Let’s get the obvious out of the way: it’s pretty amazing when any artist plays for three-and-a-half hours. It’s even more amazing when a 62-year-old man complimented with fellow sexagenarians does it without intermission.
Do I even need to tell you that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s sold-out show at Nationals Park was excellent? Bruce doesn’t disappoint. Springsteen’s the rare artist whose live performances have been hailed as legendary for over three decades. The evening’s rich metaphor was not lost on the audience: Bruce performing in the nation’s capital in the ballpark of a team thick in the pennant race in an election year.
The only thing more American is an apple pie baked in the shape of a bald eagle. I have no doubt that every congressman or woman in a tight race made it known to their Twitter constituents that they were taking in the beautiful Friday night, drinking $9 beers and watching The Boss do work.
The group took the stage at 8:20 to “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” nearly an hour after the listed start time. Bruce looked as immortal as ever, his graying hair and goofy soul patch accented by his bursting forehead veins. Except for Patti Scialfa, the full band was there, including the late Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake filling in as the group’s signature saxophonist. The Big Man is irreplaceable, but Jake did an admirable job keeping up with his more experienced elders. Bruce got a big laugh from his aging audience when he joked that many of the songs Jake performed on predated his birth.
The band opened with the extended 1978 version of “Prove It All Night,” featuring Springsteen’s kinetic guitar solo-over-twinkling piano introduction. As discussed in a recent Washington Post article, Bruce setlists are divided into four sections: new songs, old favorites, Bruce staples and rarities. This evening’s exclusives included Born In The USA outtake “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and an incendiary reinterpretation of the solemn “Johnny 99,” which—apologies to David Byrne—might be the most chilling song about a psycho killer. The appearance of “Johnny 99” as the token Nebraska track scuttled any chance that I would hear “Atlantic City” or “Reason To Believe,” but it did raise hope that the rumored “electric version” of Nebraska may finally get a release.
The crowd was elated as Bruce and the E Street Band played favorites from their classic albums. The back-to-back combo of “The Ties That Bind” and “Hungry Heart” from The River got the crowd singing early in the night, the faithful teaching new converts that “Bind” includes fourteen “ay-ay-ay-ays” in its chorus. Not to be outdone, half of Born To Run was performed, including “She’s The One.”
The band dug deeper in their catalogue with two selections from their 39-year-old debut album: “Spirit in the Night” and “Blinded by the Light.” The latter is so old that my parents, attending their very first Springsteen show at ages 60 and 58, mistook it for the Manfred Mann cover. Darkness on the Edge of Town also clocked in four songs, including the catchy “Badlands” and the harmonica heavy “The Promised Land.” Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg earned their pay with a lengthy outro to “Racing In The Street.” I wouldn’t have minded to hear the weary “The River,” the jumpy “Two Hearts,” or an inquiry if Rosie was available, but this is mere nitpicking.
Springsteen released his seventeenth studio album Wrecking Ball to critical acclaim earlier this year. His most overtly political album in years, he wields righteous anger well throughout Wrecking Ball, a refreshing shift away from the milquetoast Magic and Working on a Dream. Neither album had a song performed Friday night, a subtle admission of their enduring quality. Wrecking Ball opens with “We Take Care Of Our Own,” a song that was destined be the third straight Springsteen song to be tapped as theme for a Democratic candidate’s presidential campaign (“No Surrender” and “The Rising”) as soon as it was conceived.
When asked about Bruce’s populist lyrics, New Jersey governor and amateur Kool-Aid Man impersonator Chris Christie said, “I get what he’s trying to express and advocate for, I just don’t agree that those are the most-effective policies for our government,” adding that, “I’d love to have that conversation with him.” Bruce has so far ignored his fanboy’s call for that meeting, continuing to champion social change with words and actions. Lest we forget, this is a man who told Ronald Reagan to stuff it when he tried to co-opt “Born In The USA” for his ’84 campaign. Then again, considering the song’s true intentions, methinks it would have made the perfect song for supply-side Ronnie.
In addition to “We Take Care Of Our Own,” the band played six other Wrecking Ball songs of varying quality. The titular song was well-received, save for the mention of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants that was lustily booed by the Burgundy and Gold faithful in attendance. “Death to My Hometown” and “Shacked and Drawn” were winners in the let’s-sit-down-for-this-one sweepstakes. Don’t feel guilty if you weren’t the only one to head to the bathrooms during “Jack of All Trades.” All those $9 beers add up over 210 minutes and “Trades” is definitely a turd.
