Notes: Bruce Springsteen made a welcome return to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Monday night, his third time on the program, sitting down for a wide-ranging, three-act interview, followed by an acoustic performance of "The River."
Colbert began the segment by asking how Springsteen came to work with President Barack Obama on the Renegades podcast (and book of the same name, out today). Bruce joked that when Obama called him, asking to collaborate on what became Renegades, he thought the President must have "had the wrong number." Flagging the imbalance in their bona fides, Bruce offered a long list that on Obama's side ended with "first African-American President of the United States," while his own CV merely included "guitar player" and "Freehold High School graduate."
Reflecting on the state of the country at the moment, Colbert asked how Springsteen maintained a sense of hope. Bruce responded, "How do you remain optimistic? I have young kids. I have to."
Springsteen also spoke thoughtfully about the challenges, even dangers, of the musician's life, and how so many artists struggle to set boundaries. That response led to a show-and-tell segment with the guitar, Bruce's Frankenstein-ed Fender Telecaster/Esquire. He went on to tell Colbert he had played the instrument for 50 years, after buying it from the late Phil Petillo for $185.
"This guitar has been in every club, theater, arena, and stadium across America and most of the world."
The last part of their interview shifted to a discussion of The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts, and how Springsteen became involved in the No Nukes shows in the first place. From there, Springsteen watched a clip of himself on stage performing "Quarter to Three" in the No Nukes encore, reacting to his own shtick and guile.
The 1979 concerts saw the premiere of one of Springsteen's greatest compositions, "The River," which he told Colbert was inspired by the music of Hank Williams along with his own sister Ginny's real-life circumstances in a fledging marriage to a husband working blue-collar jobs in the late '70s.
After a break, Springsteen returned for one more segment, an excellent solo reading of "The River," one of his best solo television performances.
Segment 2 - Part two of the interview begins with a round of show and tell, and The Boss delivers big with THE guitar:
Segment 3 - In part three of the interview, the pair watches some footage from Bruce's 30th birthday party, also known as The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts:
Segment 4 - Springsteen wraps his full-episode Late Show takeover with a solo performance of "The River," 42 years after he debuted the song at the No Nukes shows:
As entrance lines go, that's right up there with "Is there anybody fucking alive out there?" Literally: those are the first two sentences Bruce Springsteen uttered when he took the stage at last night's annual Robin Hood Foundation gala.
Springsteen was the opening act in a line-up that included Alicia Keyes paying tribute to Sir Paul McCartney and the Jonas Brothers rocking out in a grand finale concert, and it was his job to entertain a deep-pocketed audience while they dined on burrata with maple kabocha squash.
Bruce took the stage around 7:15 in fine voice and high spirits, playing a solo acoustic set consisting of "Working on the Highway" (it's first outing in almost three years), "Dancing in the Dark" and "Thunder Road."
Before "Thunder Road," Bruce introduced the foundation to anyone unfamiliar with their work: "For over 30 years Robin Hood has been finding, fueling, and creating impactful solutions to fit families, to lift them up out of poverty here in New York City. The funds raised tonight translate into real results in responding to New Yorkers living in poverty."
He returned to the stage shortly after he left it, to greet Sir Paul McCartney with a warm embrace as McCartney accepted an award from the foundation. (Sir Paul did not perform.)
If it was Bruce's job to prime his audience for an evening of generous giving, he certainly succeeded: his audience of 3,000 donated $77.5 million dollars over the course of the night. —Ken Rosen
Notes: "When I think of these kind of literary events, I do think to myself: Jersey bowling alley."
"Oh, no, I'm sorry, that's when I think of drunken fistfights."
We can forgive Jon Stewart his momentary confusion, because it was indeed a bit surreal to witness Bruce Springsteen, Jon Landau, Steve Buscemi, Richie Sambora, Nona Hendryx, Jon Stewart, and guest of honor Steve Van Zandt arrayed on a single stage… in a Jersey bowling alley. Before an audience of only 254 attendees.
But it wasn't just any bowling alley — it was Asbury Park's bowling alley-turned-concert venue, Asbury Lanes. And the event was in support of a very real and important cause: the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation's TeachRock project.
TeachRock empowers teachers with tools and curriculum to ensure that the arts don't vanish from our school, and it was that worthy goal that brought tonight's stars to Asbury Park — that, and their love and respect for TeachRock's founder, Stevie Van Zandt.
Because this night was also a celebration of Steven's life, career, and his newly earned status as bestselling author of his autobiography, Unrequited Infatuations.
The event (which will be available online in full in the coming months) kicked off with a solo piano performance by Low Cut Connie in fine Jerry Lee Lewis form. Jon Stewart took the stage next as the evening's host and introduced the event's centerpiece, an all-star book reading.
Richie Sambora (a surprise addition) read about The Stone Pony's rise to fame from Chapter 7 of Steve's book before recalling his introduction to his mentor at the age of 16. Young Richie worked up the nerve to give Steven a cassette after spending many evenings studying him at the Pony. "Steve didn't show me the funhouse mirror; he told me the truth…. We became fast friends. He's my brother, and I love him."
Nona Hendryx quipped, "Like every band, they needed a black girl singer" before reading about the creation of "Sun City" from Chapter 19 (and doing a mean Miles Davis impersonation). "For me to have been a part of 'Sun City' and what [Steve] went through to get it done, it was incredible," she added. "That video changed the world. It changed MTV and opened doors. [MTV] saw that they were repeating what Steven was fighting against. It was apartheid, and they were doing the same thing in the music realm."
For the younger folks in attendance, Stewart helpfully noted that at the time, "MTV was all Buggles and Pat Benatar. Mostly Pat Benatar, a little bit of Buggles."
Jon Landau discussed the working dynamic between himself, Bruce, and Steve. "We had different opinions about what to do about everything. We usually had a great deal of fun trying to negotiate them out. (Sometimes less fun.) But we all came out alive and great friends. The thing about Steve: whatever he's doing it has to be great. If it's just good, he's bored. It has to be great." Like his "beautiful book, a true story of an incredible life."
Landau also recalled a recommendation from a friend: "I was on a trip somewhere, and I got a text from Bruce:"
For his reading, Landau's selection from the memoir involved his own famous review with the "Rock and Roll Future" quote, and Stevie's interpretation of it in Chapter 9.
Steve Buscemi gave the shortest remarks but the longest — and unsurprisingly, the most dramatic — reading of the night, retelling the origin of The Sopranos from Chapter 24. And Jon Stewart closed the panel by reading Steven and Bruce's daytrip to East Berlin from Chapter 14 (with difficulty, noting that "Steve's book is phenomenal, but the font size is fucked up… torturous!"
