Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Launch World Tour With Ecstatic, Emotional Tampa Show
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Decades from now, when historians and epidemiologists look back at the Covid era, they’ll probably have a hard time pinpointing the exact moment the pandemic came to an end in America and normal life resumed. Some will probably point to the day in August 2021 when the vaccination rate hit 70 percent, while others will spotlight April 2022, when airlines dropped their mask mandate, or even Joe Biden’s 60 Minutes interview a few months later when he bluntly declared the pandemic over despite protests from members of his own administration. Others still might say that moment is still to come.
From another perspective, though, there’s a strong case to be made that it happened on Feb. 1 at 8:01 p.m. EST, when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band walked onstage at Tampa, Florida’s Amalie Arena and kicked off their world tour with a thunderous rendition of “No Surrender” in front of 20,000 screaming, maskless fans.
This moment followed six painfully long years of E Street Band inactivity — including multiple tour delays due to Covid concerns — and a torrent of outrage over Springsteen’s decision to dramatically raise ticket prices this time around. “I know it was unpopular with some fans,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone late last year, in his only remarks to date on the controversy. “But if there’s any complaints on the way out, you can have your money back.”
Nobody in Tampa seemed headed toward the refund line as “No Surrender” segued into “Ghosts” from 2020’s Letter to You. By this point, any fears the E Street Band might need a few shows to shake off six years of rust were gone. They were locked in tight, beaming with joy, and feeding off the frenzied atmosphere in the crowd.
It was also a slightly different incarnation of the band that now features four backup singers (Curtis King, Michelle Moore, Lisa Lowell, Ada Dyer), a five-piece horn section (Curt Ramm, Barry Danielian, Eddie Manion, Ozzie Melendez, Jake Clemons), and percussionist Anthony Almonte in addition to the usual crew of Soozie Tyrell, Charlie Giordano, Steve Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Garry Tallent, Roy Bittan, Patti Scialfa, and Max Weinberg.
An 18-piece band might seem like overkill considering the original E Street Band got along fine with a mere five musicians, but this show covers a lot of musical ground, including selections from Springsteen’s 2022 soul covers LP Only the Strong Survive, and nobody felt superfluous. This was especially true on “Kitty’s Back,” when Springsteen gave nearly everyone in the band a little moment to shine. A couple of songs later, he invited the background singers to the front to lock voices with him on “Nightshift,” a 1985 Commodores classic that was one of the surprise highlights of the evening.
The long layoff made even E Street standards like “The Promised Land,” “Out in the Street,” and “Prove It All Night” sound fresh and vital again, while the dark Nebraska deep cut “Johnny 99” was transformed into an arena anthem. But the most emotional moment came midway through the night, when the entire band left the stage, leaving Springsteen alone with his acoustic guitar.
Addressing the crowd for the first time in the evening, he told the story of forming his first band, the Castiles, with childhood buddy George Theiss. “Cut forward 50 years,” he said. “On another summer day, I found myself standing at the side of George’s deathbed…His passing would leave me as the last living member of my first band. That’s kind of like standing on tracks with the hot light of an oncoming train barreling down on you. It brings a clarity of thought and a purpose that you might not previously have thought of.”
He continued his story: “I went home and, about a week later, George passed away. Shortly after that, I wrote this song. It’s about the job we choose, the friends we choose, the passion we followed as children. At 15, it’s all tomorrows. At 73, a lot of yesterdays. A lot of goodbyes. That’s why you gotta make the most of right now.”
The arena came to a complete hush as he sang “Last Man Standing” from Letter to You for the first time to a live audience. The song focuses on his memories of Theiss, and the hard realization that he’s now the last of the Castiles. “Rock of angels, lift me somehow,” he sang. “Somewhere high and hard and loud/Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd/I’m the last man standing now.”
Few artists outside of Springsteen could create a moment that intimate and heartfelt in a basketball arena named after an oil company. He followed it up with another mellow Letter to You song, “House of a Thousand Guitars,” before bringing everyone back to their feet for a blistering “Backstreets.” The main set ended with “Because the Night,” “She’s the One,” “Wrecking Ball,” “The Rising,” and “Badlands.” The band has celebrated a lot of 70th birthdays since they last played together, but somehow they played those songs with the same level of fire and passion they had decades ago.
After taking a quick bow, the band didn’t even bother to go through the charade of leaving the stage before the encore set. It began with the live premiere of “Burnin’ Train” before the house lights came on for a euphoric double shot of “Born to Run” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” They then went back to the hits of 1984 with “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark,” though the latter was a slightly truncated version since he didn’t bring any wannabe Courteney Coxes onstage to dance. (This might have been due to Covid concerns, which could also explain why he didn’t crowd surf at any point in the night.)
The night capped off with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” — complete with video tributes to the late Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici — and a solo acoustic “I’ll See You in My Dreams” that again brought the arena to total silence.
It’s another song about saying goodbye to a loved one, and a reminder that “death is not the end.” As Springsteen sang it, it was hard not to think about Jeff Beck, David Crosby, Tom Verlaine, Barrett Strong, and all the other icons we’ve lost in recent weeks, or the fact that artists of Springsteen’s generation, to use his own words, have a lot more yesterdays than tomorrows. But whatever happens in the future, Springsteen and the E Street Band are finally back on the road, and they’ll be there for at least a year. Let’s enjoy every second of it while we still can.
Here is the complete setlist:
1. “No Surrender”
3. “Prove It All Night”
4. “Letter to You”
5. “The Promised Land”
6. “Out in the Street”
7. “Candy’s Room”
8. “Kitty’s Back”
9. “Brilliant Disguise”
10. “Nightshift” (Commodores cover)
11. “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” (Ben E. King cover)
12. “The E Street Shuffle”
13. “Johnny 99”
14. “Last Man Standing”
15. “House of a Thousand Guitars”
17. “Because the Night”
18. “She’s the One”
19. “Wrecking Ball”
20. “The Rising”
22. “Burnin’ Train”
23. “Born to Run”
24. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
25. “Glory Days”
26. “Dancing in the Dark”
27. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
28. “I’ll See You In My Dreams”