"Someday these childish dreams must end / To become a man and grow up and dream again," screamed Bruce Springsteen and guitarist Steve Van Zandt into the same microphone, the tendons in their necks stretched to bursting, their mouths a millimeter apart. "And I believe in the end / Two hearts are better than one."
It was a moment and a sentiment that captured the wildly emotional return of Bruce Springsteen and the reunited E Street Band to "the great state of New Jersey," as Springsteen repeatedly referred to it, to launch the American leg of their world tour. Tears and embraces were not uncommon sights as Thursday evening unfolded at East Rutherford, New Jersey's Continental Airlines Arena. This was a show about "the rebirth and rededication of our band," Springsteen said, but it was about much more than that as well. It was about reconnecting the ties that bind and a promise that what once was lost could be found again, that what was broken could be made whole. It was also about "the ministry of rock & roll," as Springsteen said during a hilarious interlude in the middle of a tumultuous version of "Light of Day," one of the set's many ecstatic high points.
The stage set was simple, even stark, and Springsteen dressed for work in black jeans and a black button-down shirt. The show, too, was happily short on shtick and long on sheer power. Now forty-nine and settled into a life that makes sense to him, Springsteen no longer needs to pander to his audience as shamelessly as he once did. A rollicking "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," of course, revisited the mythical origins of the E Street Band at some length -- and with much charm. And "Freehold," a new song inspired by a visit Springsteen made to his Catholic grade school, was far too sentimental and cute -- including a verse about masturbation. Do we really need Bruce doing the Farrelly brothers?
But for the most part, this was no-frills Bruce and the band tearing through a body of work as distinguished as any in the annals of rock & roll. As the insanely enthusiastic crowd welcomed the E Street Band to the stage, Bruce came out last in the company of the Big Man, saxophonist Clarence Clemons. "My Love Will Not Let You Down," from Tracks, then kicked the night off, followed by "Promised Land," "Two Hearts" and "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
That opening was focused and intense, but the fun started with the next song, "Darlington County." One interesting measure of any Springsteen set is how much he invests in his second-tier songs -- and by that measure, this night was strong. On "Darlington County," the E Street Band loosened up and began to swing with the tough finesse of the Rolling Stones.
By this early point in the evening, drummer Max Weinberg had already established himself as the band's musical star -- and by the end of the night, there simply could be no question about it. On "Light of Day" and a ravaging "Backstreets" Weinberg hit so hard it's a wonder the drumrise didn't collapse. Springsteen would look back to him for encouragement -- reminiscent of Keith Richards and Charlie Watts -- and Weinberg would practically lift out of his seat to get more force into his shots. Weinberg firmly held down barnburners like "Stand On It," but played with extraordinary delicacy during a lovely, countryish "Mansion on the Hill" and a mesmerizing "The Ghost of Tom Joad." In all, he put on a remarkable display of skill and musicality.
With a four-guitar front line -- Springsteen, Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, with Patti Scialfa on acoustic -- this group could obviously flex muscle, but things never tumbled into chaos. In fact, this oversized band -- which, in addition to the players already mentioned, also included keyboardists Roy Bittan and Danny Federici and bassist Gary Tallent -- made an impressive virtue of discipline. A reworked arrangement of "The River" played down the melody and transformed the song into a film noir mood piece, while "Youngstown" lost its brooding introspection and became an agonized, jackhammer blast. In a touching move, Springsteen re-imagined "If I Should Fall Behind" -- the only song he played from Human Touch or Lucky Town -- as a kind of E Street statement of shared purpose, with Lofgren, Van Zandt, Clemons and Scialfa each singing verses along with him.
Now, all hipsters know that rock & roll is dead. It must be true -- I read it in a newsmagazine just this week. Strangely, Springsteen and the E Street Band haven't heard the news. Delivering twenty-six songs in three hours, they labored in the belief, however unfashionable it is, that if you play music with passion and conviction and the people who hear it respond with the same commitment, that music is alive and well. "I can't promise you life everlasting," Springsteen bellowed during his "Light of Day" preacher skit, "but I can promise you life RIGHT NOW!" He meant it, we felt it, and, as rock & roll salvation goes, it was enough to get us through the night -- and then some.
First night set list:
1. My Love Will Not Let You Down
2. The Promised Land
3. Two Hearts
4. Darkness on the Edge of Town
5. Darlington County
6. Mansion on the Hill
7. The River
9. Murder Incorporated
11. Out in the Street
12. Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
13. Where the Bands Are
14. Working on the Highway
15. The Ghost of Tom Joad
16. Streets of Philadelphia
18. Light of Day
20. Stand On It
21. Hungry Heart
22. Born to Run
23. Bobby Jean
24. Thunder Road
25. If I Should Fall Behind
26. Land of Hope and Dreams
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