Each panelist was an icon in their own right, but at this point they cleared the stage to make room for the evening's headliner act: a conversation between Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt. Before bringing Stevie and Bruce on stage, Stewart took a moment to share his appreciation for what Bruce and Steve meant for people like him, who'd grown up in that area. "When you listen to their music, you never felt like a loser. You felt like a character in an epic poem… about losers. I consider it one of the great honors of my life to have been inspired by them to better myself from my standing and my position, which seems to be the essence of all of their art."
Springsteen interviews Van Zandt
Bruce set the stage for their opening topic: the summer of '65, a band called The Shadows, and their "paisley-shirted, top hat, oversized tie-wearing frontman" sitting to his right.
"We were the luckiest generation ever," Stevie opened. "It was a wonderful culture for teenagers at that time. There were all kinds of places to play. Ever since The Beatles had appeared on TV, it had become a band culture."
In those days, bands were a bastion for teenagers… and young teens at that. "Not even nineteen!" Bruce marveled. "You had to hire fourteen-, fifteen-year old kids. That was what all bands consisted of."
In the first of many insightful exchanges, Bruce and Stevie discussed their differing rock 'n' roll epiphanies. Separated in age by only two years in an era when generations were only five or six years apart, that was enough for Bruce and Steven to have separate awakenings: Bruce's was Elvis's appearance on Ed Sullivan; Steven's was The Beatles. Both agreed, however, that it was The Rolling Stones that made rock star status seem attainable.
"The Beatles revealed this new world to us," said Stevie, "and The Rolling Stones invited us in."
Bruce noted that his friend's entire life ("to my great fortune") has been dedicated to the idea of bands. Stevie admitted that he never liked the spotlight. He wasn't about "me, me, me." The idea of a band, he said, was about us: "It communicates friendship, and family, and team, and posse, and gang. And ultimately, community. And I wanted to be part of that community. Maybe it came from my love of West Side Story, but there was something about a gang, about a team, about that friendship."
"There's a great song by Dawes," Bruce added, "where he's breaking up with his girlfriend or something, and he says, 'and I wish that all your favorite bands would stay together.' The fact that Steve and I are here together side-by-side, literally 50 years after we started, and that we found each other at all… to find someone with whom you felt such a deep kinship" is a testament to that ideal.
The two friends spent several minutes discussing the origin of their friendship, and how it was cemented by their weekend sojourns to Greenwich Village and Café Wha.
"I'd drive to Bruce's house," Steve remembered, turning to him. "Sometimes we'd go up in your room. You'd already started to write songs — and it hadn't occurred to me that you could write your own songs! You really were advanced!" Steve marveled to much laughter. "You'd play some songs you had written, we'd exchange records, we'd talk about the latest songs we'd heard. You turned me on to Love, Tim Buckley… and then we'd get on the bus and go up to New York. We started to hang out together."
"It was the beginning of a thousand great arguments," Bruce said. "I wish that friendship on everyone."
Bruce then jumped them forward in time, to a snowy winter day in Asbury Park. "A man walks down the street in a Hawaiian shirt, a straw hat… all that's missing is the drink with the little umbrella. And a parrot, I guess, but he had to leave something for Jimmy Buffett. That incarnation was the one and only Miami Steve!
"To show how limited our frame of reference was at the time," Bruce continued, "Miami Steve was christened Miami Steve for a very simple reason: he had been to Miami! None of the rest of us ever had. And while he was in Miami, he was sartorially influenced to the nth degree."
Steven recalled that he had quit the music business for a time, after his friend got signed to Columbia and he himself failed to make Bruce's ensemble.
Bruce explained: "My first record… I was signed as an acoustic musician — a singer-songwriter, basically. There was no electric guitar allowed on my first album! I was trying to satisfy both John Hammond and my own instincts, which were like, 'You don't understand, this is just what I do in my spare time! What I really do is this thing with all my friends!'"
But there was a series of years where they didn't play together, and in those years, Stevie joined up with The Dovells and hit the oldies circuit, meeting rock's pioneers (who were only in their 30s and 40s at the time) as the first revival of '50s culture hit with Happy Days and American Graffiti.
That experience "really completed my education," Steven said. "When that tour ended in Miami (I'd switched to Dion by then), I came back in Hawaiian shirts, started the Jukes, and said, 'I'm never going to recognize winter again.'"
"He does not like the cold!" Bruce interjected with gusto. "You go into his house, and his room is 90 fucking degrees! Wherever you go it's hot!" ("It's ironic," Steve noted, "considering where I ended up on TV," clearly thinking of Lilyhammer.)
Since Steven brought up the subject of the Jukes, they discussed that period next. Bruce testified: "To have Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes — with Steve in them! — as the house band in your local bar in Asbury Park was an a amazing gift, a fabulous thing, that really gave everyone a home here in Asbury and the surrounding area for a long, long time."
Steven's introduction of a horn section led to a rock-and-soul fusion, an intentionally Stax-influenced sound ("Southside and I wanted to be the white Sam and Dave") that ultimately and organically became "the bar band sound. It became a bigger thing than just what we were doing."
In the meantime, Bruce had made two records "and they were both bombs." Bruce remembered thinking, "If we don't make it on this next one, I'm going back to Asbury Park for good."
"And become a Juke!" Stevie quipped off-mic.
I can't do justice to their discussion about Stevie's contributions to Born to Run without Bruce's horn sound effects, but let's just say at that stage of their experience (or inexperience), Bruce could only provide direction to his hot-shot NYC horn players by verbalizing a horn sound. That didn't really work for their brass ensemble.
"It sucks," Steven badgered Bruce.
"Well, go do something about it!" Bruce ordered.
Now remember that Steven was not yet in the E Street Band or even part of the album's production team, and Bruce seemed to still get a kick out of the scenario, sending "just a guy, who had no relation to the record whatsoever except he happens to be in the room — I just send a guy out there to talk to the greatest horn players in New York City."
Steven just thought, "I'm glad someone's going to fix this." Modestly, he downplayed his contribution: "I separated the baritone parts out, gave them some riffs, and that's it. The record is very, very simple, but it was just a matter of getting the intention. I knew what [Bruce] wanted: he wanted Sam and Dave."
After that, Bruce knew he wanted Steven in his band, too.
Writing his book gave Stevie a chance to analyze Bruce and the band's transition from Born to Run to Darkness on the Edge of Town for the first time, and he found it fascinating: "The first step in Bruce going from this shy guy who never said two words to anybody to the world's greatest entertainer (thanks to me) is him putting the guitar down. The guitar's a lot of things, but one of them is a barrier. When you put that guitar down, it's a more intimate relationship."
Bruce slowly and slyly lowered his guitar to the floor as Stevie continued: "[Bruce] reached inside himself and started to transform himself into this performer, and it was just remarkable. We played The Bottom Line… and suddenly my friend who used to be very shy and retiring is now walking on the tables and kicking people's food over!
"And at the same time, the band transformed. If you look at the pictures of the band on the first two records, they got short pants on and bathing suits. And then suddenly the band is in suits! Me and Clarence got these pimp suits — it was a transformation and a half."
It was the beginning of the E Street Band in its best-known form, Bruce said. "Max and Roy auditioned along with 30 drummers and 30 keyboardists. We insisted that everyone could sing, so they had to audition as singers also. Max and Roy managed to squeak by that part and never sang again."
Having Stevie there was important, Bruce said, because he brought "a tremendous amount of joy" to offset a tremendous amount of anxiety from his initial success.
They talked about The River next, "a centerpiece of Steve's and my work together, when Steve officially became part of the production team. Steve had a lot of ideas about how the band should sound on record."
Stevie said that he figured out why '50s and '60s records sounded great but '70s records didn't. First, early rock drummers came out of jazz or took lessons from jazz drummers who taught them how to tune their drums. "This had become a lost art. So I had Max learn how to tune drums again."
Second, Steven realized that the older records featured drums with overhead mics, which captured the room sound. They needed the room sound, too. And they needed an engineer who understood how to capture room sounds.
Steven's wife Maureen knew a guy named Bob Clearmountain, who worked across the street from where they lived. He was about to do an Ian Hunter record, and Max was going to be on it. Stevie had Max do recon on how fast and good Bob was, and Max gave his stamp of approval. Soon enough, Bob joined the team and made a huge difference.
Next up: the European River tour and Steven's political epiphany. "Steve was all party all the time before then," Bruce noted. "Southside Johnny was all, 'No politics! Leave that shit out! This is supposed to be a respite from all that stuff.' But when we came back from that tour, a huge change began in Steve's aesthetic, and I believe that's when Little Steven was born."
Steven admitted it was a political awakening, and he became obsessed with what his country's government was doing overseas. "I started to feel like somebody should be talking about this. I grew up in the '60s, when everyone had a distinct identity. I thought maybe I'd be the political guy… and I left the band to do it."
And it mattered: Although Stevie talks about the commercial foolishness of his decision, the societal impact of it can't be overstated. Little Steven lost all fear and became twice as focused on politics, "because it was all I had. I had to make it count for something, because I'd just blown my life. It allowed me to go into some dangerous situations because I didn't have any fear at all anymore."
His work on "Sun City" and activism during those years raised American awareness about apartheid in South Africa and created a groundswell of support for American sanctions, leading to President Reagan's very first veto override when both Democrats and Republicans voted for it.
"That's how different the Republican party was in those days," Steve pointed out. "Republicans fought for Black people to be able to vote in South Africa. And now these days, of course, they're trying to keep American Black people from voting."
"A lot of important and good things came from Steve striking out on his own in 1984," Bruce noted. Steve agreed, adding, "Everything I've accomplished in my life has happened since I left the band. The second half of my life became a search for identity and purpose."
Steven got serious here, landing this next point with eloquence: "We all sooner or later have some disappointment in our lives and maybe hit that wall and think your life is over. But if you can hang in there, you might just find a way to move forward somehow. And don't numb yourself with dope or alcohol or commit suicide — all of which occurred to me. If you can find a way to overcome that moment and keep moving forward, destiny will surprise you and find a use for you."
Bruce offered, "I don't think Steve would have had the fullness of identity that he has now without having left the band at that time. When he came back, he came back as a different individual and had a much different and bigger place in our world and in his own. While it was difficult being apart and painful in many ways, I believe the overall picture was positive, great things that wouldn't have happened the same way."
The event had run long, though no one but the timekeepers had noticed. Although they'd planned on 20 minutes for Q&A, there was only time for a few questions.
The first one was one fans have wanted an answer to for decades: Bruce, did you write Bobby Jean for Steve? Alas, we'll have to keep waiting: "I will never tell," Bruce deflected. "You can make up your own mind on that one."
The final question came from the winner of the Backstreets raffle, Ed Nigro, whose winnings not only got him into the event but also the chance to ask this of Bruce and Steven: What's the impact of being able to create so much positivity with your work?
Stevie answered first: "We achieved a miracle…. In the end, it just makes us grateful. If we had to pinpoint one particular emotion, why do we exude such positivity and put such hope into our music, it's because we are grateful for the generations who came before us and taught us how to do this, and we're grateful to the audiences that found us in New Jersey. The older you get, the more you appreciate the miracle that our lives are."
Bruce added: "Our band is unique in that it's been a healthy place to be. We'll be out there in the world again next year, I hope. And I guarantee: if you bring your children and younger brothers and sisters or grandma for that matter, they're going to see the band at its peak.
"It's a wonderful thing to be able to say," Bruce continued, "and a wonderful thing to be able to share with your friend. And that's a promise. We got so much from doing what we've done. You [the audience] changed my life. Your love and appreciation and dedication and immersion in our idea of what the world could be is a gift to us. To be able to share this side-by-side with a great, great friend and the rest of your friends is simply one of God's great blessings."
That was as fitting a note as any to end the evening on. Bruce and Steven left the stage together and left the audience with a promise of a bright future still ahead. —Ken Rosen
To learn more about the efforts of TeachRock or donate to their mission — empowering teachers and engaging students by using popular music to create interdisciplinary, culturally responsive education materials for all 21st century classrooms — please visit TeachRock.org.
Setlist: I'll See You in My Dreams (solo acoustic)
Notes: Marking the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Bruce Springsteen was on hand at New York's 9/11 Memorial on Saturday morning, where many (including two presidents) gathered to commemorate the day and honor those lost. Suiting up in black for the occasion, Springsteen performed not a song from The Rising as some might have expected, but a fitting one from his latest — which also closed each of the 2021 Springsteen on Broadway performances — "I'll See You in My Dreams." dedicated to "our fallen brothers and sisters, their families, their friends, and their loved ones."
In the video above you can see see President and First Lady Joe and Dr. Jill Biden along with President Obama and First Lady Michelle at around 0:21, as well as scenes of One World Trade Center and Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9, the Midtown firehouse that lost more members than any other.
Setlist: Growin' Up / My Hometown / My Father's House / The Wish / Thunder Road / The Promised Land / Born in the U.S.A. / Tenth Avenue Freeze-out / Tougher Than the Rest* / Fire* / American Skin (41 Shots) / The Rising / Dancing in the Dark / Land of Hope and Dreams / I'll See You in My Dreams
Notes: Performance #30 and closing night. Standard 2021 setlist.
The closing show of a rock 'n' roll tour can be a spectacle to behold, often a wild and loose, anything-can-happen night full of guest stars, rarities, and one-last-time celebrations.
Broadway is a different animal, though. On Broadway, closing night means a chance to see the show at its most polished, the culmination of every lesson learned from every audience reaction throughout the run.
So for my return to Springsteen on Broadway for its closing weekend, September 3 and 4, I was eager to see if and how much the show had changed since I last saw it on June 26, Opening Night.
