The band’s too big. Bloated. Perilously close to becoming the E Street Revue.
And the material from the current Wrecking Ball, which was represented by six (!) songs at Monday’s show at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia, was pretty much leaden. With one exception (“We Are Alive”), these are tuneless and overly familiar accounts of economic aftershock, portraits in hardship rendered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Or some other blunt instrument. “We Take Care of Our Own” is not a song – it’s an insurance jingle.
There were other miscalculations in the course of the 3 and ½ hour show, the kinds of decisions that might have doomed a different act.
Because Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band represent a quintessence: At this point in this year of Skrillex and Spotify, there is simply no better way to encounter the runaway lust, raw fury and life-changing potential of rock and roll. No other working band can stir up a big crowd that way, and maintain that intensity for hours. No music act takes its audience on such an epic journey – through restless teenaged dreams of busting out to dark grownup disillusionment and every unexpected grace note in between.
Still, as significant as Springsteen’s endlessly analyzed narratives are, the real story of this tour is the ensemble. Monday’s show began with a few songs from Darkness On the Edge of Town, and within each of them Springsteen detoured into extended guitar exploration. It was as though he was sending a message to the small army of musicians assembled behind him: Last night we did the entertaining thing, and tonight, we dig in and play hard. They did. It was sweaty and ragged and real. Four songs in came “Prove It All Night” and after Springsteen finished an entirely thrilling lead, Nils Lofgrin stepped in, picked up the thread and took it to another level. Not a little incremental increase, either – into entirely different airspace. Even the usually expressionless drummer Max Weinberg cracked a smile as that one hit its peaks.
People attending these big stadium shows (or arena shows, for that matter) have come to expect a certain type of engrossingly choreographed escapist entertainment. Springsteen can deliver that – his tribute to E Street’s late saxophonist Clarence Clemons on “10th Avenue Freezeout” was quietly rousing, with a touch of Hollywood. Still, what’s more impressive about this mighty, roaring band is that it doesn’t simply stay in one gear all night: It gets somber or spooky or belligerent as the songs require, handling every nuance that Springsteen intended – on the hits and across his enormous songbook.
(Here, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on how an average rock act hits the road prepared to play maybe 30 songs; the E Street book contains over 200 songs, including a bunch of oldtime rock warhorses that Springsteen and crew are prepared to revitalize upon request.)
Monday’s show had the requisite helpings of hard-swinging Jersey backbeat as well as exuberant guitar rock (“Darlington County”), despairing balladry (“The River”) and stories like “Jungleland,” which began as a piano etude and erupted into flourishes of cinematic grandeur. In every case, every single tune, the details were nailed and at the same time, the band sounded fully invested in bringing the songs to life. It didn’t matter if it was a nightly staple or an obscurity – nobody on Springsteen’s stage operates on autopilot. Ever.
That’s remarkable in any genre, and the reason anyone involved in live music should spend an evening watching the E Streeters work. These veterans do more than play notes. Attending to wickedly small details together as a unit, they manufacture awe, inspiration and delight as a matter of routine, song after song and night after night.