By Brian Ives
At 66 years old, Bruce Springsteen is still looking for ways to top himself. On Tuesday (August 23), he kicked off a short string of U.S. stadium dates with the first night of a three show stand at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, playing his longest U.S. show ever, at 3 hours and 52 minutes.
And last night (August 25), he topped that, breaking the four hour mark with an epic show that saw him sharing the stage with new fans, old friends and celebrating a big birthday.
He and the E Street Band—bassist Garry Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg, pianist Roy Bittan, guitarist/singer Steven Van Zandt, singer/guitarist Patti Scialfa, and guitarist Nils Lofgren, along with guitarist/singer/violinst Soozie Tyrell, keyboardist Charles Giordano and saxophonist Jake Clemons—hit the stage in style at 8:01 pm, accompanied by a string section, opening with 1973’s classic “New York City Serenade” (which they also opened Tuesday’s show with). A slow—but beautiful—song that is more classic pop than rock and roll, it clocks in at about ten minutes, and isn’t the usual opening song. But Springsteen has conditioned his fans to expect the unexpected at his shows. Which wasn’t to say that he avoided the classics at this marathon concert.
From there, he launched into “Prove It All Night” and then reminded the audience that it was the 41st birthday of his breakthrough album, Born to Run; he then launched into “Night” from that record. He then dipped into his other “Born” album—1985’s Born in the U.S.A.—with the classic “No Surrender.”
Lest anyone thought that the show would be filled with nothing but ’70s and ’80s material, Springsteen fast forwarded to the title track of 2012’s Wrecking Ball, a song he wrote three years earlier, inspired by his final shows at Giants Stadium, which has since been demolished and replaced by MetLife Stadium. In 2009, “Wrecking Ball” felt like a bit of a novelty, trapped by its time, but seven years on, it reads as a defiant stance against ageism that seems to only value youth, and was greeted as a classic.
As is often the case at Springsteen’s shows, the vibe goes back and forth between fun and serious. And after “Wrecking Ball,” Springsteen yelled, “Let’s hear some party noises, Jersey!” From there: “Sherry Darling” and “Spirit in the Night.”
He started looking to the front of the general admission area for homemade signs with song requests, a tradition at his shows in recent years. He noticed one from Italy, and dedicated “My City of Ruins” to the country which has suffered greatly from an earthquake earlier this week.
He stuck with The Rising for the next song, and broke another one of his records: youngest onstage collaborator. As he’s done for years during “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” he pulled a child from the audience to perform with him; last night’s special guest was three years old, and yes, she knew the words, and after her solo vocal, she squeaked “Come on, E Street Band!” It was a big “Awwwwww” moment.
Another audience request was “Darkness on the Edge of Town”; after that, he read a sign from a fan who claimed to have attended 150 shows and never saw “Lost in the Flood.” “It’s your lucky day!” he announced, and began an incredibly intense version of the Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey classic.
From there, he went into 1980’s The River—this tour was, ostensibly, to celebrate that album, and at the tour’s beginning he played the entire thing (read our review of an earlier show on the tour here), but the tour has evolved and he only plays a few songs each night. “Hungry Heart” and “Out in the Street” featured the entire stadium on backing, and sometimes lead, vocals.
And then, he brought things to the present day with a few pointed songs, and invited Tom Morello onstage for another of his more recent classics, Wrecking Ball‘s “Death to My Hometown.” How does Springsteen manage to put out songs that hold up to his intimidating catalog, more than 40 years into his career? With songs that matter, and that speak to our time. Although the lyrics to “Death” could have been penned during many eras; when he sings of “the greedy thieves” who “destroyed our families, factories and they took our homes, and brought death to my hometown” it’s something that, sadly, hits as hard today as it would have 100 or 200 years ago, even if some of those “thieves” were in the audience sitting in luxury boxes at that moment.
Morello—who spent part of 2013 and 2014 as a touring guitarist in the E Street Band (read our review of his last show with the band here)—left the stage, replaced by the string section for “Jack of All Trades,” another Wrecking Ball number (and one that Morello played on, on the album). A song about a man working any job he could get, to support his family, he tells his wife “I’m a jack of all trades, honey, we’ll be all right.” “The banker man grows fat, working man grows thin, it happened before, it’ll happen again,” Bruce sang, and it sounded ominous, given that the setting was — of all things — a venue that bore the name of a major band, and that literally had a building called “Giants Stadium” demolished.
