorgeous solo piano version of "For You" (proving just how great a singer Bruce remains and how well he's cared for his voice over the years), and a sweet solo version, on acoustic guitar and harmonica, of "Surprise, Surprise" performed by request to open the encores. The evening's sole tour debut, the 1981 B-side "Be True," featured Eddie "Kingfish" Manion skillfully reinventing Clarence's sax solo in a lower register.
A light, pleasantly cool, misty drizzle crept in during the second half of the show, prompting Bruce to pull another sign from the crowd that read, "'Mary's Place' (Let It Rain)." The performance was as pleasant and intoxicating as the misty rain, with Bruce exhorting the crowd to "give me some of that old soul clapping," a direct nod to Sam and Dave's "I Thank You."
And how about that crowd! They seemed to play their part in the show as well as Bruce and the band: singing along, clapping and dancing when appropriate. ("Dancing in the Dark", incidentally, featured not only an onstage dancer but also some young onstage "jammers with the band.") Just as importantly, however, the overwhelming majority actually shut up and listened when needed. The almost complete silence of the audience during quieter performances like "For You" and "The Wall" was especially impressive in an outdoor U.S. crowd of approximately 30,000. They were rewarded by Bruce with sincere thanks for "a great evening," but the real reward was getting to create that evening together with him and his troupe of musical alchemists specializing in the "everlasting, eternal ass-kicking power of rock and roll!"
Let's go to the tape: While many may have been expecting another song with the word "Born" in the title to follow "The Wall," following it with "Born To Run" instead of "Born in the U.S.A." highlighted the darker, Vietnam-era aspects of "Born to Run"'s lyrics. (It's worth remembering that "Born to Run" was written, recorded and already on the radio in some major markets before the Fall of Saigon.) Max and Nils also engaged in some fantastic (and, for this pair, relatively rare) drum/guitar "dueling" during "Light of Day." Speaking of guitars, while not enough praise can be heaped on Tom Morello's solo spots (including that jaw-dropping amp-plug solo), it's also worth noting the excellent job he does in stepping back and blending in so well with the rest of the band whenever needed. Stevie remains missed and loved much, of course, but Morello's been filling some very big snakeskin boots with aplomb.
A ferocious rendition of INXS's "Don't Change," to open — its stateside debut, after a one-off in Sydney in February — was sung with such fury you worried Bruce might pop a neck artery. It set the tone for the opening stretch: a relentless, pogo-tastic barrage of uptempo guitar tunes, full of rage and righteous defiance. With his stone-cold scowl, Bruce looked ready for a fight, down to the epaulets on his khaki shirt. "My Love Will Not Let You Down" prompted his first smile of the night, when Tom Morello stepped over to join Bruce and Nils in formation on that buzzsaw guitar break.
"No Surrender" was smartly followed by the U.S. premiere of "This Is Your Sword" (soundchecked but not played last week in Houston). The extra prep clearly made a difference: buttressed by the horns' fanfare, "Sword" worked better live than on record. "Badlands," "Death to My Hometown," and "High Hopes" carried forth the battle-cry theme. (Cool touch: Morello's bagpipe-guitar flourishes on "Death to My Hometown." Somebody's been listening to Big Country.)
Then came the first of the set's many left turns, and just one of six — count 'em, six — cover songs. Introducing a horn-and-organ-drenched workout of Roy Head's 1965 gem "Treat Her Right," Bruce spoke of the romance lessons imparted by classic soul songs. "My parents didn't know it, but if you listened real hard to that junk coming out of the radio, there was wisdom in it!" As if to underscore said lesson, a young woman leapt onstage to do a sultry '60s go-go shimmy, to Bruce's wry amusement.
The laughter over the dancing girl had barely subsided when a familiar piano figure trickled in. It soon swelled to a sparkling cascade — and out of nowhere came the emotional flood of "Something in the Night." Bruce's drowning-man howl silenced the chatter and stopped everyone in their tracks: an astonishing performance, and a master class in drama from the man who wrote rock's script.
It was also a lesson in improv, since neither "Something" nor the six songs that followed were on the handwritten setlist. At this point Bruce simply threw out the map, and we were off on a freewheeling, off-road adventure. "It's audience participation night!" cried our M.C. at one point — and a stretch of six straight requests bore that out. First up: a daughter's wish that Bruce dance with her mom for Mother's Day. Wish granted, to the sweet strains of The Drifters' "Save the Last Dance for Me," in its third-ever airing on E Street. The scene had the beery guy to my left noticeably misty-eyed. ("Allergies," he sniffed — then we both just laughed.)
The criminally underplayed "Better Days" made its first U.S. appearance since 2003, reminding the crowd — and, one hopes, the singer — how underrated his '92 output was and still is. Then came a giddy take on an E Street classic. "You girls really wanna hear this song?" Bruce asked three kids in matching Born to Run shirts, displaying their sign for "Seaside Bar Song." "This song is ten times older than you are!" Roy's roller-rink organ riff filled the air, and we took off on a jaunt to the Shore.
"Mary's Place," blessedly trimmed of its Rising-era bloat, set up the shocker return — for the first time outside Australia — of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." Newly fleshed out, and tight as Travolta's pants, it inspired a front-of-stage dance-off between singers and horn players; Cindy Mizell's grin was worth the price of admission. But leave it to Bruce to mine the desperation beneath that cocksure disco strut, finding new meaning in those oft-parodied lyrics. (Is "Stayin' Alive" the great lost Springsteen song? Discuss.)
And then a holy-shit moment: "Kingdom of Days," for the evening's final request. That Working on a Dream rarity, unplayed since 2009, had clearly been rehearsed — "for Sharon," said Bruce — and this solo-acoustic rendition was just sublime. The final refrain even brought some lovely, full-throated keening, the sort that takes your breath away, while making you wonder if Bruce's will hold out. It did, and the sheer commitment he brought to the vocal drew a roar of approval from the crowd.
By now Bruce was not just asking his band to turn on dimes, but his audience as well: as he pivoted from "Treat Her Right" to "Something in the Night" and from "Stayin' Alive" to "Kingdom," the mood swings might have been whiplash-worthy — but Albany fans, admirably, held tight for every turn. The main set managed to wrap in semi-familiar fashion, as "Shackled and Drawn," "The Ghost of Tom Joad" (which Morello simply owns at this point), and "The Rising" led into an exuberant "Light of Day," now retrofitted with a great Asbury Jukes–style horn riff.
And can we just take a moment to say: Max freaking Weinberg. The man just can't be stopped, possessed of a stamina to rival his boss's. And his boss certainly put him through the paces tonight, cheekily goading Max on, calling for countless cymbal-splashing segues and tom-pummeling fills that surely had the poor guy flashing back to his audition for the band, 40 years ago this summer.
Switching gears yet again, the encore opened on a reflective note. Bruce's bittersweet recollections of Walter Cichon and Bart Haynes — hometown musical heroes who later died in Vietnam — gave a name to the sorrow behind "The Wall," which, in its gorgeous live incarnation, reveals itself as one of his finest, most poignant compositions. (Just ask Allergy Guy: by the final verse, he was as shattered as I was.) Then, as that mournful trumpet refrain faded away, Bruce counted in the only song that could come next: what else but a blistering "Born in the U.S.A."? (Actually, that song wasn't even on the original setlist, which instead called for "Born to Run.") More Max madness ensued as the world's most durable drummer did his best Animal impression during the extended breakdown.
After that careening go-kart of a set, you sort of knew "Ramrod" would turn up in the encore. An audible after "Tenth Avenue," it had a bumpy start, with Bruce playing off-key on the wrong (tuned-down) guitar, but after a quick Tele swap, he and the band were chugging away. With Steve and Patti both absent tonight, we had the novelty of Nils filling in as comic foil/mic partner on "Ramrod," and of Garry, at stage far-left, singing exuberant backup (while still keeping cool in his new shades). A frenzied "Shout" and a full-band "Thunder Road" took us all the way home. And only as we filed out did we finally catch our breath and ask, "What just happened?"
I'm guessing Bruce isn't too sure either. The handwritten setlist reveals a very different plan: out went "Hunter of Invisible Game," "Heaven's Wall," "Atlantic City," "Johnny 99," "O Mary, Don't You Weep," "American Skin," "Promised Land," "Because the Night," "Lonesome Day," and "Dream Baby Dream"; in their place came "Something in the Night," "Save the Last Dance," "Better Days," "Seaside Bar Song," "Mary's Place," "Stayin' Alive," "Kingdom of Days," "Ramrod," and "Thunder Road."
Did all that make for a better show? Perhaps. Sure, there were no songs from the first two records, only one lone cut from The River, and no so-called "epics." But with all those tour premieres and stateside debuts, including a whopping six covers, it certainly felt epic. Staggering back to my hotel, soaked in sweat, I recalled one of my favorite Springsteen quotes, from an interview with Dave Marsh in 1984: "Our job is, we just blow into town, tell everybody to keep going, and we blow on out."
Job, done and dusted.
- Peter Jon Lindberg reporting - photographs by A.M. Saddler
The USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, which Spielberg founded in 1994, is dedicated to making audio-visual interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides a compelling voice for education and action. Before the event, the director said in a statement, "I am personally honored that Bruce, [host] Conan [O'Brien], and Liam [Neeson] are joining me and lending their considerable talents to this year's special 20th anniversary gala. Not only do they entertain and inform us through song, laughter, and words, but by helping us commemorate this significant milestone, they also draw attention to the vital work of the USC Shoah Foundation."
It should be no surprise that the show started with an audible. Although a microphone was set up on the center stage extension, Bruce came out and shook his head. The setlist called for the U.S. premiere of "This Is Your Sword," but Bruce opted for the hometown flavor of "Seeds." The crowd reaction indicated that this was a great choice, loving Bruce's extended guitar solo.
After the double shot of "High Hopes" and "Badlands," Bruce took three signs in a row (though only the last of them was a true audible: a sign for "Adam Raised a Cain" correctly predicted its setlist spot, and "She's the One," which included the opening lines of "Not Fade Away" was moved up in the set). The best sign, and the first jaw-dropping moment of the night, was number three. A huge posterboard featuring a picture of Bruce and Patti singing together on the Tunnel of Love tour asked for a trip back to 1988. A beautiful version of "One Step Up" followed, with Patti joining Bruce at the center mic to finish the song. Big difference from 1988: as Patti clutched the mic stand with her left hand while singing, her engagement ring and wedding band shone.
Fresh from Jazz Fest, Bruce then launched into a pair of highlights from the Seeger Sessions shows. Outside of NOLA, Houston may be the most appropriate place for these songs, given how many New Orleans refugees made their way to Houston, with the Astrodome serving as a shelter during those dark days nine years ago. The reminder that the displaced had relatives "all the way from Texas to Baltimore" drew a huge cheer from the crowd.
The intro to "Wrecking Ball" revealed a much smaller number of New Jersey visitors than seems usual, but the local football fans (Cowboys and Texans) made their displeasure at the reference to the Giants known.
"Night" was a sign request from the seated area of the amphitheater, with Bruce pointing to the sign to prompt the band; that resulted in a couple of band members switching instruments after the song started, as they couldn't make out the sign Bruce was pointing to.
For the next request, there was no question what song the band was going into. Twenty-eight-year-old Alex Flores was holding a sign claiming that he "Busted [his] lil brother out of class to sing with The Boss" and asking, "Can we sing?" Bruce took the sign and posed, thinking about it for a while before bringing Alex and 16-year-old Tommy on stage with him to center mic. What followed was possibly the most joyous, exuberant version of "No Surrender" ever, with the Flores brothers nailing every nuance of the song. At their very first Springsteen show, the Flores brothers had a dream come true, and they could not have been more appreciative, not only hugging Bruce, but going around the stage personally thanking every band member individually. The Houston crowd ate it up.
Bruce appropriately followed this with another great song about friendship, taking a sign for our namesake song from the crowd. It was a very special version of "Backstreets," featuring both the spoken "Sad Eyes" middle break and the "Drive All Night" piece. Bruce seemed to find the reaction to "Drive All Night" amusing, chuckling to himself as the crowd roared.
The trio of "Shackled," "Joad," and "The Rising" followed ("Sunny Day" seeming to be on a well-deserved vacation), with huge crowd reactions to Tom Morello's contributions to "The Ghost of Tom Joad." The main set closed with another audible to a locally inspired tune, with a standout version of "Light of Day" wrapping things up. The middle break featured an extended guitar solo from Nils, which included him jumping up on the drum riser and bringing Max into it, for a magnificent guitar/drums duet.
Texas favorite Joe Ely made yet another appearance with Bruce, taking lead vocals on "Great Balls of Fire" and giving way to Bruce on "Lucille." These rock classics worked especially well to kick off the encores and lead into "Born to Run." Bruce took the final sign of the night with an air of inevitability, as he seemed to recognize the raucous crowd deserved a visit from "Rosalita."
Introducing the closing acoustic version of "Thunder Road," Bruce spoke lovingly of the band's long history in Houston. He recalled their first visit 40 years ago, which followed the band's first trip by plane to L.A. As the band collectively decided to never travel by air again, the E Streeters traveled from New York to Houston by train, a trip that Bruce recalled took two days. He name-checked their appearance at Liberty Hall and remembered how the crowd embraced the young E Street Band, making the trip worthwhile. Although no longer afraid of air travel, the love of the Texas crowd once again ensured the trip was worthwhile for Bruce and the band. And, of course, Bruce and the band returned the favor.
The tribute, which was filmed for a DVD release, also included guests John Fogerty (fresh from the E Street Band stage himself), Jason Isbell, The Blind Boys of Alabama, the Neville Brothers, Widespread Panic, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples, and many more.
When it comes to festivals, New Orleans Jazz Fest is not just a different animal; it is more like a beast that creates a myriad of possibilities on stage and an ongoing debate at the Fairgrounds of who just might get the Big Easy invites. This is also a festival for big people who love and know their music, not one for a bunch of drunks. From the moment you arrive in town you discover that Bruce is revered here and has been since his Post-Katrina appearance, a show the Associated Press at the time described as one where he reflected the anger, pain, frustration and resilience of a hurricane-battered city. The response to Katrina, he said from the stage then, was one of criminal ineptitude.
With that certain President far in the rearview mirror painting watercolors, this was not the same pissed-off Springsteen... but, as he says often when grabbing a request, the elephant never forgets.
This day on the big stage started with a jambalaya of Louisiana music: Marc Broussard, Allen Toussaint (with guest Jimmy Buffet) and the Voices of Wetlands All stars. All the while the crowd swelled farther than any pair of eyes could see. This was easily the largest gathering for any one artist in the 45-year history of this festival according to long-timers.
With a 7pm curfew, the band hit the stage at 4:27 with a "High Hopes" that could not better describe this city in 2014, followed by a "Johnny 99" that had Soozie hitting that fiddle like she was in a Cajun band and the horns sounding more like a NOLA brass ensemble that might give Sunday's big stage closer, Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, a run for their money. "Badlands" and a fierce "No Surrender" reminded all the faithful this is still a Bruce Springsteen show.
You can't stay angry forever, and when "Hungry Heart" followed Bruce took the deepest foray into the crowd I have ever seen. Had he tried to have the fans surf him back, it would have taken a half-hour. Then it was time to start digging deep into what you would expect here, Seeger Sessions material that started with "Jesse James" and Rickie Lee Jones joining up with Patti Scialfa for a few bars. And the horns, oh those horns, you just cannot get enough of them down here. The lads excelled.
A four-pack followed that was all anyone needs to know about how this man connects with the city: "The River," never more heartfelt than it was here, and "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" which had the crowd basically saying," brother you got that right," followed by "Wrecking Ball" and, as if it were written for NOLA, "Death to My Hometown." Hope and redemption changed the tone, with "The Promised Land" and a version of "O Mary Don't You Weep" that could have easily been a part of Irma Thomas' spectacular gospel performance the day before.
After "Shackled and Drawn" it was time for this tour's staple, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," with Tom Morello taking the guitar riffs even higher and the theatrics a little lower. "The Rising" and "Land of Hope and Dreams" were as good as ever. But now it was encore time, and if John Fogerty is within twenty zip codes of a Springsteen appearance, you know what is coming next, not one but two combos with the man Bruce says he idolized in his early days, "Green River," and for New Orleans you could feel it rolling down the mighty Mississippi, "Proud Mary."
This was not a show for some little kid singing on stage (none) or requests (none) or even for a gaggle of lovelies dancing on stage; there was just one lovely for "Dancing in the Dark," and she got some long, close-up slow dancing with The Boss. "Tenth Avenue" got its rightful place in the setlist, with some people even taking off their hats in respect for Clarence and Danny.
And that is when the show got deeply personal. Bruce hushed the crowd to say, "We wouldn’t be who we are today without you, New Orleans. This is for you." Today’s version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" was so wonderful, so heartfelt with layer after layer of sound and emotion, it was enough to make a grown man cry. And some of us did.
This American treasure of a city should never be left in tears again, and Bruce won't leave them crying, either — which is probably why he road-tested "Pay Me My Money Down" several times. By the time it got to the Crescent City it might as well have been Mardi Gras all over again.
"Thunder Road" finished off this most amazing experience of decades of watching Bruce, but it was no time to ride the highway solo. This "Thunder Road" was just like the one many of us got on years and years ago. New Orleans adopted the band after Katrina, and today Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band gave their love back.
Who Dat? Down here Dat the man.
Another Jazz Fest tune up, "Pay Me My Money Down", was extended while Bruce, followed by much of the band, entered the crowd. Rather than the the usual quick procession behind the pit, he took a detour to the concourse to visit the bar, returning eventually with drink in hand. "Light of Day" closed the main set, with Bruce directing Max and Nils to an extended jam.
"Jackson Cage" segued into a forceful "She's the One," with a brief "Not Fade Away" intro. But for all that was performed, the well-chosen covers and selections from the breadth of Bruce's canon, tonight was a River night. In all, the setlist featured seven songs from the album, each punctuated by Bruce's enthusiastic introduction, "The River! The River! The River!" Not even the absence of #1 River fan Steven Van Zandt could detract from the enjoyment of the evening (though he will likely lament missing a rare River night).
Introducing "Independence Day," Bruce said, "I've got The River on my mind. Let's see if it's on my mind enough to remember how to play this." He needn't have been concerned. While "Independence Day" was perhaps an unexpected choice for a solo piano performance, it was sublimely evocative. Not to mention that it allowed everyone a moment to catch their breath.
Next were two songs from the current album, "High Hopes" and "Just Like Fire Would." The title track, forceful on record, continues to be an absolute barn-burner live. "Tougher Than the Rest," a sign request, followed. It was a particularly apt choice, with Patti on hand to duet, and also featured some twangy guitar from Bruce.
River night continued with "Cadillac Ranch," with Nils and Soozie both prominently soloing. The arrangement of "Trapped," fully integrating the horns and the choir, gave a new dimension to a song first covered on the River tour. And then a noir-ish version of "Point Blank," with Bruce underlining the mood by repeating and emphasizing phrases in the last verse.
The set continued forcefully through more current material. "Heaven's Wall," as with "Trapped," showcased the choir and the horns, but used them to create an entirely different mood, celebratory and gospel-inflected. "Seeds" included great dueling solos by Nils and Bruce. The energy was unrelenting through "Death to My Hometown," "Wrecking Ball," "Shackled and Drawn" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Before "Wrecking Ball," Bruce polled the audience, assessing how many were from Georgia as compared to those from New Jersey. Crowd reaction appeared to indicate about a 50-50 split. Bruce proclaimed that the "great thing is that everybody runs away from New Jersey. Otherwise every place we play would be about half-full!" The main set concluded with "The Rising" followed by "Badlands," in the relatively unusual spot of set-closer.
The encore picked up the River Night theme with a tour debut of "Drive All Night," in a moving, emotional performance that one longtime fan called "best ever." After "Born to Run," it was back to The River for "Ramrod." Before his solo, Bruce cried out, "Plunk your magic twanger!" — a phrase that fans of a certain age will associate with Andy Devine, but which was originated by Atlanta's own Smilin' Ed McConnell. "Ramrod" also notably featured a rare (unprecedented?) appearance in the booty-shaking frontline by the Mighty Max, whom Bruce summoned down from the drum riser for the occasion. "Dancing in the Dark" followed, with a new twist on the by-now-obligatory guest dancer. After dancing with a young girl, Bruce placed her on his shoulders as he played his guitar (causing some concern that she might fall, as he had both hands on his guitar). When he got to the point of the "Hey Baby" call-and-response, he repeatedly dropped down to bring her level with the microphone, in an impressive show of strength and stamina. After frenetic versions of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" and "Shout," the evening closed with an unexpected U.S. debut of "Highway to Hell," effectively bookending the show with two covers which might have seemed incompatible with each other, but which the band seamlessly incorporated and made their own.
