"Tonight is the night you get to be the guinea pigs," Bruce Springsteen told the hometown audience Monday as he took the stage for the first of two rehearsal concerts on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, New Jersey's 85-year-old Convention Hall. Playing for a sold-out crowd of roughly 3,000 lucky fans, Springsteen worked the E Street Band through a variety of material from greatest hits to band debuts over the course of two and a half hours in preparation for his upcoming Working On a Dream tour. "Don't know if we've got a show yet," he said, "but we're just going to run through a bunch of songs and see how we're doing."
From the start, it was clear that a lot had changed since the last time Springsteen took the band on the road. With a new album out, new members in the band and a new president in office, Springsteen seemed to offer a renewed sense of purpose and optimism onstage. Where the Magic tour was all low lighting and brooding music ruminating on an America drifting away from its ideals, last night was something more akin to a block party.
Springsteen scooped up a young girl from the crowd to sing and dance with him during "Out In the Street," led the audience through a two-part sing-along on "This Life" and even broke out a cover of "Mustang Sally" with special guest John Eddie at the request of a fan. It was not a show for escaping or forgetting the hard economic times (Springsteen in fact brought up the recession on multiple occasions), but for rejuvenating and uniting a people in danger of losing their faith. He described the E Street Band as one built for hard times, a sentiment well evidenced by the man who stood up to hold his hand over his heart during "No Surrender" as if it were the National Anthem. "You can't get there by yourself," Springsteen told the crowd during "Mary's Place," later adding that now is "a moment to be thinking as much as you can about your neighbor." With that, he launched into an adaptation of the spiritual "Hard Times Come Again No More."
About half of the new album was performed, including the epic, sprawling ballad of "Outlaw Pete" and the tightly wound "My Lucky Day," which opened the show as a pair. Later in the set, Max Weinberg's 18-year-old son Jay sat in for the lumbering freight train rock of "Good Eye" and six other tunes. As Rock Daily reported, the younger Weinberg was preparing for his role as substitute drummer this summer when his father returns to Los Angeles to lead Conan O'Brien's house band on the Tonight Show. Despite his youth, or perhaps because of it, Weinberg really brought the thunder behind the kit, injecting older songs like "Candy's Room" and "Because the Night" with fresh blasts of energy and instantly earning status as a new fan favorite.
"It's unbelievable," he said excitedly while signing autographs for an endless line of fans after the show. "I've been on tour with them since I was nine, but I never thought I could be put into this family any deeper. It's just a huge moment."
The younger Weinberg wasn't the only new face on E Street. Along for this tour are backup singers Curtis King and Cindy Mizelle, members of Springsteen's most recent side project, the Seeger Sessions Band. Mizelle and King came to the front for gorgeous harmonies on a rocking version of Woody Guthrie's "I Ain't Got No Home," which featured the Springsteen-amended line "The banking man is rich/and the working man is poor/I ain't got no home in this world anymore." The two were also featured prominently on "Hard Times Come Again No More" and the Seeger Sessions holdover "American Land."
A far cry from the arenas, stadiums and festivals Springsteen and the E Street Band are gearing up to tour throughout the summer, Convention Hall is essentially the size and shape of a large high school gymnasium, which makes these rehearsal shows a unique experience for fans. Not only do they get up close and personal with the band (Springsteen leaned down to sign an autograph during the middle of one song), but they also get to witness the process of a concert being built from the ground up. Throughout the night there were reminders that this was very much still a work in progress. Springsteen needed his memory refreshed on chords and lyrics on a few occasions, and he seemed barely able to contain his laughter after Clarence Clemons' whistling solo on "Working on a Dream."
"The next time you see us," Springsteen promised, "we'll be a well-oiled machine."
"My Lucky Day"
"Out in the Street"
"Working On a Dream"
"I Ain't Got No Home"
"Because the Night"
"Long Walk Home"
"Hard Times Come Again No More"
"Mustang Sally" (w/ John Eddie)
"Born to Run"
"Seven Nights to Rock"