Bruce Springsteen inspires a weird, wild-eyed species of fanaticism amongst people you’d never expect to witness getting fanatical over a rock ‘n’ roll show, and that is a healthy thing.
I’m referring to people of a certain, boomer-ish age, in particular, although by no means was the fired-up mob of 40,000-ish on hand for Springsteen and the E-Street Band’s Wrecking Ball tour touchdown the Rogers Centre on Friday night at all limited to lifelong fans orbiting around his own age of 62 years.
He’s doggedly hung onto relevance long after many would-be heirs to his throne have faded from view and pretty much everyone’s got at least one Springsteen album they can get with, so his audience has refreshed itself with new blood accordingly over the course of the past 40-odd years. (My personal favourite Springsteen album is Nebraska, if you’re asking, but I had Born to Run and The River in my elementary-school bedroom as soon as I was old enough to tape my dad’s records.)
It is a kick, however, to see folks your parents’ age excitably carting homemade Bristol board signs into a baseball stadium like they’ve suddenly reverted to age 13 and are on their way to see Justin Bieber for the first time.
And that, in a nutshell, is probably why Springsteen has endured all these years: he can make you believe rock ‘n’ roll is the most important thing in the world all over again — even if, shame on you, you stopped believing years ago — because, whenever you see him perform, it seems pretty clear that rock ‘n’ roll is still the most important thing in the world to him.
That’s not an original sentiment, by any means, but there’s a reason it gets repeated. Springsteen’s records might not carry as much epochal weight as they aspire to these days — it would be a nice change of pace at this point, in fact, if the Boss responded just once to one of the many crises rending his beloved American heartland apart with an album about, say, his love of gardening — but you don’t walk away from his shows with any doubt about his convictions. He still means it. Dude’s not faking.
And his ongoing addiction to the spotlight, to the rush of thrilling a crowd and having that rush deafeningly returned, appears utterly sincere. If there was a touch of Vegas showmanship involved in playing on when the house lights came up for “Born to Run” at the three-hour mark of this nearly three-hour-and-45-minute marathon, the growing presence of teardown teams in orange hard hats impatiently waiting at each side of the stage as the encore dragged on lent an air of impatient veracity to the whole spectacle.
There definitely was that Vegas-style showmanship when longtime guitar sideman Steve Van Zandt had to “revive” a prone Springsteen with the drippings from a wet sponge for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Glory Days” (“Ah, what the f—. We can’t go home!”), and an endless “Twist and Shout” to finally close out the night.
Preceded by Charlie Giordano’s accordion-ized strains of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” Friday’s performance kicked off with a trio of what Springsteen called “summer songs” — the rollicking “Working on the Highway,” a “Hungry Heart” taken over almost entirely by a crowd singalong, and a slightly ragged “Sherry Darling.”
All this, before diving into a run of tunes from this year’s Wrecking Ball. Slightly underwhelming on record, these outraged responses to America’s wretched present-day economic circumstances were puffed up nicely by Bruce and the current, 16-piece E-Street lineup.
He could write an up-with-people anthem like “We Take Care of Our Own” in his sleep, true, and the song seemed a bit lazy when “The Rising” rose up decisively in the set list an hour or so later. Still, “Wrecking Ball” and the martial “Death to my Hometown” were as seething as their au courant subject matter demanded. Springsteen attacked “Jack of All Trades,” “We Are Alive” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” with similarly righteous diligence when they turned up in the set list later on. It came across loud and clear that Springsteen believes in the new material as much as anything else in the set, and that’s a refreshing change from a lot of shows by rockers who’ve been around as long as him.
Otherwise, the show was deep into the catalogue and all over the place. The Rising’s “My City of Ruins” became a soulful, 15-minute sprawl that segued with churchy gusto into “Spirit in the Night,” off Springsteen’s first record, Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey.
He paused amidst some band introductions during the latter to repeat the question “Are you missing anybody?” to crushing roars of unspoken remembrance for departed E-Street bandmates Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. The latter’s’ nephew, Jake Clemons, did a most capable job of pulling off the Big Man’s saxophone solos throughout the night, even if essentially Photostat-ing his uncle’s presence in a legendary rock ensemble must be a weird and ultimately troubling way to make a living.
With that sad business out of the way, Springsteen chugged a full beer and gamely took a crowd request for “Thundercrack” because someone had brought along a sign depicting a thunderbolt coming out of a bare butt that rather amused him. A full-bore “Murder Incorporated” and a host of well-received oldies — “Prove It All Night,” “Candy‘s Room,” “Badlands” “She’s the One” and “Darlington County” among them — followed, while a suspiciously talented young girl of ‘tween age was pulled from the stagefront pit to share lead vocals on “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.”
Perhaps the evening’s most resonant moment came next, as Springsteen sat down at the piano to honour another request for “Incident on 57th Street.” A quiet piece of three-dimensionally realized street-level storytelling from 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle, it stood in stark contrast to the all-out, all-in sonic overload of most of the songs that came before and all that would come after. It also reminded you that what has been lost in Springsteen’s elevation to a stadium-baiting superstar expected to make Big Statements about Big Things was the young Boss’s ability to turn subtly-detailed hardscrabble vignettes drawn on a much smaller scale into Big Statements about Big Things.
It gets a bit much over the long haul, that never-ending E-Street blare. There’s a fine line between transcendent and tiring. So it was good to have Springsteen pull back for a minute before “Badlands” and “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” and “Rosalita” and “Dancing in the Dark” — cue for the most spectacularly and beautifully awkward, stadium wide middle-aged WASP dance party I’ve ever seen — and all the rest of the big guns held in check until the home stretch figuratively blew the roof off the roofless Rogers Centre and sent several generations’ worth of E-Street acolytes spilling into the streets, utterly exhausted but believing again.
Hang onto that feeling, hang onto rock ‘n’ roll. Bruce Springsteen has and he’s doing OK.
Springsteen Summer Tour 2012 Book Sale: Last Week!
Discover the Limited Edition Bruce Springsteen book, The Light in Darkness.
The Light In Darkness is a collector’s edition, we are almost sold out. Less than 225 copies remain. A great companion piece to The Promise box set, it focuses on the 1978 Darkness on The Edge of Town album and tour.
Read about the iconic concerts from fans who were there- the Agora, Winterland, Roxy, MSG, Capitol Theatre, Boston Music Hall, The Spectrum and over seventy more!