As it turns out, it changed a lot — and it didn't take long to realize that.
Let's start with the most obvious difference: both artist and audience entered and exited wearing a mask, and only Bruce got to take his off in between. On Night 1, Bruce welcomed us with a satisfied remark about how wonderful it was to see a full house of full faces; on Night 31, he thanked us for keeping our masks on to protect each other.
The script had grown, too: Bruce provided more color, more detail, more humor, and more intimate information (If you find yourself unable to sleep through the night without getting up five times to pee, you apparently have Springsteen solidarity).
But the script additions did not come with a run-time extension, which meant that Bruce talked fast. I mean, really fast. Disconcertingly fast. And even impressively fast — I was amazed he never once tripped over his own tongue. It was a far cry from the relaxed exhale that was Opening Night.
In my original review from Night 1, I noted that the seams between the original run and the 2021 edition were obvious: the 2017-'18 engagement featured Bruce in stage actor mode, playing the role and speaking in the voice and style of his autobiography's narrator, performing before but not interacting with his audience. In contrast, the first show of the 2021 run was more conversational and colloquial —for the new elements, at least. I found Bruce's switch in voices throughout the show to be a little jarring, and I noted at the time it might have been more aptly titled, Bruce Springsteen Performs Selections from Springsteen on Broadway.
September 4, 2021 - Photograph by Adam Jaffe
The good news is that those seams were invisible by closing night. At some point during the run, Bruce must have considered and corrected the incongruity, because his final two shows were a full return to his original Broadway form and voice. I have to confess being a little disappointed by that, because reverting the show back to a full theater piece meant jettisoning the audience interaction. I found myself missing his gruff "Shut the fuck up!" admonishments (and goodness knows, they were certainly called for each of the last two nights), but it felt like the right artistic call in the end.
Speaking of artistic decisions: well over half of the songs featured new musical and/or vocal arrangements, and my reactions to them were decidedly mixed.
Several songs in the show's first half ("My Father's House" and "The Promised Land," for example) now featured half-spoken vocals and a subdued, inconsistent, and at times almost idle guitar accompaniment, as if Bruce were lost in thought rather than performing. (This was more pronounced on Friday night; on Saturday, "My Father's House" had moved to some kind of middle ground.)
I can imagine why Bruce made those decisions, though, as the style allowed him to inflect and intone with more clarity and emphasis — there was no way a casual listener could miss the meaning in some of his most important songs. "Born in the U.S.A." in particular had finally become the talking blues it always seemed destined to become, and if Bruce had originally released it as he played it on closing night, not a soul on the planet would have misunderstood it. (Of course, it also never would have charted. Such is the dilemma of a serious songwriter.)
But on songs like "The Promised Land" and "Thunder Road," where I longed to sing along even if in my head, or "My Father's House," on my mind since my father passed away a few weeks ago, I sorely missed Bruce's consistent, warm, and healing vocals from opening night.
The change that made my heart sink was the one he made uptown. On opening night, Bruce played "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" in such a powerful piano and vocal performance that it might as well have been the full band up there — that's how much power it packed. It was a full-on, celebratory release that, for just a moment, transported us from the St. James to San Siro, and it was one of the highlights of the night for me.
This weekend, though, Bruce performed the story of his band in a quieter, nostalgic, and tender arrangement, his piano accompaniment as subdued as his guitar had been. Again, it may have been the right artistic choice to fit the night's reflective theme, but oh, how I was hoping for a repeat of "The Tenth" as I'd known it.
Patti's entrance meant that we were soon to hear the first of the new songs Bruce had added for the revival, and I was curious to see how they'd evolved over the course of the run. What I didn't expect was the degree to which Bruce and Patti's always palpable chemistry had elevated their segment — their duets had risen to an entirely new level.
On both Friday and Saturday nights, "Tougher Than the Rest" was finer than I'd ever seen them perform it. "Tougher" is always a highlight when they perform it as a duet — it's a song that is loaded and laden with meaning for them, both in genesis and performance. But this time they performed it in unbreakable communion. For those of us close enough to see their raised eyebrows, half-grins, and every other facial expression that accompanied their locked eyes… I'm telling you, that song was emotionally subtitled.
And then: "Fire."
I had a feeling this one was going to be stronger. The duet debuted on opening night was a revelation for me, completely changing the meaning and power dynamic of the song. But their performance also seemed just a bit tentative that first night, like a work still in progress. Turns out it was.
The song now featured a new spoken introduction revealing that not only had Bruce written "Fire" for Elvis Presley, he'd been inspired by The King's movies and — revisionist history or not — imagined it performed as a duet with Ann-Margret. That set the stage for a more confident, sexier version of "Fire" than the one debuted in June, and while still a duet, Patti quickly assumed the driver's seat — at one point even playfully hushing her husband with a finger on his lips. This "Fire" had heat."
American Skin (41 Shots)" was just as powerful as I remembered it; what surprised me was the majesty of "The Rising." Bruce's performance Friday night was the single best version of "The Rising" that I've seen, and I have seen a lot. His tender reading conveyed more nuance and emotion than I've ever heard him accomplish — every bit as effective as his earlier half-spoken songs but without compromising his soaring vocals, which may have been at their peak in this moment across both nights.
Bruce carried that momentum into the home stretch. I will argue until my dying day that, even more than the opening drum roll and riff of "Born to Run," there is nothing across Bruce's entire catalog as galvanizing and thrilling as the opening bars of "Land of Hope and Dreams." I am pleased to report that the song remains as jubilant and electrifying as ever when he launches into it from "Dancing in the Dark" — even acoustically. I would have paid those crazy Broadway ticket prices just for that one song each night.
After Bruce acknowledged the applause and returned to the microphone, I found myself holding my breath. On opening night, he wept throughout his epilogue, overcome with emotion after an evening of visitation with his departed ghosts. His voice quavered and broke, and tears streamed continuously. It remains — and likely always will — the most powerful moment of theater I have ever witnessed.
Last night, though, Bruce seemed at peace. Although it was clear in his speech and on his face just how much these 31 nights of visitations with family and friends vanished and gone had meant to him, they seem to have given him solace and comfort. There were no closing-night regrets written on his face, and not a single visible tear on either night. He seemed content with the imminent conclusion of his summer job.
Bruce's final performance of "I'll See You in My Dreams" was almost desperate in its urgency. Bending forward on one knee at the song's pivotal line, he underscored "For death is not the end!" It was both promise and defiance, his eyes saying what his voice couldn't.
And with that pledge, Bruce bid farewell to his ghosts and — at least for now — to us.
The conclusion of Springsteen on Broadway closes the book on a remarkably intimate and brave chapter of Bruce's career, the story of an immortal legend coming to terms with his human mortality by deconstructing himself and his life in full public view. I don't believe we've ever seen anything like it, and I'm not sure we ever will again.
