“Let’s keep the hits coming!” Bruce Springsteen yelled three songs into Saturday night’s concert. A good portion of the crowd cheered accordingly, but a not insignificant number of eye-rolls could be seen as well from the folks who realized that many of Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. era hits have aged about as well as a fish in the sun.
Springsteen is supposed to be the rare past-his-prime (sales-wise that is) hitmaker who has always remained fresh and vital in concert, bringing something new to the table with each tour. The Working on a Dream tour is testing that legacy. Usually a third of a Springsteen set is made up of new tunes; within weeks of beginning this outing in March we were down to two new songs: “Outlaw Pete” and the title track. Half the album’s songs have yet to be performed. Did Springsteen’s optimistic “Yay Obama!” attitude crash with the stock markets?
Set list criticism inevitably becomes an exercise in frustration, but this notable choice is indicative of Springsteen’s play-to-the-crowd attitude this time around. If he’s verging on a nostalgia show though – and with his recent announcement to play all of Born to Run during several upcoming shows it is becoming just that – it’s a better nostalgia show than anyone else is doing.
“Jackson Cage” got the show off to a mediocre start, with cheese-fests “Working on the Highway” and “Hungry Heart” keeping the sighs from veteran fans coming. Springsteen and the band seemed to be phoning it in, playing with passion-less precision. Though these songs were actually an unusual way to start a show, it felt like he’d been playing them night after night. The E Street Band is never boring, but they didn’t seem exactly vital yet either.
Even the new tunes seemed a bit tossed-off, like Springsteen had resigned himself to the fact (largely untrue) that the audience didn’t care about the new material. He pushed through the two songs like a chore, robbing the crowd of the narrative story-telling of “Outlaw Pete” we saw last time around.
The lame attempt at background visuals made things seem even more half-assed. The giant screen behind the band, a million-dollar piece of technology, seemed to have been programmed by a Windows screen saver. A sun image for “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day?” Not very creative. The psychedelic red pattern behind the band for a few tunes? Inappropriate. Images of threatening clouds…for just about every other song?? I don’t even know what to say. By the end it was almost a joke.
It took a pair of reworked songs from yesteryear to finally ignite the band’s spark plug, “Seeds” and “Johnny 99” thundering along like the freight train Bruce conjured in the latter. Max Weinberg – no Today Show duties tonight – pounded his toms like a man possessed, his emotionless face betraying the intense concentration of pushing these tunes to their powerful conclusions.
The sound at the Comcast Center, unfortunately, meant that despite his hard work Weinberg sounded high-pitched and tinny, like you were hearing the music through your friend’s cell phone. Charlie Giordano’s organ playing was shoved far forward in the mix – appropriate for “Dancing in the Dark,” not so much for the guitar-driven “Born to Run.” Guitars went M.I.A. in the sound system though, rendering Bruce’s “Seeds” solo and Nils Lofgren’s “Trapped” behind-the-back spasm inaudible. Roy Bitten’s piano? Suzie Tyrell’s violin? Forget about it.
Sound quality frustration helped the slower, subtler songs become the night’s highlights. The ten percent of the crowd not loudly yammering about weekend plans were treated to a haunting “Point Blank,” Bruce repeating “It was all there, and now it's all gone” like a man who understood the pain of lay-offs and foreclosures. Later, a special request from Tom, here at his 224th show, led to a wondrous “If I Should Fall Behind,” Springsteen largely on solo acoustic while couples in the audience swayed…and most everyone else headed to get more beer. Their loss.
Most audience requests though – and there were quite a few – led to cover tunes. As has become a nightly tradition, Bruce waded out into the crowd during “Raise Your Hand” (a cover itself) to choose among a sea of cleverly-crafted signs. First up, the Elvis Presley 1972 classic “Burning Love,” played only once before by the band and joyfully performed by the band after some discussion of what key it was in. Two songs later, a cover that needed no rehearsal: Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped.”
For one of the only few times that night, band passion and audience fervor connected in a wave of shout-along emotion that went from soft to loud faster than a Nirvana tune. “Trapped” never got an official release until 2003’s Essential bonus disc, but the frustrated energy released during the build-up to the chorus showed a crowd far more familiar with it than “outtake” implies.
Two more cover tunes in the encore, both unplanned. The first came from an unlikely source: a blow-up sex doll, decked out with a red wig, devil horns, and a dress. I incorrectly thought this a request for the bland-as-mayonnaise “Red-Headed Woman,” but then again I didn’t see the dress’s color. “What’s she wearing?” Springsteen asked the crowd. “A blue dress!” “And the horns mean she’s a…?” “Devil!” “Devil with a Blue Dress On” couldn’t mean anything but the E Street Band’s “Detroit Medley,” a cover of a series of 50s hits originally strung together by Mitch Ryder. “Good golly, miss Molly!” Springsteen shouted along with more joy than he had showed for his own songs, and the band grinned along, mugging for the cameras and jostling each other around the stage.
Appropriately, Springsteen bookended the show with more hits (“Dancing in the Dark” and “Born in the U.S.A.,” though he left the setlisted “Bobby Jean” unplayed), but not before the gospel-vocal workout of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times.” There would seem to be no surer way to lose an audience than by unleashing a nineteenth century ballad, but the power of Bruce’s voice showed the willpower of his message, a prayer loud enough to shake the seats. Backup singers Curtis King and Cindy Mizelle, largely unused through the rest of the show, built the song to a blast-you-away a cappella climax before Jay Weinberg (Max’s son, sitting in for the encore) slammed it into the 21st century.
Springsteen has referred to his “Twist and Shout” as his “stadium-wrecker” and, while the Comcast Center’s foundations remained quite firm, fans enjoyed the unplanned dance-along bonus. In a set aimed largely at pleasing the casual fans, a song that everyone in the building knows the words to (“Ahhhh…Ahhhh…Ahhhh…Ahhhh!”) seemed an appropriate closer.
She's the One
Working on the Highway
Working on a Dream
Raise Your Hand
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
The Promised Land
If I Should Fall Behind
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Born in the U.S.A.
Twist and Shout