From the Magic Rat to "magic in the night" to Magic Street, Bruce Springsteen is no stranger to the conjuring arts. For decades, his concerts have been described as feats nothing short of miraculous, and he has discussed his own songwriting in terms of a magical act: creating, from out of the air, something where there was nothing before. Now he does it again. Written and directed by the man himself, Springsteen on Broadway is an act of alchemy, taking familiar elements — from his songbook, his concerts (particularly his solo tours), his memoir — and combining them, with a new venue, to create something we've never seen before, something that has had preview audiences… well, spellbound.
Opening October 12, the performance starts simply — not with a familiar "Good evening, New York City!" but instead with a list of essentials, stated plainly at center stage. In fact, as simple starts go, this is almost as basic as it gets: "DNA," says Bruce. That is just one of "the elements that will come in handy should you come face-to-face with eighty thousand screaming fans who are waiting for you to do your magic trick. Waiting for you to pull something out of your hat, out of thin air, out of this world…. I am here to provide proof of life to that ever elusive, never completely believable 'us.' That is my magic trick."
With just guitar, piano, harmonica, and a very talented magician's assistant billed as Patti Scialfa Springsteen, Bruce makes good on this implied opening promise. Chekhov would probably agree: if you talk in the first act about having a magic trick, you'd better demonstrate it by the end. And Springsteen doesn't let us down. It's hard to say exactly when it happens — it's a gradual effect, a gathering of forces, a calling-up of spirits, great greasepaint ghosts on the wind — but by the end of this at-times mesmerizing performance we've found that proof of life.
Springsteen on Broadway is a true theatrical performance, with a script, an arc, and a fourth wall to break. It might have been difficult to imagine this new endeavor as anything but a stay-put solo tour, as a residency. But this is not a series of concerts — it's a one-man show (with all due respect to Patti) that Springsteen has carefully crafted, rehearsed, and honed to perform night after night. It's greasepaint and footlights, without either of those being literally true. Which might not be remarkable for any other extravaganza on the Great White Way, but for an artist who rarely plays the same set twice, who is known, loved, and lauded for his on-stage spontaneity, it might seem a startling change of pace.
It's not quite a new trick for an old dog, though. The secret that's not quite a secret among Springsteen fans is that his concerts are rarely quite as unscripted as they appear. Sure, he can turn his band on a dime, call audibles left and right, teach his horn section a new song on the fly. But there's also a careful choreography to an E Street Band concert not necessarily evident the first time you see it. The second time you see it, you might be astonished to realize how much is a clockwork part of the show: a shout to the crowd, a spray of water, walking to this side or that, nightly moves and cues that are practiced to maximize the heart-stopping and house-rocking night after night. Springsteen is a showman par excellence. And making things seem spontaneous is part of his job, part of his craft — call it the illusion of the first time. Which makes a Broadway show of this kind a not-so-illogical endeavor.
It all happens on a spare stage. In keeping with his career aesthetic — Springsteen's staging over the years has been minimal, other than the occasional Super Bowl fireworks or mammoth flag backdrop — there's very little to distract from the performance itself. There's not even a curtain. Theatergoers arrive to find the set waiting, all blacks and grays; the dark brick wall in the back, by appearances, could be a freshly painted set or the old bones of the place. There's a barred window stage right; dim, industrial pendant lamps; and most prominently, a grand piano. Heather Wolensky's scenic design evokes a black and white photograph — say, Springsteen photographed by Eric Meola 40 years ago, under a fire escape on a city street. Lighting designer Natasha Katz will soon work subtle wonders with color on this near-black box stage, illuminating that back wall, streaming in like sunlight or like beams through cellar windows. Wrecking Ball imagery also comes to mind, with the tools of Springsteen's trade on view and little else: a couple coiled cables hanging from the wall, monitors and a mic stand. Stacks of black road cases are the closest things to props. The acoustic guitars will come.
Those road cases give the proceedings a backstage ambience and some on-brand cool; they also present some irony. Never has Springsteen been as unpacked or as settled-in for a run of shows. He's going to live here for a while. Given that, this looks like a space that he'll be happy to call home. And he does appear at home in performance here — in Springsteen on Broadway he's our Leading Player, our Stage Manager, talking directly to the audience, cracking jokes, sharing his stories, journeying to spots mystic and exotic (Big Sur with Mad Dog qualifies, right?), all in the service of the most unified narrative he's ever put on stage.
Starting at the very beginning (a very good place to start), the first song out of the gate should come as no surprise for a show inspired by Springsteen's autobiography. It's right there in the title, and Springsteen doesn't resist its natural place in the show: what else could it be but "Growin' Up"? If his preceding "magic trick" litany sounds familiar, it's because you've probably read it: it's part of the foreword to Born to Run, and his memoir's text forms a great deal of the script of the show. Anyone who thought Springsteen might be breaking out his glasses and sitting down to read from the book, however, as he did on stages when promoting his bestseller, will be relieved during the vivid childhood recollections of "Growin' Up" to witness how he interweaves the text with the music. The naturalistic performance establishes the standard operating procedure for the entire evening. He's bringing select portions of his memoir to life, telling a story in words and music to the extent that at times you can't really say where the songs stop and the stories begin. It's all one big story, and one big piece of music.
But what is the story? It may not be what you think — that's another magic trick that Bruce pulls off over the course of the night. Beginning with such straight autobiography that it's almost paint-by-numbers, he engages in some of sleight of hand that brings us somewhere else entirely by the end of the night. It begins subject-by-subject and chapter-by-chapter. From childhood and an Elvis Presley creation myth ("Growin' Up") we move on to look at Freehold ("My Hometown"), his father ("My Father's House"), his mother ("The Wish"). Then there's the freedom of escape ("Thunder Road," sung with great tenderness). Up to this point, the show seems to write itself.
These are stirring, moving performances, each one: the melancholy piano interlude that precedes "My Hometown"; the deftness and humor with which he describes retrieving his father from a bar as a child, the men's broad backs on their stools; his evocation of the stillness of his mother's office at the end of a working day and, repeatedly, the sound of her high heels. The memory of that sound echoes so much through "The Wish," you can only imagine how much it echoes through the writer's mind. Something as simple as the smell of Nescafe coffee in the air, when Bruce describes it at the piano ("Now, when it rains in Freehold…"), carries an evocative ache that you just can't get on the printed page. For Springsteen fans who didn't witness the Christic Institute performances, legendarily Springsteen's first modern revisitation of his material on acoustic guitar and piano — or even for those who did — each one of these is a treasure.
Anyone familiar with Springsteen's songbook — and particularly Chapter and Verse, the autobiography's companion album — might envision the songs that will follow. After tracing some E Street glory (and man, does "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" on the piano not disappoint, confident and soulful), we'll find ourselves in the realm of "Brilliant Disguise," "Living Proof," and "Long Time Comin'." Right? Yes. No. And no.
It's gradually revealed that the story Bruce is choosing to tell is not that of his biography, his rise to superstardom, or his family, but of his engagement with the world around him. Somewhere in the middle of the evening's performance, after establishing his roots, Springsteen pans back. Linearity begins to drift; eras conflate. This is where the us begins to become believable. He zooms out to tell an American story as much as a personal story, reflecting his own growing awareness of his country and its people, the revelations he met with as he left "the fucking boondocks" to go out into the world, the hopes and promises and challenges and failures of America. The trajectory of Springsteen on Broadway is not so much boy to man, but from the sugar-dusted peaks of his Sugar Pops to the western mountains he recalls vividly from his first journey from coast to coast.
That awakening for Springsteen — to the beauty of America, and to the promises and improbabilities of the American Dream — entered his writing in the late-'70s and early '80s; Bruce himself traces the subject back to Darkness on the Edge of Town. And that's where it appears here, as he introduces a jangly "The Promised Land" with a passage from the book, the most direct "reading" he gives all night. He describes that first cross-country trip, "where I saw the United States at its fullest, and I was overwhelmed by its beauty." It's a good example of the show's deft mixing of moods that, after cracking the audience up with a story of making that haul without a driver's license ("I had never driven a block… I drove halfway across the country, in a '40s manual-transmission truck"), he intones this passage from the book:
With this riot of color tumbling out, after a black-and-white '50s childhood, it's a Wizard of Oz moment. And it points the way to the rest of the show, where we're not in Freehold anymore. The Vietnam veteran of the "G.I. Blues" bottleneck 12-string "Born in the U.S.A."… the terrors and better angels of "The Rising"… the continuous gauging of our steps up and back in "Long Walk Home"… this trip down the gray brick road is a journey less through his personal life than through the concerns of his work life. He drives it home with "Land of Hope and Dreams," with a segue out of "Dancing in the Dark" that'll make you catch your breath.
Love still plays a part — that, after all, has long been a subject of Bruce's work, too. Midway through the night, he introduces his wife and co-star to blend their voices for two absolutely gorgeous duets: "Tougher Than the Rest" on piano (with a bridge so nice they play it twice), and "Brilliant Disguise" on dual guitars at center mic. Their intimacy points to a real hallmark of the whole night's experience.
For all the comparisons to previous acoustic tours and performances that might come to mind, Springsteen on Broadway is especially suited to one of the smaller houses in the theater district. Springsteen has always been sensitive to venue, showing his love for the old buildings, eschewing newfangled skybox palaces (when he can) for arenas that show their age. Opening in 1921 as The Ritz, the Walter Kerr Theater seats fewer than a thousand — not quite a jewel box, but still a far cry from the arenas of the Devils & Dust tour or even the theaters of The Ghost of Tom Joad, most of which were at least twice this size. The resulting feeling of intimacy accounts for a considerable part of the show's power — it's certainly part of what you're after when you pay your money down — and it's difficult to imagine this performance playing nearly as well in a larger hall. It's tailored for the space. Springsteen rarely if ever moves past the proscenium — he doesn't need to reach out physically into the crowd to generate some connection; it's practically built in. But he maximizes the living room effect, stepping away from the mic at various points to let his voice be heard, unamplified, to the upper reaches.
There's a lot of room up there, for the spirits to swirl. And that's where the magic really comes in, as Springsteen conjures the ghosts not only of his own past, but of our own. And of our present. Of aging and memory. The putting away of childish things. There's so much space, in the songs and the stories, in the building and in the atmosphere Springsteen cultivates, for our own memories to overlay his. Our mothers and fathers, our country, our soldiers, trees in our front yards, our shared histories, these are all in the mix — as is, perhaps most of all, as Springsteen puts it, "waking from the youthful spell of of immortality." One of the most common experiences you're bound to hear following a Springsteen on Broadway performance is that of tears welling up. As the old saying goes, "You'll laugh, you'll cry…." and it's a hoary cliché, but it also means this Broadway upstart is doing it right.
That shared experience reaches its peak with the final song of the night, "Born to Run" on acoustic guitar. It's a song that for so many fans stirs up memories of countless nights with the E Street Band, in encore delirium — or perhaps a version very much like this one in 1988 — and it's long been one of the most communal experiences you'll find. On Broadway it's a celebration, a benediction, an elegy, a commitment, a thank you, and a statement of community, Springsteen's palm finally beating out that proof of life before the lights go out.
Another way Springsteen might describe his magic trick — or love, or a band, or rock 'n' roll — is the equation "one plus one equals three." He borrows the notion from his own "Frankie Fell in Love" and repurposes it during this performance, suggesting that logic doesn't always apply when it comes to extraordinary phenomena like these. It's when you get into the world of miracles, even everyday miracles. What Springsteen on Broadway demonstrates, as his performances have for decades, is that the equation actually makes sense — that in this kind of setting, something extra can happen so that there is a third thing, a bigger thing. You plus me equals us. The mathematical proof for that may be beyond us, but it'll be thrillingly demonstrated nightly on 48th Street.
October 11 / Walter Kerr Theatre / New York, NY
October 10 / Walter Kerr Theatre / New York, NY
October 7 / Walter Kerr Theatre / New York, NY
October 6 / Walter Kerr Theatre / New York, NY
October 5 / Walter Kerr Theatre / New York, NY
The show made me laugh, weep (twice), and like all great theater helped me understand something not about the performer, but about myself. Of course to hear Springsteen so intimately, in what feels like one's living room, makes the alchemy possible. Bruce has always been a storyteller, but the stories on stage have usually been in service of the songs. Now the songs serve the stories, and because of that we get to hear them in a new way. It will be fun, once the show officially opens, to talk about story and song choices and maybe even suggest titles for Springsteen on Broadway. What I know is I've got four months to acquire another ticket.
While we're going to respect Broadway protocol — no reviews 'til opening night, don'tcha know, no spoilers here — a few unique moments are worth reporting.
When cheers went up in the crowd before lights went down, one might have thought Springsteen had pulled a "Boss sneak" and come out early... but no, they were for Stevie Van Zandt, slipping into his seat in the orchestra to see his pal take on the Great White Way.
