Back in the day, I used to have my circuit of Greenwich Village, the route I would take as a teenager to visit the various record stores. Each of them had their strengths and weaknesses, some had the bootleg records in the main section, others you had to ask behind the counter specifically, which I guess was to protect them from getting busted. Some would let you listen first, others wouldn’t, and it was at one of the latter that I picked up a bootleg that had “The Iceman” on it. It wasn’t labeled, had no cover art, and I took a big chance with my 15-year-old babysitting money when the guy behind the counter told me that it was amazing and that “any real Springsteen fan” had to have it. “Iceman” was on there, along with “Rendezvous” and “Taxi Cab” and in those pre-internet years, it was like owning some kind of Holy Grail. At some point, between moves and roommates the record got lost (or borrowed) and I’d forgotten all about it until Tracks came out and suddenly those long-lost songs were there again. It was like running into old friends you’d lost touch with.
So, when Bruce came out last night and out of absolutely nowhere–it wasn’t even in soundcheck spoiler reports–starts playing “The Iceman”–I was absolutely immersed into that sense of deja vu, taken back to the imaginary Springsteen concerts I’d attend in my teenage mind. It was spectacular, and immense, and pretty much perfect. The stage was dark, tiny pin spotlights on Bruce and Roy, hazy light on the singers and Charlie. It took a lot of guts to come out and hit a Saturday night crowd with a song 90% of them wouldn’t even know, especially one that required as much attention and tension as that one. There were deep breaths. There were quiet fist bumps. There were a lot of “Holy @#$%!” But mostly, it was just reveling in the magnificent performance of that particular song.
And then, lights back up, and I finally get to hear “High Hopes” and “Just Like Fire Would,” I finally get to see Tom Morello as part of the E Street Band. Those songs are fabulous exemplars of this version of the E Street Band as a well-oiled machine. There wasn’t a missed note, there wasn’t a slip, it was hard and driving and absolutely perfect. I love the intro of “High Hopes,” how it’s been deconstructed a little from the album, I love that bridge before the last refrain, Morello playing a riff straight out of Achtung Baby and then Bruce stepping to the mic to count down: “1! 2! 3! 4!” before the last instrumental refrain.
“Cadillac Ranch,” up next was absolutely and perfectly well-placed, “woods of Caroline” and all, and complete with cheesy choreographed moves at the front of the stage. All that was missing was that giant cowboy hat with HOBOKEN on it.
And then Bruce pulls a sign for “Louie Louie” out of the crowd and the little bubble of perfection dissolved.
I realize the E Street Band is the world’s greatest bar band and I will defend to the death their ability to be able to play anything on a dime. I like the opportunity for chaos and unpredictability. But I don’t like covers in a set four songs in. I like covers in the encore. I like covers later in the set. That said, the actual setlist as originally written was not all that exciting either, and I’m guessing that Bruce was hoping for the signs to liberate him. The problem was that the signs right down front were too complicated (“Incident”) or didn’t fit the emotional arc (the GIGANTIC “For You” sign that blocked my view of the center platform nonstop all evening, thanks ever so much). So we get “Louie Louie” and then “Mustang Sally” (I should note that the sign was basically the logo of the bar near Madison Square Garden that shares the same name), notable for the horn section and how Eddie Manion conducted the horns through the initial verse or two before, as usual, the professionals that they are, they snapped right into place. The background singers were having a great time, Charlie got a solo, and the crowd ate it up–even the security guard near us was singing along to “Mustang Sally.” And it was that great opportunity to watch Bruce be a band leader. But I would’ve traded it all for “Frankie Fell In Love.”
“Badlands” was the right call, and got us back on track (or so I hoped) and “No Surrender” for the teenage girls in the front was great. Bruce had to go into the side section to get a sign for “Out In The Street” (which had been on the setlist anyway), and then “Hungry Heart” and Bruce’s security rushes into the pit to make sure he can actually crowdsurf. (It was pretty touch and go there for a while, and my comment on the video I took was, “This isn’t going to end well.”) He gathered what seemed like every sign in the pit during the crowdsurf, and that’s what got us “From Small Things..,” dedicated “to the lady from Mahwah.”
