Though he’s from the Jersey shores, Bruce Springsteen has a long relationship to the city of Boston, all the way from a 1973 residency at Oliver’s to a Fenway double-header thirty years later. Springsteen’s last stop at the TD Banknorth Garden in 2007 proved to be longtime organist Danny Federici’s final full show before his death from melanoma. Boss-town fans are some of the most rabid and after both nights sold out in a matter of minutes, expectations were high for the Working on a Dream tour’s first stop to the East Coast.
Bruce wasted no time in getting the arena charged up, roaring straight into sing-along fan favorite “Badlands.” Fists pumped in the air while throats screamed the woah-oh-oh-oh-oh chorus for what would not be the final time that evening. A quick guitar change was all it took to lead him into “Adam Raised a Cain,” leading this reviewer to wonder whether he was going to play Darkness on the Edge of Town straight through, as he had previously hinted he might do with some albums on this tour. One of Springsteen’s most aggressive songs, it featured a searing guitar solo by the Boss himself, wringing layers of angst from each sustained note.
Springsteen is never much for crowd-pleasing special effects; even his Superbowl show in February was comparatively minimalist. So seeing smoke pouring out behind the stage exhibited a lack of visual theatricality rarely seen with the band. The lights dimmed, letting Bruce’s black silhouette emerge from the smoke to begin his epic “Outlaw Pete” off the new album. Pianist Roy Bitten cued the slow-burn orchestra sounds with his synthesizer while Susie Tyrell added the higher violin parts as the song slowly come together, verse building upon verse until finally Max Weinberg crashed in with his drums and the lights came on. Bruce indulged his newfound theatrical tendencies with a cowboy hat and frequent gunslinger tableaus which the addition of two backup singers led to seven vocalists blasting out the “Can you hear me chorus?” rivaled in power only by the surging crowd. Already a fan favorite, each refrain served as a release to the tension build-up of the quiet verses, and the audience took full advantage.
Not losing momentum, Springsteen quickly led the band into party anthem “Out in the Street,” which pleased the inevitable frat boy contingent immensely despite a botched solo from Clarence "Big Man" Clemons. I recently saw an interview with Bruce devotees the Hold Steady in which they complained that bands never smile onstage anymore. Well that’s not a problem with the guys (and gal) on E Street, grinning their way through a hit they’ve played hundreds of times before, thankful to let loose after the careful orchestration of the previous nine minutes. Bruce even gave everyone in the band a chance to sing the title line, relinquishing his lead singer duties, if only briefly.
Back to the new stuff for the simplistic “Working On a Dream” where the audience’s cries helped to mask the issues in bringing the pop craftsmanship of the new album to a live environment. Where previous effort Magic was rough-and-ready rock and roll, Working on a Dream is layered production, complicated effects bolstering otherwise pithy songs. In the Superbowl, this tune was given the necessary live boost by a full gospel choir, but without such here it fell to the audience to push it along. Obliged they did, singing along the chorus at Bruce’s prompting, but by the umpteenth time through it began to seem listless, a favor they were doing for an old friend rather than a true expression of emotion.
All that optimism faded quickly though as the band began was fans have referred to as the recession three-pack. The dark bluesy “Seeds” started things off, Springsteen stomping along as he half-sang/half-yelled about a man losing his house and wandering the streets with his family, oppressed by the cops and corporate fat cats who don’t care where he sleeps that night. “Parked in the lumberyard, freezin’ our asses off / My kids in the back seat got a graveyard cough.” There ain’t nowhere better we can just escape to, Bruce told us.
At the end of the song a friend says he might as well get a gun, and in “Johnny 99” Bruce explained what can happen to a desperate man with ammo. Originally a solo cut from 1980’s Nebraska, the full-band treatment featured plenty of soloing on violin and guitar between the character’s explanations of how circumstances led to crime. “Now judge, I had debts no honest man could play,” Bruce sang as the band brought it down to a murky rumble. “The bank was holdin' my mortgage and they were gonna take my house away / Now I ain't sayin' that makes me an innocent man / But it was more 'n all this that put that gun in my hand.” Little Steven provided more soloing to outro while Bruce stalked the stage, leading the crowd in a train-whistle whoo-whoo chant.
A second solo cut given the E Street treatment, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” made “Johnny 99” look like a pithy warm-up. The promise of this one was first seen on the Magic tour, when Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello blew Los Angeles apart with his furious soloing (video here). Not to be outdone, Nils Lofgren ripped into a furious, righteous solo that lept frets, octaves, and emotions as it screamed throughout the arena like Crazy Horse on speed. He jerked, he kicked, he spun in circles, and he damn near blew out his recent hip replacement as the band just looked on grinning.
The chords to a classic cover signaled the end of the recession special, but before Bruce started singing “Raise Your Hand” he asked audience members to raise not just that, but signs with requests on them as well. Dozens of prepared fans obliged as Bruce walked around the stage collecting them all. Glimpsing them as he put them in his pile, one saw requests both common (“Waiting on a Sunny Day”) and obscure (“Lost in the Flood”) enter Bruce’s imagination as he thought over which to select. His choice made, he began singing “Raise Your Hand,” climbing on Roy’s piano to more effectively encourage audience members. Jumping from a mad-dog bark to a shrill falsetto, his enthusiasm transferred to the audience, who didn’t need to know this simple rock classic to sing along.
As the song stormed to a halt, Bruce picked out the first sign and showed it around to the group. “The band does not know this song,” he said. “The band has never played this song.” he continued. And then: “Kevin…get me my guitar!” The song was ZZ Top’s “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” and he led the group through it after a few trial runs, starting solo guitar until he shouted the band in with a “Take it boys!” It was loose and ramshackle, Bruce reading the lyrics off of the request sign and giving solos to Roy and organ-man Charlie Giordano before Clarence “Big Man” Clemmons had his first sax showcase of the night. The band made it through without a falter as Bruce cried, “Don’t try to stump the E Street Band!” See a clip of how they did it here.
The next request chosen wasn’t as much of a risk, taking on the Born in the U.S.A. hit “I’m Goin’ Down.” The crowd dug it and the band seemed to use the occasion to take a breather after the previous tune’s challenge.
The break didn’t last long though, as the final sign pick was “Growin’ Up,” from Springsteen’s 1973 debut. Bitten’s piano backed the complicated Dylan-esq lyrics while Weinberg did his best to emulate the jazzy drumming of album drummer Vini Lopez. The song has lost some of its passionate urgency now that Bruce has actually grown up, but he digs into his pre-Born to Run catalogue so rarely it’s always an audience treat.
Reaction was decidedly more mixed upon the opening of “Waiting On a Sunny Day.” A tune he’s played consistently since releasing it in ’02, many feel it isn’t strong enough to deserve the prominent spot night after night. No matter how much people sigh when they hear the opening violin riff though, by the chorus few seem to be ignoring Springsteen’s cries to sing along.
Substitute harmonica for violin and 1978 for 2002 there, and the same could be said for “The Promised Land,” a never-fail staple that longtime fans have long ago tired of. If it may not quite have the thirty year staying power Bruce demands of it, the “Blow away!” bridge always gets the audience to peak fist-pumping volume.
Half the band left the stage in the darkness while Roy and Charlie dueted for a theme that sounded vaguely familiar. Wait, isn’t that…yup, it was the classic “Chariots of Fire” opening notes, leading into Bruce’s recent update on sporting redemption, “The Wrestler.” Bruce came to the microphone, standing motionless in the spotlight as he sang the Oscar-snubbed tune. An emotional highlight of the night, the heartbreaking lyrics about a man who “always leaves with less than I had before” as he tries to entertain a dwindling fanbase punch you in the gut harder than Randy “The Ram” himself.