It's perhaps a funny thing: Bruce has received — and earned — virtually every honor and accolade there is, in addition to the unswerving loyalty of the E Street fans. This is a man with not a thing left to prove, yet he delivered a performance tonight as though everything was at stake, fully invested in every lyric and every note. While there will always be those who will say "you shoulda been there" for a particular tour or some special moment, no one who sees Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band right now could come away feeling that they did not see them at a peak in their long and storied career.
While personal expectations may have steered toward new material, or something more unpredictable, I was surrounded by newbies in the crowd (including my cousin) who had their doors blown off and absolutely loved their first-time experience. It was a raucous and rollicking good time.
Raleigh is a "Boss Town," make no mistake, there was never a need to "get those asses out of the seats." The arena was on their feet from beginning to end, even in the nosebleeds. Although based on Bruce's pre-"Wrecking Ball" Raleigh versus Jersey scream-off, it seemed that half the crowd may have had Jersey roots at one point or another.
Highlights included "Growin' Up," played early in the set and dedicated to his daughter Jessica, right down front, who graduates from nearby Duke University shortly. Bruce called up a trio of elated college dudes to sing the last verse — appropriately, Thursday was National Bring Your Daughter to Work Day, and Jess and a whole bunch of her friends were there to watch Mom and Dad ply their trade. Yes, Patti Scialfa was back onstage, adding a great deal to selections like "Because the Night." Requests weren't nearly as plentiful as Charlotte, but the first produced a fantastic version of the underplayed "Brilliant Disguise" showcasing Bruce and Patti in a tender moment shared at center mic.
Immediately following was the dynamic duo from Nebraska, "Atlantic City" and "Johnny 99," both of which I've heard a million times, but somehow the band keeps reinventing with subtle but impactful changes. In the former, Bruce repeatedly whispered the lyric, "I've been looking for a job, but it's hard to find," in the desperate persona of someone who is at the breaking point, but refuses to give up.
Carolina was represented back to back in "Working on the Highway" and "Darlington County." Shortly thereafter, it was fun to see Morello add a new twist to the "Ghost of Tom Joad" solo, where he now unplugs the guitar and pounds the end of the cord into his hand, which somehow produces an amazing sound that blends perfectly with the track. Having only seen Morello guest with the E Street Band before now, my personal highlight was watching him seamlessly integrate into the group. You can't help but love the man. That said, there's something missing when Stevie isn't part of the show.
The band never technically left the stage for the encores, as Springsteen spied a "Pretty Flamingo" sign that needed to be addressed. Hanging the bird-shaped sign over Nils' mic stand and working out the chord progressions, Bruce echoed calls from the crowd — or perhaps admonished himself — "Tell the story, Bruce! Tell the story!" He went on: "What was the story? It's the same old story. Guy on a porch and a girl walks by. It's the girl... and a little light goes on, in a variety of places!" This rare gem got more of a solo treatment than a band performance, but again showcased an intimate moment between Bruce and Patti, and the band kicked in at the end.
"Glory Days" was played for those graduates, and Jessica was feted one more time during "Dancing in the Dark," brought on stage to dance with Dad. And she was the only one pulled up from the crowd, for what had to be the shortest "Dancing" of the tour. Ultimately the show become one hell of a graduation party for their little girl and her friends. So, thanks for the invite Bruce and Patti: we were all glad we, too, got to attend and witness "the blessed, ass-kicking power of rock 'n' roll."
But was it a great show?
Let's start with the almighty eternal everlasting ass-kicking power of the night. And there was a lot of ass-kicking power last night, from the very first note of the evening. Bruce's blue shirt, black vest, and tucked-in tie are gone, replaced by the Joe Strummer look. And last night, we got a bit of the Joe Strummer sound as well, as the band opened with a hard-driving version of The Clash's "Clampdown." Bruce and Tom traded verses while the horn section, backup singers and Max Weinberg combined to form a massive nine-piece drum line. Impressive barely begins to describe it; combined with "Badlands" it created an opening two-pack salvo that left the crowd breathless.
But Bruce was just getting warmed up with his ass-kicking mode, continuing with a roaring "Johnny 99" honky tonk, the band bathed in red light, Curtis King kicking the song up with the cowbell, and the horns coming forward. Bruce called out "C sharp!," which could only mean something rare and unexpected was about to happen, and so it was: a tour premiere of the very rarely played "Stand on It" (the original B-side version without the extra verse that appears on the Tracks version).
Continuing right along with the rockabilly segment of the show, Bruce called out more keys. "D sharp!" ("D sharp??”) "E!" And a hysterical performance of "Seven Nights to Rock," featuring the queen of E Street, Patti Scialfa. Anyone who may have forgotten her role as Bruce's partner and on-stage foil needs to hear Patti's vocals on this one, first singing about a "different little boy" in every different town, and then ticking off the days of the week attached to different boys' names. She got through George and Paul, and some guy name Tom (John and Ringo were presumably for next week) before Bruce announced, "What's good for the goose!"
But was it a great show?
As Bruce started "Just Like Fire Would," he shouted to the audience, "C'mon, Pittsburgh, don't be so lazy out there!" For "Hungry Heart," that wouldn’t be an issue, as we had a new item: Bruce crowd-surfing with a balloon figure of himself from ballooniacs.com. You think you've seen Bruce crowd-surfing before, but you haven't seen him crowd-surf like this. The balloon Bruce remained seated in various positions at center stage throughout the remainder of the show.