And when Springsteen did take the stage, his first order of business was to "dedicate this show to my good friend Tom Petty... sending our prayers out to the Heartbreakers and his family."
Making our way to the Air Canada Centre, it was clear that this was not going to be an ordinary show night, with a security perimeter setup around the entire arena. Not surprising, considering the dignitaries in attendance included Invictus Games patron HRH Prince Harry, Vice President and Mrs. Biden, and Mme Trudeau, our Prime Minister's wife.
As we entered the arena, we were handed a program which outlined the ceremony and included bios of all the performers. It was a bit of a shock to see that Bruce was not listed as the final act of the night — that honor went to Bachman & Turner. (Also on the bill: Coeur de Pirate, Kelly Clarkson, and Bryan Adams.) While I thought that scheduling was unusual, I was certain there would be a surprise or two as the evening progressed. After the parade of athletes and a few other announcements before the television audience joined the proceedings, it was off to the races.
Sound issues in my section — the upper confines of the arena — did not resolve themselves as the evening progressed, unfortunately, and it was clear the sound was being mixed for the "tellyvision" broadcast and not for the live concert. But an hour or so in, there was no mistaking the chorus of "Bruuuuce" that greeted our man as he stood solo, center stage, acoustic guitar at the ready.
Springsteen launched into "Working on the Highway" first — an odd choice, I thought, perhaps a selection that he knew the non-fans in the audience would recognize, but it was clear that this was definitely a Bruce-friendly crowd.
The second song, "The Promised Land" was absolutely sublime, and Bruce appeared to get emotional and lose himself in the moment.
Last we were instructed by the Boss to put on our dancing shoes as he busted out "Dancing in the Dark." Another odd choice, I thought, but this collection of songs could be top of mind for him as potential arrangements for the upcoming Broadway run.
Before you knew it, Bruce's acoustic performance was over. Quick, but enjoyable despite the sound issues. Surely this wouldn't be the last we would see of him this evening, I thought — and fortunately I was right.
After Bryan Adams finished playing his smash hit "Sumer of '69" with his band, he summoned "The Boss" and they launched into a full-band version of "Cuts Like a Knife." (This was the first time I had ever witnessed Bruce wearing in-ear monitors which were non-existent during the acoustic set.) Springsteen had performed the song acoustically himself a few years back, but this was a chance to see him let loose on the song's standard rock arrangement, sharing vocals with Adams.
Springsteen stayed on stage for one more song as Bryan explained it was time to return the favor and play one of Bruce's tunes. What followed was an impressive version of "Badlands," complete with chanting from the Bruce-centric crowd. Kudos to Bryan's harmony vocals, and to his band for stepping into some very large E Street Band shoes and doing the song justice. There was no sax player to be had, so the sax solo was replaced with guitar solos.
The crowd continued the "whoa-oh-oh-ohs" as the song concluded and as HRH Prince Harry took the stage to embrace and thank both Bruce and Bryan. Alas, this wasn't a concert but a ceremony that was being televised, so strict timelines needed to be adhered to. In the Prince's address to the athletes and crowd, he had mentioned that the atheletes had asked him last year to get Bruce for the closing ceremonies, so he proved to be a man good to his word!
The final act was the iconic Bachman/Turner. Unfortunately that did not include a surprise guest appearance from Bruce, but it was fun nonetheless as they performed a medley of some of their greatest hits, finishing with "Takin' Care of Business" — which I thought would be right up Bruce's alley, but it was not to be.
As we made our way out, we were wishing some U.K. team members a safe flight home and also had the opportunity to stop and speak to one of our Canadian athletes, Jay, who was proudly sporting his bronze medal he had won earlier in the week. We shook his hand, thanked him for his service and sacrifice to our country, and told him how proud we were of him. He spoke of how he wanted to continue in some fashion with the Invictus movement, and I can certainly understand why.
Invictus is latin for "unconquered." It was amazing to witness these amazing athletes, many with horrific injuries suffered in service to their respective countries. With all due respect to Bruce and the other performers, to me that was the highlight of the evening.
You can watch the Invictus Games Closing Ceremony at ctv.ca (Springsteen's acoustic set at 0:52; with Bryan Adams at 1:23). Below, Springsteen and Adams give us a taste of Springsteen's acoustic "Cuts Like a Knife" arrangement as a backstage duet, via of @bryanadams/Instagram.
September 29 / Walter Kerr Theatre / New York, NY
September 22 / Pollak Theatre / West Long Branch, NJ
The late Gregg Allman founded the Fest, and certainly his presence was felt in spirited sets by Peter Wolf, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, and Jackson Browne. This last night of summer belonged to memories of Gregg, with Browne doing a wonderful "Sweet Melissa" and Steven covering the Allmans classic "It's Not My Cross to Bear." But this being Jersey, of course, and with Springsteen's birthday right around the corner, what else could he do but place a cherry on top of a wonderful evening under the stars in Holmdel.
After his own set, Peter Wolf joined joined Stevie for a romp through "Freeze Frame" with the Disciples of Soul — the title track of the J. Geils Band's number one album — and one would have thought the 80's had come back to life. It was a highlight of an evening filled with pure joy. The Disciples, including Jersey fave Eddie Manion on tenor sax, were on fire, even on a one-off like "It's Not My Cross to Bear." As always, they tore up the place with their 90-minute set, just as they did at The Basie — and Steven promised a Christmas show there later this year.
But what is Christmas without Santa... and so of course that other local Jersey guy, in the midst of his own Broadway rehearsals, jumped on stage for "It's Been a Long Time" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," the latter treated as a duet. Bruce had been sitting in section 104, enjoying the show and saying hi to his neighbors and friends. (He actually told a woman sitting next to me, whom sees him at the gym a few times a week, "See ya tomorrow!") From here, Steven and his band head out on a trek across North America and Europe.
Jackson Browne asked if this was still the Garden State Arts Center — part of the epic Running on Empty was recorded here, and he opened his set with "You Love the Thunder" as a tribute to that night 40 years ago. Other standouts with his fantastic band were "The Pretender" and my personal favorite "Redneck Friend," which I had not hear Browne sing in years ("Honey you shake, I'll rattle, we'll roll on down the line..."). Jackson was joined by Steven for his classic "I Am a Patriot," adding some very timely lyrics about racism, bigotry, and current events. You could see the joy in their strut, revisiting this epic song together as on the 2004 Vote for Change tour.
And then it was time for Bruce to make one more Jersey Jump on stage, for a nearly nine-minute performance of "Take it Easy" into "Our Lady of the Well," justr as it's sequenced on the For Everyman album. After hanging back on "Our Lady of the Well," Springsteen the guitar-slinger threw in some sizzling riffs to finish off one of the least laid back evenings I've spent.
September 19 / Pollak Theatre / West Long Branch, NJ
The band lit into a very energetic version of "I Saw Her Standing There," with a beaming Bruce trading verses at the same microphone as Sir Paul. After playing it once, they made a snap (and wise) decision to play it again. Afterwards, as Bruce left the stage — grin still plastered to his face — he could be seen wiping a tear from his eye. An emotional night for all involved — especially the very lucky audience.
Even without the presence of Springsteen, Saturday night's headliner — the long-awaited return of Little Steven & the Disciples of Soul — would have been momentous. "It's nice to be back home," Van Zandt commented early in the evening. "We wanted to support the Asbury Park Music & Film Festival, which is why we're here. And we have a new album. Yeah," he smirked, "I only do this every 20 or 30 years."
Unlike his appearance on Friday night, Springsteen had executed a fairly stealth entrance, managing to keep his presence in the building a secret for most of the evening while Steven rocked the house. But against all odds, there he was again for the encore. After the outstanding full set from the Disciples, Stevie called out, "Where's my brother from another mother?" A beaming Bruce ambled out toward him from stage left. Trademark Fender guitar in hand, Bruce joined his old friend at center stage and helped close the show with two songs.
There were many songs in the set that Springsteen could've guested on, but really, there was only one that would do for this type of an evening: "It's Been a Long Time," the centerpiece of the 1991 Asbury Jukes Better Days album that reflects the long, shared history of Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Southside Johnny, Asbury Park's premier partners in crime. It's difficult to overstate the emotional impact of the song on fans of the Jersey Shore music scene; like "I Don't Want to Go Home," it is, in a sense, every bit a part of their shared past as it is for its performers. On Saturday night, even if it were just Van Zandt by himself at the mic, the song would have packed a powerful punch. But with these two lifelong friends and music partners sharing the mic at center stage, the performance became one for the ages.
What to close with, then? How about a Chuck Berry song? How about "Bye Bye Johnny"? How about Bruce taking the second verse, which more or less tells the story of his own life:
She remembered taking money out from gathering crop
Mr. Van Zandt and his new Disciples will be performing many shows in the coming months, but there will be few to match what happened at the Paramount Theatre.
As per usual for film premieres, many people associated with the film were in attendance for the Asbury Park Music and Film Festival event. The documentary itself was well-received, as the audience greeted the appearance of familiar figures onscreen with warm applause. It's a fairly straightforward doc that employs all the standard techniques — archival film footage, candid interviews, voice-over narration — and audiences looking for a brief history of a familiar place and time with some great music will come away satisfied.
Entertaining as Just Before the Dawn is, however, it barely scratches the surface of its subject. The history of the Upstage and the larger story of Asbury Park's rise and fall are vast and complex topics that don't easily lend themselves to the 90-minute documentary format. Historians like Daniel Wolff (Fourth of July, Asbury Park) and Charles and Margaret Horner (Classic Urban Harmony) have been wise to explore this complicated history not by being all-inclusive, but by honing on particular aspects of the story — a key theme or genre, a particular series of events. The story of Asbury Park in many ways is a story of America in microcosm, a conundrum that demands a long-form, multi-episode format. Unfortunately, much of the tale still waits to be told.
Taking in the film, sitting a few rows back from the screen in the darkened Paramount Theatre, must have been a déjà vu moment for Bruce and Steven. The self-described "freaks and misfits" who had once watched Abbott & Costello movies here were in the house for the first portion of the evening's entertainment before heading backstage to prepare for the musical portion of the program. Their appearance onstage a few minutes after the intermission was no great surprise to many in attendance. Indeed, no small number of tickets were snatched up in the hours just prior to the event, as word filtered out that a Springsteen appearance was in the offing. Nonetheless, a thrilled audience leapt to its feet when the curtain drew back to reveal Little Steven and his new Disciples lineup augmented by a certain Freehold native on Gibson guitar and, to his left, former local whiz kid David Sancious and another local bandleader by the name of Southside Johnny.
Southside burst into a Jukes-esque, horn-drenched "Blues is My Business," and the night was off and running on all eight cylinders.
"The Upstage was our university, and Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and this guy were our teachers," said Steven, leading his band into a rousing version of Chuck Berry's "Bye Bye Johnny." With Bruce taking the final verse, it was a real throwback to their days of late-night club jams.
After the Berry tribute, Steven and much of his band departed, leaving Southside (joined by Jukes bassist John Conte and ex-Jukes drummer Joe Bellia) at the front mic to belt a cover of B.B. King's "Got My Mojo Workin'" while Bruce wailed away on guitar. This was followed by a rousing rendition of The Band's "Up on Cripple Creek" (last performed by Bruce at the Stone Pony with Levon Helm in 1987).
Dressed in work shirt and jeans, an unassuming Bruce hung back from the center mic for a good portion of the show. On a night celebrating the communal spirit of the Upstage, the frontman role was shared by many, with Asbury Jukes keyboardist and official ringleader Jeff Kazee somehow managing to coordinate the comings and goings of an endless array of musicians and instruments without any apparent mishaps.
The next segment was led by the Upstage Jam Band — a who's who of Asbury Park music lore, including the likes of Ernest "Boom" Carter, Vini Lopez, Paul Whistler [above], Ricky DeSarno and Billy Ryan — who played a bluesy set of 60's-era covers like "Carol"/"Little Queenie" and Cream's "Strange Brew." Local doo-wop legend Nicky Addeo then came on to perform a solo version of Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," accompanied on keys by Kazee, and guitarist Marc Ribler (Steven's new bandleader) took the helm for covers of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)" and Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," ably assisted on the latter by Danny Clinch on harp.
The Lakehouse Junior Pros — an enterprising bunch of local tweens receiving rock 'n' roll instruction at the performance space/studio on Lake Avenue — followed, performing "The Hours Before Dawn," the tune they showcased in the film.
The Upstage Jam Band returned with Messrs. Springsteen and Lyon in tow, backing the two of them as Bruce took lead vocals on a version of Little Richard's "Lucille" punctuated by DeSarno and Ryan guitar solos. Bruce calling for Sancious to play the Hammond B-3 was priceless; "When I first saw him, he was playing the organ," he commented afterward. Bruce and Southside duetted a la Sam & Dave on Chris Kenner's New Orleans chestnut "Something You Got"; Springtseen was really enjoying himself on this material, and it's a shame audiences don't hear it more often. Of note here was a rare full-band version of the Bruce Springsteen Band-era tune "Ballad of Jesse James," officially released on last year's Chapter and Verse collection, with Vini Lopez on lead vocals. "Mad Dog Vini Lopez! He remembered all the words!" cracked Bruce at the song's conclusion.