Another new tune, “Kingdom of Days” seemed downright stagnant by comparison, Nils’ effortless slide guitar not enough to break this mid-tempo romance out of boredom. A casualty of trying to bring the pop sounds to a live band setting, “Kingdom” didn’t even effectively utilize the backing singers there to add depth, relying instead on lyrics far too weak to sustain interest. A fine song on record, live this proved the ideal opportunity for a pee/beer break.
A new face joined those onstage, son Jay replacing Max behind the drum kit in his training to take over his dad’s duties when the band goes to Europe and Max has to remain behind the lead the Tonight Show ensemble with Conan O’Brien. A sign request brought on “Radio Nowhere,” which proved made for this kid’s drumming style. Only eighteen-years old, he pounded the drums so hard dust was flying up as his long hair whipped around his face. Stealing the spotlight, his fills eclipsed even his dad’s in passion, a display by someone knowing they had to prove themselves to skeptics. Bruce even gave him a little drum solo to outro – has the E Street Band ever had a drum solo before?
He stayed on for a couple more new-ish ones, adding vitality back to “Lonesome Day” and helping reignite a spark inside “The Rising”’s message of hope and inspiration. Sure, he may have gotten the position because of his last name, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to be the next (temporary) E Street drummer and the band, looking on approvingly, clearly agreed.
For his final showing, he thumped the bass drum intro to “Born to Run” as the house lights came on and the audience, expectedly, went ballistic. I challenged and concert-goer to find a more passionate concert experience than the crowd during “Born to Run” night after night. Some dances, some jumped, some clapped, some fist-pumped, but all screamed their heart out to each and every word as if they’d never scream again. Bruce milked it with false endings, wandering to the front of the stage and even letting some lucky fans strum his guitar while the band mugged on. Clarence’s classic solo got a roar of approval that didn’t subside through the tune’s end, the band’s bows, and the wait for the encore.
The mood changed considerably when the band returned, lined up at the front of the stage to Bruce’s intro of “This is a song written in 1855 by Stephen Foster.” That song was “Hard Times,” as finally used the backing singers to their full potential as they helped the band blast through the a cappella-driven gospel that shook the bones and rattled the soul. The sound of pain and joy rolled into one, their blaring delivery whether with band or without (it went back and forth) felt like a release for the thousands in the crowd feeling the pressure on their wallets, their jobs, their families. It told them they weren’t alone, that if nothing else they could unite with their fellow man in fortitude and strength in hardship. Bruce opened the show by telling the crowd “We’re going to build a house!” and with this one he did just that.
Back to the twentieth century for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a song given renewed notice by that frenetic Super Bowl performance, Clemmons hit the sax parts and Bruce gave write back, yelling “Now this is the important part” before he got to the section describing when “the Big Man joined the band.” They high-fived, did some choreographed arm-waving and a little two-step shuffle just like it was Steelers versus Cardinals all over again.
The band resurrected the Rising tour’s inspirational gospel-beat closer “Land of Hope and Dreams” to continue the inspiration, telling the crowd “This train carries saints and sinners, this train carries losers and winners” as the music built to a emotional peak. Then just when you thought it was over, going a slow-mo blaring first two lines of “People Get Ready” to keep the E Street gospel alive.
“American Land,” as closer of the Magic tour, was no surprise yet no disappointment, Bruce’s 2006 Irish immigration anthem that gets the crowd in the air and the band all clustered at the front of the stage. With band intros and much mugging, it seemed this would be the final song tonight too, but no! Everyone ran back to their normal positions as Bruce ripped into the classic guitar riff for “Rosalita,” a fan favorite that has more participation parts in one song than most artists have in their entire catalogue. This group didn’t miss a beat though, bopping along as they soul-clapped their part. “I ain’t hear on business,” Bruce yelled. “I’m only hear for fun!” The crowd, it seemed, felt the same.
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