I've long ago given up trying to predict what Bruce Springsteen will do next — I was never any good at it, anyway. But if history is any guide, whatever the future brings either his way or ours, our faithful traveling companion will help us make sense of it.
Thanks for welcoming us back into your life and ours, Bruce.
The road is long and seeming without end. We'll see you up it.
Setlist: Growin' Up / My Hometown / My Father's House / The Wish / Thunder Road / The Promised Land / Born in the U.S.A. / Tenth Avenue Freeze-out / Tougher Than the Rest* / Fire* / American Skin (41 Shots) / The Rising / Dancing in the Dark / Land of Hope and Dreams / I'll See You in My Dreams
Notes: Performance #29. Standard 2021 setlist.
Setlist: Growin' Up / My Hometown / My Father's House / The Wish / Thunder Road / The Promised Land / Born in the U.S.A. / Tenth Avenue Freeze-out / Tougher Than the Rest* / Fire* / American Skin (41 Shots) / The Rising / Dancing in the Dark / Land of Hope and Dreams / I'll See You in My Dreams
Notes: Performance #28. Standard 2021 setlist.
In the Crowd: Jake Clemons, Eddie Vedder
Notes: Performance #27. Standard 2021 setlist.
Notes: Performance #26. Standard 2021 setlist.
Notes: Performance #25. Standard 2021 setlist. According to Patti Scialfa, this show was filmed.
In the Crowd: Walter Cichon's sons David and Bryan Cichon, on what would have been their father's 75th birthday. Bryan posted about the show on Facebook, writing in part that it was "a musical celebration of a life and a man I never got to know but that I now know better thanks to Bruce and his memories. Our Dad lives on through one of the greatest rock and rollers, storytellers, and men of our time. He has been immortalized."
Notes: Performance #24. Standard 2021 setlist.
Notes: Performance #23. Standard 2021 setlist.
Notes: Performance #22. Standard 2021 setlist.
Notes: Performance #21. Standard 2021 setlist, with Patti returning after her absence from the previous show. Bruce Springsteen's first public comment regarding the terrible news of the Rolling Stones drummer's death came at the end of the Springsteen on Broadway performance: "God bless Charlie Watts," Bruce added to his usual farewell salute to his audience.
It was a "highly emotional" performance from Springsteen, says photographer Michael Zorn, who attended the show and shares a few shots with us here.
"Bruce was wiping away tears at many moments during the show," Zorn says, naming 'My Father's House,' and 'The Wish,' as well as when Bruce "talked about visiting with Clarence and Danny, and Walter and Ray, every night."
Of course, moments of levity balanced it all out — especially when Bruce talked about getting busted for a shot in the park. "The absolute worst words you can possibly hear: 'The United States of America vs. Bruce Springsteen.' At that point, you know you've fucked up. You have the whole United States pissed at you, thinking, 'Oh, yeah, this fucker did something bad.'
"It was good tequila, though."
And it's not just National Parks — some words of advice for anyone visiting his hometown: "Freehold police will bust anyone. Don't fuck around, because they don't fuck around — take my word for it."
And because it can't be said enough, God bless Charlie Watts.
In the Crowd: Olympic silver medalist Jessica Springsteen; rock critic, author, and 2019 Piedmont Laureate Emeritus David Menconi
Setlist: Growin' Up / My Hometown / My Father's House / The Wish / Thunder Road / The Promised Land / Born in the U.S.A. / Tenth Avenue Freeze-out / Fire / American Skin (41 Shots) / The Rising / Dancing in the Dark / Land of Hope and Dreams / I'll See You in My Dreams
Notes: Performance #20. The setlist changes for the first time in 2021, with Patti Scialfa's first absence of the run; Springsteen leaves out "Tougher Than the Rest," and invites the audience to sing along on "Fire."
Notes: Performance #19. Standard 2021 setlist.
Notes: Performance #18. Standard 2021 setlist.
Notes: The dog days are over: after a month of summer vacation, Springsteen on Broadway resumes. Performance #17 begins the final 2021 run, three more weeks of performances at the St. James Theatre.
With new Covid precautionary measures requiring all in the building to wear a mask, Bruce Springsteen wore a black one himself as he took the stage, removing it shortly thereafter to begin the performance. Before "My Hometown," he thanked the audience for remaining masked up.
Despite apparently having a mild case of the sniffles, Springsteen sounded terrific. Unsurprisingly, though he peppered in a few new jokes, there were no significant changes to the show — the 2021-model setlist has remained the same since opening night on June 24.
He did, however, choose one recent news item to react to — a certain lyrical debate that peaked just as Springsteen on Broadway went on break. After singing the first line of "Thunder Road" — "The screen door slams, Mary's dress sways" — Bruce took a dramatic pause before repeating that last word, speaking it loudly and clearly: "Sways." Having weighed in, siding with Jon Landau's "definitive answer" in the New Yorker, Springsteen carried right on with the performance. Just as many unswayed "waves" proponents will carry on trusting the art rather than the artist on this particular subject.
Presumably because of the heightened Covid precautions, Springsteen remained socially distanced from the front row rather than shaking hands as he typically has, but he had more kisses than usual to blow to the audience. And, of course, some waves.
Notes: Performance #16. Standard 2021 setlist. Last show before a month-long break in the schedule.
In the Crowd: Danny DeVito
Notes: Performance #15. Standard 2021 setlist.
In the Crowd: E Street/Sessions Band/Disciples of Soul trombonist Clark Gayton, John Mellencamp
Notes: Performance #14. Standard 2021 setlist.
In the Crowd: Garry Tallent, Pam Springsteen
Notes: Performance #13. Standard 2021 setlist.
In the Crowd: Garry Tallent, Lauren Jenkins
Notes: Performance #12. Standard 2021 setlist. "Night 12 featured a very loose Bruce, in fine voice and playful mood, racing (arguably even rushing) through many of the early stories, which were punctuated by an especially high number of F-bombs ('FUCK green beans!). This loose tone and surprising velocity (also notable on a speedy 'My Hometown') only made the moments where the show really slowed down feel more momentous, as when Bruce spoke (rather than sang) key lines in 'My Father's House' and 'The Wish.' Nor did the show stint on emotion: Bruce wiped away tears at several points during the night, and the performances of 'The Promised Land' and 'American Skin (41 Shots)' were exceptionally powerful. His humor was in full force as well, with an extended version of the bit about being arrested for 'moving after dark,' accusing the audience of being full of would-be 'night-movers' and calling back to his earlier comments on his 2021 arrest, joking: 'I'm working on a theme!'
"A few arrangement notes (not necessarily unique to this night): 'Tenth Avenue Freeze-out' was performed with slightly slowed down and simplified piano accompaniment, bringing out Bruce's soulful vocals and the song's elegiac role in the show. Similarly, the arrangement for 'Dancing In The Dark' has been adjusted away from the hard-strumming acoustic rock version of recent years to a tenser, somewhat quieter guitar accompaniment. Perhaps as a result, a full break occurred between that song and the still-hard-charging 'Land of Hope and Dreams,' in a shift from the first run's combined arrangement. A night of emotional twists and turns, often powerful, at times slightly jarring — but an absolute joy to see Bruce back chasing that one plus one equals three." —Jake Romanow
Notes: Performance #11. Standard 2021 setlist.
Notes: Performance #10. Standard 2021 setlist.
Notes: Performance #9. Standard 2021 setlist. "At the end of the pre-'My Hometown' arrest story, Bruce mentioned his lawyer was in attendance. During the intro to 'The Wish' (which predictably destroyed me) a persistent police siren could be heard outside the theater, inspiring Bruce to stop, take a beat, and say, 'I think the fuckers are coming to take me again!' The audience exploded with applause." —J.W.
In the Crowd: According to Springsteen, his lawyer.
Notes: Performance #8. Standard 2021 setlist.
In the Crowd: Jake Clemons
Notes: Performance #7. Standard 2021 setlist. "An especially powerful, emotional night. Bruce, in top form, cried several times during the show. He first did so at the conclusion of 'My Father's House,' when he turned his back to the audience and wiped away tears. As he spoke of his love for his mom during the intro to the next song, 'The Wish,' his voice cracked; he paused and wiped away more tears. He wept a third time during his intro to 'Born in the U.S.A.,' as he talked of his fondness for two of his mentors, the Motifs' Cichon brothers, one of whom went missing in the VIetnam War and was presumed killed there, and Castilles drummer Bart Haynes, who also was killed in Vietnam. Tears came a final time during Bruce's touching intro to 'I'll See You in My Dreams." Tears aside — and many in the audience cried more than Bruce did — Bruce introduced 'Fire' differently from previous nights, saying he wrote the song for Elvis Presley in hopes he'd sing the song to Ann-Margret in one of his movies. Another unusual bit: During 'Dancing in the Dark,' after singing the line 'You sit around gettin' older,' he sarcastically added 'and older and older' without guitar accompaniment, before reverting to the guitar and the song's original lyrics." — E.J.
In the Crowd: Dave Marsh
Notes: Performance #6. Standard 2021 setlist.
Notes: Performance #5. Standard 2021 setlist. "'Fire' is campier and more fun than ever. Audience clapping during 'Dancing' prompts Bruce to halt the song and half-jokingly say, 'You're gonna fuck me up," shutting down the clapping. The only tears tonight came from the audience, after a few nights of Bruce weeping during the emotional intro to 'I'll See You in My Dreams.'" — E.J.
Notes: Performance #4. Standard 2021 setlist. "After telling the story before 'The Promised Land' Bruce strung the bottom string of his guitar, and it just made this dud of a sound; he was surprised as the audience. At first we didn't know if he just strummed it wrong or needed to tune it himself, but he looked off to the side of the stage and said, 'It's panic time back there right now. Oh yes, it's panic time.' He smiled the whole time, and it took about 20 seconds before [guitar tech] Kevin Buell came out to bring him another guitar. Bruce said, 'Oh, they are going to remember this! The time when they were all in panic mode!' I don't know if he had the wrong guitar from the start or it just wasn't tuned properly, but it did make for a funny moment. On his DWI: 'I didn't wake up that morning and say to myself, "I want to see what the inside of a New Jersey jail looks like!"' When talking about his Dad, Bruce mentioned how his Dad had a bottle of Old Spice on the sink which always surprised him. Bruce said, 'I always wanted to get on that boat.'" —S.G.
Press: "Bruce Springsteen opens up about mom's Alzheimer's: 'Taken a lot away from us'" —today.com
Notes: Performance #3. Standard 2021 setlist. "Overall, I found this to be a compelling revival. It feels updated in an authentic way, the new songs work nicely, and I was glad to see him step away from the obligation of 'Born to Run' — didn't miss it all," J.P. tells us. "Bruce seemed to use the stage more, filling it out (as it's bigger than the Walter Kerr's). His voice sounds amazing: supple, powerful, and he used all of its attributes. I don't know what he's doing to maintain it, but it was particularly impressive. He did go off-script a few times, once to particularly great effect. He clearly loves what he's doing up there. As for me, I was most pleased, occasionally moved, occasionally really moved, and most important, it was a show where I felt like I was really concentrating. Maybe it's the break we all had? Maybe because I needed a big distraction? Perhaps. Mostly because it was smart and funny and sounded really great."
Notes: Performance #2 of Springsteen on Broadway 2021. "Another superb, dazzling, deeply moving show," E.J. tells us, with the same setlist as opening night and "slightly tweaked storytelling (the tree and the magic trick were prominently mentioned early in the performance)." "Fire" was slightly re-worked, with Bruce and Patti singing together from start to finish rather than trading verses as on Saturday. And a less-raucous crowd meant only one official "Shut the fuck up."
K.F. writes: "I've seen both versions of the show. As Ken Rosen wrote, the original flowed a bit more smoothly. I liked the changes, but I also missed what he left out (unfortunately he can't go on for four hours, so I totally understand.) I don't want to spoil the show for others so I'll leave it at that. But this version was flowing with even more emotion than the original. He's older now, almost 72, and his introspection, perspective on life, and understanding of his mortality all increased the emotional level significantly."
In the Crowd: Barbara Carr, Dave Marsh, Bob Seger
Notes: Opening night of Springsteen on Broadway 2021, and Springsteen's first public performance in its new venue, the St. James Theatre (246 W 44th St). Ken Rosen reported for Backstreets:
LIGHTS UP TONIGHT: SATURDAY'S RETURN OF SPRINGSTEEN ON BROADWAY — AND BROADWAY ITSELF
The tears started before Bruce Springsteen ever said a word.
Ecstatic applause welcoming him to the St. James Theatre stage would have gone on for minutes last night had Bruce not shut it right down, forcefully motioning the crowd to their seats with his hands as if he had the power to do so. (And it seems he did.)
"If you want to be a rock star…." he began, before immediately flinging his first, heartfelt, post-pandemic "Shut the fuck up!" to an audience that was understandably having trouble containing its enthusiasm. And just like that, all seemed right with the world.
Except, of course, that all wasn't right with the world — and that fact hovered over and infused the June 26 season premiere of Springsteen on Broadway.
More revival than reprise, the 2021 edition of Springsteen on Broadway follows the same plot, but the script has been extensively revised and updated along with several musical numbers new to the show.
That only stands to reason: the Broadway show wasn't just a story, it was his story. Three years on — Springsteen on Broadway originally ran for 236 performances in 2017 and 2018 — his story had grown. It's only natural that he'd have newfound perspective on his life and journey after the last year. Haven't we all?
