Last night, I saw Bruce Springsteen live for the first time. In the culture of music journalists, I basically just had my bar mitzvah. Seeing the Boss perform in person is an unofficial rite of passage for anyone who writes about rock’n’roll—and, as I wrote in the introduction for our preview piece this week, it really doesn’t matter if you actually appreciate his music or not. If you write about pop music, you’re writing about Springsteen, and at some point, you must commune with the man face-to-face, shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of other hungry-hearted folks, under the roof of a giant arena. That’s what I did last night at the Rose Garden. And it was fucking phenomenal.
I’ve seen a few larger-than-life musical figures in the flesh before. None of them delivered like Bruce. Not even Prince. Let it be known, I was a Springsteen fan before last night, but certainly not the kind of “Bossologist” who knows the lyrics to every B-side by heart and collects the alternate takes and demos of every song the guy’s ever written. I’m the definition of a casual admirer. But I have to say: Every breathlessly hyperbolic thing I’ve heard about his live show from hardcore disciples is true. It’s a cliché, but he truly managed to turn an enormous sports stadium into a sweaty rock’n’roll club.
Performing with absolutely no frills, save for a small catwalk extending into the crowd, Springsteen—dressed in a vest, tie and (of course) jeans and, as always, backed by the E Street Band—was onstage (and in the crowd) for roughly three hours, and in that entire time, never indulged in a single moment of arena-rock artifice. Sure, he utilizes the grand gestures required of anyone performing for thousands of people, but even when delivering long mid-song monologues, screaming the name of the host city for easy applause or inviting crowd members up to dance with him onstage, there is a sense of trying to forge a genuine communion with the audience. I’ve seen bleeding-heart folkies in coffee shops exude less sincerity, and punk bands in basements play with less intensity. Bruce has earned his working class hero worship, and Wednesday evening at the Rose Garden, he proved it all damn night.
Picking a handful of highlights is difficult, but here are the five moments I’ll remember for a long, long time.
1. The “Hungry Heart” Stage Dive
It was really more of a trust fall, but still. Four songs into the set, Bruce took his first jaunt into the pit, walking along the barricade separating the two general admission areas and letting the crowd sing the majority of “Hungry Heart.” Then he paused, fell backward into a sea of hands, and let them carry him—slowly—back to the stage. (This guy is 63 years old, by the way.) They deposited him right on his head, but he popped straight back up.
2. Steven’s Choice
A Springsteen live tradition—at least on this tour, from what I’ve read—is taking sign requests from the crowd. At one point, Bruce gathered up signs with personal favorites from audience members scrawled across them. One looked like a science fair project board. Turns out, the fan had made a wheel adorned with different song titles and a spinnable arrow attached. Bruce gave it a whirl, and it landed on “Steve’s Choice,” referencing guitarist Steven Van Zandt. His choice? “Loose Ends,” an outtake from The River eventually released on the Tracks box set. Of course, the band ripped into it as soon as he called it out. Do these guys practice songs Bruce wrote when he was 12, just in case someone tries to stump them?
3. “Growing Up”
A favorite of mine ever since my girlfriend used it to soundtrack her brother’s wedding slideshow, this was another sign request, from a guy celebrating his 50th birthday. Toward the end—in true Springsteenian nature—Bruce brought the dude onstage to help sing the last verse, which is always a nice gesture in theory but usually a bad idea in practice. Frankly, though, the guy kind of killed it.
4. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”
In the encore, Bruce confirmed he has aged into everyone’s favorite slightly embarrassing drunk uncle by donning a red Santa cap and delivering a spirited cover of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” The fact that he somehow made this seem amazingly cool is testament alone to the guy’s awesomeness.
5. Clarence Clemons Tribute
In the midst of a rousing “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” performed with the house lights on, Springsteen paused while taking another walk across the barricade in the middle of the crowd and pointed at a video screen for a taped tribute to the late E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons. It sounds like a bummer of a way to end a show, but with Clarence’s nephew, Jake Clemons, ably filling in for the Big Man throughout the night, it made the epically raucous finale even more of a celebration.
OTHER RANDOM OBSERVATIONS: