Bruce Springsteen’s handwritten setlist for his show in Richmond last night reveals we were narrowly spared a performance of “Drive All Night,” a strong contender for the worst song Bruce Springsteen has ever put on a an E Street Band album. The Boss disagrees: As he told a sign-waving fan at the start of the hour of encores in that swelled last night’s show to 185 minutes, “We’re all in agreement ["Crush on You"] is the worst song we’ve ever put on a record.” He went on to say he stole the riff from “Car 54, Where Are You?” and that the band definitely didn’t know the song. He huddled with trusted lieutenant “Little” Steven “Silvio Dante” Van Zandt. “There’s no bridge, right?” he asked.
The version of “Crush on You” (sample lyric: “She might be an heiress to Rockefeller / She’s probably a waitress or a bank teller”) that followed was rough and rowdy and glorious, but Bruce’s exchange with the (apparently non-English-speaking) fan who requested it was just as great, so let’s hear some more: “That’s your favorite song?” Jesus. How old are you?”
“Crush on Yoooouuuu!” says the girl cheerfully.
“Yep. How old are you?”
“Crush on yooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuu!”
It was only the most jaw-dropping example of Bruce’s newfound obsequiousness. Since the Magic tour shifted from arenas to (predominantly European) stadiums this year, the show has morphed away from the sober political lament that Bruce brought to the Phone Booth for two nights last November. Last night’s show was nearly an hour longer than either of the two DC appearances, featured only five numbers from Magic despite its Springsteenian-of-old duration. Twenty-eight songs, something like a quarter of them actually selected by the audience, via those signs: “Stand on It.” “Cadillac Ranch.” “Backstreets.” “I’ll Work for Your Love.” “Crush on You.” “Quarter to Three.” And “Rosalita,” though he appears to have been playing that one already this leg. But still!
I’ve read that Bruce has sometimes become visibly irritated by the presence of the signs on prior tours, but on this final stretch of the Magic run, they almost seemed to be the show’s raison d’etre. Certainly, there was more life in the unscripted portions of last night’s show than in the segments where Bruce eventually steered it back to the Magic template as established last fall.
Bruce usually begins tours with a specific theme in mind. You can expect most of the new record plus a smattering of catalogue tracks, culled with great care from his back pages to support the thesis advanced by the new material. It usually takes a few weeks for the setlist to start to move around more than five or six songs per night. On the evidence of last night’s largely free-form revue, Bruce seems to think the Magic tour has accomplished its mission. Or at least, he’s said what he wants to say about the decline of American moral authority under the Bush Administration.
Whether his audience has heard him, or wants to hear him, is another matter. Bruce’s rap about the litany of disgraces added to “the American picture” at the beginning of “Livin’ in the Future” last night was definitely the most tired section of the show, and it was hard to divine the sentiment of the audience from the chorus of cheers and boos that greeted Bruce’s editorial. Were they boing him, or booing the concept of indefinite detention without charge? Were they cheering the theoretically lawful, human-rights-respecting principles our country was supposedly founded on (finally extended to black people in the 1960s) at the end of Bruce’s speech, or applauding the fact that he had finished his lecture and was ready to rock again?
The high allowance for spontaneity in last night’s show is the kind of thing I normally praise unequivocally, and it did provide the evening’s most riveting moments. The loosey-goosey vibe was the best and worst thing about the performance, contributing both for its funniest moment (“Crush on You”) and its most moving (“Backstreets”), but also occasionally giving the long set a listless quality. A 13-minute version of “Mary’s Place,” easily my least favorite thing the E Street Band has released since Bruce reconvened them in 1999, was interesting for the way it showed Bruce taking a flagging crowd (one comprised mostly of his contemporaries, whose personal trainers are nowhere near as good as his) and demanding that they up their energy level so he could continue to perform.
“I want to go to that river of life,” he roared in the the preacher-voice he began using on the 1999-2000 reunion tour, though he repeated himself an awful lot, as if trying to remember his lines. “You can’t get there by yourself!” This went on for an awkward minute or three (it was, as I say, a 13-minute version of a song that feels interminable in its six-minute studio take), until Bruce said something that suddenly put everything in context: “If you can’t get there, we can’t get there!”
