'Badlands,' 'Rosalita,' 'Rising': Another 'unforgettable' Springsteen show at the Garden
Concert review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Monday night at the TD Garden, Boston
BOSTON – Monday night's blistering 28-song, 2-hour-and-50-minute Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert at the TD Garden in Boston brought to mind the iconic '90s movie "When Harry Met Sally," and the famous punchline inspired by Meg Ryan's character in the restaurant: "I'll have what she's having."
Some of the 19,580 fans in the sold-out arena were probably thinking they'd love to have whatever magic elixir from the Fountain of Youth that Springsteen has tapped into after witnessing his full-bore, nearly three-hour performance. But if he rocked us into submission, it was also a night for looking back, appreciating what has been, and looking with hope to whatever is to come. A Springsteen concert is as much about a philosophy of life as anything, and he's still one of the most riveting preachers around.
Sure, his hair is mostly salt and pepper now, and he isn't doing those length-of-the-stage runs that ended with a long slide on his knees. But Monday night, The Boss, now 73, was striding the stage with elan, directing the E Street Band – now swelled to 18 musicians – uncorking brain-curdling guitar solos, and generally having the time of his life.
The set lists for these shows have been drawing from 10 albums, from his 1973 "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle" to last year's collection of soul chestnuts, "Only the Strong Survive." Fans here and there might quibble about what tunes are played versus ones that aren't ("Hungry Heart" made its first appearance on this tour on the show before Boston, at State College, Pennsylvania, but was not in Monday's set), but as E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt has explained on his social media, Springsteen is using his autobiographical Broadway show as a sort of framework for these shows, giving a view of his career, as he sees it, in retrospect.
A rousing 'Dirty Water' in Boston
There was one new addition to the set list Monday night, and it was a corker, a cover of The Standells' Beantown anthem "Dirty Water," which the band hadn't done since 2012. The four-person horn section that augmented sax player Jake Clemons really gave the old classic added punch, and it was obvious Springsteen and Van Zandt relished the chance to play those gritty guitar lines.
Boston is the 17th date on Springsteen's scheduled 31-date spring tour. Three dates had to be postponed last week after someone in the band took ill. Among the postponed dates was a stop at the Mohegan Sun Arena, and that has now been rescheduled for Sept. 16.
After this arena tour of the States, the group is headed to Europe for a series of concerts before returning home later in the summer to play U.S. stadiums, including Gillette Stadium on Aug. 24 and Aug. 26; the second date was added Tuesday morning. The tour has been colored by the controversy over LiveNation's "dynamic pricing," which has led to enormous ticket prices, although word is that much more economical options can be found closer to show dates. T-shirts at the merch stands were going for $50 Monday and doing a brisk business.
Those higher prices may have left a sour taste for some, but by night's end, the sheer power of the performance had won over another congregation for rock's greatest live act.
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The E Street Band is still a mighty vehicle for the singer to lead, even more so this year when it is augmented by four added horn players, a percussionist and four backup vocalists.
The core E Street Band at the beginning was Springsteen, Van Zandt, pianist Roy Bittan, drummer Max Weinberg, bassist Garry Tallent, organist Danny Federici and tenor sax giant Clarence Clemons. Nils Lofgren was brought in on guitar when Van Zandt pursued his solo career, and then kept on when Van Zandt returned.
Federici died of skin cancer in 2008 (Monday was the 15th anniversary of his last show, a band tweet noted) and Charles Giordano stepped in on keyboards. After "The Big Man" Clemons died in 2011, his nephew Jake Clemons took over the sax duties. Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, has been part of E Street for the past 30-odd years, but she's thus far only made two dates on this tour. Violinist Soozie Tyrell has been performing with E Street for a couple of decades now, and also adds backing vocals.
Monday's show found the band playing with that basic E Street lineup – plus percussionist Anthony Almonte – for a 10-strong format for about half the show, and bringing on the four horns and the vocal quartet of Michelle Moore, Lisa Lowell, Ada Dyer and Curtis King for the other half.
Songs with that 18-piece band really featured some dazzling arrangements, so that "Kitty's Back" and "The E Street Shuffle" sounded as much like big band jazz as they did rock 'n' roll, but the energy never flagged, and Springsteen never seemed to grow weary. The quartet of backing singers was effective all night, and Springsteen turned "The Night Shift," the classic soul cover, into a nifty duet with King.
