Sadly, Bruce Springsteen’s cousin died in 2009, just before his Kansas City concert, which was cancelled. Saturday’s three-hour gig was expected to be unique, if not superlative. Also, another series of events allowed Springsteen and the E Street Band to exploit their more idealistic, topical, brooding, and angry songs: Sax man Clarence Clemons died, Superstorm Sandy smacked the Northeast, and President Obama was, in fact, handily re-elected. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 and also a multiple-Grammy winner, Springsteen cheerfully promoted his seventeenth studio album, Wrecking Ball (2012). It is another masterful Springsteen album and the troubadour’s tenth album to reach #1 in the United States. He joshed about the Show-Me-State, and yet again put on a rousing show, though it was not at all flawless.
The set list was extensive, but largely reflected two albums: Born in the U.S.A. (1984) and, of course, Wrecking Ball. In fact, a total of nine songs from a 28-song set stemmed from these two albums, accounting for roughly one-third of the show: five from Wrecking Ball and four striking and impactful numbers from Born in the U.S.A. One, “Dancing in the Dark”, was an encore standard, but the mid-show trio of “Cover Me”, “Downbound Train”, and “I’m on Fire” turned out to be a glorious, semi-nostalgic treat – a casual journey back to the boom box-delivered sound of the Eighties. An Elvis-like Springsteen teased women during these songs, especially “Dancing in the Dark”. One lady’s bra landed upon the main stage.
Springsteen and company actually had planned in 2009 to perform Born in the U.S.A. in total, thus Springsteen felt obliged to reward the raucous, impassioned Kansas City audience with a fair amount of songs from that popular, radio-friendly album. Aside from four covers, including the tributary show opener “Kansas City”, a substantial part of the rest of the set featured songs from three albums: Born to Run (1975), Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), and The Rising (2002). Even tracks from his debut were played. The E Street Band was solid all night, especially drummer Max Weinberg and stoic guitarist Steven Van Zandt. The band’s new choir and horn sections also were powerful.
Springsteen has retired his preacher-man act, but his first five songs were both vintage and more familiar in nature, and the congregation provided the homily. That is, some 16,000-odd fans went berserk and began to sing in unison, especially on “Prove It All Night” and “She’s The One”, among others. Early on, the acoustics were noticeably unrefined, but that radically improved as the show proceeded. Instead, the rather stentorian audience almost drowned out the band, music, and concert - Springsteen’s verses in particular. Crowd favorites from the Seventies led to a communal rendition, a kind of arena karaoke. It seemed a minority actually wanted Springsteen to perform his own songs.
During several songs one could only apprehend the choruses. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”, albeit a fairly recent track, was one of those, but “Hungry Heart” was infinitely worse because Springsteen largely neglected to consider the verses, as he was too busy courting the crowd on the second stage. He soon crowd surfed back to the two-tiered main stage. Was this the Glastonbury Festival or something? One cannot envision his peers, such as Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, or Mick Jagger, pulling off such a trivial, cheap trick. Maybe that was the point. Incidentally, at one point he fatuously signed an autograph in the middle of a song.
These silly matters notwithstanding, Springsteen and the E Street Band’s more reflective material achieved a rather profound and august hue. For instance, Springsteen spoke a bit and dedicated “My City of Ruins” to the folks hurt by Superstorm Sandy, the violent cyclone that devastated the Northeast, principally the states of New Jersey and New York. Moreover, Springsteen likewise performed “My Beautiful Reward” in tribute to his late cousin and former tour manager Lenny Sullivan.
Also, the reliably energetic and optimistic “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” acquired a new sense because it lyrically referred to Clarence Clemons, the band’s late saxophonist, and the number used to be a platform for Clemons to ostentatiously exhibit his talent. His nephew, Jake Clemons, nobly took up the mantle tonight, but Clemons’ presence was mourned. “The Rising”, for which Springsteen won two Grammys, was a somber, poetic comment on post- 9/11 life and proved to be an obvious standout.
Furthermore, Wrecking Ball tracks were quite successful, though Springsteen’s singing was less intense live, save for the hyper-Celtic, topical “Death To My Hometown”. This track is indebted to Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” in terms of its pointed vocals, but indebted to Teddy Roosevelt in terms of its message concerning America’s malefactors of great wealth and related basic economic unfairness. “Born To Run”, too, was decidedly mediocre on this night because Springsteen had reached a rare point of exhaustion.
Finally, it was intriguing to recognize what songs didn’t make the set list. For instance, Springsteen did not perform most of his so-termed controversial or protest numbers – with the exception perhaps of “Death To My Hometown” and his signature, game-changing track, “Born To Run”. I’m thinking specifically about “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, which was inspired by Steinbeck’s Great Depression-themed novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939). That song has been covered by other artists and must be the consummate protest song. The song firmly expresses solidarity with both working people and the disenfranchised. Others come to mind: “Born in the U.S.A.”, “Streets of Philadelphia”, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, and, of course, “American Skin (41 Shots)”, the latter of which concerns police ineptitude, brutality and overreach. Maybe “We Shall Overcome”?
Although Bruce Springsteen isn’t the king, he is The Boss, and he can sing. Indeed, his concert was singular, memorable, and as grand in scope as it was topical and poignant. Springsteen’s youthful charm was most evident, and his band was well-versed in new material, and it delivered. Despite some critical setbacks, it was one of Bruce Springsteen’s finest concerts.
Prove It All Night
She’s The One
We Take Care of Our Own
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
The E Street Shuffle
Incident on 57th Street
Because the Night
I’m on Fire
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin’ On a Sunny Day
Raise Your Hand
Land of Hope and Dreams
Light of Day
My Beautiful Reward
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out