When the lights go down at a Springsteen concert, immediately yielding the eruption of Bruuuuce’ing from the audience, there permeates the stadium a feeling that anything is possible for the next few hours, in the company of fellow fans and the music of faith and redemption for America’s working class. As the final show on this tour, the energy of Gillette Stadium was buzzing with particular excitement that any songs were virtually fair game. And indeed, while not setting a record in concert length this time, Bruce and the band more than delivered with a setlist full of older favorites and some rarer treats. Following the now customary “NYC Serenade” opening song was “Prove It All Night” with the 1978 intro, a long, searing guitar solo leading into the fist pumping favorite that the song always delivers as. From there, he took the band on a long journey through his debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, omitting only “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” “The Angel,” and “For You” (the last of which is likely the only one that was at all missed). Leading into “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” Bruce mentioned his upcoming birthday (“a big one”) and that he wrote this song when he “was a baby child.”
Perhaps enhanced by the upcoming release of his autobiography, though true over the course of his entire career, Bruce is first and foremost a storyteller, both in his lyrics and in the tales behind them that many fans recount fondly in the 1986 live album (e.g., “The River” and “Growin’ Up”). He is a songwriter who lays bare his vulnerabilities and doubts, his struggle for redemption, his strife with his father, his search for faith, a deeply personal record of music that allows for a closeness and intimacy between artist and fan that is not true of many of Bruce’s contemporaries. Reflecting in Foxborough on his teenage years (“My friends didn’t like me, my town didn’t like me, my family liked me okay…”) and his narrow aptitudes as a fourteen year-old (“I was really only good at one thing,” which he couldn’t do for four hours without seeking “medical attention”) until saving up $18 for his first guitar, which he earned through what he characterized as the only honest work he’s done. “Blinded By the Light” was a wonderful rocker that many fans are lucky to hear at all given its scarcity in his setlists, though to be sure its wordiness is not the most conducive to singing along.
Bruce then reflected on his development as a musician, first not realizing that he needed to tune his guitar, then practicing religiously but sounding terrible, and finally being asked in New York City to play a song, which led in to this fateful audition song that was “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” followed by “Growin’ Up.” For all the electricity and clapping and fist pumping passion that is a Springsteen performance, it is his stories that manage to make his 55,000 person concerts intimate, that allow Bruce to forge a bond with so many devoted enough to cross oceans or continents to experience (at least) one more time the feeling of a Springsteen concert in full force.
Following the ever-beloved “Spirit in the Night” and “Lost in the Flood,” the Wild and Innocent rarities were next, with “Kitty’s Back” leading into “Incident on 57th Street,” straight into “Rosalita,” a rocking crowd-pleaser that invariably has every audience member with a pulse dancing but which historically has tended to appear toward the end of his concerts rather than the middle.
A signature aspect of Bruce’s last few tours has been his collection of signs from the audience, with all eyes on to what extent the night’s “last show status” might trigger more unexpected selections from the crowd. Following the far from rare but nevertheless well-liked “No Surrender” (written across a fan that Bruce carried in his mouth while holding the numerous signs), he launched into a cover of “Boom Boom,” a fun rocker that came out of left field but that seemed as much a treat for Bruce as for the audience and almost akin to his performance of “Jailhouse Rock” in night two of the old Giants stadium shows of 2009. “Detroit Medley” and “Light of Day” were also unexpected rockers that brought everyone in the stadium to their feet. After all, no matter how tired the audience may be from hours of standing, no one is giving more than Bruce himself, nearly 67 and in better shape than most of his fans as he continues to put in marathon concerts across the globe. Bruce is, with reason, not a performer to go through the motions on stage. He gives 100% each night and expects 100% from his audience.
“Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” was a largely acoustic highlight as Bruce waved the band off until the conclusion of the final verse, at which point Charlie and the others joined in to play the familiar notes with which the audience is accustomed. The stripped-down version was unusual and to be sure lowered the energy level of the audience, but had the sweetness and softness of a walk down memory lane, which no doubt it was for him, and fitting given the tenor of the concert.
The encore lead off with the requested “Long Walk Home,” prefaced with a comment on the ugliness of the present election cycle, along with his typical public service announcement, a reminder of the social conscience in which his music and his work continues to be rooted. Jake was masterful as ever in his “Jungleland” solo for so long identified exclusively with Clarence, and the frequency of it in the setlists never makes it less of a treat to hear. He has truly come into his own with the E-Street Band and is one of them now. “Rocking All Over the World,” was the final surprise of the night, with the exception of the disappointing absence of “Thunder Road” from the final show of the tour.
It is hardly common for a band to seemingly improve with age, especially past a certain age, but Bruce and his legendary E-Street Band seem in their marathon shows to defy the odds. And they may continue to do so, as Bruce uttered before leaving the stage the always coveted words, “We’ll be seeing you!”