The sign request segment — the only pause for signs this night — produced a tour premiere of "I Wanna Be With You." Sure, Bruce had already soundchecked it, but it always helps to have a sign. He dropped to his knees. He pled his case. And then, a jaw-droppingly brilliant version of "Back In Your Arms," unplayed in the United States since 2009 and a bucket-list song for me. "In life, we don't get many chances to re-do our mistakes..." Then, turning to advice, he added, "Do not hesitate to beg! It's not pretty, but it works, sometimes." As Bruce continued through his intensely soulful singing of the song, I thought, "there goes another $15, I'm downloading this one."
But was it a great show? During "Back in Your Arms," while some fans were mesmerized, there was noticeable chatter in the stands. As Bruce continued with "Wrecking Ball," it became more obvious that much of the audience — the upper bowl in particular — was not coming with him. Oh, Bruce tried to get them back. "Youngstown" had a huge solo from Nils Lofgren. "Mary's Place" had the stage slide — the crowd loved that... and then took their seats again. Tom Morello got them going during "The Ghost of Tom Joad," and "Radio Nowhere" gave Eddie Manion and Max Weinberg a chance to shine. What's wrong with any of these, and why wasn't the crowd more engaged? Was it the omission of crowd-favorites such as "Waitin' on a Sunny Day"? Was it the general lack of direct audience participation? Or the lack of hits or oldies? It may have been a dream set for the hardcore fan, but were the so-called "casual fans" fully engaged?
For the encores, Bruce came out on piano and played "The Promise" by request, referencing again that begging sometimes works. The patrons in section 102 talked right over it. It'll sound great on the download.
A stunning version of "The Wall" followed, introduced by a tribute to Walter Cichon and Bart Haynes. Curt Ramm's trumpet part got two verses, with Bruce doubling the part with keening the second time through. Its pairing with a floor-rattling take of "Born in the U.S.A." finally got the crowd's attention; it should be a permanent part of the show.
Joe Grushecky and family came on for the next suite of encores, including playful versions of "Light of Day," "Frankie Fell in Love," and "Dancing in the Dark," and Bruce announced upcoming dates with Joe at Soldiers and Sailors Hall in May, after this leg of the E Street Band tour concludes (May 22 and May 23). The crowd, now fully re-engaged, helped Bruce out with "Shout" and bathed him in a sea of lights for a beautiful finale of "Dream Baby Dream."
But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves. The opening number was a breathtaking if somewhat bizarre choice: the first E Street performance of "Iceman" (previously performed only once, by Bruce solo on the 2005 Devils & Dust tour). Given its somber nature and obscurity, it isn't a song you would expect to open an E Street Band concert. But the sheer intensity of the performance made it work in the cavernous arena.
Following that, the crowd was hit with a doubleshot off the High Hopes album, the title cut and the U.S. live premiere of "Just Like Fire Would." It seemed that Bruce was intent on challenging the Charlotte audience: three songs in, and not a single one that a casual fan would likely recognize. But that was promptly addressed by a rocking version of "Cadillac Ranch," complete with not one, but two lyrical references to the Carolinas. And the crowd was eating it up.
It was a little early for sign requests, but Bruce decided to keep the party atmosphere going, opting for only the second E Street performance of "Louie Louie" since the early '80s. Another sign request followed, for "Mustang Sally." While a staple of Bruce's bar sets and performances with Joe Grushecky, it marked only the second time the song was played in concert by the E Street Band. "Mustang Sally" was also a local special, with, as Bruce pointed out, the 50th anniversary celebration of the Mustang happening right here, right now at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Sign requests continued with "No Surrender" and "Out in the Street" (featuring the sign maker and her two friends on backing vocals), but since they lacked the "infrequently played" cachet of other signs, it wasn't yet apparent how far off the written setlist Bruce already was. With the fifth sign song of the night, the setlist was clearly out the window: "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)," yet another song more typically found in club appearances than E Street Band shows. And sign song number six cemented the claim that the E Street Band is the best bar band in the world, making even "Brown-Eyed Girl" sound fresh. Going back to the audience yet again, Bruce found a sign for "Racing in the Street." A perfect performance of the song showed that the best bar band in the world also has some serious musical chops.
Three Wrecking Ball songs followed, even though only the title cut was on the handwritten setlist. Perhaps Bruce wanted to bring a dose of reality to the party — and where better than Charlotte to sing about the "banker man" in "Jack of All Trades"? Then it was back to the audience again, for another musically spot-on performance, “My Love Will Not Let You Down."
The craziness settled down for the standard "Shackled"/"Sunny Day"/"Ghost"/"Rising" quartet at the end of the main set, but even then, "Light of Day" as the set closer in place of "Land of Hope and Dreams" kept the fire burning, with the na-na-nas from "Land of 1,000 Dances" in the middle break.
Of course, on this night, the encores had to start with a sign request, this one for "Darkness on the Edge of Town." It worked well to set up the mood for the next two numbers. Bruce gave a long, spoken introduction to "The Wall," again referencing The Motifs, the Cichon brothers and Bart Haynes, but expanding the intro to recognize veterans of not only Vietnam, but Iraq and Afghanistan as well. The performance of the song keeps getting better, and paired directly tonight with "Born in the U.S.A." it's shaping up to be a fine encore setpiece. As hauntingly beautiful as "Point Blank" was in Nashville, having the mood setter come first and following "The Wall" directly with "Born in the U.S.A." worked that much better.
Of the planned setlist, the only rarity that was left out was "Save My Love." In all, Bruce dumped the entire handwritten stretch from song 7 to song 15, instead combining crowd requests with his own audibles to create a show that was alive from moment to moment, driven by a feedback loop with an energetic crowd, effectively showing off all of the talents of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: a great bar band, classic rockers, a band with a political conscience. A band that perform songs that make you laugh, songs which make you cry, songs for a party, songs of sorrow and songs that make a statement. And, of course, songs which prove that they are the best live band in the world.
"There were a couple of great men I was lucky enough to have in my life when I was 17, they were the Cichon brothers," Springsteen recalled. "One was a guitarist, the other was a great frontman. He was really the first, I would say rock star, that I ever saw up close. They had a few records out locally; you can't really tell what they were about from their records, but... they were very very raw, very exciting. And when there was nothing else, they gave you a sense of a life you could live, a way you could walk, a way you could be. They were just incredibly valuable. And my good friend Walter [Cichon], and my friend Bart Haynes, who was the drummer of the Castiles, were both killed in Vietnam. So this is a song I wrote with them in mind."
We've heard about that inspiration before, but it was a very fitting story to tell here in Music City USA, where so many young musicians are trying to make their way. Then there was the performance of "The Wall" itself, which has become more tuneful in concert, with lovely keyboard work from both Roy and Charlie, and Curt Ramm's elegiac trumpet to close. From there, instead of leaping into "Bobby Jean" or something, we stayed down in the darkness with a hushed and coiled "Point Blank," a real surprise and a thing of beauty. And it was "Born in the U.S.A." for the trifecta, a very rare airing on these shores (though he plays it regularly overseas, this was the first in the U.S.A. since 2009). "Born in the U.S.A." both tied things back around to "The Wall," and helped blow all that darkness away, to get us ready for the catharsis and joy of the rest of the encore.
In a way, that level of song selection, pacing, and storytelling is Springsteen at his best. It wasn't always evident throughout the show, which, though performed at a very high level by both Bruce and the band, meandered and lacked some focus as a set. There was no Nashville special to ground us or give much of a sense of place (though Bruce and the band did take the stage to Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man"). But there were magnificent performances throughout, and an undeniably high level of energy from Springsteen, "working his craft," dancing, sweating, and pretty much on fire all night.
Five rockers in a row kicked things off. Watching Nils join Bruce at the mic on "Badlands," or saluting the guitar trio of Nils, Tom Morello and Bruce on "No Surrender," the opening run gave us a good opportunity to hold two seemingly opposing ideas in mind: it is possible to both cherish these moments where Nils and the rest get to step up and be a bigger part of the show, and to miss the hell out of Steven, both at the same time.
During the "Hungry Heart" crowd-surf, Bruce collected signs as he went, and he sat down to go through them. He read a few out to the crowd: "Is 48 too old to dance? No. It's not.... Congratulations Rock Hall of Fame, E Street Band! Absolutely, absolutely.... Thats a good one... Oh, very obscure!" Finally, he read, "I drove 400 miles to ask the city of Nashville just one question." And while Bruce was a little nervous about it — "This is a real Pandora's Box we're getting ourselves into!" — he trusted the sign-holder enough to hold the mic out: "And that question is?...." His trust was repaid with a mighty yell from the sign dude: "Can you feel the spirit?"
After "Spirit in the Night," it was time to grant some of those more obscure requests. "Now it's time to see if you can stump the E Street Band!" For "Burning Love," Bruce worked through it himself for a moment, telling the band, "Key of D... I'll start it... you guys come in on the B section, B minor." No stumpage here, with the singers and horns knowing just what to do, and Bruce pelvic thrusting in all the right places. A "Satisfaction" sign complete with Stones logo was no stumper either; any bar band worth their salt could do it upside-down. More impressive was the requester, a grade-school girl, who was brought up to hold her own at a mic with Nils and shake a tambourine. It was a fun pair of requests — and if you're one of those who needs more cowbell, Curtis King had you covered — but in some ways it put the brakes on any momentum the show had been building.
Good thing "Atlantic City" was next. Outside of the encore, the performance was the highlight of the show, beginning with Max's extended intro. The song shone like a diamond, from the stomping horns to Garry's complex basslines, compelling dynamics, Bruce intoning "Fix your hair up pretty" as the backup singers built up a dramatic crescendo... go to the tape on this one, it's a keeper. "Johnny 99" next gave us a Nebraska doubleshot, a horn showcase, fine soloing from Roy and Soozie, and Bruce shaking some serious tailfeathers.
Another compelling doubleshot came with "I'm on Fire" and "Downbound Train," the darker numbers from Born in the U.S.A. and fine exercises in tension and restraint for the E Street Band. It was cool to hear "Downbound Train" get into a groove and go on a little longer than usual at the end, suggesting it would really be worth building up into an extended instrumental coda if Bruce so chose.
As on "High Hopes" at the beginning," Tom Morello really got a chance to work some magic on "American Skin," an always-welcome additional opportunity for him to take the spotlight. It might do a disservice to Morello to call his playing "tasteful"... but anyone who pegs it as nothing but wikki-wikki-wikki needs to hear his soloing on "American Skin," moving and completely in service of the song. His solo on "Joad," too, inspired one of the biggest cheers from the Bridgestone Arena all night.