A scaled-back version of "The Fever" featured Southside on lead vocal, ably supported by Eddie Manion and Tommy LaBella on sax. "Here we are in Asbury Park, New Jersey, just where we were 75 years ago!" Southside cracked. Bruce left the stage briefly to make way for Jeff Kazee's lead vocal turn on "Fortunate Son" before reemerging to wind down the set. Southside stepped back to center mic to lead off the Jukes classic "I Don't Wanna Go Home" with a few bars of "Stand by Me," which was followed by a set-closing, all-hands-on-deck jam on yet another Chuck Berry medley, "Johnny B. Goode" into "Roll Over, Beethoven."
It was a rocking, satisfying night of music that reflected the true Upstage spirit, with familiar Asbury Park faces like LaBella and Marc Ribler mixed in with the talent-laden lineup of assorted Disciples, Upstagers and Jukes all generously sharing the limelight. Even with Bruce and Southside doing the yeoman's share of leads, there was plenty of room for each musician to have a moment or two to shine, just as they had in the old days.
There was a marked difference Saturday night from the 2014 tour finale, however, and it wasn't found on stage. It was dripping from the eyes and down the cheeks of people throughout Mt Smart Stadium. Tears. Buckets of them. Women, men, young, old. Tears that fell throughout the night but poured during a final acoustic "Thunder Road." Tears that sprang in group hugs and lingering goodbyes. Tears of joy and sadness like I've never seen at a concert before. We're all getting older; appearances to the contrary the man himself is closing on 70, and the E Street Band has herculean numbers on its odometer. Does that explain it? After losing so much grace and greatness in 2016, are we more aware of the mortality of our heroes? We know this won't go on forever: every show is a tick on the countdown, every goodbye a roll of the dice. If so, Saturday night in Auckland — and I don't care how corny this sounds — was all sevens. (Blatant, unapologetic corniness is a symptom of repeated exposure to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.)
Each Springsteen concert is like a beam of white light through a prism that results in a rainbow of perspectives and opinions. One person's Good-time Party Show is another's Safe Setlist Letdown; one's Rarity Bonanza is someone else's Night of the Unknowns. This 2017 summer tour closer would be the rare gig that all factions could agree on — it was a Get Off Your Ass and Dance show through and through. And that's clearly what Springsteen had in mind: unlike Tuesday night's first-ever Christchurch concert, which saw him collecting signs after the opening number, no requests were taken or played. Bruce had a firm hand on the wheel all night, the collective eyes of the band locked on him even more than usual, a breakneck pace maintained by The Boss from the band's entrance at 7:25 to Bruce's lone departure at 10:10.
You'd be hard pressed to find a trio of songs less open to misinterpretation than "Darlington County," "Working on the Highway," and "Glory Days." After a hearty "Good evening!" the opening guitar cry of "Darlington" was as blatant a statement as "American Land" had been earlier in the tour. Darkness had yet to fall on Mt Smart Stadium, so no spotlight was needed to watch Bruce saunter from the stage to the lip of the pit, all Stones-y riff and working-man shirt. In his Born to Run book Bruce wrote about knowing that he "played," not "worked," for a living, but on this night he was working hard to connect with people in the rectangular, rugby field dimensions of Mt Smart Stadium. During a typically exuberant "Working on the Highway" he put a fine point on it, challenging the crowd — "Lemme see ya work that thing!" — from the lip of the pit.
An audibled "Glory Days" — the mic guy was sent scurrying back after retrieving it from the pit stage and Kevin had to be told directly by Bruce which guitar he needed — had Bruce imploring his consigliere ("C'mon, work that thing Steve!") and the crowd ("Let's hear it for Steve… not too much…"). At one point Steve slipped a pair of party glasses on Bruce's face. "How do I look?" he asked. A quick peek at a video screen provided an answer. "I look fucking ridiculous." This didn't stop Steve from wearing them as the two traded vocals beside the pit. "Is the band with me? Are the people with me?" Bruce asked. A sufficiently affirmative response made him cry "It's ass-shaking time!" and the tuchases of two street kids from New Jersey were shaken for the final time on this tour.
These Born in the U.S.A. rockers normally benefit from the momentum of a set in progress, so it was odd to hear them kick off an evening. But as Bruce drew a "99" in the air for another audible it was clear he was going with his gut, and his gut said roadhouse. The band modified accordingly and a trashy, honky tonk "Johnny 99" ensued with Soozie, Nils and Jake doing solos and joining Bruce on the pit stage lip to a stomping finish.
An extended guitar duel during "Prove It All Night" made Steve smile while "Out in the Street" and "Hungry Heart" had Springsteen literally running the airport runway of a stage. "C'mon Jake!" yelled Bruce to a man 30 years his junior. And c'mon the sax man did, all for the sake of those "in the stands."
Back on stage ("Whew! Man!" he exhaled) Bruce stood still at the mic and focused on the task at hand: "My City of Ruins." Here's how he introduced it: "This is a song about putting things back together… after they've fallen apart. Putting things back together… after they've fallen apart. 'Cause everything falls apart." Now singing: "You gotta use your heart now. You gotta use your hands now." He summoned Max's snare like a whip and prompted organ and sax solos with "C'mon Charlie" and "C'mon Jake."
He continued: "I originally wrote this song about my adopted hometown of Asbury Park, [which] was going through a lot of hard times for more than a quarter of a century but slowly put itself back together again. Since I've written [the song] it's become about a lot of different things, mainly about the things that we lose as life goes on. The older you get, the more that loss weighs on you." Now singing: "Well they made that change uptown now…" Standing alone. "Now there's tears… teardrops on the city." Clarence. Big, bad-ass, beloved, missing Clarence. Bruce out amongst us before directing his band to the song's gentle finish. Magnificent.
Nightfall blanketed New Zealand's North Island as Jake held onto his anger during a roaring "Wrecking Ball" and the show's core temperature began to rise. "The River" was bathed in blue and Bruce's falsetto, and "Youngstown" saw Nils ripping a solo like a puppet on a string. "41 Shots" brooded and cried as first a few and then many hands joined Jake's in the air by the song's humming close. Bruce yelled "Promised Land" to his bandmates before his harmonica sang and we were reminded that the quality of our lives may rise and fall but Springsteen's catalog of songs never wavers. We just relate to those songs differently.
Max's high-hat signalled "Candy's Room," and we were in that rare concert zone when it feels like the ground below us could fall away but we'd remain floating in place. Max's jackhammered snare gave way to Bruce's wailing guitar and in a few seconds Roy's intro to "Because the Night" unleashed the most intense version of the song on this tour. By the time Captain Lofgren finished his whirling dervish solo we were swept up in a current and dropped on our heads and barely had time to breathe before "The Rising" started and the cycle repeated. For one last time the furious perfection of "Badlands" had us bouncing in place and shouting like mad. A wild, joyous, goofy, exhausting "Rosalita" ended this foursome of '70s thunderclaps that's a fountain of youth to older fans and an affirmation of rock 'n' roll's power to those weaned on a variation neutered by corporate-owned radio monopolies and TV "talent" shows.
After thanking Auckland and saluting the Auckland City Mission for doing God's work, Bruce said "This is the last night of our tour down here" and breathlessly thanked a litany of tour personnel with special shout outs to longtime concert producer George Travis and "Ms. Barbara Carr" of Jon Landau Management.
"Go ahead Roy" brought a sublime "Backstreets," played once previously on this tour and seemingly at the top of everyone's wishlist tonight (besides "Born in the U.S.A.," Bruce's biggest hit in Australia and New Zealand and the one most griped about due to its absence on this tour). Bruce repeated "until the end… forever friends" in a whisper and pointed to the heavens with both hands, acknowledging a stadium full of forever friends (while my ex-pat heart broke for so many friends left behind in the States) Max pounded the "Hiding on the backstreets" crescendo into our skulls, and Bruce delivered a vocal performance as raw and real as the words themselves.
The big four of "Born to Run," "Dancing in the Dark" (the only song to acknowledge sign wavers on this night), "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" and "Shout" got one last blowout before a tear-jerking acoustic "Thunder Road" brought the tour to a close. Bruce said, "Thanks for a great night. We'll be seeing ya." And it was... oh shit… what now?
Friends huddled in circles, others stood alone, smiles creasing faces that ain't that young anymore. Glistening eyes took one last look around the quickly dissipating closing-night crowd, paths crossed on tour about to bring us home to our everyday lives. Lives that, unlike a Bruce show, offer no guarantees. Lives that for some had been on hold for five weeks after this tour began on a January night in Perth, Australia when Bruce declared the band's allegiance with a "new American resistance." All that was history now, as were 14 nights of shouting, fist-pumping, ass-shaking, jumping, sign-waving, hand-clapping salvation. With a raw longing for this magical circus to continue we bade tearful goodbyes and told each other we'd do it again someday. While that may or may not be true, we also swore forever friends. And that, my friends, will be true… until the end.
When this show appeared on the Summer Tour 2017 itinerary it was easy to imagine it being special. That 2011 earthquake killed 185 and left its historic city center in ruins. Multiple aftershocks have rocked the Canterbury region. A tsunami threatened the South Island's east coast last year. The citizens of Christchurch have been roiled and frustrated and discouraged by redevelopment delays. Just last week wildfires raged in Port Hills, only a few kilometers from the Christchurch CBD.
It's no exaggeration to say this Christchurch concert has been anticipated for generations. An optimist says this particular show by this particular band couldn't have come at a better time. A pessimist says no show could live up to such weighty expectations. What does The Boss say? The Boss says it's ass-shaking time. The Boss, as always, is right, and everything, absolutely everything, is alright.
To understand tonight's cathartic show you must know about Wendy Davie. She's an emergency room nurse who married a Christchurch boy, raised three kids and on February 22, 2011 did what so many of her fellow citizens did: immediately volunteered to help victims. Wendy's multiple casualty disaster training made her more prepared than most; she'd taken a break from her nursing career in 2011, but this detail meant nothing in the minutes after the quake as she attempted to resuscitate a man crushed by a collapsed café. She then volunteered herself to a trio of policemen. They drove her into Christchurch's devastated CBD, where she checked in with a commander who gave her his jacket and helmet and sent her to the collapsed Pyne Gould Corporation building. There she helped set up a triage area for victims of the pancaked five-story structure, a place where 18 people lost their lives.
Later that night, after a tearful reunion with her family in their quake-damaged home (nearly every home in Christchurch was damaged or destroyed by that historically powerful earthquake), she and her husband Pete lay in bed and agreed there was only one thing for them to do: "Stay in Christchurch and be a part of bringing it back."
Tonight those words, that commitment to Christchurch, came to fruition. The seed was planted more than three years ago on the day the 2014 Springsteen tour of Australia and NZ was announced. The itinerary included two shows in Auckland but none in Christchurch. Wendy's a fan, but it was lifelong diehard Pete who asked, "How fucking hard could it be?" to get Springsteen and the band to play in Christchurch, at the time NZ's second largest city. On her lunch break the next day Wendy started finding out by setting up a "Come to Christchurch Bruce Springsteen" Facebook page. After sending invitations to a small circle of friends, she was startled to watch the page attract more than 11,500 followers in ten days. As it was difficult to contact anyone in the Springsteen organization, she informed Frontier Touring of the petition but never heard a word in response.
That word came from Springsteen himself tonight in his introduction to "My City of Ruins": "Quite a few years ago I got a letter… a petition, actually … about a town that suffered an earthquake. Wanted us to come and play. It took a while, but I'm glad we got here. I got a chance to drive around and take a look at the city today. I want to send this out to everyone who suffered in the earthquake, send out our love and prayers, and to the emergency services who I know are working today to contain the fires outside of town. This is for those folks… and for all of you."
The tears that welled in Wendy's eyes as he spoke those words were followed by several thousand more throughout the arena as Bruce played a version of "My City of Ruins" that made me wonder: Can a song possess the person who wrote it? It'll come off as hyperbolic, but Bruce was more than a preacher on this night — he was a messenger, conjurer, shaman, healer. "My City of Ruins" was adopted as a solemn anthem after the 2011 quake and is heard at memorials, in documentaries and news stories. But tonight Bruce recalibrated it and set it loose within the hearts of the people of Christchurch like a voodoo man stealing souls and setting them free in a better, less lonely place.
Prior to this the band had hit the stage at 7:30 sharp. The sun had yet to set behind the stage, but the air was cool — a perfect night for a city never listed on a Springsteen T-shirt until 2017. After a guttural "Finally!" Bruce kicked off the night with a defiant "No Surrender." The next six songs were a sign-fuelled sprint. "Sherry Darling" set a sing-along party mood before "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" brought a flick of NYC grit to the Land of the Long White Cloud. Bruce's fierce vocals were complemented by a searing guitar duel between he and Steve, who was in spectacular form all night. "Jole Blon" came from a sign and went mostly unrecognized, but everyone screamed "sha la la" after Charlie and Soozie dropped a pair of old-timey fiddle and accordion solos.
