My love of Bruce Springsteen is not exactly news. It may no longer even qualify as infotainment. He played the single best concert I’ve ever seen anyone play, out of hundreds of bands and artists. (This is merely a partial list.) There is nothing remotely controversial about the assertion he is the greatest live performer in the history of rock and roll.
I wrote all of this down three years ago, after I saw him play his penultimate show of 2009, in Baltimore’s appealingly small and out-of-date sports area, the end of a busy two-year tour wherein he also made one of his worst albums. Basking in the glow of that remarkable show in the days afterward, I knew if I were never to see Springsteen and the E Street band play again, I’d be fine with that.
I had a Born in the U.S.A. on cassette when I was a little kid, but it wasn’t until college that I became a hardcore Springsteen fan. His Live 1975-85 album (three discs, because I got it in the CD era) and his solo acoustic, recorded-in-his-bedroom Nebraska album were the documents most directly responsible for my conversion. At the time I was discovering this music, Springsteen hadn’t toured with the E Street Band in seven years. Another four would pass before they’d announced they were reuniting.
Those reunion shows in 1999 and 2000 were remarkable. I saw five concerts on that tour. They were different from the shows Bruce and the band had played in the 70s and 80s, the ones I had heard only on cherished (and in the pre-broadband era, expensive) bootlegs. There was no intermission. Bruce’s meandering, easily parodied, improvised on-stage stories were gone, replaced by a gospel preacher schtick. The shows tended to be about two-and-a-half hours long — a generous amount of stage time from anyone but Springsteen, who had regularly broken the three-hour mark all through his twenties and thirties.
His twenties and his thirties.
I can remember some people in the audience of a show I saw in Philadelphia in 1999 being shocked when I pointed out Bruce had recently turned fifty. Five years ago, when he played two nights early on the Magic tour at the Verizon Center here in DC, the shows clocked in at slightly over two hours. I figured that’s what we would be getting from him from now on. He was approaching sixty. Few bands have the energy or the strength of catalog to play even two full hours anyway.
But through 2008 and 2009, Springsteen’s shows got progressively longer. The setlists, rigidly devoted to promoting the Magic album at first, got looser and looser. For the first time in his career, he began to devote a portion of each show to performing requests made from audience members, usually via posterboard sign, on the spot. And anything was on the table: Not just long-dormant album cuts from 35-year-old records, but songs by other acts the E Street Band had never attempted before. (I saw them do “Hava Nagalia” once. And “Crush on You,” right after Bruce told the girl who requested it, “We’re all in agreement: This is the worst song we’ve ever put on a record.”)
Bruce is 62 now. The show I saw him play at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center last Thursday night was my third and last Springsteen show this year. He and the band had played the night before — that Halloween-night show included their first-ever performance of “Monster Mash” — and for the first hour of our show I thought he seemed tired. This was, I think, my seventeenth Springsteen gig since 1999, and only once before had I ever thought he seemed to be reaching for the energy to continue. During the protracted vamp at the top of “Spirit in the Night,” he stalked the stage, less to stoke the crowd, it seemed to me, than to rev up his own depleted engines.
Perhaps because the show was on a college campus, the audience skewed younger than at other Springsteen shows I’ve attended. (Unrelated, I also spotted Dave Bielanko from the great Philly band Marah in the general admission pit next to me. I shook his hand and told him I love his band, which is true, but the reason I spoke to him is because they’ve had a rough few years and I thought he could use some encouragement. It’s possible I’m overestimating my power to bring a ray of sunshine into a stranger’s life with a kind word.) While teasing “Sprit,” Bruce asked the crowd how many were seeing the band for the first time. There was a roar, and then he answered, “We’ll fuck you up!” And then, “That makes me happy.”
A request for “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” seemed to reset the the show. After that Bruce came back out of the gate with three in a row from Born in the U.S.A., then “Because the Night.” He seemed renewed. The show went on for three hours and 20 minutes all in, and featured what seemed to be a genuinely spontaneous extra encore of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” after “Tenth Ave. Freeze-Out,” which had closed the other two shows I’d seen on this tour. Bruce said the E Street Band had never played it before, which seems unlikely, but I know he had to figure out the chords while standing at the mic. He told the band, “Key of E. E! E! Get right on it!” Everyone in the pit bent their knees for the first time in three-plus hour to get low on the “little bit softer now” refrain.
It occurred to me only later it was the most oldies-heavy set I’d ever seen this old man play. This tour has included far more songs written in the 21st century than most boomer acts would dare. But the 26-song State College set included only a half-dozen that were less than 28 years old. (I heard him soundchecking “Devil’s and Dust,” from 2005, but it didn’t make the cut.) Many of these oldies were by-request deviations from the written setlist: “Sandy” was, and the band was clearly about to go into “Dancing in the Dark” at the end of “Born to Run” when Bruce starting gesticulating wildly at a man in the crowd who had ROSIE sharped in block letters on his bald dome. And voila, “Rosalita.”
All of this is to say that I never imagined, as a Springsteen fan in the mid-nineties, when he had receded into something like cult stardom, or even in the mid-2000s, that I would have as many chances to seem him play with the E Street Band as I have in the last five years. Since 2008, he’s been playing shows as long as the ones he played as a young man, 30 years ago. The only difference is that he used to take a break in the middle and he doesn’t now. He’s in Olympian health, not just for and old-timer — and as a fervid fitness enthusiast and music fan, my embarrassment that my own generation hasn’t produced one rocker who can rival Old Man Springsteen’s physical stamina onstage is profound — but he can’t do this forever. He seems determined to give two or three generations of followers a last, grand run of performances, with long, highly variable sets so everyone gets to hear whatever old tune they’ve been wanting.
If you had told any of us Springsteen fans in the 90s that we would have this luxury in 2012, none of us would have believed you.
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band at the Bryce Jordan Center, State College, PA, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012
01 Lion’s Den
02 We Take Care of Our Own
03 Wrecking Ball
04 Out in the Street
05 Death to My Hometown
06 My City of Ruins
07 Spirit in the Night
08 Seaside Bar Song
09 It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City
10 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
11 Darlington County
12 Working on the Highway
13 Cover Me
14 Because the Night
15 Shackled and Drawn
16 Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
17 Raise Your Hand
20 Land of Hope and Dreams
21 Jersey Girl
22 Born to Run
23 Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
24 Dancing in the Dark
25 Tenth Avenue Freeze-out