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.
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