Morello returned for “American Skin (41 Shots).” A song that Springsteen started playing towards the end of his 2000 tour, it describes a fatal encounter between a police officer and an innocent man and was inspired by the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo; although half of the song is narrated— empathetically—from the view of the police office, it was incredibly controversial at the time; Springsteen was even booed at Madison Square Garden by part of the audience when he played it sixteen summers ago. Now, sadly, it seems less controversial. If any in the audience were offended, they kept mostly quiet.
Again, he brought the mood back up with favorites “Promised Land,” and two more River songs,”Cadillac Ranch” and “I’m a Rocker,” followed by “Tougher Than the Rest” (the only song he played from 1987’s Tunnel of Love, it displays the strong chemistry between he and Patti Scialfa). That song offered a chill moment, which was good because it was hours into the show, and the entire audience was on their feet for the next song, “Because the Night,” and then “The Rising,” the post-9/11 anthem which is still as powerful as it was when he performed it in 2002 and 2003, when the scars from that fateful day were much more raw.
Once again, Morello returned for “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a song that he covered with his band Rage Against the Machine back in 1997, and which re-framed Springsteen as a more radical artist to a younger audience who probably thought of him as their parents’ music. Springsteen and Morello, as always, perform the song as a duet (and perhaps they’ll reprise that tonight, as Morello’s current band, Prophets of Rage, play New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center, and Springsteen has the night off; check this space, we’re reviewing that show also). “Badlands” followed, and as always, was one of the biggest singalong moments of the night. Springsteen changed the arrangement of the song to highlight to lyrics, “We swore, forever friends… until the end.” It was more subtle than the “If you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here” rap he used to do during “My City of Ruins,” but was no less powerful. Everyone in the stadium surely has lost a loved one (or several) over the years.
From there, it was something of a victory lap: “Born to Run”—a Springsteen rocker designed for a stadium—was followed by “Dancing in the Dark,” and once again, he went to the audience looking for handmade signs by people looking to dance on stage, Courteney Cox style. One young lady got the dance pass by asking, “Let me show Garry my Talent,” and another asked to dance with Van Zandt “the original mobster.” Two children joined the band, and as a bonus, they both got to play Springsteen’s acoustic guitars. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out”—which, today, pays tribute to late E Streeters Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici—was next.
“IS ANYBODY ALIVE OUT THERE?” As he closed in on the four hour mark, Springsteen showed no sign of slowing down, and neither did the audience. “IS IT TOO HOT FOR YA?” It probably would have been on any other night: it was near midnight, it was 80+ degrees, and humid as hell, but no one cared. And so, “Shout” rocked the tens of thousands of fans. “Thunder Road” followed and then Bruce ended with Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl.” It wasn’t quite his usual version: two fans got engaged, on stage, during the song. It was followed by, appropriately, fireworks.
There’s a few more stadium shows on this tour; check the dates here. Springsteen has said that his next project will be more of a solo acoustic one, and there’s a good chance that his next tour will be as well (also, it seems logical that the next album that he revisits via expanded box set would be 1982’s solo acoustic Nebraska). Springsteen is about a month away from his 67th birthday, and if he does a full tour to promote his next release, it could well be a few years before the E Street Band tour again (if they ever do).
And allow me a few words about the mighty men and women of the E Street Band: they’re still one of the best that you’ll ever see. I mentioned Patti Scialfa and Bruce’s rapport, but he shares moments with most of the members of the band throughout the night. Jake Clemons makes his Uncle Clarence—and the entire great state of New Jersey—proud with every note from his horn. His playing, his charisma, and yes, his name all add up to being a worthy successor to rock’s most iconic sax-man. Nils Lofgren remains one of the most underrated guitarists in rock; who else can boast “best guitar solo of the night” during a night that Tom Morello was on the same stage? But Nils blew minds with his “Youngstown” solo. Steven Van Zandt, as ever, is the perfect consigliere; often hanging back, but occasionally adding the perfect guitar line or counter vocal. The iconography of Bruce and Steven sharing a mic is still just as powerful, four decades after Van Zandt joined the band.
But let’s give one man his own paragraph. Because, there’s two keyboards on stage. There lots of singers. There’s lots of guitar strings. But only one man has no backup and literally cannot miss a beat. So, let’s give it up to the mighty Max Weinberg, the man propelling the engine of E Street with his powerful and graceful drumming. A little over four decades after joining the band, he’s still a powerhouse able to keep time through a four hour show.
So, if you’ve been thinking of seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, get to one of these shows, you won’t regret it. On the other hand, maybe I’m just being alarmist, maybe this won’t be their last tour. After all, Springsteen could probably tour well into his 70s and 80s, with the E Street Band behind him; they may just have to scale down the shows to two hours.