I remember thinking during the first half that this show probably wouldn’t turn out to be one of the three-hour marathons he’s been playing of late, based on the reticence of the audience. But Bruce roused them from their middle-aged slumber, which was something to see and something to feel.
Other Stuff: I was impressed by the abundance of signs for obscure tunes I saw. “Anything from Steel Mill, PLEASE!” read one. “Incident.” “Roulette.” The sign he picked out for “I’ll Work for Your Love” had “Brilliant Disguise” written on the other side, which I would have much preferred — I love me some Tunnel of Love — but it would be churlish to complain. A lot of these people seem to follow the tour from show to show. Bruce pointed out a “friendly stalker” near the front and asked him how many shows he’d seen. “This tour?” the guy replied. “Nineteen.”
Bruce pulled kids out of the pit to sit with him onstage at least twice. One boy looked like he was about 10 or 11, and he was signing and pumping his fist on whatever song it was. Bruce sent him back to his owners with a one-arm hug and what looked like a kiss on the top of the head, which made the boy freak out the way any 11 year old male would faced with an open display of affection from another dude. Later on, he had a girl up there with him who couldn’t have been much older, and he actually picked her up and handed her back down to her parents (?). Wonder if he’d have done that if Patti were there.
One of the other sign-request numbers Bruce did was Gary “U.S.” Bonds’s “Quarter to Three,” which was a number one Billboard single in June 1961, when Bruce was 11 or 12 years old. So it has the same resonance for him that . . . actually, I have no fucking idea what the equivalent would be for me. Prince’s “Kiss,” maybe? I bought The Joshua Tree and Tunnel of Love when I was 11. Simple, danceable pop? Er, I know I had Bryan Adams’ Reckless on cassette. And the soundtrack to La Bamba, with Los Lobos covering the then-30-year-old titular hit. I had a vinyl copy of George Michael’s Faith that I’d got from a WAVA “The Power Station” giveaway before they went to a Contemporary Christian format, and I knew the singles off that one from MTV, though I don’t think I ever played the record.
Damn. What was the of-its-moment pop confection that charmed my 11-year-old self so much that I might still want to perform it (assuming, you know, I had a band and 15,000 people looking at me) when I was pushing sixty? I’ll have to think about this.
Finally, the Richmond Coliseum, while I thoroughly unimpressive, utilitarian buidling with horrible acoustics, is still a more inviting venue than the Phone Booth in at least one important sense: The relatively paucity of advertising. There’s isn’t a flat surface in the Phone Booth that isn’t smeared with some corporate logo, but the Richmond Coliseum (so named because it’s in Richmond; not because someone paid to give it a meaningless, tell-you-nothing-about-it moniker) has few ads, and they’re mostly for hard-to-object to products and entities, like the Richmond Department of Parks and Recreation.
Finally: I thought I might learn something from seeing The Hold Steady and their obvious inspiration each perform within four nights of each other. But I didn’t, really.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Richmond Coliseum, Richmond, VA, Monday, August 18, 2008
01 Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
02 Radio Nowhere
03 Out in the Street
04 Prove It All Night
05 Lonesome Day
06 Spirit in the Night
07 Stand on It (fan request via sign)
08 Cadillac Ranch (via sign)
09 Backstreets (another sign – “My band just broke up. Please play ‘Backstreets.’” Bruce does, then remarks during the bridge, “It’s tough when your band breaks up.”)
10 For You (Bruce solo piano)
12 Murder, Inc.
13 She’s the One
14 Livin’ in the Future
15 Mary’s Place
16 I’ll Work for Your Love (another sign)
17 The Rising
18 Last to Die
19 Long Walk Home
21 Crush on You (first performance since 1980; via sign; hilarious)
22 Quarter to Three
23 Born to Run
24 Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
25 Bobby Jean
26 Dancing in the Dark
27 American Land
28 Twist and Shout
Roy Bittan – piano
Clarence “Big Man” Clemons – sax, tambourine
Charles Giordano – keys
Nils Lofgren – guitar
Garry Tallent – bass
Soozie Tyrell – violin, guitar, vocals
“Little” Steven Van Zandt – guitar
Max Weinberg – drums
Bruce – vocals, guitar, piano, harmonica