I could’ve gone home after “Jungleland” and been completely happy.
But the concert was only halfway over.
Bruce Springsteen and The Mighty E Street Band are in the stretch run of what is essentially a two-year globetrotting tour. While technically the Boss is promoting his latest album, January’s “Working on a Dream,” even the hardest working man in rock and roll realizes at this point that CD’s a clunker. Only two cuts appeared in the midst of a barnstorming, roof-shaking, foot-stomping, throat-searing, heart-stopping, joy-inducing set Monday night.
Instead, the “Working on a Dream” tour has morphed into an encore of the Reunion Tour from 1999-2000, when Bruce first put his legendary band back together after a decade apart. These last shows are a celebration of what this magnificent group has accomplished over the past three-plus decades, as each night Springsteen is playing one of his albums start to finish in the middle of the show.
Monday night it was “Born to Run,” and has a better pure rock and roll record ever been written? From the opening harmonica strains of “Thunder Road” to the final moan of “Jungleland,” it was impressed upon me once again that this album is just … perfection. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” in particular, stood out, as it strutted and shimmied with a force not captured on the original recording. And then they finish “Backstreets” and I’m thinking, “How could you top that side?” Oh, well, flip the record over and you start with, hello, “Born to Run”—and, as always, the crowd explodes beneath the full house lights. “Born to Run” kills live, but it’s usually held back for a set-closer or an encore; played this early takes the show to an emotional level early that then never really goes away.
“She’s the One” has always been a personal fave, so I was thrilled to hear it in person. “Meeting Across the River” was long forgotten by Springsteen for years, but hearing it now made me wonder how that could possibly happen. Bruce has a trumpeter, Curt Ramm, out with him right now, which I guess is what makes this sparse track doable. Ramm was a virtuoso all night, taking spotlight moments on “Tenth Avenue,” “Rosalita,” and “Pink Cadillac,” among others. “Meeting” was mesmerizing.
I first started listening to Bruce Springsteen around the turn of the decade—summer 2000, as best I can recall, right as the Reunion Tour was wrapping up. For the better part of nine years I’ve been kicking myself for not getting on board just a year or two earlier, so I could have caught one of those legendary shows. I was left with the DVD as consolation, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve watched it. One of the go-to tracks on those discs for me was “Jungleland,” and I figured I’d missed my chance, so oh well. When Monday night’s show was announced awhile back, I was on the fence about going—I was set to see Pearl Jam in Philly just two nights earlier; there’s the whole crappy-economy-and-$100-ticket-thing; and it’s a busy time of year for me.
On the other hand, I know the E Street Band isn’t going to be around forever. At the end of every leg for the past two years Springsteen fans speculate: “Is this it?” When the tour wraps in Buffalo in a few weeks, this could really be it. Bruce is now 60 years old, they’ve already lost Phantom Dan Federici, and the Big Man is toughing it out night in and night out. Though I’d seen Bruce three times prior, only one of those was with the band. This might have been my last shot. Nevertheless, I was conflicted. Right before the tickets went on sale, though, it was announced they would play “Born to Run” in its entirety. That meant one thing to me:
I bought the ticket.
Though I don’t have anything to compare it to, I thought the rendition Monday night was spectacular. Clarence crushed his solo, and Bruce threw everything into it, which to play this song the way it should—or at all—I guess you have to for it not to become melodrama. It’s such a massive cut, so stirring, building and exploding and ebbing and flowing. Then after going out and back again, giving each member of the band a chance to shine, it comes back to Bruce and that series of wails. Those visceral howls don’t just summarize the song, but the entire album; it’s like hearing everything in sequence turned those final moments into something more than they would have been otherwise.
After “Jungleland” concluded, Bruce brought the band to the front of the stage for a bow, acknowledging the men who helped save his career with one of the pinnacle albums in rock history. And then … the show must go on. It was only 9:35, after all!
“Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” was like a splash of cold water coming out of “Born to Run.” I do not understand why he chooses this particular song to break the spell, but whatever. It’s just a bridge to the next big moment of the show: the requests. This phenomenon started during the “Magic” tour; fans in the pit bring song requests on signs, and Bruce wanders around and collects about two dozen, sifting through them on stage looking for a handful that strike his fancy. I’d read about this online, of course, and thought it sounded cool, but it's a whole different level of awesome in person.
The first sign he stood in front of the mic stand Monday night was “Stand on It,” a deep cut from the “Tracks” box set; the crowd didn’t seem to know it, but the swinging rocker didn’t take long to sink in. At the end of the song—with the band still playing, mind you—Bruce calls out a key change and they move seamlessly into “Seven Nights to Rock,” a little moment that was one of my favorite in the show. Bruce always says the band is playing better than it ever has, and that sounds like so much hyperbole until you see with your own eyes how they change gears instantly and with almost no warning, literally without missing a beat. The request section closed out wonderfully with two crowd favorites: a fantastic muscular version of “Growin’ Up,” and rattling rendition of “Pink Cadillac,” bathing the crowd in the appropriate color.
The main set ended with a trio of big rockers: “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising” followed by the always-welcome “Badlands,” which if you held a gun to my head I’d probably say is my favorite Springsteen song.
The encore builds in room to remember Springsteen’s folk turn earlier this decade, with full-band versions of “Hard Time” (written in 1855, Bruce said) and “American Land,” the rollicking twanger that closed the Seeger Sessions shows in 2006. Though seemingly an odd fit with the rest of the E Street-heavy show, they both went over quite well, “American Land,” especially.
Speaking of going over, uh, well (understatement), “No Surrender” and “Dancing in the Dark” were both incredible, and pointedly demonstrate how hard-rocking the songs on “Born in the U.S.A.” really are when you strip away the awful synthesizers.
And I guess feeling he hadn’t quite wrung every ounce of emotion out of the crowd Monday night, Springsteen closed the show with two of the most joyous concert experiences of my life: “Rosalita” and “Higher and Higher.” “Rosie,” of course, needs no introduction; this, along with “Jungleland,” was another of the songs I’d always wanted to experience in person but thought I never would. It did not disappoint.
Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher” is a new addition to the set, brought back a couple weeks ago to close out Springsteen’s last Philadelphia Spectrum run. Prior to that, he hadn’t played it in more than 30 years, and after Monday I wonder what the heck took him so long. He’s played a bunch of covers on this tour, but I can’t imagine any being better than this. A true rock-and-roll revival, it left the crowd—me included—singing and smiling as we filed out of the arena.
• “Outlaw Pete” opened the show with an absolute thud. I hesitate to criticize since it was dedicated to Bruce’s cousin and tourmate who died last week, but, I’m sorry, this song sucks. The crowd greeted it with a collective “huh?” Not only that, but it’s so long, it steals stage time from TWO other potential choices. “Working on a Dream” isn’t much better, either. Like “Sunny Day,” my feeling is: If you have to encourage the crowd to sing along, Bruce, YOU shouldn’t be singing the song in the first place. See …
• “Hungry Heart” got the crowd going with the traditional first-verse singalong. Bruce continued a new tradition he started at Giants Stadium a few weeks ago where he walks the pit rail out toward the center of the arena floor, invoking his inner Bono. I was standing right under the main scoreboard, so he ended up about 15-20 feet from me, which was cool. He then crowd surfed back to the stage, and right before he got there he yelled “Big Man!” into the mic, signaling the sax solo. It was undeniably awesome.
• The band is doing this weird thing where they don’t actually leave the stage for an encore. After “Badlands” and “American Land,” they took their bows like they were going to exit, then just went back and picked up their instruments again and went at it.
• Springsteen was as active as ever. He worked the entire stage all night, making a giant sports arena feel like a little club. The guy works it like a man half his age. Amazing.
So, that’s it. If this tour really is IT for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, they'll leave the long and winding road in full command of their estimable powers.
And it feels right as you lock up the house
Turn out the lights and step out into the night …
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Prove It All Night
Working on a Dream
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Born to Run
She’s the One
Meeting Across the River
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
Stand on It
Seven Nights to Rock
Dancing in the Dark
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
(You’re Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher
Boss Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes