Before anyone played a note of music at the seventh annual John Henry’s Friends Benefit at New York’s Town Hall, host and organizer Steve Earle walked onto the stage, beaming with excitement and anticipation. “This is going to be good,” he said. “I’ve asked friends to do this every year, but the bar is going to be high from here on out.”
That would have been true even if the bill for the night included just his longtime backing band the Dukes plus Rosanne Cash, Willie Nile, Matt Savage, and the Mastersons. But Bruce Springsteen agreed to join the fun this year, transforming the fundraising event for the Keswell School, which educates children and young adults with autism, into an extremely hot ticket for Springsteen fanatics who have been denied their Bruce fix for far too long.
Springsteen came out midway through the night, Telecaster in hand, and burst into “Darkness on the Edge of Town” with help from the Dukes. It was the first glimpse of electric Springsteen most fans have seen since the conclusion of The River tour in early 2017, and it sent waves of shock and joy through the theater, and roughly 300 cellphones high into the air to record the performance from every conceivable angle.
He followed that up with “The Promised Land,” playing the 1,500-seat Town Hall like it was an 80,000-seat European soccer stadium. There was no saxophonist to handle Clarence Clemons’ original parts, but the Dukes had clearly done their E Street homework and they nailed every other part with perfect precision.
Willie Nile came onto the stage and served as the substitute Steve Van Zandt for a wild rendition of “Glory Days,” though the audience sang the entire first verse without any help. They wrapped with “Pink Cadillac,” where Springsteen and Earle split up the vocal duties. The whole set was a mere 20 minutes, but it was more than enough for the deep-pocketed fans who shelled out upwards of $8,500 for VIP seats to feel like they got their money’s worth.
Other highlights from the show, which was presented by City Winery, included autistic pianist Matt Savage transforming Alanis Morissette’s “Head Over Feet” into a classical masterwork; Rosanne Cash delivering a haunting version of “Long Black Veil”; and Willie Nile warming the stage for Springsteen with selections from from his upcoming LP The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Steve Earle and the Dukes had the near-impossible task of following Springsteen, but they kept the excitement he generated going strong with “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road,” “So You Wannabe an Outlaw,” and a moving cover of “Harlem River Blues” by the songwriter’s late son Justin Townes Earle.
The show concluded with everyone from the night returning for “Teach Your Children,” with Springsteen handling the verse that starts with “And you, of tender years…” It was his first time singing the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young classic since the 1986 Bridge School Benefit, but he knew all the words.
The event raised over $100,000 for the the Keswell School, and it served as a tiny preview of what fans can expect from the next E Street Band tour. That’s probably at least six months away, but judging from this performance, Springsteen is ready for it to start right now.