Forget about tonight's actual NCAA title game: Bruce Springsteen has already been crowned the champion of Final Four weekend in Dallas, closing out the March Madness Music Festival with a Sunday-night headlining set that — of course — went into triple overtime.
Backed, prodded and, at times, literally propped-up by the E Street Band, Springsteen sweat, spat, swore a bit, and shrugged off weather he referred to as "a light monsoon" in a show that spanned the length of four NCAA basketball games (with an extra half thrown in for good measure.) He's never been one to beg off early, but on this night, Springsteen seemed to be playing with an extra purpose — after all, Sunday marked his first full-length performance in the U.S. since wrapping the Wrecking Ball tour in late 2012, not to mention his first stateside date in support of 2014's High Hopes album.
Springsteen was ready to put in work, though he did make one concession to the events of the weekend, taking the stage with the E Streeters to the strains of "Sweet Georgia Brown" (instantly recognizable to even the wheeziest of mathletes as the Harlem Globetrotters' theme) then bringing a referee onstage for an actual opening tipoff (he battled guitarist Nils Lofgren). Appropriately, that was followed by a cover of Van Halen's "Jump," and then Springsteen was off and running.
There were, naturally, the classics every Bruce diehard lives to shout along to — a hard-revving take on "Badlands," a shuffling "Hungry Heart," "Born to Run," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" — and tour-tested favorites that were given updates both soulful (a meditative-to-massive "Atlantic City") and sublime ("Johnny 99," which became boisterous thanks to Roy Bittan's boogie-woogie piano and a big brass-band breakdown). In quieter moments, most notably a ghostly take on "The River," and an acoustic "Thunder Road," Springsteen led the rapt audience through revivals and eulogies, and when the volume got loud, he directed sing-alongs from the stage.
It was a prime example of Springsteen's powers as both a showman and a shaman, neither of which were in doubt. But he also showed a newfound fire thanks to the addition of guitarist Tom Morello to the E Street lineup (the Rage Against the Machine maestro is replacing Steve Van Zandt, who's busy filming his series Lilyhammer.) The two traded verses and solos on a series on incendiary songs, including High Hopes' title track, and another cut from the odds-n-sods album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad," that were arguably the highlights of the night, with Morello conjuring rapid-fire squeals, and Springsteen adding rough-edged grit. Even from the back of Dallas' Reunion Park, you could see a genuine spark between the two.
Springsteen also shared the stage with his fans, the majority of which definitely weren't alive when he was sending out Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. That didn't stop him from letting them sing lead, or direct the E Street Band, though it certainly explains why, after inviting several girls up for "Dancing in the Dark," they all seemed more interested in posing for selfies (Courteney Cox never did that). But it showed that, at this point, Springsteen's reach now extends to a third generation, and chances are, they'll remember this show for the rest of their lives, long after the winner of the 2014 NCAA tournament has faded from memory.
Springsteen wasn't the only act making a return to the U.S. stage on Sunday: fun. performed a vibrant late-afternoon set (their first since October) that showed they hadn't lost a step and hinted at bigger things to come.
While the group didn't play any new material — frontman Nate Ruess is currently writing songs for the follow-up to their breakthrough Some Nights album, while guitarist Jack Antonoff is busy with Bleachers — they did infuse their back catalog with added percussive punch, swirling guitars and wide-screen vocal harmonies. From the marching-band might of opener "One Foot" and Antonoff's chunky grooves on "Walking the Dog" to the increased role of touring member Emily Moore and the expressive-yet-precise playing (on several instruments) of Andrew Dost, fun. are only adding to their arsenal.
And Ruess, emboldened by his songwriting successes, is coming into his own as a frontman. His voice was as lithe as ever on songs like "Why Am I the One" and "Barlights," and, during a lull in the set, he took it upon himself to bond with the soaked masses, rolling around in the rapidly growing puddles on the stage, then joking "I dare you to do that, Boss!" (it was difficult to tell if the crowd was booing the joke, or yelling "Bruuuuce!")
Fun. showed their experimental side on the glitchy "It Gets Better" and got in touch with their inner bar band on a nifty cover of the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and, of course, scored with their true strength: writing massive anthems like "Carry On" and "We Are Young," each delivered with aplomb by Ruess, while Antonoff ripped off spiraling solos and Dost held down the center with his piano playing.
Those two songs went over big, but you could tell that Ruess (who was totally drenched by the end of the set) was thoroughly enjoying himself throughout. At one point, he looked at Antonoff and Dost and laughed "We need to fucking come out of retirement." Seriously.
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