It might seem impossible to be frustrated by the choice of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” next, and Bruce had a good time and did a fantastic Van Morrison imitation. My problem is that I’d take any Springsteen original just about any day over a cover song, especially when there’s a new album Bruce has told us repeatedly that he’s proud of, but is still under-represented in the set, and on a day when he’s released four additional brand new songs. (“American Beauty” was soundchecked, too.)
I was grateful for “Racing In The Street” in more ways than one. It was beautiful, just beautiful. Roy’s playing on this song never disappoints, and tonight his solo was warm, complex and melodical. “Jack of All Trades” was surprising, and the Morello solo was outstanding. This was the stretch where Morello really got to shine, “Wrecking Ball” and “Death To My Hometown,” watching Tom and Bruce sharing the mic for the last verse. It was odd to get used to seeing him up there, and seeing Nils on the other side of the stage, but I enjoyed the opportunities to watch Nils and Garry interact throughout the show.
Also of note was the shirt Bruce was wearing tonight, army green with red epaulets on the shoulder. My first comment was, “Did he lose his luggage and had to borrow something from Tommy?” I love Morello and I love that Bruce is inspired by him, and I’m happy to have him in the band, but my god the punk rock deities must roll over in their grave every night when he puts on an acoustic guitar for the intro to “Sunny Day,” which is both quite possibly the funniest and the most horrifying thing ever.
Morello started bouncing on his toes at the opening notes of “My Love Will Not Let You Down.” “Shackled and Drawn” is starting to feel a little worn around the edges but tonight Bruce spruced it up by letting Cindy have an extended interlude, exhorting the crowd, getting everyone up on their feet and their hands in the air. I worried we wouldn’t get “Ghost of Tom Joad” tonight, but did we ever: it was dark, deep, and incredibly fierce. “Light of Day” would be another prime selection in the right direction, Bruce opening by bashing his guitar against the mic stand for feedback, peering out at the crowd, waiting for response.
He began the encore by talking about the covers he’d played earlier, but didn’t get to finish the thought–instead, Bruce plucked another sign from the crowd, “DARKNESS (for Spanish Fans)”. This prompted a comment about all the fans from abroad who were in the crowd. Now, I love going to Europe and have a lot of European fans I count as friends, several who were here tonight. But I also enjoyed that this comment was met by a “USA! USA!” chant from the crowd.
Bruce then began to speak movingly and very personally about his life as a young musician in the 60′s, how that he never even knew anyone who was in the music business, that when he signed his record contract, neither he nor any member of the E Street Band had even been on an airplane. (He’s told that story several times recently, because he’s trying to make a point about how distant the world in New Jersey could be even from New York City.) This transitioned into his remembrances of the Cichon brothers, and “what they meant to our neighborhood, to our town, to that thing inside of you that felt that the best should get their shot.” He then dedicated it “to our veterans…this is a short prayer for my country.”
The pairing of “The Wall” and “Born In The USA”–especially the version of BITUSA that was played Saturday night–is one of the most pointed and most directly bitingly political that I think I’ve ever seen, and definitely one of the most direct I’ve ever heard. “The Wall” live has so much more life and spirit than it does on record, and the transition into BITUSA is a double-whammy the likes of which few others can execute. Morello got the solo in this one, too, and it was just as dark and intense. It was just breathtaking, especially the interaction between Tom and Bruce in that number particularly.
And then–”1, 2″ and houselights and we’re back in party time, the usual encore territory. I still wish “Dancing” would go, I’m still happy that “10th” is around, and “Shout” down South was an absolute delight. Quite seriously, they were dancing in the very last rows of the very upper level.
The band left the stage and the pump organ came to the front, as Bruce sat there and spoke, going back to his refrain of “The older you get, the more it means,” and thanking the audience for “your support and faith in our music and our work. You have given us great joy,” before magically capturing a crowd that probably wanted to beat the traffic and get home to pay the babysitter with a beautiful, expansive “Dream Baby Dream.”
“The E Street Band loves you,” one of my favorite slogans ever in the history of life, and with a wave, the evening ended. Not perfect, but pretty damn close, and that’s more than good enough.
I also wrote the Notes From The Road on brucespringsteen.net.