"Out in the Street," "Spirit in the Night," and "Hungry Heart" all had Springsteen venturing far from center mic and connecting with a never-before-seen audience. Don't think it's ever occurred to me at a Bruce show, but it seemed the songs themselves were secondary to the touching of skin, the making of eye contact, the involvement of "the stands." Of course it all sounded great — the E Street Band knows its job — but Bruce was like a drunken insurance salesman at a trust-fund-family wedding, gladhanding and schmoozing with abandon.
Everything changed with "My City of Ruins." After "Hungry Heart" Bruce looked down at the setlist and his body language as well as that of the band went from loose to rigid. He let the song's gentle beginning wash over the crowd before making the introduction that set Wendy's heart afire. After Charlie's blissful organ solo, Jake laid down a sax vibe that made Bruce call out "Do it again!" followed by a "Professor!" piano solo and a satisfied, "Yes, yes, yes…."
Springsteen then brought up Asbury Park: "I originally wrote this song for my hometown that's suffered an enormous amount of economic hardship and that basically disappeared for a quarter of a century. But slowly, slowly over the past ten years it's built itself back up. A song at the end of the day can be about a lot of things — about my town, about your town, about New York City and even personal things that you've lost." Bruce then began a mantra of "Well that change was made uptown now… when they made that change uptown now… when the change was made uptown now…" followed by a gut-wrenching repetition of "Now there's tears on my pillow, now there's tears…." Not a dry eye in the house.
Bruce prefaced "Mary's Place" with the usual "Are you ready for a house party?" and tonight you knew damn well he was serious. Another sign led to a cracking "Radio Nowhere" that ended with Max pulverizing his drum kit. Bruce ripped a solo from the Carter administration during "Prove It All Night," and then an audibled "Darkness on the Edge of Town" hit home in a city hobbled by loss and disillusionment. The twosome of "The River" and "Youngstown" have been linchpins throughout the Australian tour and remained so tonight, Nils nearly laying his guitar on the ground during "Youngstown" before detonating another sinister solo.
The final four songs of the main set — "Because the Night," "The Rising," "Badlands," and "Rosalita" — brought the show to a boil. Steve mauled Bruce's face with hands shoved under Springsteen's armpits from behind during the Three Stooges bit of "Rosalita" because… well… because what else should a couple of sexagenarians be doing in New Zealand on a Tuesday night in front of 30,000 people?
Bruce thanked City Mission for doing God's work before playing an affecting "My Hometown" that set a plaintive stage for perpetual powerhouse "Born to Run." "Dancing in the Dark" once again had me rueing the invention of mobile phone camera technology, but a glorious "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" replaced that nonsense with visions of Clarence and Danny, two E Streeters who never made it to Christchurch. "Shout" was typically unhinged and on this night occasionally undressed. A shall-we-say carefree woman on the shoulders of a guy in the pit repeatedly flashed the band, causing Bruce to swing back and forth from the video screen to the crowd. A G-rated "Bobby Jean" followed before Bruce strapped on harp gear and an acoustic for a heartfelt "Thunder Road." It was just past 10:30. Where I was standing no one moved. When they did it was to seek out someone to hug or gush about what they'd just experienced.
I can't pretend to know how it felt when locals watched Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band walk onto a Christchurch stage for the very first time. All I could do was study faces, eavesdrop on conversations, put away pints with locals and ask their slurred, ecstatic opinions afterward. For most this was their first Springsteen concert, so their jubilation was fresh, real, untouched by the taint of "Yeah but you should have seen him in blah blah blah...." For Wendy it was a night she'd not only dreamed about but worked towards since 2013. She did admit to thinking "We did it" at some point in the night, but she's not someone in search of a slap on the back.
Unsurprisingly, Wendy was more concerned about conveying thanks to Bruce and the band for coming to Christchurch than the accolades that have come her way since Bruce's intro to "My City of Ruins" put a spotlight on her petition. I'll let her words finish this report, as they not only perfectly summarize a special evening but capture her no-bullshit, brilliantly genuine spirit in a city where spirits have been tested but hope, however far-flung, hangs on. When I asked what she'd say to Springsteen if she had his ear, she rubbed her eyes, glanced out the window and looked me straight in the eye.
"Bruce, you did good," she said. Yes, yes, yes.
- report and photographs by Joe Wall
Adding to the atmosphere was the good ol' fashioned Australian rainstorm, which not only showered the waiting crowd with a torrential downpour but later pelted us with large hail! Fortunately, the weather cleared up, and Jet was able to play their set after a brief delay. And then it was Boss time.
With the strings having played their final show in Brisbane, a crisp and appropriate "Who'll Stop the Rain" opened the show. The difference in the type of night it would be was defined immediately when Bruce launched into "Badlands" and then "Out in the Street" to get the crowd going. A sign request followed for "I Fought the Law," played a little tentatively but still a very nice nugget for the diehards. A few minutes later another sign from the crowd brought us "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," the second of three weather-appropriate songs for the evening. The third was Mary's Place — "let it rain!" — which followed "Hungry Heart."
Bruce then unveiled another sign request, this one for major obscurity "None But the Brave" from the Born in the U.S.A. sessions. It was a beautiful performance of the song, the first ever in Australia… and it was met with absolute dead silence from the crowd. So that would be the last rarity of the evening, and from there the show went into a string of big rockers, which were completely effective in getting the crowd up and dancing. The apex of this sequence was the Born in the U.S.A. trifecta: "Working on the Highway, a fabulous version of "Glory Days," and "Darlington County." Nils tore up "Because the Night" as usual, and "The Rising" and "Rosalita" brought the set to a close.
The encores opened with one last sign request. Bill Walsh, all the way from Point Pleasant, NJ, was pulled out of the crowd to play "No Surrender," which was dedicated to Bill's dad — also Bill — who had surgery over the weekend. The crowd ate it up. The audience frenzy built through the regular encore sequence of "Born to Run," "Dancing," "Tenth Avenue," and "Shout" before Bruce launched into "Bobby Jean" to say "good luck, goodbye" to his Australian fans. The band left the stage, and Bruce returned alone with his acoustic guitar and harmonic rack for a lovely solo "Thunder Road."
And with a final wave and "We'll be seeing you," a quite emotional Bruce left the stage, ending a month of shows here in Australia. It's clear he has developed quite an attachment with his Australian audiences after these repeated trips Down Under the past five years, and the feeling is mutual. From this American, I say with deep gratitude: thank you Australia, thank you Bruce, and thanks to all my Bruce compatriots along the way. Let's do it again soon.
Four years ago, as the Wrecking Ball Tour began, Springsteen crouched at the foot of the same stage and told assembled media that his ticket was his handshake and he would never rely on a show becoming rote. On three tours over four years he has delivered on his promise… and then some.
"Working on a Dream" made its tour debut tonight and was followed by "Roll of the Dice." For the latter Bruce was sans guitar and settled for a tambourine. "I'm making this up as I go along!" he hollered as the band reassessed where to jump in. And when they did — boom, the magic happened.
Calling for E-flat, Bruce was back on the telecaster as the band, with terrific backing vocals from all, kicked into "Jole Blon." Already Bruce was playing like we were two songs deep into the encore. "Long Time Comin'" was next, which Bruce dedicated to his kids. He advised us that, no matter what you do as a parent, eventually children "have their own lives to live [and] their own mistakes to make."
Fifty-odd years ago the Lovin' Spoonful asked a very simple question: Do You Believe in Magic? Of course we do, we're at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Spotting a sign in the crowd, Bruce turned his attention to Nathan, a young teenager asking if he could get up and play "Growin' Up" with the band. Bruce asked two pertinent questions. Did he know the song? Could he play guitar? The answers were "yes," so Nathan got on stage, played like a champion, and sang with a confidence of someone doing 50 gigs a year. Incredible. More magic happens.
Keeping the mood up, Bruce played "Out in the Street," took a sign request for "No Surrender," led a full house sing-along for "Hungry Heart," and body-surfed his way back to the main stage.
Tonight the seats were sold with 360-degree views. Spotting a sign behind him, Bruce called for "Mary's Place." Veering well off an earlier set list, the grand master was calling songs on intuition. Next came a trilogy of songs that embodied joy, nostalgia, desire, loss, and the wonder of the imagination as he performed "Fire," his reworked cover of Elvis Presley's "Follow That Dream," and the masterpiece that is "The River."
When the tour began Bruce assured us the job of the artist was "to witness and to testify." He hasn't let us down on that promise. "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "The Promised Land" were next. (If the well inebriated strangers standing next to me are reading this, "41 Shots" isn't a drinking game).
A double from the "Born in the U.S.A." album came next with "Downbound Train" and "I'm on Fire." "Because the Night" (with Nils's searing solo and Max's wondrous drumming) led into "She's the One" and "Badlands." Hitting the overdrive button, Bruce shook it all down with a version of "Rosalita" that managed to break him up during the Three Stooges routine.
On the previous two tours to Australia, which were his first here since 2003, we saw the band augmented by horns, singers, and Tom Morello. That was fabulous, but, as an alternate, it's been tremendous to hear the core E Street Band in all their sonic splendor.
For the encore Bruce dedicated "Jungleland" to Brett, a Canadian who traveled far and wide and had never heard it in concert. Bruce then added that he'll be seeing Canada soon. Make of that what you will. Maybe it means a gig? Maybe it means he'll be taking the wife and kids on a driving holiday?
With the house lights up it was time for "Born to Run," "Dancing in the Dark," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," and "Shout." By now a sense of rock 'n' roll delirium has set in. The band completely hit it out of the park, and the gig will go down in the annals as one of the best that ever happened in the river city.
We want him to go on, but the Boss needs to go home — he has "a cheeseburger waiting" for him… he has "pornographic films to watch on the tele…." But rock 'n' roll prevails, and he does indeed carry on to close the show with a full-band version of "Thunder Road."
An incredible night. The caravan has gone. The rock 'n' roll citadel has left its temporary location. The magic happened. Thank you, Bruce.
The set opened with "New York City Serenade," augmented by an eight-piece string section. Spellbinding, this has become one of the signature moments of the tour. The full house was in a particularly joyful mood as Bruce and the band kicked it to a rousing and rare "Lucky Town." Reaching for a sign, Springsteen broke out the tour debut of "Janey Don't You Lose Heart" next. Delivering a "Valentine's Day triple," he offered some sage advice on what can be "the third loneliest day of the year": "Get the flowers on… one shitty rose is all it takes."
"Rendezvous" was stunning and was followed by an equally uplifting "Be True." Next was another sign request, "Back in Your Arms." Professor Roy kicked it off, and Bruce and the band followed. As the song twisted and turned, Bruce gave it his all before confiding, "the band has this all fucked up!" He steered the E Streeters to focus on Nils as the ship was turned around. "We're gonna get our asses into this thing if it kills us," Bruce announced. To say his singing in the final furlong was magnificent would be underselling it. The song was saved, and with great humor Bruce added, "Before you commit suicide, let me play you this next one."
"Better Days," "The Ties That Bind," and "Out in the Street" made a mighty triumvirate. "Hungry Heart" got the collective house singing. Brisbane might have to sharpen up its skills in the pit, but the fans got a crowd-surfing Bruce back to the stage and in one piece eventually.
"Leap of Faith" made its tour debut and was followed by a hypnotic reading of "The River." Watching Bruce on harmonica and Little Steven on acoustic guitar as the song's narrative unfolded was one of the night's many highlights.
With a setlist already littered with rarities and tour premieres, Bruce moved the intensity up a notch with "Youngstown," "Candy's Room," "She's the One," and "Because the Night." Springsteen, as a lead guitarist, is one of this writer's favorites. The bite in his lead lines, coupled with a mix of sparsity and (that word again) intensity, has few peers. His playing on "Candy's Room" was stunning, while Nils left us in awe during breakout pieces on "Youngstown" and "Because the Night." Bruce fell to his knees during "She's the One." If the pit wasn't so packed, we would have followed suit in salutation.
"The Rising" and "Badlands" were followed by "Rosalita" (complete with Three Stooges' mugging). Still in Valentine's mode, Bruce pulled out a jaw-dropping "Secret Garden" that swayed until the band hit a groove. Talk about "you complete me"… what a setlist!
The house lights were up for "Born to Run," which was followed in the encore by "Dancing in the Dark" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out." By this stage the night was into interstellar overdrive. We know the Isley Brothers wrote "Shout," and it's been played by a million bands since. But tonight Queenslanders saw the most incredible version of the song performed in this country since the Godfather of Australian rock 'n' roll, Johnny O'Keefe, tore it to shreds with the Delltones, back in the mid-1950s.
