It's not clear how many audience members realized that Wednesday night at Nashville's Sommet Center probably was their last Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert.
After almost two straight years of touring, Springsteen and E Street are going on hiatus after tonight's show in Buffalo. With most of the band members in their 60s, saxophonist Clarence "Big Man" Clemons's health issues and recent remarks from band members, the odds are good that Nashville saw one of rock's greatest live acts' third-to-last show.
While the set list for the Nashville concert was full of older material (1975's Born to Run
was played in its entirety and three songs from 1984's blockbuster Born in the U.S.A.
anchored the encores, while just one song was played from their last two albums), there was nothing stale or dated about the blistering three-hour 29-song concert. This show was the 26th time I've seen Springsteen with E Street--the performance was as tight and the band was as loose as I've seen. If tonight is in fact their last concert, Springsteen and E Street are not cruising to the finish but rather have kicked into a higher gear.
Springsteen's catalog is so deep that he opened the Nashville show with three straight powerful and timely songs that aren't on any of his 16 studio albums: the new "Wrecking Ball," a tribute to the soon-to-be-demolished Giants Stadium; a scorching "Seeds," which was released on the Live/1975-85
box set; and his powerful version of Jimmy Cliff's "Trapped," which has long been a live favorite.
Based on the crowd's reaction though, you could have thought Springsteen opened with three of his greatest hits. Throughout the show, the audience was what you'd expect from Music City: fun, engaged and loud but respectful too.
When Springsteen did play a track from one of his studio albums, it was the nihilistic "Something in the Night," a deep cut from 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town
, that wasn't on the original setlist for Nashville.
It wasn't until song five that Springsteen performed one of his many hits--"Hungry Heart," which 29 years ago was his first top 10 song. As he usually does in concert, Springsteen let the audience take the vocals on the first verse. But in a twist that's new to this tour, halfway into the track he ventured out to a mini-stage about 10 rows into the crowd for a verse before riding the audience back (OMFG I touched his leg!) to the main stage, probably making the 60-year-old the first AARP The Magazine
cover model to crowd surf.
After those songs about a building slated for destruction, a homeless family heading "south with just spit and a song," a trapped lover, a guy on a journey to nowhere and an unrepentant philanderer, Springsteen ended the first part of the show with the optimistic "Working on a Dream," the sole track from his most recent album he played on Wednesday.
The show's emotional and thematic centerpiece began two songs later when the band played the classic Born to Run
album in its entirety. From the groggy harmonica opening that snaps to life at the beginning of "Thunder Road" to the final existential wails and cymbal rolls of "Jungleland," Springsteen and E Street nailed their performance of one of rock's best albums. Rather than blowing through an album that they've been playing for 34 years and played start to finish several times already on this tour, the songs were fresh.
Put in the context of the album, the title track, which had become anticlimactic for me after having heard it about two dozen times in concert before, regained the relevancy that it had when I was 17 years old and writing out its lyrics from memory while bored in English class. Mansions of glory, suicide machines, trying to look so hard, the runaway American Dream: why pay attention to a lecture on the 180-page "The Great Gatsby" when you can just rock out to the 4:30 "Born to Run"?
Springsteen too believes "in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter--tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our our arms further..." And while one fine Wednesday night in Nashville, we--band and audience--"beat on, boats against the current," we were not "borne back ceaselessly into the past," but rather were delivered into the present, 15,000 of us thrusting our arms into the air in unison as Bruce belted out "Tramps like us / baby we were born to run."
The only issue with performing the entire album was the segue out of it (there's a reason that on past tours "Jungleland" was a set closer). After finishing that last song on the album, Springsteen and the members of the current E Street Band who recorded the album, all of whom are still in the band except organist Danny Federici who died in 2008, came to the front of the stage for a deserved ovation, but the mid-set break did curtail the show's momentum.
The seven songs performed after Born to Run
in the main set came across like an afterthought: a fun, well-played afterthought that I enjoyed, but one without much of a theme. Of course, with Springsteen taking three straight suggestions from the crowd (many audience members--this one included--brought signs with song requests), it's probably a bit much to expect a unifying theme. But then again, he is Springsteen and perhaps the only American who faces greater expectations is the guy we elected president last November.
Some highlights from the last part of the main set:
- "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," with its cliched and simplistic lyrics, is one of my least-favorite Springsteen songs, but Springsteen's bringing kids on stage of late to sing a verse has made it a delight in concert.
- During "Darlington County," guitarist Steve "Little Steven" "Miami Steve" "Silvio Dante" "That guy who looks like a New Jersey pirate" Van Zandt pulled six women in pink cowboy hat who'd been making eyes at him all concert on stage to dance. That move led Springsteen to audible into...
- A fun version of "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)."
The lightness continued in the encores, which began with Springsteen emerging from a band huddle and announcing, "We've never done this before." After a bit more futzing, Springsteen asked trumpeter Curt Ramm (a great recent addition to the lineup) to play the riff for the still unannounced song to the band. Ramm responded with the mariachi trumpet intro to "Ring of Fire" and not only did the band pick it up, but so too did the audience, turning Johnny Cash's biggest hit into a giant sing-along. Three days later, I'm still singing along to it. Bum, bum bum, bum bum ba da bum…
The show became a dance-along five songs later when Springsteen plucked a girl out of the audience, not to dance with him, but rather to oblige her request to dance with guitarist Nils Lofgren, during "Dancing in the Dark." The former top two song was one of three tracks from the 1984 blockbuster Born in the U.S.A.
album played in the encores, songs this Springsteen snob normally would be disappointed to hear when they could be playing some rare gem. But knowing that what could be my final E Street Band concert was close to wrapping up, I was thrilled to hear them play anything.
And while Springsteen finished the show with a hit song, it wasn't one of his own but rather an ecstatic take of Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," which again brought him out to the platform about 10 rows out in the crowd.
Hopefully Springsteen and E Street will remember that feeling and decide to tour again, lifting us all higher and higher one more time.
Something In The Night
Working On A Dream
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Born To Run
She's The One
Meeting Across The River
Waitin' On A Sunny Day
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
Ring of Fire
Dancing In The Dark
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher
For more information: Read about when I saw one of my other rock gods play a local show: The Who's Roger Daltrey.