The singer looked momentarily lost in thought, sitting shoulder to shoulder with his saxophone player at the lip of the stage. For a moment they were two guys on the street corner, figuring it out. Suddenly Bruce Springsteen looked out at the stadium crowd, turned to his partner and said with a wry smile, "This is all before you were born."
The song that featured their impressionistic interlude, Springsteen's "Spirit in the Night," is almost 40 years old. The sax player, Jake Clemons, the nephew of Springsteen's late sideman Clarence Clemons, is several years younger.
Kicking off the latest North American leg of his mammoth, globetrotting Wrecking Ball tour last night on a state-of-the-art stage erected in centerfield at Boston's historic Fenway Park, Springsteen and his ever-expanding E Street Band might have been thinking that maybe they ain't that young anymore. Yet they showed little sign of slowing down, other than their customary encore tribute to James Brown, when the frontman laid down on the stage, theatrically running an index finger across his throat to indicate he was all done after more than three hours of sticky rock & roll testimonial.
He wasn't finished, of course. After guitarist Steven Van Zandt ceremonially "revived" his boss by baptizing him with a water-soaked sponge, Springsteen led his magpie band through three more spirited encores, including one for the home team, a cover of the Standells' garage-y ode to Boston, "Dirty Water."
The setlist was similar to those that rock's most successful regular guy rolled out at his recent European shows. There was vintage shaggy-dog Bruce ("Spirit," "Rosalita"), vintage defy-your-circumstances Bruce ("Badlands," opener "The Promised Land"), vintage give-the-people-what-they-want Bruce ("Dancing in the Dark").
"And hard times come, and hard times go," he sang over and over, hoarsely, on "Wrecking Ball," the song (and album) that gave the tour its name. As dusk began to settle four songs into the set, he planted his feet wide and brandished his guitar, daring some unseen foe to try to knock him off his feet. There's an obvious sense of purpose to the E Street Band's current edition; the set featured several of the album's songs of economic distress (often with a distinct Irish lilt that sounded right at home in Boston), including "Death to My Hometown" and the funereal "Jack of All Trades."
The band teased plenty of Springsteen's inspirations, playing up the Buddy Holly at the core of "Working on the Highway" and the Chuck Berry inside "Johnny 99," and echoing the Stones' "Honky Tonk Women" on "Darlington County" and Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" at the close of "We Are Alive."
This being New England, there were a few clams. The heavy gospel proselytizing of "Shackled and Drawn," for instance, was a bit over the top even by the grand-gesture standards of Springsteen, who long ago established his grease-monkey-preacher persona. But it's hard to fault an act that was built on sheer exertion for trying too hard.
"Are you ready for the heartbreakin', love-makin', Viagra-takin', curfew-hatin' E Street band?" he joked. In addition to the frontman's usual bag of tricks, several band members took turns working the crowd. During an extended, frenetic solo on "Because the Night," the hit song Springsteen co-wrote with Patti Smith, guitarist Nils Lofgren spun on one foot repeatedly, like a Russian dancer. Drummer Max Weinberg took the Charlie Watts role, appearing often on the oversized screens in closeup, grim-faced as he slammed the snare hard enough to propel himself up off his stool.
Catering to the Red Sox faithful, the bandleader noted that Van Zandt was born near Boston; the guitarist nodded with a shrug, admitting it. And Springsteen praised the rejuvenated old ballpark as he explained how "My City of Ruins" was written to express how we're forever "living with ghosts . . . The blood, the heart, the soul – it's all in the dirt out there, and it never goes away," he said, looking toward home plate. The night included several references to the late Johnny Pesky, a Red Sox legend who died Monday at age 93. Inevitably, the band trotted out the baseball-themed "Glory Days."
At one point Springsteen compared the show to an annual family cookout, where each summer "you look around and see who's there and who's missing. Are we missing anybody tonight?" Later, drenched in sweat, he ventured into the crowd and stood on a platform during an encore of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out."
"This is the important part!" he hollered as he arrived at the line about the Big Man joining the band. Holding his microphone high, he stood stock-still, chest heaving, as the huge video screens played a silent montage of performance clips featuring Clarence Clemons, who died last year.
Though the show ended on a festive note, with fireworks streaming skyward off the Green Monster (Fenway's towering left-field wall) during "Dirty Water" and "Twist and Shout," the highlight may have come an hour or so before. It was another somber moment, with Springsteen singing a sweet, largely unaccompanied version of "Drive All Night." A slow burner from 1980's The River, it's a humble love song that might as well be about his devotion to his audience. It was gorgeous in its rawness, which is what the man, at his best, does.
"The Promised Land"
"Out in the Street"
"We Take Care of Our Own"
"Death to My Hometown"
"My City of Ruins"
"Spirit in the Night"
"The E Street Shuffle"
"Jack of All Trades"
"Because the Night"
"Working on the Highway"
"Shackled and Drawn"
"Waitin' on a Sunny Day"
"Drive All Night"
"We Are Alive"
"Born to Run"
"Dancing in the Dark"
"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"
"Twist and Shout"