Tonight delivered pretty much everything you'd expect at a Springsteen gig. Hits, rarities, requests, and a man and his band who are prepared night after night to go out on a limb and create magic. With his James Brown-style cape at his feet, Bruce urged us to join him on Thursday night for "another spectacular." Thank you, brother. We'll be there.
Such a massive, one-off production comes with risk. Will the weather hold? Will people drive an hour north of Melbourne en masse to see a show? Will the main act provide a performance that justifies so much time and effort? Will everyone tolerate the epic gridlock that follows a massive gathering in woop-woop land? To quote the bloke from Freehold: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Tonight's show was a triumph. An event in the best sense of the word. Everything clicked. Bruce, band, crowd — even the elements aligned: Rain seemingly triggered by the opening chords of an acoustic "The Promised Land" produced a rainbow that brought cheers. Ever hear a crowd of people over the age of ten cheer a rainbow? Me neither. Like the tour's previous high at AAMI Park a week ago, this show wasn't about rarities or reflection ("New York City Serenade" went unplayed for the first time). This was a stadium special on a glorious Saturday in bushland. The best of Australia, the best of the U.S.A., united in song, fuelled by camaraderie and cold beer.
Thankfully the rain didn't last as long as songs with "land" in them, as Bruce followed the quietly rousing opener with full-bore boot stompers "American Land" and "Badlands." He let out a long, loud yell at the end of "Badlands" that surely shook the burrows of local wombats and made people nod their heads in silent agreement: "'Badlands' in the number 3 spot? It's gonna be a corker."
Bruce seemed especially eager to mingle with the crowd tonight and did so with gusto when joined by Steve for River feel-gooders "Out in the Street" and "Two Hearts." Sign-picking resulted in the first cluster of Greetings From Asbury Park songs to be played since the tour's opening night in Perth three weeks ago. Bruce held his guitar aloft waiting for Roy's piano to begin "Growin' Up" before telling the tale of how he came to own an $18 guitar from Western Auto Parts on Main Street in Freehold. As he'd never seen $18 at that point in his 14-year-old life, it required Springsteen to get a job ("I've never worked an honest day in my life. For 67 years. Life is good.") but was inept ("I started to play that thing so fucking terribly I couldn't stand myself.") and so practiced guitar poses instead ("You had to look good.") Bruce ended the familiar tale with a line appropriate to the Hanging Rock sky as twilight flittered: "When you hit the right note and you get reborn under a rainbow, it sounds like this…." Blessed was our baptism by six-string.
After dedicating "Blinded by the Light" to "the Gudinskis" — a reference to the family of Hanging Rock concert promoter Michael Gudinski — Bruce pointed out how "Blinded" was "my only #1 song, and I didn't have it." Because Manfred Mann's Earth Band had changed a line from "like a deuce" to "like a douche — that's why they had a hit." Bruce completed the Greetings trio with "Spirit in the Night," hollering, "Hanging Rock, are you in the house?!"
Another sign not only caught Bruce's attention but made him "salute that young man" who crafted its bawdy message: "I'm Goin' Down Down on Someone Tonight." Bruce's body language was circa 1985, but the 2017 version of the E Street Band played the gritty rocker with a richness that bordered on reinvention. What stayed the same — what always stays the same — was the protagonist's desperation ("You know what the Boss man likes") to get good with his girl.
Bruce went on walkabout during "Hungry Heart," his ventures up a riser behind front GA giving him panoramic views of the Macedon Ranges and throngs sitting on Hanging Rock's gently sloping hill. "Wrecking Ball" continued a blue-collar run of songs that included another "The River"/"Youngstown" hammer blow (Garry stretching "The River" with jazzy bass) and a hillbilly "Johnny 99" featuring Steve's death row guitar cries and Jake's cowbell clank. Realizing he had the wrong guitar for "Working on the Highway," Bruce yelled "Take it Max!" before fetching the correct acoustic from Kevin. His mic stand at the lip of the pit gave him trouble throughout, but Bruce kept the pace, swaying and smiling like a man about to steal your wife.
Thing went full Reagan-era retro with a delirious "Glory Days" that had Steve playing to what Bruce called "the Little Steven fan club" near the stage as the crowd bellowed every word. Bruce started "Because the Night" as he did at the last Sydney show, repeating "Take me now…" several times before kicking the song into gear. Nils was his usual energetic and upbeat self all night, but here he got to howl at a rising full moon with a typically jaw-dropping guitar solo. By now twilight was fading into night and "The Rising" cast the band in a familiar orange and red glow, "Can't see nothing in front of me…" delivering its nightly, numbing chill.
How to follow the prayer-like "Rising" in the ancient mountains of Victoria, a place where the ghosts of our planet's oldest civilization linger in every gum tree and jagged hilltop? With a joyous song about a young man with a big advance, a woman who plays blind man's bluff and a father who never… did… understand. "Rosalita" had Bruce spinning in circles like it was 1978 and Steve mugging like Frank "The Fixer" Tagliano in Lilyhammer. With Jake beside them at the lip of the stage, the three hammed it up for the hundredth time, Jake's boyishness perfectly complementing the knuckleheaded tomfoolery of Bruce and Steve's Moe and Curly routine and it was all fresh and funny, still a ridiculous testament to rock 'n' roll rebellion. And still my favorite main-set closer.
Bruce plucked a sign for "Jungleland," and it was proven again that the bigger the stage, the higher Jake Clemons rises. His visage to the right of Springsteen as he plays the most famous sax solo in rock 'n' roll history is statuesque, the trance he puts himself in unbroken until Bruce gives him a hug at the solo's end. Jake's an impossibly modest man for a musician of so many talents, but tonight's "Jungleland" offered inarguable proof of his continuing ascension to E Street Band legend.
The good people of Oz Harvest got a shout from a thankful Springsteen before he turned the key and "Born to Run" rumbled to life. A passing shower brought him out to the stage's edge to shut his eyes and feel the rain as women climbed on men's shoulders in preparation for "Dancing in the Dark." (A tip from this Backstreets reporter: If you have a once-in-a-lifetime shot at taking a selfie on stage with Bruce Springsteen during a show in front of thousands of people, get it right the first time. Chasing Bruce around the stage in a doomed attempt to reposition yourself for a second go-round makes you look silly.) Bruce went on another extended walkabout for "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," and "Shout" had hands flying and asses shaking.
With a hearty "one more for Hanging Rock," Bruce jangled the opening chords to "Bobby Jean" and brought this high-wire spectacle of a day and night to a close. Or so we thought. Shooting a look from the rear of the Hanging Rock stage we've seen so many times before — a look that says "What do I have to do for you people?" — Bruce grabbed an acoustic and harp gear from Kevin, made his way back to center mic, and played a "Thunder Road" lullaby to a sea of smiling faces and smoldering full moon. People hugged, people cried — ten minutes after Bruce left the stage I passed a man still staring at center mic, his face awash with tears — and we all exulted in the glee of another promise fulfilled. Next stop: Brisbane.
Lights down at 7:50 brought the familiar routine of the Cooper & Koo strings filing in, the band walking out to cheers, spotlights on Roy and Bruce, and The Professor launching "New York City Serenade." The low-key grace of "Serenade" makes its follow-up the barometer for a crowd's energy, and "Lonesome Day" exploded both onstage and off. "My Love Will Not Let You Down" had the pit bouncing and the band surrounding Max as he pounded the song to a rousing close.
Bruce got caught up in "Spirit in the Night" to the point where he had to run through the lyrics ("Where was I? Janey said hey little brother…") after sprawling on the lip of the stage and wooing a besotted rail-hugger while Jake played sexy sax. The now-standard communal portion of the evening — "Out in the Street" into "Hungry Heart" — found Bruce smiling broadly and mugging with fans on the floor and front sections' edges. I sometimes look at Springsteen at times like this and see a guy who's just woken up far away from home, threw cold water on his face, scarfed down a bowl of cereal, and found himself at the center of an adoring maelstrom. Bruce Springsteen may be the only man on the planet to whom surfing over a crowd is as everyday as going for a surf in the ocean before breakfast. (In Australia, at least.)
The night's first sign choice was a sixer (more cricket terminology for you — it equates to a home run). "Adam Raised a Cain" had been played sporadically during the 2013 and 2014 tours, but without a horn section its blazing guitar assault was unobstructed, and on this version Bruce wielded his Fender like a dagger. "The River" kicked off a staggering trio of songs about lost dreams and belief, belief in a better way out. The gorgeous falsetto of "The River" gave way to the menace of "Youngstown," a menace taken out and given a hiding by the first sublime Nils solo of the night. Bruce called for "The Promised Land" next, and the pit responded like convicts on a jail break.
A sorta, kinda familiar thundering of Max's drums (I'm one of those jerks who calls out what's about to be played like some kid's going to hand me a giant stuffed panda as a prize) opened up into "Rendezvous." The band would be forgiven for flaking rust off this concert rarity, but it was fully fleshed, a keepsake from the Darkness era shown its jangly due. Bruce called out for another beloved cast-off next, and "Be True" sounded equally robust, Clarence's roaring sax finale played with exuberance by Jake. Bruce took a refreshment break at the song's end, giving us all a few moments to digest the unlikely double shot of outtake/B-side bliss.
Much of that refreshment got sprayed into the air at the count-off for "Working on the Highway," a hip-swaying olive branch for Aussies bemused by the previous rarities. Next, Roy's piano intro to "Because the Night" charged the crowd ,and Bruce, alone in a spotlight, ratcheted the tension by repeating "Take me now…" in slow succession. There's a metaphor for the pent-up release that followed, but as this is a family publication, I'll refrain from detailing it.
Lots of hopping in the pit during another fired-up "Badlands." While not a word of politics was uttered on this night — "American Land" was not played for first time since show four in Adelaide — "Badlands" vibrates with resistance, another arrow in Bruce's crammed quiver. A raucous and ridiculous "Rosalita" closed the main set, with Jake, Bruce, and Steve doing their Three Stooges thing at center stage, the 44-year-old tune showing not a hint of grey or shaky legs. Just fun.
After telling Sydneysiders "we love your support so far from home" and singing the praises of Foodbank NSW, the band unleashed "Born to Run" and it was party time. With the house lights up and most (sigh) of the crowd on its feet, Bruce broke out another beloved song from the late '70s and smashed a fierce "Detroit Medley" that heaved and shook with River-era abandon.
By the time another jubilant "Shout" was in full force he stopped, bent over, and asked the Sydney crowd "Are you calling my name?" Like Anthony Alexander Andrew "Big Daddy" Zerilli, Springsteen's Italian immigrant grandfather who'd greet his young grandson with a mighty "BAAAARRRRRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE" from his Freehold throne, we called out from all corners of Qudos Bank Arena with a thundering "BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE" of our own.
After "Bobby Jean" seemed to close the show, Bruce reappeared with an acoustic guitar and harp gear and played a simple "Thunder Road" that tamed the crowd into singing along at Bruce's tempo. It was a gentle ending, at 10:40, on a night that grew hotter with each song, Bruce's unrelenting pace driving the band and audience like a deranged stoker heaving coal into a steam engine, our locomotive hurtling down a joyous track. That locomotive travels next to Hanging Rock, an hour's drive north of Melbourne in the Macedon Ranges. A full moon will be out. You have been warned.
Nope. What we got were three hours of steel and smoke, heart and bone. Another fat-free extravaganza included one Aussie tour premier — Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" — and 27 tried-and-true scorchers. Sydney was soaked by massive rainstorms throughout the day, so temperatures were manageable outside, but by the time Bruce swung the "Wrecking Ball" the pit radiated with bouncing, perspiring bodies. It may not have been the most youthful of crowds, but tonight's energy was intense on the floor and in scattered chunks throughout the 21,000-capacity arena.
Though now sporting a different corporate moniker, Qudos Bank Arena is the same facility Springsteen played in 2013 and 2014. To my ears it's home to a dense, vibrant sound that beats every other venue on this tour and turbocharges a band hitting on all cylinders. Every nuance of the multi-textured and moody "New York City Serenade," back in its opening slot after falling to tenth and ninth at the two outdoor Melbourne shows, commanded attention, from Roy's piano firestorm to Bruce's acoustic licks to Cooper & Koo's searing, soaring strings. Steve stood in his familiar spot with arms crossed and eyes closed at the start, praying to the garage rock gods or perhaps meditating on the night's post-show dinner spread. Garry's bass floated above, below and behind it all. At the halfway mark of this 14-show summer tour of Australia and New Zealand, "Serenade" remains a high point creatively and emotionally every night and will be long remembered after the lads and lass have left these shores.
"American Land" again featured Charlie and Roy on dual accordions — has any band in the history of rock 'n' roll had a double-barreled accordion attack? — with Bruce yelling, "Sydney let me see you! Turn the lights on!" before flying a now-necessary flag of solidarity with immigrants of all stripes. A trio of "The Ties That Bind," "No Surrender," and "Out in the Street" summoned a comradery of the converted, with Nils and Bruce converging on guitars and Steve, of course, bringing his street soul. Bruce reached into the crowd for a "My Love Will Not Let You Down" sign and smoked it (the song, not the sign) and seemed genuinely hesitant to crowd surf during "Hungry Heart." A meandering route to the iron grip of Jake Clemons proved his hesitancy prescient.
