I was not ready.
I’d heard tale of Bruce’s live prowess. Hell, I’ve listened to dozens of complete shows (the realization that I can search “bruce springsteen 19xx” on YouTube, where “xx” is any number greater than 72 or so, was life-altering).
But, let’s be real, the dude’s a geezer. He’s AARP-eligible. He’s been performing rock music for more than FORTY YEARS. Can anyone do something for so long and still give a shit about it nearly a half century later?
I expected entertainment, but I expected it to be commodified and, if not phoned in, certainly not an expression of passion. In other words, I anticipated professional, not moving or surprising.
But what I experienced when I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s latest show at Nationals Park was a surprise indeed, and plenty moving, too.
After dinner and a few drinks, my childhood friend Steve and I wandered over to the stadium and found our seats – literally the back row of the upper deck. The stage was a speck in the distance.
There was an energy and buzz in the stadium, which was impressive considering I was a couple decades younger than the median attendant. I guess the Gen-X’ers knew to expect something special.
The Boss and his team took the stage and launched into a familiar but surprising piano riff – the intro to “New York City Serenade.”
This is when I really started to suspect that I was in for something memorable and provocative. Bruce has such a catalog of stomping radio singles – why open a show with a pensive, eight-minute fan favorite? I’ll admit I got the chills as the song built to its conclusion: repeated cries of “Listen to your junk man… he’s singing!”
The surprising, relatively obscure, opener set the tone for much of the show: Passionate, hardcore fan-focused, and quite reflective of his early career.
[pullquote]The surprising, relatively obscure, opener set the tone for much of the show: Passionate, hardcore fan-focused, and quite reflective of his early career.[/pullquote]
I’ll be honest; I didn’t really expect thorough representation of Greetings from Asbury Park, Bruce’s debut oddity filled with the kind of blustering, shameless passion and cheekiness that makes sense when you’re 21 but not 28… let alone 66. Yet Bruce included a full half of his first album in his show, and all of it was great, though none more than the heart-rending anthem “Lost in the Flood.”
Setting up the show as something of a chronological retrospective, he belted into his second, and my favorite, album: The Wild, The Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle. I was surprised to hear “Kitty’s Back,” the jammy, urban rouser that can stretch into the double digit minutes in concert. Surprise turned to elation, especially as he launched into a soul-stirring rendition of “Incident on 52nd Street,” one of my six or so favorite Bruce songs. And, that of course, led to “Rosalita,” Bruce’s high-energy concert opus and a contender for my favorite song by ANY artist.
As I’ve dug deep into Bruce’s discography, his early career – the two albums before he transformed from starry-eyed to bleary-eyed – has been the most rewarding fount for me to revisit, so this early stretch of the concert was its most impactful for me.
The Born to Run album is The Boss’s masterwork, though, so it was a treat to hear some of its highlights live – “Night” and the title track and a rendition of “Jungleland” so searing and dramatic and heartfelt that I damn near fainted during the song’s climax.
The second half of the concert hit a mix of familiar favorites with a few oddball surprises. Fortunately (from my perspective) – his exploration of his later catalog was quite limited, no more than two or three songs.
[pullquote]What astonished me was that every song sounded more full-bodied and enthusiastic and just BETTER live.[/pullquote]
What astonished me was that every song – from classic rock staples like “Hungry Heart” and “Dancing in the Dark” to less mainstream works like “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” and “Better Days” – sounded more full-bodied and enthusiastic and just BETTER live. Bits of subtlety can be lost in translation – all the sly irony in “Rosalita”’s studio performance vanishes when it’s a romp on stage. But I think I prefer the romp.
I think my most surprising reaction is how little disappointment I felt from the songs missing from the set list that I most desperately wanted to hear: No “Thunder Road,” no “Racing in the Street.” A bunch of radio hits were missing – Steve was particularly bummed at the absence of “Born in the USA.” Alas, no “For You” despite the robust representation from Greetings. (Then again, Bruce has written so many great songs in the past 40 years, it’s inevitable a show will miss some things, no matter how long it runs.)
All that mattered was for three and a half solid hours, Bruce and the E-Street Band bowled me over. My expectations were exceeded, and I can safely say this is one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to.
I can cross Bruce Springsteen concert off the bucket list, meaning I’ve seen my top four all-time favorite artists live. (And, of my top ten artists, the only artist still touring I haven’t seen is Kanye.)
And, I can now report first-hand that the hype is real: A live Bruce Springsteen show is an unforgettable, transformative experience, and I’d recommend it to any one.