The band ended its set with “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a lengthy track that boasts of the American Dream in a way that carefully straddles between unabashed patriotism and jingoism. “Hope and Dreams” was written over a decade ago, but the new arrangement, complete with a multiethnic choir, brought the crowd to their feet, singing, “This train / dreams will not be thwarted / this train / faith will be rewarded.” The encore’s recess was short, the group quickly reconvening for “We Are Alive,” the final track from Wrecking Ball that serves as an Irish Wake for protesters who sacrificed their lives for social progress.
The new songs are decent, and I appreciate deep cuts very much as an avid concertgoer, but what makes Bruce Springsteen “The Boss” are his generation-spanning singles. “The Rising” provided needed maturity to post-9/11 grieving process, invigorating a weakened American spirit. The entire park knew each word of “Thunder Road.” If you’ll pardon my hyperbole, “Thunder Road” might just be the greatest song ever written in the history of music; an intoxicating achievement of man molding his raw artistic will to ward off existential damnation. Its lyrics are American scripture, relatable to anyone who’s been stuck in a shitty, boring town full of shitty, boring people.
Rows of stadium lights clicked on. As expected, the crowd lost control over their limbic systems when Weinberg’s splash kicked off Bruce’s signature song. “Born to Run” has been performed at nearly every Springsteen show, and even though Bruce superfans have heard this song thousands of times, the rush of energy that comes from Clemons’ searing saxophone and Bruce’s earnest howl of “the highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive” still electrify almost forty years after its premiere.
“Dancing In The Dark” was the highlight among highlights. Gone was the cheesy synthesizer hook, replaced with a far classier horn section. The lucky few girls who made it on stage tried their best, but they still couldn’t out dance The Boss. Springsteen may be known for his tales of escape or commentary on middle class angst, but his talent for writing likable love songs should not be overlooked.
“Born To Run, “Thunder Road,” and “Dancing in the Dark” are all incredible, but they aren’t my favorite Springsteen song. That honor belongs to “Jungleland,” a ten-minute, multi-part mini-rock opera. I badly wanted to hear “Jungleland,” but I was pragmatic that it wouldn’t make the cut. You see, “Jungleland” is a complicated, saxophone-heavy track that hinges on the Big Man to bring it home. Now that Clarence is no longer with us, this song is sparingly played as the young saxophonist learns to replicate his uncle’s bellow.
“Jungleland” was not performed Friday night, but “Tenth-Avenue Freeze Out” was. When Springsteen reached the peak of the song, “The change was made uptown / And the Big Man joined the band,” the band went silent. A video tribute to Clarence Clemons appeared on the giant video screens, garnering an ecstatic, sustained response from the crowd. Having paid tribute to their friend, the band clicked back into action, Jake Clemons now making Clarence’s introductory bleat his own.
I had a great time, but the night wasn’t perfect. In addition to being denied “Jungleland,” the omissions of “Born in the USA” and “Glory Days” were peculiar oversights, especially with the Capitol looming in the distance. I was also disappointed that the DC show couldn’t attract a single special guest. Max Weinberg’s daughter did contribute accordion to the Irish jig-ready “American Land,” but her squeezebox skills don’t devastate like Tom Morello’s mindslaying licks.
Each Bruce Springsteen show has spontaneous moments that you won’t be able to experience by reading a set list. Audience participation is a must, and Bruce indulges his fans. I admit that this was only my second time seeing Springsteen, but I doubt its common practice for Bruce to take a bite out of a fan’s pizza slice during “Spirit of the Night.” The most adorable moment came when Bruce encouraged a toddler to sing along to the chorus of “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.”
Midway through the evening’s thirtieth and final song, Bruce reached the stage’s lip and, in a nod to James Brown, took a seat and feigned as though he couldn’t continue. It took the combined coaxing of the audience, Jake and Silvio Dante to get the geriatric going again, and so he did, mustering the energy for one more chorus of “Twist and Shout.” We twisted, and I’ll be damned if we didn’t shout.
As the clocked crept toward midnight, DC gave Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band a standing ovation, satisfied with another exemplary performance. In my five years of living in DC, I’ve seen a lot of turnover. Its citizens are constantly on the move, always networking and aligning themselves with the right people or organizations. But even though our leadership may change every few years, America can rest well knowing The Boss remains the same.