Another sign brought bar band standard but rarely played "Long Tall Sally." Written and recorded more than 60 years ago, has any jukebox tune ever kicked off with less ambiguous lines than "Gonna tell Aunt Mary 'bout Uncle John / He claim he has the misery but he's havin' a lot of fun"? Looking at Steve throughout, Springsteen might well have been harking back to their days playing the church basements and parking lots along Route 9 before moving up to the bars of Asbury Park in the early '70s. "Gonna have some fun tonight…." As usual, no one was having more fun than Adele's son himself.
A blistering "Wrecking Ball" kicked off the night's most intense stretch. "Darkness on the Edge of Town" made only its second appearance in Australia in 2017 before a one-two of "American Skin (41 Shots)" and "Youngstown" spoke more truth about modern America than a year's worth of cable news and "The Promised Land" both benefitted from and contributed to the arena's energy. Bruce made an unabashed appeal for that energy before "Mary's Place" — "Sydney, make me feel your spirit right now" — before unleashing "Candy's Room" and "She's the One" on a suspecting and highly worked-up crowd.
This night's blue-collar ethos reached its height with a pair of Born in the U.S.A. songs, "Downbound Train" and "I'm on Fire," that both featured synthesizer solos from Roy. Bruce stood rock still throughout "I'm on Fire," sweat dripping from his left arm and hand, the E Street Band stripped down to Nils, Max, Bruce, Roy and Garry. Bruce called out Nils at the end of "Because the Night" for a solo that had him spinning and our neck hairs standing on end. On any given night anything can happen at a Springsteen show, but instead of a one-off setlist rarity or special guest, tonight's impossible-to-predict happening was a performance of "The Rising" that — you know where this is going — brought tears to my eyes and had the pit levitating. No individual element made it so. It was a group effort that included band, crowd, and ghosts of those lost. Just another tiny miracle that's not listed on your ticket but is included in the price of admission.
"Badlands" made this old man jump in place and then this Aussie tour's revelation — a joyous, reborn, ecstatic version of "Thunder Road" — had Bruce and Jake racing from opposite ends of the stage to slap raised hands to close the main set. Bruce touted those doing God's work at the Foodbank of NSW before Soozie's violin introduced a beautiful, shadowy "Jungleland." This slower version featured Max banging a ride cymbal slowly with one hand while crushing a snare drum with the other. Jake stood tall and still, resurrecting Clarence's herculean solo while Bruce kept time with his right hand. The usual encores got everybody dancing, and "Bobby Jean" brought the show to a heartfelt close at 10:50.
The day's downpours meant air thick with the smell of eucalyptus greeted us as we left the arena. After tonight's joyride with a finely tuned E Street Band and madly grinning Springsteen at the wheel, it felt like we should have been breathing in Turnpike tollbooth deep in the swamps of Jersey.
The DJ wisely follows with "Dancing in the Dark" before setting loose a force he clearly doesn't understand: "Born to Run." I join the jubilant throng and behave in a manner better suited to a Misfits mosh pit. My cohorts and I scream words of longing and desperation like we're possessed by the Jersey Devil itself. We smash into one another, screaming to the ceiling, laughing with joy. We're not drunk. We're not seeking attention. We're at the mercy of a lingering force too raw to be tamed. A young blonde I've never seen before throws her arms around me, a temporary Wendy holding on for dear life, both of us charged by nearly three hours of a superhuman Springsteen. "Tramps like us!" we shout, free and wild, wanderers in a blast zone searching for survivors of the E Street apocalypse, "Baby we were born to run!" Temporary Wendy kisses me as we part, the DJ fades the song, and our wolfpack disbands. The whole experience surreal, a dream, a possession. But it happened, and none of us will ever forget it.
Which is a perfect way to describe night two in Melbourne. A you-had-to-be-there performance, one not defined by setlists or duration or letters home. A night in which a woman gasped "What's he doing?" when Kevin gave Bruce a fresh guitar late in the show, a thought no doubt shared throughout Melbourne's rugby stadium. What's he doing? He's blasting expectations, again. He's replacing cynicism with glee, again. He's shaking his ass so we shake our collective asses, again. He's pushing the boundaries of a 67-year-old rock 'n' roller, again. He's sweating like a motherfucker, again. He's playing a catalog we know with religious fervour yet blowing our minds with songs' intensity and set placement, again. And doing it in a way that feels like it's never been done before, like we're the beneficiaries of a miracle cure that's been smuggled through customs in the form of a New Jersey troubadour with a rockin' band.
Most shows unfold in vivid sections, but tonight felt a 27-song medley. Bruce took the stage in a River-era sky blue shirt at 7:50 and got straight into it with "American Land" No intro, no speeches, just a rumbling haymaker to the jaws of those blinded by bigotry. Gentle strumming from Nils gave "Lonesome Day" a janglier tone before a pounding "My Love Will Not You Down" hinted at the guitar theatrics to come. Springsteen's shirt was already ready for wringing by the time a sharp "Out in the Street" had him asking "Where's the girl who wants to dance with the Mighty Max?" As the crowd pointed at the wannabe dancer, Bruce said, "Well, come on up and dance with the Mighty Max!" Fourth song of the night and Max had a visitor on his riser — this was not a Serious Show. This was a Fun Show.
Further proof was manifested by Bruce taking signs from the crowd for the first time on this tour. First up was "Sherry Darling," which when followed by "Hungry Heart" made for the ultimate River singalong trio. Jake was caught unaware shortly before his "Hungry Heart" solo and had to sprint — the man can move — to the walkway behind the front GA to play beside Bruce. He didn't quite get there, but then no one could catch Bruce on this night. Like a boxer who sees the next punch coming, he anticipated the crowd's mood and either met or challenged it with each song, rarely taking more than a few seconds between songs.
He must have moved too fast for himself when, after holding up a sign for "This Hard Land," he strapped on a harp rack and began playing "This Hard Land" harmonica, but from his guitar came the intro to "Glory Days." Realising his mistake he laughed, yelled "C'mon Steve," threw the harp offstage and took out any regret on his guitar. Mid-"Glory Days," out on the center thrust, Bruce looked at Steve and asked, "Is it lunch time? Is it sexy time? Is it ass-shaking time?" With Steve in full goombah mode, Springsteen looked at the crowd and said with purpose, "It's also Boss time." This was "Glory Days" from its mid-'80s heyday. At its conclusion Bruce congratulated the crowd — "well done!" — and advised us to "sit those tired asses back down."
A full-band "This Hard Land" then finally made its 2017 tour debut and began a remarkable string of songs that brought a fever pitch not yet seen through five shows on Australian soil. Bruce tackled the lyrics to his beautiful ode to brotherhood with slightly off phrasing but cleared the slate with a blistering harmonica solo. Then began the now-familiar routine of elegantly dressed string players — on this night Cooper & Koo, the all-female string section that debuted with Springsteen at the 2014 Wild & Innocent album show in Brisbane — taking their seats behind the stage, Bruce standing at center mic with an acoustic guitar and pointing to Roy to begin the magnificent intro to "New York City Serenade." Maybe it was the heat or maybe there was magic in the night, but after hearing the song four times on this tour and adoring every second of its string-ripened glory, it finally cracked me open and brought tears to my sunscreen-smeared face. I wasn't alone. Throughout the pit eyes glistened. I'm not a fan of the massive video screen behind the band, but the interplay of busily sliding arms and Bruce's solitary form is enhanced by projection. The song ended with Bruce once again repeating "He's singing" while cool mist floated through blue spotlights across the stage.
Bruce always surprises — it's why we keep going back — but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more unlikely way to roar the E Street Band back up again than with Roy's piano intro leading to Springsteen's tour de force guitar work on the '78 version of "Prove It All Night." Where "NYC Serenade" was Bruce's definition of an epic in 1973, only five years later the stripped-down Darkness on the Edge of Town gave rise to this cherished, slashing-guitar rendition of "Prove It." Heard back-to-back they were a masterclass on Springsteen's precocious rise in the '70s from boardwalk poet to street-racing, working man gunslinger. It also had Steve drop his consigliere role and smash a monster solo.
As in Adelaide, an intense "Trapped" rose from a deeper place and offered a cathartic chance to scream our heads off. Bruce showed his voice can still muster the bile required for "Youngstown," and Nils — incomparable, note-perfect Nils — took care of the rest. Bruce shouted to the band as the song ended, and I saw Roy waving his hand over his head to the rest of the band. What did it mean? "Cover Me." By now the pit was a roiling mass that Bruce whipped into a froth with a merciless guitar solo. "Yes yes yes yes yes," he said to his band when it was done.
"Death to My Hometown" spread the band across the stage like a holy noise army, Bruce once again spitting the line "No dictators were crowned" like a bug had just flown into his mouth. He next wandered to the lip of the pit, his shirt completely soaked through, for "My City of Ruins." After asking if "the spirit was in the house tonight," he guaranteed its presence with a reminder of what we've lost — "And that change was made uptown now" sung over and over, Clarence looming in our hearts like he once loomed to Bruce's right — and a preacher's admonition to rise up and pray for peace.
From Sunday church to Texas desert we went as Max immediately kicked up a beat and Bruce growled, "Well buddy when I die throw my body in the back," and we were high-tailing it to the "Cadillac Ranch." Solos from Steve, Nils on pedal steel, and Soozie on fiddle flavored the River rocker with a touch of crackling country and western, but no matter — this was all Texas barbecue. "I'm Goin' Down" started with an examination of the State of the Springsteen Household that had Bruce mimicking his limited appeals — "But… but… but… but" — versus the blunt instrument that is Patti's "Who the fuck do you think you are?" Ground to dust, Bruce captured the essence of marriage with a final, pathetic, "You know what I like, honey."
No song generates debate within the Springsteen community like "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," but hell, tonight it was all hands on deck: the audience wrenched the keys from Bruce and Steve as they struggled to get it going and just did it themselves. With Bruce and Steve flailing on acoustics while Nils and Garry stood on either side offering advice, the crowd got out jumper cables, attached them to their vocal cords, and began signing the song's melody en masse. Vroom vroom went the guitars and off we went, Steve flashing an embarrassed smile and Bruce saying "Thank you!" when it was time to shut it down.
On a night of highlights, the final three songs of the main set — "Because the Night," "Badlands," and "Thunder Road" — may have been the pinnacle of a mountain we've been to many times before, only this time we pushed to a higher summit. Exhausted, we shook the ground with sore feet and punched the air with arms wet from sunscreen and sweat. Bruce played the bulk of "Thunder Road" on the lip of the pit, the man and the guitar he learned how to make talk just above us but the music planted deep inside one and all.
Bruce thanked everyone for coming out to the two shows in Melbourne and for supporting his music, adding Australia is "the last place on Earth I can get a beer on the house." He praised Feed Melbourne for doing God's work and once again read a list of countries represented in the pit. "We salute you!" launched a standard six-song encore that included a manic "Seven Nights to Rock" and… well, a manic everything. When my friend asked, "What's he doing?" I knew exactly what she meant. By the time Steve draped the "Boss" cape over him and Bruce pantomimed walking off stage, you almost wanted him to do just that, to take a load off, to make himself a sandwich and relax. Nope. Another crazy-ass "Twist and Shout." We twisted. We shouted. We watched in awe. Until the song ended, and fireworks again burst over AAMI Park, the band took their bows and walked offstage and we could finally confirm with others that what we'd just witnessed was truly as good as it felt.
It was 10:35, and there were no doubts. Shit may indeed be fucked up as he said Thursday night, but not in this house, not on this night. This one bound young and old, hardcores and newbies, bogans and hipsters, Hawks and Magpies. This one sent everyone out into the night as apostles, convinced they'd seen the show to end all shows… until Tuesday night in Sydney, when the ashes of Saturday night will be whisked away and the fire lit anew. Exactly as it's always been.
He got it, and he and his band of brothers and a sister responded with a breakneck, 13-song homestretch that ended with "Twist and Shout" and a sky full of fireworks. Following the band on this tour has reminded me of the days when many Americans survived the antics of the Bush/Cheney administration by tuning into Jon Stewart for a nightly balm of topical laughs and/or outrage. So far in Australia Springsteen's reacted to the fucked-upness with statements of solidarity and blistering fightin' songs in combination. Tonight we got the latter and a little bit of the former, but mostly Springsteen taking the piss out of Donald Trump's latest antics during a phone call/tantrum with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, which dominated the day's news.
Walking out at 7:30 sharp, Springsteen strapped on an acoustic guitar and said, "We stand before you (as) embarrassed Americans tonight… We're gonna use this to send a letter back home." He went straight into a quick version of 1962's "Don't Hang Up" by R&B group The Orlons ("Don't hang up like you always do/I know you think our love is true"). It was a zippy little poke back at an administration seemingly hellbent on destroying American goodwill around the world — with Steve, Roy, and Garry laughing to his left — but not the most rousing kickoff for a crowd laced with bandana-and-white-t-shirt-wearing guys ("They're cute," wrote Bruce in Born to Run) and looking-for-a-dance girls.
Bruce hollered "We come from a land of immigrants!" over Max's rolling beat as the band rollicked into "American Land," but it was like starting a car in third gear. Of course it felt right — especially to this American ex-pat with Irish ancestors who passed through Ellis Island — but whether it was Melbourne's bright twilight, or AAMI Park's rugby pitch dimensions, or a bad platter of sushi backstage, the normally roaring E Street Band was a bit tempered.
It didn't help when Bruce went on walkabout during "The Promised Land" and had to run up the ramp at song's end — had me thinking of Hyde Park's "Give me an elevator! I'm fucking 60!" back in 2009. The man can work miracles, but like all of us, he ain't getting any younger. "Glory Days," "Hungry Heart," and "Wrecking Ball" were all stadium-friendly rockers that popped but didn't sizzle.
And then came the piece de resistance of this tour to date, "New York City Serenade." A strikingly attractive eight-piece string section took the stage for the first playing of the song outside the opening slot, and the need for stadium histrionics ended. Roy's plaintive piano flooded the stadium and we all eased into a gentle bath of sound. An honest-to-god breeze swept through the pit as Bruce crooned "He's singing…" over and over, the strings giving wing to the pleas of the song's narrator as Bruce whispered poetry over Garry's basslines. In my notepad I wrote, "puts all previous songs to shame." A bit harsh, but on the ground, that's how it felt.
A stretch of brilliance followed. A slow-boiled "Atlantic City" erupted in a hard, head-banging finish. "Johnny 99" honky-tonked to Nils's pedal steel and Jake's cowbell. "Murder Incorporated" began with a malfunctioning guitar (Bruce yelling, "Hang on Steve… I got it!") but compensated with Bruce's first solo of the night. Springsteen flashed a little windmill guitar to close a stomping "Death to My Hometown," the line "No dictators were crowned" once again growled with outlaw menace. Finally, all thoughts of early clunkiness were erased by a perfect, chilling "The River" that Bruce's falsetto turned into a séance on the banks of the Yarra.
A pair of questions broke the spell: "Are you in the house tonight?" and "Are you ready for a house party?" to begin a transformative "Mary's Place." Bruce dangled from his mic stand and, alluding to the band's hiccups earlier in the night, confessed, "Tonight is the night for fucking everything up." After the previously mentioned succession of "Shit is fucked up" quips and "You got to bring us up tonight," Bruce bent low and shushed the crowd from just above the pit. He went silent, seemingly waiting for defiance. "Don't be Brooocing me right now," he said. "I don't want to hear any fucking Brooocing right now." That brought the spirit he was asking for, and soon "Mary's Place" had patio furniture in the swimming pool and the neighbors calling the cops.
Thus began a race to finish that long-time concert attendees will recognize as the sort that leaves your face sore from continuous smiling. Snicker if you like, but if a run of roadhouse rockers "Darlington County" and "Working on the Highway," sultry sing-along "I'm on Fire," carnal "Because the Night" and blistering "Badlands" don't put a grin on your puss, well, I can't help you, son. When Springsteen released "Badlands" in 1978 there was no way he'd imagine the prescience of "Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything," but there it was, capturing present-day concerns better than anything he's written since. "Land of Hope and Dreams" similarly embodies a world of opposition and a way out of despair, and when played after "Badlands" to close the main set offered a cathartic prayer for our times.
After a salute to Feed Melbourne and shout-out to the 21 nationalities represented in AAMI Park's pit ("Those Italians follow me wherever I go!"), Springsteen stood at center mic alone and introduced an acoustic "Long Walk Home" by saying, "I wrote this during the Bush administration, guess it still applies." However tragic that may be, the song offered wisdom we can only pray America heeds: "That flag flyin' over the courthouse / Means certain things are set in stone / Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't."
"Born to Run" continued its run as all-time-greatest stadium anthem followed by a "Dancing in the Dark" that saw Bruce dance with a woman holding a "Dance with this nasty woman - Love Trumps Hate" sign. Everything about her was magnificent. You think you've heard every variation of "Shout" until on this night Bruce repeated "Listen to me…" over and over until it morphed into a showdown between James Brown and Sam Cooke. And then, with a mighty "We know you can shout, but can you twist?" Bruce discovered he had the wrong guitar for "Twist and Shout"; Kevin popped out with the right one, and Freehold's favorite son thrashed a version of the first song he ever learned to play on guitar, with some "boogaloo" piano from Roy and a look of ecstasy on his mug. At 10:20 pm he closed night one of a two-night Melbourne stand by saying "Tell your friends we'll be back for a Saturday night extravaganza!" as fireworks hailed over AAMI Park.
It may have been an embarrassing day to be an American in Australia, but as rockets' red glare mingled with Southern Hemisphere starlight it was a great goddamned night to be a Springsteen fan in the city of Melbourne.
With that, "American Land" launched the show that will surely be known as the Adelaide Protest Show, Bruce's musical call to action. The words "the hands that built this country we're always trying to keep out" delivered the first shot straight over the bow. "The Ties that Bind" and "No Surrender" drove home the message that we are in this together. The line "had to get away from those fools" was delivered with a sneer. As an American who chose to vacation in the farthest location from the U.S., I could certainly relate. Bruce dedicated "Trapped" next to "the detainees." And then the song that starts each and every time with a line delivered like a benediction, "This is 'Land of Hope and Dreams.'" Bruce paused for effect after "This train carries saints and sinners" to add "This train carries immigrants!" And bells of freedom ring. I looked over the crowd and saw a young girl watching with tears streaming down her face. Later a line in "Youngstown," "We gave our sons to Korea and Vietnam and now we wonder what they were dying for," made me wonder how many more tears will be shed.
And here I thought an opening (post-"NYC Serenade" of course) couldn't get any more scorching than night two, but along comes Bruce to outdo himself again with "Night." Does any other song in his arsenal establish as breakneck of a pace? "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" kept it going, Bruce and Stevie reprising their guitar duel, ahead into "Cover Me" and "Radio Nowhere." Australians seem to love his newer material, inspiring Bruce to engage in a deafening "I just want to hear some rhythm" call-and-response with the crowd.
This time around, the Aussies had no choice but to stand, especially when Bruce whipped out a rare mid-set "Glory Days," and especially when he bellowed, "Can we get these folks in Perth dancing? Can we get them asses out of those seats?!" By the time everyone was waving their arms to the end of "Hungry Heart," it felt like we had already hit encore-level bedlam… just seven songs in (I know I was an encore-level, sweaty mess).
"The River" momentarily and hauntingly slowed things down before they went right back to setting their guitars ablaze with "Youngstown" (two lengthy Nils solos are always better than one), "Murder Incorporated" (another Bruce-Stevie guitar face-off), "Johnny 99" (there are few superior talent showcases for the entirety of the E Street Band) and "Ramrod" ("Ramrod" and "Glory Days" in the main set? It was just one of those nights). You had to love Bruce and Stevie's banter: "What time is it? I don't got no watch. I'm so damn jet-lagged I don't know what fucking time it is. Does Perth know what time it is?! Do you know what time it is?!" Yes, they did. "That's goooood." At song's end Bruce thanked the crowd as if they were done, and I don't think anyone would've gone home unhappy. We were less than 90 minutes in.
But no, there were so many more highlights to burn through, including the first-ever Down Under performance of "Drive All Night," transcendent as always. Those who predicted a third night in a small venue might be treated to full River performance weren't dead-on, but there were more songs from the album here than the previous two nights. Bruce introduced a balls-to-the-goofy-wall "I'm Goin' Down" with an odd little story about how he tends to get in fights at home that end with him being asked, "Who do you think you are?!"
The energy did not wane for even one second all night long, straight up. I can't remember the last time Bruce and the Band were in such high spirits from beginning to end. And the crowd was with them every step of the way; the pit even mirrored an eyes-closed Bruce raising his hands and then crossing them when he sang, "May I feel your arms around me / May I feel your blood mix with mine" during "The Rising." That was a first for me, as was the crowd continuing the "Badlands" chant from the mid-song breakdown, over the final verse, through the coda, and into a gorgeous "Land of Hope and Dreams."
"Backstreets" and "Seven Nights to Rock" were encore highlights, as was Bruce's mid-"Shout" E Street Band litany: "Do you have kangaroos in this part of Australia? Good, then on your drive home, if you see a spare kangaroo, I want you to pull over by the side of the road, get out of your car, and tell them you've just seen…" — you know the rest.
When walking out of MetLife 3 this past year, many concurred that Bruce had very few other three-night stands that could compare. Yet in classic E Street fashion, his very next three-night stand — less than 10 shows later — every bit matched those now-legendary Jersey evenings. No records were broken for show length, but you know what they say about quality over quantity. As usual, right when diehards believe they've witnessed a culmination of sorts, Bruce just dials it up even further. Fifty-eight different songs over the first three shows of this Summer '17 Tour — that's more than most bands get to on an entire tour — and they looked like they could've kept going for hours more. Indeed, it seems like glory days will never pass this band by. In Bruce's own words: "We swore forever friends… that was the deal, right?" Cue the waterworks for the remainder of the encores (at least for me).
If this start is a sign of what's to come, then get ready, Eastern Australia and New Zealand — the righteous fire of E Street is coming for you, baby.
Tonight is why we do it. The mysterious ways of Bruce Springsteen's mind and soul that leave us guessing and then gasping for breath. Pre-show prognostications turned ludicrous by a guttural "1! 2! 3! 4!…" and the promise of redemption on the hood of an old Dodge, sipping beer in the soft summer rain. Thinking replaced by feeling, the familiar made celebratory. Our incessant quest to figure this guy out, to know what's coming over the rise, always falling short but our expectations consistently being exceeded.
Tonight was a drag race. A feint in the form of Official Show Opener "New York City Serenade" before a cascade of lights, roaring engines and a rocket ride down rubber-blackened tarmac began with "Prove It All Night" and continued to genuinely rousing show closer "Rosalita." Whatever we thought we were going to get got ditched like dead weight. Out of 26 songs, a remarkable 16 were not played during Sunday's Aussie Tour 2017 opener.
And that number 26? This was a concert of economy, a concentrated treat, fat-free and vastly entertaining. Much will be made of its length — lights down at 7:45, Bruce proclaiming "The E Street Band loves ya!" at 10:35 before departing — but this night's sustained energy (and perhaps very hot summer temperatures) demanded an earlier-than-usual exit.
Whereas Sunday's show featured Springsteen's most direct proclamation of opposition to an incoming presidential administration, tonight's was nearly spoken-word-free. For however much he let the songs themselves speak his truth, Springsteen also seemed looser, more at ease, and spent a lot of time reaching down into the crowd, holding hands, high-fiving, and most obviously concluding "Hungry Heart" with a ride-of-a-thousand-fingers courtesy of eager pit denizens. If Sunday's show was in response to external forces, the intrusion of the wider world, tonight's existed solely within the comparatively small confines of Perth Arena. By expressing solidarity with the "new American resistance" on Sunday Bruce had done his job as a leader of progressive politics in the U.S., but tonight he let his rock 'n' roll do the ass-kicking on the other side of the world.
Springsteen had a better crowd tonight, too, either the result of it being Australia Day Eve or that tickets for this show were the first to go on sale and sell out quickly. It's always encouraging when an anonymous collection of string players receive applause as they take their seats on a darkened stage. That enthusiasm was rewarded with another jaw-dropping "NYC Serenade," its grandiose piano and strings contrasting beautifully with Springsteen's collection of romantic tragics from a long-ago time and place. His newfound devotion to this song continues to shock and thrill in equal measure. Bruce applauded his string section and shook their hands as they left the stage.
After a hearty "Good evening, Western Australia," rubber met road with a rollicking "Prove It All Night" that delivered guitar face aplenty and a pulsing face-off between Bruce and Max. In what would prove typical, Bruce gave no pause before slamming the band into higher gear with a galloping "My Love Will Not Let You Down" that had Nils and Steven flanking Bruce for a noisy and nostalgic triple-shot of six-strings.
"Two Hearts" had Steve making like a butcher in a pork store, the crowd savoring every slice of ham, before an aerobic "Wrecking Ball" helped burn it off. An exuberant "Out in the Street" was followed by ten songs — ten — not heard Sunday night, starting with "Hungry Heart" and ending with an audibled "I'm on Fire." Highlights included a Rising two-fer of "My City of Ruins" and "Mary's Place" (after shushing the crowd Bruce laughed and confessed to "fucking up the words even though they're right in front of me"); a Sessions-style "Johnny 99" (in which Steve was caught unawares for his guitar solo as Bruce busted his chops with "c'mon, Little Steven, c'mon," the favor returned when Bruce's solo made Steve laugh out loud) bookended by jackhammer renditions of "Atlantic City" and "Murder Incorporated"; a typically rousing "Death to My Hometown" (Bruce spitting the line "no dictators were crowned"); impressive audience participation during "The River"; and an overwhelming chorus of female voices singing along to "I'm on Fire."
