If anyone was questioning the value of what a $5,000 ticket looked and sounded like after his long Ticketmaster pricing debacle of dynamic pricing, on Thursday night, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band proved they were worth every penny.
On a tour that is taking them next to University Park, PA’s Bryce Jordan Center (March 18), Boston’s TD Garden (March 20), Buffalo’s KeyBank Center (March 23) Greensboro’s Coliseum (March 25) and Washington, D.C. and NYC before it European dates, Springsteen & Co.’s pre-St. Patty’s Day attack on Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center was, quite frankly, a rocking hoot, an epic holler sans any hint of pretense, and a rough-edged honorarium to lost friends and longtime band members.
The first thing that was noticeable about the top portion of the program was how songs I absolutely did not care for in their initial iteration – the 80s-slick “No Surrender,” the vanilla “Letter to You” and “Ghosts,” the sleek soul cover of The Commodores’ “Nightshift” from last year’s tepid R&B tribute Only the Strong Survive – were given new life and dog-eared edginess (the same crushing rocker effect is what made other recent Springsteen songs I have not cared for such as “Wrecking Ball” and the elegiac “The Rising” far more powerful and poignant now – they make more sense live).
In this live arena setting, “No Surrender” was emotively raw and energetically coiled – like a fast fist in the face. Newly defiant as such, those raving rockers and now-cutting ballads dovetailed handsomely into my favorite Bruce period – the Darkness on the Edge of Town material – of “Prove It All Night, “The Promised Land,” and a Tom Waits-ian “Candy’s Room,” the latter starting off ominously and pensive before turning into a churning combine of noise, rumbling rhythm and “Professor” Roy Bittan’s famously off-kilter piano plinks.
Richly rollicking and cascading rhythm – led by tom tom favoring, big band head, longtime E Street drummer Max Weinberg – is what made early Brooooooce material such as the Brecker Bros-like “Kitty’s Back” and the panicky R&B-Latin inspired “The E Street Shuffle” pop and roll. Springsteen and his consiglieri, guitarist Little Steven Van Zant, along with forever bassist Garry Talent and Weinberg surely knew that these were the songs that made Philadelphia first fall in love with New Jersey’s Asbury Park E Street crew, and played up their romantic stories and brotherly brio to the hilt.
Between those midnight moves and the next rhythmic rumbler “Backstreets” Springsteen & his E Street comrades managed to slip in a buoyant cover of reggae singer and songwriter Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped” – a longtime part of any E Street set back in the day – a fever pitched, honky tonking, rock and rolling “Johnny 99,” and the night’s most genuinely poignant slow song – an acoustic version of “Last Man Standing” with Barry Danielian on trumpet, that favored the tale of one of The Boss’ fallen brothers, The Castiles’ George Theiss. This 60s Jersey bar band was where the young singing harmonica playing Bruce Springsteen got his start, and its lyrics were inspired by Springsteen’s last meeting with Theiss – on the latter’s death bed.
“Snakeskin vest and a sharkskin suit, Cuban heels on your boots,
You kick in the band and side-by-side, You take the crowd on their mystery ride,
Knights of Columbus and the Fireman’s Ball, Friday night at the Union Hall
Black-leather clubs all along Route 9, You count the names of the missing as you count off time
Rock of ages lift me somehow, Somewhere high and hard and loud
Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd, I’m the last man standing now.”
Moving into rough-voiced and hearty renditions of his Patti Smith co-write “Because the Night,” the Phil Spector-meets-Bo Diddley-esque “She’s the One” and “Badlands” before the encore was a perfect celebration of all things Springsteen, past and present. I may not have loved an entire new Bruce Springsteen album since 2007’s Magic, but now, I am forced into having to go into re-listening mode.
The encore? It was nothing but a party, a celebration of silliness, soul and swagger that included everything from a Three Stooges routine between Van Zant and Springsteen on a sonorous and funky “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” blistering takes on “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run,” rugged re-considerations of his sleek 80s hits such as “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark,” an a tribute to everything E Street in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” where Springsteen tore open his shirt, ran throughout the audience and paid tribute to one-time E Street members now sadly deceased such as Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons – the latter whose every sax lick came alive when a leather jacketed Jake Clemons took a solo at the mic.
As for closing the night, E Street less and alone in the spotlight to the acoustic strains of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” ? Exquisite really.
Here’s the set list for Philly. See you in upstate PA on Saturday night.
- No Surrender
- Prove It All Night
- Letter to You
- The Promised Land
- Candy’s Room
- Kitty’s Back
- The E Street Shuffle
- Johnny 99
- Last Man Standing
- Because the Night
- She’s the One
- Wrecking Ball
- The Rising
- Thunder Road
- Born to Run
- Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
- Glory Days
- Dancing in the Dark (followed by band introductions)
- Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
- I’ll See You in My Dreams
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