Bruce Springsteen clearly puts on a show to be reckoned with every night whether it’s a bar or a stadium, an arena or a street corner in Europe. But there’s something very special about his relationship with Philadelphia that reaches way back into the past, into the early 1970’s, when he, as he said at one point during the show tonight, was the same age his oldest son Evan is now – 22 – and he was playing at the living room-sized club The Main Point not too far up the road from the massive Citizens Bank Park. Philadelphia, thanks to the incredible perspicaciousness of WMMR DJ Ed Sciaky (RIP), was the first major city to really open its arms to Bruce and see future glory in him when New York City, it must be said, eschewed his music.
From the soundcheck it was very obvious this was going to be an epic show. “None But The Brave” was followed by “The Twist” and “Let’s Twist Again (Like We Did Last Summer).” There was a few lines of the Dovells’ classic “Bristol Stomp” which was a massive Philly hit and inspired a dance craze back in the day. The Philly theme was evident in a partial rendition of the O’Jays’ “Love Train.” “We Take Care of Our Own” was next, followed unexpectedly by the rarely played “County Fair” and “TV Movie.” Pit lottery winners, lined up to go in, cheered and applauded with an uninterrupted sightline for this. “The only performance with the E Street Band of ‘TV Movie,’” noted Bruce to the crowd.
The show started just after 8pm and went on a trajectory up, up, up for three hours and nearly forty-five minutes. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played by Charlie Giordano kicked things off, dovetailing into “Summertime Blues.” