You couldn't have asked for a more emotional setup. Over 300,000 tickets had been sold for the first fifteen American dates of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's reunion tour. All those dates would be taking place at the Continental Airlines Arena, in the band's home state of New Jersey – "the great state of New Jersey," as Springsteen invariably puts it. Arenas rarely take on personality, but since he became a superstar in the early Eighties, this venue has become a home for Springsteen as storied as the Stone Poney bar in Asbury Park, New Jersey, where he started out.
Impersonal? Hardly. Even longtime fans wondered whether an indoor arena might not be a bit too small for the energy that these shows would doubtless unleash. After all, Springsteen and the E Street Band hadn't toured together in more than a decade. The breakup had been hard, making the prospect of this reunion all the sweeter.
Sonic performers might be daunted by expectations on that exalted scale. Can music still mean that much? Springsteen had no doubt. As complex and scarifying as his songs can sometimes be, Springsteen embraces a performance ethic that ultimately boils down to this: If a small city's worth of people buy tickets for your shows the instant they go on sale, your job is to rock the house until the walls shake.
On the first and fourth dates of their New Jersey stand, that's exactly what Springsteen and the band did. The stage set was clean and stark – no sponsorship deals, no corporate logos – when the houselights dropped on opening night. One by one, from the rear of the stage, the E Street Band entered the spotlight – guitarists Steve Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren and Patti Scialfa, keyboardists Roy Bittan and Danny Federici, bassist Garry Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg. Springsteen emerged last, to thunderous applause, smiling as he sauntered out in the company of the Big Man, saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
Anyone worried about too-high expectations got immediate reassurance when Weinberg tattooed a pounding beat and the opening chords rang out of a song that is a statement of purpose: "My Love Will Not Let You Down." "The Promised Land" followed, and then "Two Hearts." On that song's second verse, Van Zandt stepped forward to sing on the same microphone as Springsteen. "I believe in the end/Two hearts are better than one," they sang, their lips nearly touching. Then came a brooding, forceful "Darkness on the Edge of Town," with Springsteen alternating a kind of haunted speech-singing with passionate howls as the verses moved into the chorus.
On both nights, Springsteen said that the shows were about "the rebirth and rededication of our band." Along those lines, the ballad "If I Should Fall Behind" got recast as a powerful declaration of mutual support, with Scialfa, Van Zandt, Clemons and Lofgren all taking lead vocals along with Springsteen. An exuberant "Out in the Street" also became a band anthem, as those players again stepped forward individually to sing, "Meet me out in the street" while the song's long coda rocked.
Of course, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the E Street Band's creation myth, got an extended, heartwarming treatment. As the song's easy R&B groove unfolded, Springsteen, singing in a grainy falsetto, worked in apt period references to the Impressions' "It's All Right" and "Keep on Pushing." All the band members greeted their introductions with musical tag lines – Van Zandt, who appears in The Sopranos, played the theme from The Godfather, and Scialfa sang a verse from the title song of her excellent (and very underrated) solo album, Rumble Doll. Swiveling his hips, Springsteen warned, "Ricky Martin, look out!" and, punning on the title of his most recent solo album, declared that he was searching for "the ghost of old Tom Jones."
These two shows – and the intervening two nights, as well centered on a core of songs and moods, with substitutions varying the set lists but maintaining their emotional architecture. "I Wanna Be With You" opened the fourth night, while a devastating version of "Jungleland" replaced an equally ravaging "Backstreets." A countryish "Mansion on the Hill," with Lofgren on pedal steel guitar, yielded to "Atlantic City" (dedicated to the cast members of The Sopranos, some of whom were in the audience). "The River," reimagined as a noirish mood piece floating on a lyrical sax solo by Clemons, gave way to a frighteningly intense "Point Blank." An exultant "Born to Run," more a memory of desperation than an enactment of it, and full-tilt rockers like "Darlington County," "Badlands" and "Working on the Highway" turned up both nights.
"Freehold," a new acoustic ballad inspired by a visit Springsteen made to his Catholic grammar school, indulges his ambivalence about his working-class New Jersey roots (a sense of community clashing with redneck values). It's funny and touching in parts but ultimately can't resist resorting to corniness (a verse about masturbation) and sentimentality. "Light of Day," with Weinberg propelling the band with freight-train force, is a tumultuous set piece. In the song's middle, Springsteen launches into one of his patented fire-and-brimstone preacher riffs. "If your heart is runnin' on empty, pull on up to the pump, because we're gonna fill it up!" he screamed to the congregation. The sanctified fuel, of course, is "the power, the promise, the magic, the mystery, the ministry of rock & roll!"
Believe it. When the E Street Band reunion was announced, a whiff of nostalgia hung around the edges of the widespread celebration. With no album of new songs, would this merely be glory days revisited? Was it a conveniently commercial sop to his most conservative fans, the ones for whom, as Springsteen himself put it, "Me in New Jersey . . . [is] like Santa Claus at the North Pole."
Nostalgia is an emotional dead end, a self-indulgent yearning for something that can never be recovered. But history is real, and what these shows are about is the shared history of an artist, a group of musicians and an audience. There have been ecstatic high points over the years, and some sad breakages. As in all families and relationships, band members and fans have come and gone.
These dignified, emotionally uplifting shows, however, demonstrate that what was lost can be found again, what was broken healed. They are not canned greatest-hits regurgitations, mere self-congratulations for past success. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have created a body of work that speaks to our deepest desires for connection. Regardless of what the future holds, these shows testify that those desires can sometimes be satisfied. "Faith will be rewarded," Springsteen sings in "Land of Hope and Dreams," the gorgeous new song that closed these nights. It's a promise, and he is keeping it.
This story is from the September 2, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.