More than just an overview of his career trajectory, Springsteen's set is designed around some common themes. As a friend noted, this is kind of the "Bruce confronts his mortality" tour, and so there is a summing up, a desire to figure out what it all means and where he's been taking this community of fans who've made him such an important part of their lives.
Maybe a line from one of his early songs, "Badlands," says it succinctly: "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive." But that's too simple, and the aura of empathy is also a crucial component – symbolized Monday by the volunteers collecting donations for the Boston Food Bank at the show, or Springsteen dedicating "Thunder Road" to employees of Dana-Farber.
All of those feelings seemed to coalesce around the performance of "Last Man Standing," from 2020's "Letter to You" album. Springsteen introduced it by relating the story of how he joined his first band at age 15, spending three years with The Castiles, named after a shampoo. In 2018, Castiles leader George Theis succumbed to lung cancer, and Springsteen realized he was the group's last surviving member. Playing the song solo with just acoustic guitar, Springsteen looked back wistfully at those days of endless horizons, and the fun they'd had, as a haunting trumpet melody echoed in the background.
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That led into an extended and wonderfully elegant intro to "Backstreets." That song is one of his most riveting and roaring early rockers, but Monday it was delivered more slowly, lingering on the lyrics. Finally Springsteen inserted a couple of lines about finding a photo of Theis when they'd played at a wedding, and the late musician was all of 19 years old. Those memories "we'll hold right here," Springsteen, said, tapping his heart and looking skyward.
That was the most moving part of the first half, which was otherwise almost all full-blast, hard-charging rock 'n' roll. The pulverizing anthem "No Surrender" opened the show, and then the newer "Ghosts" provided a bit more nuance, before "Prove It All Night" took the energy level to the stratosphere, with Clemons' wailing sax met with a blazing guitar solo from Springsteen.
The midtempo run through "Letter to You" was a sizzling chance for fans to catch their breath before "Promised Land" blasted off, another pulsating anthem of the promise of youth. On that one, Clemons' sax lines were contrasted with impressive harmonica from Springsteen. A wildly rousing "Out on the Streets" came with an extended finish as the crowd supplied the "woh-oh, woh-oh" chorus for about a three-minute coda.
A roof-raising 'Kitty's Back'
The first appearance of the four extra horns came during "Candy's Room," giving that and "Kitty's Back" a really roof-raising new potency. After that smooth soul nugget with King, the cathartic "Trapped" rode Giordano's organ lines to some of the audience's most impassioned singalong.
"The E Street Shuffle" had a superb new arrangement, turning it into loosey-goosey, syncopated dancefloor fun, as Springsteen gleefully marched in place at his mike stand. The horn section took "Johnny 99," from the bleak "Nebraska" album, and turned it into a boisterous two-step, with Lofgren adding slide guitar.
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After that interlude of "Last Man Standing" and "Backstreets," the pace hardly seemed to ever slack. "Because the Night" was passionate, and "She's the One" rode Weinberg's booming tom-toms. As if to provide the audience another break, the newer "Wrecking Ball" was a lower-key look back, with autobiographical details. Rest assured, when the lyrics noted that stadium where the New York Giants rule, Boston fans gave Springsteen a good-natured but no-less-emphatic 'BOOOOO!'
"The Rising" provided more galvanizing music and catharsis, and the version of "Badlands" was more incendiary than ever. That ended the "regular set," but the band didn't leave the stage, and simply dimmed the lights for a couple of minutes before returning for the encores.
"Dirty Water" was pure fun, and "Thunder Road" had the singer letting the crowd sing most of the lines back at him. "Born to Run" was an even bigger mass singalong, as potent a rocker now as it was in 1975. The fast charge through "Rosalita" had the three-guitar frontline doing a comical circular dance pattern. "Dancing in the Dark" was just a joyful outburst, and by the time Springsteen capped the intro to "Tenth Avenue Freezeout" by ripping his shirt open, the crowd was howling nonstop.
The night ended with the band leaving, and Springsteen and just his acoustic guitar, singing "I'll See You in My Dreams," a tender farewell to those lost bandmates, and one more bit of a homily, a reminder to treasure good times and good people, and try to be good to each other. If it was also, potentially, Springsteen bidding farewell to his concert fans, it was in line with his life's work: unforgettable.
This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Bruce Springsteen busts out 'Dirty Water' cover at TD Garden show