Artist Spotlight: Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen (and the E Street Band to get really technical about the gist of this write up). I’ve been listening to him dating back to my childhood. My mother was a big fan. So if you end up hating this write up just blame her. I usually do when something goes wrong anyways (kidding, somewhat). I thought a couple times about attempting to tackle them for one of these. But a 40+ year career? 18 studio albums, 5 live albums, and 8 compilation albums? Too daunting! Can’t be done DEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEED! You’re not a journalist, you’re barely a writer! But the idea percolated…..

Then one day while on a walk (and feeling slightly sleep deprived), inspiration strikes! Why cover his entire discography? Why try and do something that dozens, maybe hundreds, have previously done and done far better than you could ever do? The approach that made more sense became obvious. Try to convey what it means to attend Bruce Springsteen concert, because listening to Bruce Springsteen on
your radio/computer/physical media of choice is one thing, but to attend one of his shows and enjoy the full experience is something different.

What makes a Bruce Springsteen show so special? I’d argue no other artist does more to make sure you’ve gotten your money’s worth by the time all is said and done. Nowadays a setlist that goes
less than three hours (and we’re talking three consecutive hours, no intermissions here) is a rarity. Over the past couple weeks, he’s played multiple shows that hit the FOUR hour mark, which he’s never
done in this country. Artists one third of his age often check out somewhere between 1.5 and 2 hours. Age has only increased his appetite for performing as of late.

But that’s a superficial reason to justify what makes his shows great. To really grasp what makes a Springsteen show such a special experience, one that heightens your appreciation of him as a fan, it comes down to Springsteen the storyteller. His songs have always told stories inspired by any number of people, himself included. In concert, he fleshes those stories out and the songs begin to mean more.

My first Springsteen concert was the Wrecking Ball tour of 2012. He did three shows in MA, two at Fenway Park and one at Gillette Stadium. I was at the second of the two nights at Fenway. In some ways (and maybe this is morbid in a way, you’ll see), there was a perfect storm of consequences that night for everyone. Over the course of nearly 3 and a half hours, Springsteen and his band went through not just a good amount of the songs off of Wrecking Ball(which in my own opinion was probably the best album he’d put out since 2002’s The Rising), but 25 other songs taken from past albums and covers of other artists. It was the largest touring rendition of the E Street Band to date, with 17 musicians in total on tour with the Boss. A full horn section and three backup singers were on hand in addition to the normal E Street lineup (which for this leg didn’t include Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa).

Most bands have a roll call song, and for the Wrecking Ball tour that roll call song became the 2002 song My City of Ruins instead of the customary Tenth Avenue Freeze Out. With good reason, as this was the first major E Street Band tour that was being put on without founding member Clarence Clemons. The horn section, which included Clarence’s nephew Jake, was part of how the band tried to fill that void. I tried to find a good video of that night’s performance of My City of Ruins but the only one from that night was poorly shot and the audio was terrible. But the band was named off, and the voids of Clemons and fellow E Street founding member Danny Federici (who passed away prior to the band’s Working on a Dream tour several years earlier) were acknowledged. And additionally Springsteen acknowledged the feeling of grief that was running through Boston at that time as the city was mourning the loss of beloved Red Sox player/coach/icon Johnny Pesky and a spotlight was shining on his #6 out in the right field area as My City of Ruins played. There was a lot of talk of grief, ghosts, and people who should be there but weren’t…it was a really nice moment between the Boss and his audience, just wish I’d thought to capture it. I’ll just put the studio rendition of the song up, the band continued to play the beat of the song for 15-20 minutes as I remember it.

After that extended moment of somberness, the Boss was ready to have fun. A staple of his show has been song requests from the audience. Other bands have done this, Coldplay is right now having people submit through a website request videos, the song you want to hear and why. At a Springsteen show, all you have to do is show up with a piece of poster board, or cardboard, or whatever you can find to
write what you want on. Bruce will scan the crowd from the stage and walk out and grab what interests him. Just about anything is up for grabs (at an August show in New Jersey this year Santa Clause is Comin’ to Town was requested, and that request was fulfilled). Tonight the Eddie Floyd classic Knock on Wood was played, possibly the first time Springsteen had played the song publically (and it was ultimately the only time they performed it on this tour). We were treated to a few other rare performances via sign requests as well, Thundercrack (a favorite deep cut among die hards) and Frankie (a song that at the time had only been performed with the E Street Band 4 times since the late 1970s) included. For me the real treat was the performance of Prove It All Night with an extended instrumental opening used during tours in 1978. Easily one of my favorite Springsteen tracks and that this tour had brought that extended intro to the song back was amazing. Have a listen for yourselves.