Photograph by Matt Orel
None of us, Bruce included, imagined at the close of the original run that we'd be together again in such changed circumstances, and it's not something the artist could just brush off in performance. After all, we'd all entered the theater past a loud crowd of protesters who took issue with the theater's vaccination requirement for attendees, and we could still hear their chanting through the first two songs. Springsteen expressed empathy for them, acknowledging how understandable it is to be frightened and confused in the world we've found ourselves in.
Bruce ripped and replaced entire sections of the script in order to freshen the show, a fact that was evident from the start. Gone was the prologue about his magic trick and favorite tree (although awkwardly, both were referred to in the epilogue, just one of many places where the seams of Bruce's tailoring showed); tossed was the "Born to Run"/"I live ten minutes from my hometown" comic relief intro to "My Hometown."
Instead, Bruce addressed the events of the past year from both a personal and societal perspective, his personal lens often providing a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor. He acknowledged his arrest (which made waves at the beginning of this year, though charges for drunken and reckless driving were dismissed), confessed to his heinous crime, and walked us through his trip to "Zoom Court" for the case of "The United States vs. Bruce Springsteen" — words which were as strange for us to hear as they were for him. It was the comic highlight of the night, and it served as a great set-up for "My Hometown": "New Jersey — they love me there!"
His arrest became a bit of a running gag, in fact — when telling his familiar story of being stopped by the police in 1972 for moving his belongings after dark, Bruce quipped: "It's kinda my thing."
For most of the show, the songs were the same, and their scripted introductions addressed the same themes. Those of us who had seen Springsteen on Broadway before knew where Bruce was headed with each story, though their power was undiminished. The moment he first broke into song with the opening riff of "Growin' Up"… well, it was like the pivotal moment in The Wizard of Oz. As Bruce strummed those notes, all color returned to the world.
"My Father's House" and its accompanying story were as potent as ever — this was probably the segment that changed the least. But its companion segment about Bruce's mom was a reminder that time hadn't paused since the original Broadway run.
Bruce's mother, Adele, is now 95 and a decade in to Alzheimer's Disease. She can no longer talk, but she makes a particular noise when she sees Bruce that lets him know she recognizes him. She can no longer walk, but she rocks and leans toward him as if she can still dance. It must have been a harder piece to recite than in the previous run, but he did it with composure and grace, leading into "The Wish" with a simple and direct "I love her."
Bruce's vocals were in fine, warm form throughout — particularly breathtaking in "Thunder Road," which featured (I swear) a silent sing-along, and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," which threatened to transcend its acoustic arrangement at any moment and flat-out rock. Bruce's nod to the E Street Band always generated the most enthusiasm among theatre-goers, but with Little Steven in the house (he'd made a very noticeable entrance before the house lights dimmed), the applause was thunderous.
"Born in the U.S.A." was even more powerful than before, and his setup story this time focused less on Ron Kovic and more on Walter Cichon and Bart Haynes, his contemporaries lost to war.
Until this point in the show, the "setlist" (if we can call it that) was still the same as in the original run, but when Patti Scialfa took the stage, Bruce took us off-road. The pair still performed two duets together, and an unintentionally abridged "Tougher Than the Rest" ("Oops, I think forgot the last verse," he realized in time to circle back to it) was still the first. But where they used to perform "Brilliant Disguise" together, they now performed "Fire," setting it up with an acknowledgement of their 30th wedding anniversary.
Now, I'm "one of those ones," as a friend put it yesterday: I admit to growing more than a bit uncomfortable with the lyrics of "Fire" over the years, for the same reason that a song like "Baby, It's Cold Outside" has aged poorly. No means no. But "Fire" worked perfectly in this spot, because it was performed as a duet. Much like "Brilliant Disguise" (which it replaced in the show), "Fire" transforms when sung by two people instead of one, in this case becoming a song about the undeniable chemistry that brings them together despite all efforts to hide their desire. (I still missed "Brilliant Disguise.")
The surprises continued with the displacement of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" in favor of "American Skin (41 Shots)," the only one of the evening's substitutions I actually suspected might be coming, given the events of the last year.
From there, the show returned to its previous setlist, with "The Rising" still speaking for itself, and "Dancing in the Dark" still serving as a reminder to find our joys where we can.
"Land of Hope and Dreams," though… I struggle to find the words to describe the power of Bruce's performance last night. This has been my favorite Springsteen song since the first time I've heard it, and I've heard it many times in many arrangements. But never like this. Bruce summoned his warmest, purest, most passionate vocals of the night, with an arrangement that seemed like it couldn't have possibly been acoustic (though, of course, it was).
"Land of Hope and Dreams" was always the emotional climax of the show for me, but when Bruce sang it last night, it didn't just fill the theater — it filled the last four years.
I knew that "Born to Run" was coming next to close the show. Or at least, I thought I did. But Bruce had one last surprise in store for us, and I was completely unprepared for it. I think he might have been unprepared for it, too.
In his final spoken piece of the night, Springsteen expressed how thankful he was for the opportunity to perform his show again this summer, because it affords him the opportunity to visit with his father again on a nightly basis. That was his favorite part of the original run, he admitted — the nightly visitations with his ghosts. Not just his father, but with Clarence as well.
At this point, already teary-eyed, Springsteen's voice broke. As he named his ghosts — his father, Clarence, Danny, Walter, Bart, family members dead and gone — Bruce openly wept, sniffing and wiping his eyes. He concluded the piece with a simple but husky "I miss them," and we held our collective breaths (those of us who weren't audibly sobbing), willing Bruce the strength to get the words out.
And it occurred to me in that moment that while we'd often heard and seen Bruce speak and sing about his loss, we'd rarely seen him reveal his grief. On that stage last night, a human being surrendered to his grief in full public view, and it was the bravest thing I've ever seen anyone do on stage. And then he performed the final song the night: Letter to You's "I'll See You in My Dreams," which gave the show the emotional capstone it had always deserved.
The new finale was a breathtaking way to end an unforgettable evening, marred only by the awkward references to Bruce's "magic trick" and favorite tree that now had no antecedents, due to his heavy revisions for the new staging.
Based on opening night, Bruce's reappraisal of his Springsteen on Broadway book proves to be both the highlight and the challenge of this revival. Every one of the new and revised scripted segments were outstanding on their own. But the problem is that Springsteen on Broadway was written at a particular time, in a particular voice… and the author has lived more since then. The shift in voice and style often took me out of the moment, where the original held my rapt and full attention throughout. At times, it seemed like the show should have been titled, Bruce Springsteen Performs Selections from Springsteen on Broadway.
