Though I was alone in my apartment, I could feel the rest of the tri-state area bearing down on me as I sat on Ticketmaster, trying to score Springsteen tickets. That was in December, and by the grace of whoever runs the queue in a process where the odds of winning are seemingly the same as the recent $1 billion Powerball drawing, I got three tickets. For the first time, I was going to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
The show was Wednesday, January 27th at Madison Square Garden. I met up with the two friends joining me before hand at Blarney Rock, one of the better pre-MSG event bars in the area. Before big college basketball games, it’s a college basketball crowd. Before Rangers games, it’s a Rangers crowd. Before the Bruce concert, it was a Bruce crowd. The proprietors aren’t stupid—they had some of Bruce’s greatest hits blaring from the ceiling, which is colorfully decorated with logos from schools that belonged to the Big East back when it was the “Big East” and not whatever it is now.
For the stereotyping of the Bruce crowd as blue collar—and that has plenty of merit—there’s a certain faction that is and has always been white collar. One guy we knew there said he heard this was the toughest ticket in town…on Wall Street. For all of Bruce’s lyrics about working on the highway and down on the docks, the guys who wear suits and work in skyscrapers don’t feel excluded.
The members of the Church of Bruce have fun measuring themselves by how many shows they’ve been to, which rare songs they’ve seen live, and where they’ve seen them. It’s not a competition and there’s no pretension. Rather, it’s like a bunch of military guys comparing badges. To have seen Bruce perform “Thundercrack” in New Orleans is akin to earning a Purple Heart for a wound suffered in Pakistan. It also sounds like a bizarre game of Clue.
Even better, any feelings of inadequacy that I felt coming on by virtue of being new to the church were quelled by the overarching wave of excitement and positivity flowing through the pre-show crowd. The good vibes continued as we made our way across the street and into the Garden and took our seats—which were great.
Not only did we win the Ticketmaster lottery, but we got seats in the first row of our section. Granted, that section was 417, and we were behind the stage, but that didn’t matter. The stage is open, so despite the band members’ backs being to us most of the show, they were still relatively close. The great circle route from our seats to the man himself was much, much shorter than that of fans sitting in the 200-level seats on the other side of the arena. If sitting behind Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best seats for a hockey game, sitting behind Bruce is one of the best seats for a concert. Besides, he and the band have been at it long enough to know to turn around from time to time and work the entire crowd. As my friends—who are approaching double digits in Bruce concerts attended—pointed out, these were the best seats they’d had yet.
Bruce fans love talking about how long he’ll play for and what songs he’s going to do. Springsteen is famous for his tirelessness and showmanship, never one to leave a crowd wanting more. So I knew we were guaranteed about three hours, and anything after that’d be gravy. And that’s another fun element that Bruce has built in over the years: allowing fans to guess how long he’ll play for. Will it be 3:00 exactly? Maybe 3:25? What if he gets near four hours? Again, it’s speculated on without pretension because of sheer optimism and giddiness.
More of a parlor game than guessing show length is pontificating on the set list. Typically, I’d imagine the most thrilling part of any Bruce show is hearing those first chords of each new song and realizing what you’re getting. On this night, and during this tour, he’d be playing The River front to back. I’d call The River Bruce’s “seminal 1980 album,” but damn near all of his albums are seminal, so let’s just call it his 1980 album.
So, we knew what the first 20 songs would be. And judging by the set lists from the first couple stops on the tour, we had an idea what he’d play after The River ran dry. One of my friends had a gut feeling we were getting “Jungleland” (he was wrong). I was pining to hear “Streets of Fire” or “Backstreets” (I’m still pining). So what if we were wrong, because as I learned, the pre-show buzz about what he’ll play is a major part of the service when attending the Church of Bruce.
The River is a strange concert album. It’s got 20 songs, which is a lot for a Bruce album (plus an outtake, “Meet Me in the City”, which opened the show). It doesn’t have any of Bruce’s most famous songs. And it’s not as great as Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town. But it’s still one hell of an album to see live. There are eight slower songs, and the other 12 are all legitimate rock songs, the kind you hope to hear live. And even the ones that are a little slow, some are still excellent live—“Fade Away” and “Drive All Night” in particular. And the title track, while slow-ish, has so much energy and emotion that it’s still riveting. The bathroom break songs ended up being “I Wanna Marry You” and “Wreck on the Highway.”