The show returned to its normal course, playing many more long-time staples and newer favorites for the next several songs. There was a hilarious moment where the Boss, who’d been commenting occasionally about the delicious smell of Fenway Franks and beer in the air was actually brought one of each at the platform on the edge of the audience and to many cheers wolfed down the dog and chugged the beer before launching into (I think) “Working on the Highway.” A powerful performance of Backstreets which featured an emotional cover of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream (a song the band would record a cover of for the next album) in the middle of it. Wish I could post a video of that one but of the two on YouTube I could find one was lousy audio and the other was fine til someone
started mooing halfway through it.

The 8(!) song encore began with Springsteen given us an acoustic rendition of the CCR song Who’ll Stop the Rain (steady rain had been falling for close to an hour, not that it was stopping anyone) before launching into the gospel/rap inspired Wrecking Ball track Rocky Ground featuring singer Michelle Moore for the rap verse of the song. The crowd got a couple more treats mixed in with the usual staples of his encore set as the band’s cover of Mitch Ryder’s Detroit Medley (an homage to the roots of rock n’ roll) as well as the tour premiere of the Gary Bonds cover Quarter to Three featured and by the midpoint of the encore there was a very loose and block party type atmosphere. As Dancing in the Dark was being played I saw couples filling the aisles with dancing and attempting to recreate the music video scene with Springsteen and Courtney Cox.

But there was still a final tribute to be made. As I mentioned, Tenth Avenue Freeze Out was the original roll call song for E Street Band. As it should have been given that the song is about the formation of the E Street Band. Without Clarence Clemons around any longer though, that song became a tribute to the Big Man. “When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band” is the lyric that kicks off the third verse along with a highlighted spot for Clemons’ saxophone; but now the Boss hits that line, the music cuts out and a video went on for just over sixty seconds showing a montage of images of Clarence on stage with the band over the previous 30+ years. That tribute has evolved since this but it was a very moving moment.

Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphy’s would join Springsteen for the final song of the night, American Land. As the song ended, Springsteen thanked everyone for coming out. It had been 3 hours and 26 minutes, 30 songs had been played with only 12 repeated from the previous night’s show. Fireworks were launched from the Green Monster behind the stage as we filed out, you’d have been hard pressed to find
anyone who wasn’t feeling good as they walked out. There’d been emotional highs and lows but the
Boss guided us through them.

Because Bruce Springsteen…he doesn’t really seem like he treats a concert like his job. Is the main purpose to ultimately sell tickets/albums? Of course it is. It’s what any band is supposed to do. Make the label happy. But if there weren’t things like curfews and physical limitations, I find it hard to believe he’d ever willingly leave the stage. He’s the first member of the band to walk on stage and the last one to leave, watching the audience depart with a look on his face like he wishes he could still be playing. He was 62 (a month from 63) at the time of this show and tour and just doesn’t seem to buy into the idea of taking it easy. He puts everything he can into his performances each night. I saw him again this past February at TD Garden and it held true as he blazed through the entirety of The River album and a playlist of crowd favorites. And I expect it to be the same case tonight when I go to Gillette Stadium for the final show of this tour.

Anyway…I guess I don’t have a whole lot else to say. And to be honest I don’t think I really quite properly expressed what I intended to. I really just told you about a concert I went to. I don’t know
if that’s enough to get you to check out his discography in more depth. Maybe it is, maybe not. I love it though, I think that came through. Don’t worry; this will be the last you see me write to this extent in all likelihood. If you were gonna check out just one album of his….I’d say make it either Darkness on the Edge of Town or Born to Run. I could argue in favor of either but they’re easily his two best in my opinion.

If you want to see someone try and take on the extensive catalog of Springsteen (and still not get it entirely right in my opinion), a writer from Vulture attempted to rank all 314 Springsteen songs from worst to best. Worth a look if you have even a passing interest.…