The show's breakneck pace continued with another trio of songs played without pause — "Because the Night," "The Rising," and "Badlands" — before a gorgeous "Thunder Road" had Bruce strolling the lip of the stage and an increasingly charismatic Jake Clemons invoking the soaring spirit of Clarence, a feat he'd duplicate with a torrid "Jungleland" solo that led to an embrace with Springsteen at center stage. Bruce's voice froze up halfway through "Born to Run" but recovered during a cape-less "Shout." A full-throttle "Rosalita" ended this drag race of an evening with Bruce looking as content as a winning driver with $25 of prize money in his back pocket and a cooler of cold beer in the trunk. Not a bad way to end a hot night in Western Australia.
For the tenth show in a row Roy's strident piano kicked off the elegant and timeless "New York City Serenade" and in the words of fellow fighter Joe Strummer, war was declared and battle come down. Bathed in blue and perfectly still, Bruce hushed images of early-'70s Manhattan while the 2017 E Street Band recalled the remarkable maturity of the musical gypsies who cut the track in 1973. As is now standard, an impeccably dressed eight-piece string section showered grace on an audience expecting raw six-string power. Familiar lyrics — lyrics spray-painted on the souls of the old bastards who've followed Bruce over lengthening lives — were reset, a simple "Sometimes you gotta walk on" suddenly invigorated by the spectre of protest marches in the States following Trump's inauguration.
As a final denouement of strings brought the masterpiece to a close, Bruce cheerfully thanked his guest musicians as they left the stage and cut to the heart of the matter:
And the cannons roared with an immediate barrage of "Lonesome Day," "Darkness," and "No Surrender." Rockets red glare, indeed.
The adrenaline rush of these stalwarts also brought to mind Springsteen's response to a question posed by Mark Maron on his WTF podcast about whether Bruce had written anything specifically addressing the rise of Trumpism: "I've got a lot of songs that are about it right now… they're there already. I work from the inside out; in other words, I'm inspired by something internally and I make a record based on what I can write about at a given moment. Sometimes it ends up being topical, sometimes it doesn't. We've got a good arsenal of material right now that we can go out and put in service." Perhaps a younger Bruce would have elucidated on this point between songs, but it seems the older Bruce gets, the more impatient he is to put a maximum number of songs in service every night. Lucky us.
In case Bruce's declaration of solidarity with a new American resistance wasn't enough, the playing of only two songs from The River at an arena bursting with River-themed merchandise proved the good intentions of a feel-good retrospective had been kiboshed for the topical. "Out in the Street" started with a bang but ended abruptly when a lukewarm-at-best crowd response seemed to faze Bruce. He chuckled afterwards, acknowledging to the band his unexpected abandonment. It's at this point I hesitate to mention the crowd's enthusiasm because Aussies are, on the whole, less boisterous concert attendees than others around the world. But, aside from hearty pit disciples, this crowd was comatose for 75% of the night.
This American ex-pat was having none of that, however, especially when "Land of Hope and Dreams" rolled into the station. I was lucky enough to have heard its creation while sitting on the sand outside Asbury Park's Convention Hall, so this song always beats from within, but tonight it was a right cross to the face. Everyone on stage seemed to grow a couple inches in anticipation of the fight to come — this train was taking no prisoners. Get on or get the fuck out of the way. Steven's mandolin, Jake's sax, Max's kit, Bruce wailing "Bells of freedom ring," all indicative of a reckless conductor hurling his iron horse down the tracks. A song reborn for an uncharted age, Bruce's on-the-nose lyrical alteration "This train… carries immigrants!" a hammer blow to those who would vilify the historical lifeblood of the U.S.A.
The so-called time machine of songs from 1973 that answer all fans' dreams (well, almost all… there's always someone pining for "Queen of the Supermarket") followed. "Bus Stop" had Bruce contorting like a carnival barker hectoring passersby. "Growin' Up" featured the giddy confession of a 14-year-old Springsteen who "had nothing… but needed something" and so was soon mowing the lawn of his Aunt Dora for 50 cents an hour so he could buy the "cheapest guitar" in town. Once purchased he discovered that while he couldn't play it, he could pose with it — and pose he did, that 14-year-old outcast morphed into a 67-year-old windmilling rock god.
This story is hashed out hilariously in his autobiography, the lawn mowing job proving inadequate and leading to a house-painting gig across the street from Aunt Dora's house. Under different circumstances the Born to Run book would be hailed as a Rosetta Stone to understanding a guy we've all spent too much time analyzing from afar, the blood and bones of songs we like to say "define" our lives actually defined by the guy who wrote them. This "Growin' Up" tale certainly invited a plug for the book but unsurprisingly, there was none.
On "Spirit in the Night," Bruce plucked a cider from a fan who offered him four cans ("Is this for the whole band?") and then chugged its contents back on stage to Max's thunderous prompting. "Lost in the Flood" completed the Greetings portion of the night with head-banging oomph and the night's first blistering guitar solo from Bruce.
What followed may have once been considered a Holy Grail but is now, blessedly, practically commonplace: three Wild & Innocent songs in a row. "Kitty's Back" shined a spotlight on Charlie, Jake, Roy and an extremely hip-looking Garry and ended with Bruce and Steve injecting the sprawling tune with psychedelic guitar work. "Incident" followed. A full-on, blown-out "Incident." Gorgeous, melancholy, rousing and on this night offering a soothing "Good night, it's all right" to a world waiting for shit to go down. Roy's long outro guaranteed "Rosalita" and the folks in the pit getting Bruce, Steve and Jake up close and goofy.
Big finish, big applause, and bam… "The Ties That Bind," the second and last River song of the night. The song melted from E Street Band heat, a furious rendition that set up rousing redneck rockers "Darlington County" and "Working on the Highway." Bruce handed the mic to Nils to sing a "Darlington" refrain, his high-desert vocals an absolute treat; while on walkabout, Bruce pointed his guitar at the band from the rear of the pit and orchestrated the intro to "Highway," a song fuelled, fired, and finished by Max's slapping snare. This double shot of swagger ended with the harmonica intro to "The Promised Land," another song rebooted by current events. Bruce punched the air a la "Jungleland" during Jake's solo, and the crowd, buoyed by the two previous Born in the U.S.A. songs, found its legs. Bruce stalked the stage like a revival tent preacher, shaking his right arm in rhythm to words written 40 years ago but that fit in with the new American resistance just fine, thank you.
The brilliant 2016 release American Band by Drive-By Truckers features a song called "What It Means" that includes these lines: "If you say it wasn't racial / When they shot him in his tracks / Well I guess that means that you ain't black / It means that you ain't black." Fighting words, for sure, and yet mild compared to the raw and ferocious "American Skin (41 Shots)," tonight played at a quick pace but with aching intensity. The image of the lone African-American on stage — and quite frankly, possibly the only African-American in Perth Arena — with his hands up throughout the song nearly broke me in half. As he played the song's sax solo, I began to dread him finishing the solo and returning to his place beside Charlie and putting his hands back up. When he did, and his arms rose far over his head, my heart genuinely sank. Nils ripped a solo that screamed for mercy, the song ended, and Jake's hands fell. Gut-wrenching.
"My Hometown" followed, another song made fresh by the autobiography. On "Candy's Room," a Bruce solo circa 1978 began a roar straight out of Wall Speedway that continued with "She's the One," "Because the Night" (featuring another searing Nils solo), "The Rising," and "Badlands." Signs had been ignored up to this point, but after taking bows Bruce strapped on an acoustic and pointed at a sign asking for "Blood Brothers," an en masse request for a fan named Matty who'd passed away. After running through the chords a few times in practice, Bruce played the song standing perfectly still, locked into the words, perhaps lost in emotion, perhaps not, but playing it like he was standing before all of those he's lost and seeking their blessings.
After this gift of a performance the show rocketed through encore favorites "Born to Run", "Dancing in the Dark," and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" before "The Boss" cape came out for a spectacularly campy "Shout." "Bobby Jean" ended the proceedings at 11:20 with the crowd on its feet, tired and happy. A clarion had been blown, the battle commenced, a shot heard 'round the world. On Wednesday night in Perth, the reckoning continues with night 2 of 3. "So walk tall… or baby don't walk at all."
January 12 / The White House, East Room / Washington, DC
The event, which feels like a fever dream now, was a thank you for current White House staff with a full eight years in the Obama Administration. We lined up at the southeast gate, behind the Treasury building, and they started letting us in a little after 7pm. There was a lovely reception in the State Dining Room for an hour or so. The vibe in the room, and all night, was very familial. The crowd consisted of people who had worked together for years (I'd estimate 200 or 250 in attendance), and it was nice to see many happy reunions and farewell hugs. There were no special celebrity guests or anything — just staff folk and their significant others. No sign of the President until later. After about an hour, the doors to the East Room were opened, and we filed in to take our seats in rows.
The President and First Lady were announced, and they came in from the Green Room to take their seats front and center. POTUS was in a suit and FLOTUS in a typically stylish tailored black gown, nothing overly formal. Patti Scialfa was already seated in the front row, next to National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Then Bruce was announced and came in from the Green Room himself in dark jeans and a very typical Bruce outfit otherwise (tight dark vest, shirtsleeves, bracelets, etc.). Kevin Buell was set up stage right with a tech area to tune and feed various acoustic guitars to Bruce throughout the night. Pete Souza was seated in the front row to the stage-left side; he was up and down and around the room all night taking photos (and also singing along silently to all the songs).
It was a dream of a setlist. Bruce opened with a very brief note of thanks to the President and the staff who were being honored before launching into "Working on the Highway." That opener led into an incredible "Growin' Up" for a lively start, but not much of the set was so upbeat, with haunting readings of songs like "My Hometown," "My Father's House," and "Devils & Dust." The mood in the room the whole night — both reception and concert — was not exactly somber, but it wasn't festive, either. It was elegiac, I'd say. There was a clear sense of something ending, both with the conclusion of an adventure for the staff and the silent presence of the coming political transition. Bruce's demeanor was definitely in line with that overall vibe.
Springsteen spoke between most of his selections, talking about politics a bit before "Born in the U.S.A." and calling it a "protest song," one that had been misunderstood before and would be misunderstood again. Before "The Wish" he referenced the President's own family and talked about how he'd written this one for his mom, who now had dementia, but had taught him so much "about how to be in the world." Bringing Patti up for "Tougher Than the Rest," Bruce talked about the example set by the President and First Lady through the tough years of the Administration and dedicated this one to them. Patti remained onstage for "If I Should Fall Behind."
"Long Walk Home" — pause a moment and consider this recent masterpiece actually being performed in the White House — was preceded by commentary about being in a difficult moment and maintaining optimism. And then a masterful final pairing of "Dancing in the Dark" and "Land of Hope and Dreams." There was no gap between these two, as Bruce segued right from one to the next. "Dancing" did get almost somber and dark in a way that I've always thought those lyrics merited. The song has some of my favorite Bruce lines, actually, and this was the performance of a lifetime, wrenching and taut, with self-doubt and anxious fire on full display. "Land of Hope and Dreams" was the perfect, fitting closer.
A few final words of thanks from Bruce, and then President Obama hopped on the stage. He thanked Bruce in turn — something to the effect of, "he's been with us for some time now, performing his craft to show his support." But POTUS mostly focused on thanking the staff and their families for all they'd given and given up, "missing kids' soccer games," etc. He wrapped up fairly quickly. Then FLOTUS and Patti took the stage as everyone clapped and the two couples spoke privately among themselves. POTUS led the foursome off the stage and back toward the Green Room, and out they went.
The crowd filed back out into the Cross Hall for some final mingling before the Marine escorts started shooing us toward the coat check and out into the warm winter night. We were among the last folks out the door, and as we strolled up East Executive Avenue toward Pennsylvania, we saw Bruce and Patti walk out of the East Wing toward their car. We were by the northeast gate as they pulled out. I gave a modest "BRUUUCE" and received a nice wave from both Bruce and Patti from inside the car. Outside the White House, you'd have no idea any event had been going on. The street was quiet and empty.
I have seen Bruce Springsteen a lot of places: front row at MSG, rehearsal at Convention Hall, summer runs at Giants, the last show at the old Giants, a surprise appearance in a shopping mall, 2004 Vote for Change, second row at the Lincoln Memorial in 2008, arenas all over.... But this one was a real personal thing, this thing for staff who sacrificed so much over the last eight years. It was a humble, quiet gesture from Bruce to say thanks to President Obama, the staff, and their families. No pomp, no ceremony, no press. Just the man, the guitar, and the songs.
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