As for the show itself, some highlights, and more than that, some questions…
–Apparently, Bruce always crowd surfs during “Hungry Heart.” At 66 years old, I’m amazed at how he does it. I know he’s just lying there and doesn’t need to exert himself, but doesn’t being poked and prodded like that take its toll on a guy that age? Who knows, maybe it’s a nice respite for him from being on stage. And given the crowd’s level of fandom, aren’t there some out there who may be taking a less than appropriate grab? I wonder if he’ll ever cut out that crowd surfing bit, but it’s to the point where the audience expects it and would be let down if he didn’t. Okay, so they’d understand if he stopped at some point, but 45 years of performing have established certain standards that Bruce seems hell bent on maintaining.
–Each band member is more impressive than the last. Many have been playing together for 40 years, and some have had such interesting side gigs, they’ve become known for those as much as being in the band. Nils Lofgren had a successful solo career and played with musicians like Neil Young before joining E Street. Max Weinberg was the drummer and bandleader on Conan O’Brien’s late night talk show for 17 years. Steven Van Zandt played Tony Soprano’s closest confidant for the duration of “The Sopranos” and then went on to have a lesser known but well regarded series called “Lilyhammer” on Netflix. Somewhere in all this, they managed to continue making music and touring.
–Not to harp on their ages, but, seriously, how are these guys still doing this? When a snowstorm hits, all we hear about on the news is men having heart attacks while shoveling. These guys are ramping their heart rates up to unsustainable levels for three hours and it looks effortless. Bruce must be on an Olympic-style training regimen. Weinberg, a man in his mid-60s who looks like he should be eating kippers at Flakowitz of Boynton Beach, sits at a drum set for three hours without going to the bathroom or even standing up. No member of the band seemed to take a song off, and even if they had the chance, I don’t think they wanted to.
–Some songs that stood out: “I’m a Rocker,” “Out in the Street,” “Sherry Darling,” and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch).”
–Van Zandt has to be one of the coolest dudes out there. The band. The TV show. The instrument. Even the bandannas, though it’d be nice if he could wrangle his Silvio hair once in a while. He takes it upon himself to work the crowd more than anyone else, maybe even Bruce.
–These guys switch guitars after what seemed like every song. Did Bruce actually use 20 different guitars? Or were there just two that he’d rotate and have tuned in between?
–The first two shows of the tour both had post-River sets and then an encore after that. Our show was different in that those two elements were combined, meaning the band never left the stage. They turned on the lights for “Born to Run,” which I’m told is standard practice. That followed with “Dancing in the Dark” (made ironic by the aforementioned illumination), “Rosalita,” and “Shout.”
–How many times has Bruce played “Born to Run” for an audience? 3,000? 4,000? It’s unfathomable.
–I’m sure there have been some incidents on stage when fans are brought up during “Dancing in the Dark,” but it’s fortunate that nothing too crazy has happened. At Wednesday’s show, Bruce invited a fan toting a “This Aussie is Batty for Patti” sign on stage to dance with the lovely Ms. Scialfa. Bruce had a couple fans doing the requisite dance moves with him. While each dance went on just a little too long for the artists’ comfort, the fans know to not go further than a hug and maybe, maybe a tiny peck on the cheek.
–When the dancing portions of the song take over, Jake Clemons steps up with his saxophone and carries the song for a good 2-3 minutes. My ear isn’t in tune enough to decipher a good sax player from a great one, but if I’m betting the farm, put me down for Jake Clemons being a great one.
Of all the questions that will go unanswered, I was able to answer arguably the most important one. It didn’t take until after the show. It didn’t take until Bruce went crowd surfing. During the first couple songs, it became clear why these guys still do this. Why they still tour the world, keep their skills sharp, and play for hours on end like maniacs.
They love each other, the crowd, and the music. It’s genuinely fun for them. For most people, playing once a week for an hour sounds fun. Playing three or four times a week, for three or four hours each time, sounds like work. But for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, it’s fun. Maybe it’s even therapeutic for them. Some of it may be ego, sure. It’s not that tough to play to a crowd who loves you unconditionally. But there’s a certain element of pride, honor, and not letting those fans down. It’s that hyper self-awareness that sets Bruce and the band apart from other musical acts. They play the hits. They play the rarities. They play for the crowd.
It becomes clear when you see Van Zandt and Bruce standing at the microphone together, shouting their beloved songs in unison. As I wondered how many quarts of spit these guys have swapped during these vocal exchanges through the decades, it struck me that these guys love each other. How else do you explain doing this stuff for so long?
As for me, yeah, I freaking loved the show, all 3:10 of it. And I want to go to another one at some point, though who knows how many more tours Bruce and the band have left.
In 1974, rock critic and future Springsteen manager-producer Jon Landau proclaimed, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Well, Bruce is a little too old now to still be the future, but I’ll eat Nils Lofgren’s top hat if Bruce still isn’t the present.