But even that, alone, would rightfully be cause for celebration, as Springsteen leads the way in relighting the lamps on Broadway after 15 dark months (as the New York Times reports today: "On Saturday, Springsteen on Broadway became the first full-length show to take the stage since the Covid-19 pandemic forced performances to shut down in March 2020.") And there's every reason to believe that, as this 31-show residency continues and Bruce gets his stage legs firmly under him once again, those seams I mentioned will be more and more difficult to detect.
As of its 2021 opening night, how does the new edition compare to the original Springsteen on Broadway? Less cohesive and rougher around the edges, but also far more emotionally powerful. As a work of art, the revival doesn't hold a candle to the original; as a rite of communion, it completely transcends it.
In the Crowd: Pete Buttigieg, David Fricke, Jon Landau, NJ Governor Phil Murphy, Ridley Scott, Steven Van Zandt, Brian Williams
Press: "Bruce Springsteen Reopens Broadway, Ushering In Theater's Return" —nytimes.com
"Bruce Springsteen turns the lights of Broadway back on. And the effect is electric." —washingtonpost.com
Notes: Preview #2 of Springsteen on Broadway 2021: Dress Rehearsal.
Notes: Preview #1 of Springsteen on Broadway 2021: Friends & Family. The first appearance in the set of "Fire," "American Skin (41 Shots)," and "I'll See You in My Dreams" (see June 26, opening night, for further details)
Notes: Nora Guthrie, Woody Guthrie's daughter, presented Bruce Springsteen with the 2021 Woody Guthrie Award Prize in person, while fans around the country could watch this virtual acceptance event online. The program was live-streamed from Springsteen's now-familiar Stone Hill Farms barn in Colts Neck, New Jersey, for members of the Woody Guthrie Center, located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and produced in conjunction with the Bruce Springsteen Archives & Center for American Music.
Nora, co-founder of the Guthrie Center, prefaced the handover with a knowledgeable and sincere appreciation of Bruce's work, its importance, and how she viewed his work through the lens of her father's influence. Visibly moved by Guthrie's tribute, Springsteen accepted the statue and gave her a big hug, and he began to speak of Woody's influence.
Nora and Bruce talked one-on-one, and their award "speeches" were casual and warm — hanging out at the bar, quite literally. Later, music historian Robert Santelli (who also hosts the Springsteen Archives' What's Up on E Street? online series) gently facilitated further conversation between the two, and then things were left to just Bruce, to play some music.
After the conversation, Bruce picked up the black Takamine and played four songs himself: two of his, two of Woody's.
"Tom Joad Pt. 2" — Guthrie's influential composition that Bruce had worked into his set a few times on his own Ghost of Tom Joad tour — was masterful and commanding.
"Woody's immigration song… our immigration laws are a mess to this day," was Springsteen's simple introduction to "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." Springsteen first played "Deportee" nearly 40 years ago; it's one he also hasn't sung since the Joad tour, and it was deeply moving — even, it seemed, for Bruce himself.
Segueing into his own material, Springsteen sang a version of "Across the Border" that even through a computer screen effectively conveyed the song's elements of, yes, hope and dreams. "The Ghost of Tom Joad" closed the set so perfectly you'd kick yourself for not realizing it was the only possible choice here. As a story, it never gets old; as a song, it serves as record and warning and faith and prayer. All of which can describe any number of Woody Guthrie songs.
Notes: Just over four years ago, on January 12, 2017, Bruce Springsteen performed a private show at the White House, a farewell concert for President Obama and Vice President Biden. For his final goodbye in the East Room, Bruce closed that 15-song performance with one of his most stirring compositions, "Land of Hope and Dreams."
On January 20, 2021, Springsteen played the song again — offered as a solemn "prayer" to welcome the newly inaugurated Joe Biden as our 46th President, and Kamala Harris, the nation's first woman Vice President. After the four years that passed between these two performances, it's hard to think of a moment when this couplet rang more true:
As the cold open for Celebrating America, "Land of Hope and Dreams" kicked off a 90-minute prime time special serving as a capstone to the day's official Inaugural events. In another instance of coming full circle, Springsteen performed live on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, just as he had 12 years ago for the Obama/Biden Inauguration in 2009.
A marked difference underscored our changed circumstance: this time, Springsteen appeared alone at the Memorial — no choir, no fellow music legends, not even an audience. But his old friend Tom Hanks was there, socially distanced and waiting in the wings to host the special. Despite the pandemic, Hanks and Springsteen both travelled to Washington DC to broadcast live on location (most of the night's appearances originated from other cities, many pre-taped).
"Good evening, America!" Springsteen greeted viewers across the nation (and around the world) in a coat and scarf, a familiar, battered Takamine acoustic around his neck. "I'm proud to be here in cold Washington DC tonight, and I want to offer this small prayer for our country."
The lack of a crowd shifted focus to just the performer and the still majesty of his surroundings, lights illuminating the empty Washington mall and its monuments. Laid just as bare as his venue, the message of "Land of Hope and Dreams" was most prominent over Springsteen's spare acoustic accompaniment. Echoing lightly in the space, many lyrics resonated in a completely new way as he sang such lines — written more than 20 years ago — as "Tomorrow there'll be sunshine / And all this darkness past."
"Land of Hope and Dreams," its title an apt description of "the country we carry in our hearts," has proven itself perhaps the sturdiest Springsteen song of the Reunion era. The first new composition he performed with the reunited E Street Band in 1999 became a statement of purpose for that tour, yet "Land of Hope and Dreams" went on to live many lives. It's been an encore staple for hundreds of E Street Band shows, and Bruce reworked the song for solo acoustic performances on the Devils & Dust tour and for the Sessions Band in 2006. It became such an integral part of the canon that, after years of availability only as a live recording (on 2001's Live in New York City), "Land of Hope and Dreams" was finally recorded and released in a studio version on 2012's Wrecking Ball.
As with the Celebrating America performance, Springsteen often reaches for the song on special occasions — for Jon Stewart's final Moment of Zen (on The Daily Show), for charity (at benefit concerts such as Flood Aid, Stand Up for Heroes, and The Concert for Sandy Relief), and for the sake of the Obama/Biden reelection campaign, at multiple rallies in 2012.
The aforementioned 2017 White House concert was a unique, one-off set, but it led directly to the Tony Award-winning, 236-show residency Springsteen on Broadway. Each night, the acoustic "Land of Hope and Dreams" held a place of honor at the end of the set, coming out of "Dancing in the Dark" with a summational benediction before the "Born to Run" finale.
In his Born to Run memoir, Springsteen described his intent behind "Land of Hope and Dreams" when he brought it to E Street Band tour rehearsals in 1999: "I wanted something new to start this new stage of the band's life with. 'Land of Hope' summed up a lot of what I wanted our band to be about and renewed our pledge to our audience, to point the way forward and, once again, become a living presence in our listeners' lives."
As bells of freedom ring a little more loudly this week, America embarks on its own journey of renewal. May the song serve this rededication just as well.
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