It’s unclear exactly what motivated Bruce Springsteen to perform his Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run albums in sequence last night at New Jersey’s Count Basie Theater. Maybe it was the fact that fans bid a minimum of $1,000 for tickets (the proceeds of which went towards refurbishing the theater) and he wanted to give them something special. Maybe it was because the last time he played a theater with the E Street Band in 1980 these songs were all relatively new. Maybe the recent death of founding E Street Band organist Danny Federici has made him reflect on the group’s early days. Maybe after a strenuous eight-month arena tour he was ready for something different. Regardless, the nearly three-hour marathon concert — entirely composed of songs from the 1970s — was the most powerful Springsteen show I’ve ever seen.
With the exception of the Darkness track “Factory,” all the songs on those two seminal albums are in regular rotation on his set list — but you’d have to attend about 15 concerts to hear all of them. The two albums have been at the core of nearly every E Street Band concert ever since they were released, particularly since the group reformed nine years ago. Hearing them in sequence for the first time ever on a stage made them even more moving. The despair of “Racing in the Street” was perfectly followed by the hope of “The Promised Land.” Born to Run was even more carefully sequenced at the time to give the feel of twenty-four hours in a swampy Jersey day. The title track always feels victorious when played at the end of a long arena show, with the house lights on and fans holding their beers high. When played in a small, dark theater right after “Backstreets,” the desperation and restlessness seeped through every word.
Patti Scialfa — who helped organize the fundraiser — gave a speech before the show about the importance of saving historic theaters. NBC newscaster (and Jersey boy) Brian Williams introduced the band with tales of hanging out at the Stone Pony as a teenager hoping Bruce would show up. New Jersey Governor John Corzine sat in the front row, where he endured some jeers from fans about state taxes. Considering the ticket price, the crowd was obviously more upscale than a typical arena show. Surprisingly, they stood most of the night and seemed nearly as into it as your typical crowd at Giants Stadium. The event raised over $3 million to restore the delipidated Count Basie theater to its original 1920s glory. Proving nothing will please everyone, some schmuck still screamed “Rosalita!” throughout the night.
The four-piece Max Weinberg 7 horn section joined the already bulging nine-piece E Street Band on a handful of songs, leaving nearly every inch of the stage packed. Their presence made “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” one of the night’s highlights â€” and Mark Pender did an excellent job re-creating Randy Brecker’s trumpet intro to “Meeting Across the River.” Even with the help of an occasional horn section, Clarence Clemons was forced to work harder than he has in years and clearly deserves the MVP award for the evening. Since the 1970s, Springsteen’s music has utilized the saxophone less and less, which has let the 66-year-old Clemons take a rest on his Big Man throne during large portions of the show on this tour. Last night he had few opportunities to rest, particularly during the Born to Run section of the show — which all built towards his epic “Jungeland” solo. He passed the test with flying colors and seemed to be having a blast all night.
As Bruce let out the final moans of “Jungeland,” the audience didn’t know what song was coming next for the first time of the night. Keeping with the 1970s theme, the group played a rollicking version of the Born To Run outtake “So Young and in Love” before launching into a ten-plus minute “Kitty’s Back” featuring solos from nearly everyone on the stage. “Who’s she with?” Bruce screamed at the end before diving right into “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).” A cover of “Raise Your Hand” — a Bruce live favorite from the Seventies — closed out the night. For the first time in memory there were no encore, but nobody seemed to mind.