Bruce thanked the crowd at the end "for coming out and seeing us — such great crowds here in Nashville. We appreciate the years and years of support and dedication to our band." Waving off the "Dream Baby Dream" pump organ (crew members ran back out to carry it away) Bruce instead offered up a solo acoustic "Thunder Road," smiling and nodding as the crowd carried their part and carried it well. "That's nice!" And it was.
From there it was time for some "beach music of our own" and a segue into "Mary's Place." With the 2003 bloat gone from the song, this dovetailed nicely with the opener. Someday an American audience will actually heed the call to "shhhhh" and quiet themselves before the final verse. Virginia Beach was not to be that crowd, but that's okay — they held up their end of the bargain for the rest of the night.
Setlist-watchers will point to the four-song run of "Sherry Darling," "Talk to Me," "Seaside Bar Song," and "Jersey Girl." Even if the temperature was now dipping down to the mid-60s, we were in full July-on-the-Shore mode. "Talk to Me" was great fun, even if Bruce didn't quite know what he wanted to do with his vamping in the middle. So shouts of "Talk to me!" were interspersed with mumblings of getting blow driers thrown at him (as he made his way stage left to stage right). And then (making the full loop from stage right to stage left towards Patti) Town & Country magazines being thrown at him. And Cosmopolitan. And US Weekly. The last periodical being too much for Patti to bear, and she replied — we’ll have to go to the tape later to confirm — "I don't read that." Which led to a fun call-and-response between Bruce and Patti of "Talk to me!"... "I don't think so." If this eventually evolves into a routine, Virginians can know they were there when it wasn't yet quite.
And if the rare one-off of "Seaside Bar Song," the beautiful "Jersey Girl," and the noble premiere of "The Wall" (dedicated to Walter Cichon and Bart Haynes) were what made the night notable, we are getting to the point in the tour where the band is setlist-proof. They are just nailing it across the board, and Bruce's energy has never been higher. He was all over the place tonight, running through the pit (no protective barrier in this small venue) during "Hungry Heart" and later on in the night winding up about halfway back in the audience. "Seven Nights to Rock" found him playing piano with his head — or rather, Roy pounding Bruce's head down on the piano after Bruce sprayed water on the E Street Choir.
At the close of "Shout," Kevin Buell came out with acoustic guitar, but Bruce called for the electric to close with a full-band version of "Thunder Road." At the end of the song, Bruce was standing out on far right extension looking at Jake, soloing from the far left extension. The stage was full of newly inducted members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame... along with the horn section... and the highly-valued Tom Morello... and Everett... and the vocal power of Curtis, Cindy, and Michelle.
If, as Steve says, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band is the legend, then what we’re seeing right now is different from the legend. It's still one heck of a show.
An always-welcome "Lost in the Flood" was played by request and immediately followed by "Because the Night," with Patti Scialfa adding harmony vocals. The pairing of the two songs worked quite well leading into the U.S. debut of "Heaven's Wall," with Everett Bradley's percussion skills on display and some hot back-and-forth guitar from Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello. Nils had already had his own guitar pyrotechnics display with "Because the Night"; Morello bookended things on the other side with "American Skin (41 Shots)."
Plucking a sign from the crowd that read, "Growin' Up for my birthday," before playing that cut from 1973 Bruce gave us some insight into the psyche of rock musician: "First thing you do, before you write a decent song, before you pick up a guitar, before you play your first gig, you lay in bed at night and you dream yourself up. Everything you weren't in the day. We stand united, all rock musicians, in the great faith of self-loathing and self-hatred: 'I hate my nose!' 'I hate my hair!' So the first thing you do is, you dream yourself to life."
The requester was invited on stage to duet on the final verse of "Growin' Up," after which he, to the shock of Bruce and the fans at the front of the stage, dove into the pit in what was probably an ill-conceived attempt to crowd surf. It seems you have to dream yourself into a bit more of a rock star before you can pull off that move successfully.
Cincinnati's own Isley Brothers classic "Shout" gave a locally connected cover, with Bruce proclaiming at the end that he remains a prisoner of "the everlasting, eternal, ass-kicking power of rock 'n' roll!" The show closed with a beautiful "Dream Baby Dream," performed solo on the pump organ, sending the exhausted crowd home on a wistful note.
On paper, this setlist might look "standard," lacking a deep rarity that many fans chase — the 2008 setlist might look more compelling. This is just another example of why rock 'n' roll doesn't take place on paper, it takes place in the room, with the band, with the fans, where everyone can feel that everlasting, eternal, ass-kicking power. And it was hard to see anyone leaving this show disappointed.
Kevin Buell tossed up a jump ball between Bruce and Nils, and they swatted the ball into the crowd. And then, continuing the Aussie theme of opening with something topical, the main "wow" moment of the night: a cover of Van Halen's "Jump," a song adopted by basketball arenas across the nation. Tom Morello, in his first U.S. show as a full-fledged member of the band, did a nice job covering Eddie Van Halen's guitar riffs. In fact, Morello handled most of the guitar duties all night, as Bruce's only memorable solo came on "Cover Me."
In addition to the expected kid on "Sunny Day," Bruce shared his mic or the stage on a number of other occasions, from a star-struck young lady who couldn't believe her luck on "Spirit," to the boy who was really Steve's replacement at the conclusion of "Glory Days." And, just like the last time Bruce played Dallas, "Dancing in the Dark" turned into a free-for-all that looked something more like a carnival booth, allowing more than a dozen women to take a selfie with Bruce before heading back into the crowd.
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