It's been a long two years since Bruce Springsteen wrapped up his last tour, so when he announced a two-night stand at Pittsburgh's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall with longtime friends Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, fans traveled from far and wide to catch the show.
"People have flown to Pittsburgh from all across the world!" Springsteen said early on in the night. "That's almost as crazy as flying to Asbury Park! It's insane! People come from perfectly wonderful places, and they leave them! I met some people from Sweden, and Spain's here too. Even Italy. It's crazy, and the obligation weighs very heavy on my head."
On the second night of the stand, Springsteen was clearly determined to insure that nobody left the house disappointed — delivering a stunning three-and-a-half hour, 32-song set that was every bit as intense, unpredictable and euphoric as his legendary marathon shows of the 1970s.
Even jaded, grey-haired fans in faded Tunnel of Love Express Tour t-shirts seemed floored when Springsteen flew past the three-hour mark and didn't seem anywhere close to stopping. The person who seemed to be having the most fun, however, was Bruce himself. All night long he repeatedly dove into the crowd, singing bits of songs from the third row, stumping the band with audibles and even roaring with delight when an inebriated, middle-aged man dove onstage to sing along to "Brown Eyed Girl."
Grushecky and Springsteen first played at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall last November to celebrate the anniversary of American Babylon, an LP they had cut together fifteen years earlier. But it was really just an excuse for the old friends to throw a great party, and they clearly had so much fun they decided to do it again this year. The venue itself is a turn-of-the-century hall dedicated to American veterans, and it's about the size of a large high school gym. The complete text of the Gettysburg Address is engraved in giant letters over the stage. The whole place has the vibe of those great old theaters and ballrooms that Springsteen was forced to largely stop playing in the late 1970s when his massive popularity forced him into arenas and stadiums.
The show began with a set by The Composure, which features Joe's son, Johnny Grushecky, on guitar. The singer sounded strangely like Fall Out Boy's Patrick Stump, but their sound was much more garage than emo. For their last song, Springsteen came out and joined them on a wonderfully sloppy "Dancing In The Dark." It was the first of the evening's many surprises.
Springsteen began the main set with a solo acoustic rendition of "Your Own Worst Enemy" from 2007's Magic before announcing that the next song was a request straight from Grushecky. "I've never done this on the guitar before," Bruce said, before kicking into one of the most gut-wrenchingly beautiful renditions of "Incident On 57th Street" that he's ever performed. You could have heard a pin drop through the entire thing. Judging by the amount of camera cellphones out, it should be on YouTube from about 500 different angles, including the one below:
Springsteen followed it up with "I'll Work For Your Love," and then he walked offstage and let Grushecky and the Houserockers take things over. For those unfamiliar with the group, they released a series of beloved albums in the 1980s as the Iron City Houserockers, but never never developed an audience outside of their devoted, cult following.
Grushecky has worked as a teacher in Pittsburgh for many years, but he never gave up on music. The band tours when his schedule allows. Springsteen and Grushecky are extremely close friends, and Bruce even toured as his backing guitarist for a short period of time in 1995. They bring out the best in each other, and they spent the night trading guitar licks and big laughs.
The Houserockers opened with "East Carson Street" as Bruce watched on the side of the stage. It's a wonderful tribute to the city of Pittsburgh, and a great showcase for Joe's guitar work. I bet a lot of his students had no idea how cool their teacher was. Springsteen came out for the third song of the set, and stayed alongside Grushecky for the rest of the night. They wrote a lot of stellar songs together in the 1990s and 2000s, and they played most of them, including "Another Thin Line," "Code of Silence," "A Good Life" and "Talking To The King." Relative obscurities like these tunes might lead to mass exits for the bathroom at a regular Springsteen show, but this crowd screamed along to every word.
The bulk of the set was devoted to Springsteen's own catalog, however. The Houserockers are a fantastic bar band, and it was great fun to see the songs stripped down and played with a little more raw power than they get with the E Street Band. "Adam Raised A Cain" and "Light of Day" let Bruce absolutely cut loose on the guitar, while "The Promised Land" and "Radio Nowhere" had the audience going crazy — even if the absence of saxophone on those two was a stark reminder that a Springsteen concert will never quite be the same again after the death of Clarence Clemons.
There were some flubs. The keyboardist screwed up a bit of the "Because The Night" intro—and Bruce openly winced when the band forgot a key change in "Hungry Heart"—but it was all part of the fun. Near the end of that song, he jumped down from the stage, stood on my chair and led the audience in a sing-along of the chorus. I helped hold him up as he nearly smacked my face with his arm a bunch of times. That's not the kind of thing that happens at Giants Stadium.
After "Brown Eyed Girl" – featuring Grushecky's wife and daughter dancing next to Bruce and Joe – the band didn't seem to know what to do next. "We don't know anymore," said Springsteen. "We're stumped... Oh, here's one we didn't do." It was a blues-rock version of "Pink Cadillac," followed by a medley of "La Bamba" and "Twist and Shout," which culminated with about a dozen fans diving onto the stage to dance and singing along. It felt like the end, but after the band left the stage, a guitar tech brought Springsteen an acoustic guitar. He spotted a sign for "No Surrender" in the balcony, and made those fans very happy with a particularly tender and heartfelt solo rendition of the song.
It sure seemed like a finale, but he still wasn't done. "I wrote this next song on a bus many, many years ago," he said before digging out the trippy "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" from his 1973 debut LP. At this point, anything seemed possible, particularly when he said that the next song came to him in a dream. "In my dreams I've written many, many songs and they sound like the greatest songs ever written," he said. "I wake up, write some of these things down, and the next morning, almost invariably, these songs are total shit. In my dream I'd go, 'This is the one that will make them forget "Born To Run!"' Then it's horrendous. This the one song that I wrote in my dreams and was actually good." It turned out he was talking about "Surprise Surprise" from 2009's Working On A Dream, which he dedicated to a woman celebrating a birthday in the first row.
Joe Grushecky watched the acoustic set from the side of the stage but was called back out for the finale of "Thunder Road." They sang it together into one mic as the crowd bellowed out every single word. It was truly a wonderful moment, made better when Bruce yelled out "We'll be seeing ya!" as he walked offstage.
Nobody seems to know what Springsteen's future plans are – and the death of Clarence Clemons makes the E Street Band's future murky at best – but let these shows snuff out any doubt that Springsteen's sheer love of performing has diminished even one bit in recent years. If anything, he seemed happier to be up there than I've ever seen him. Whatever happens next, that can only lead to great things in the future.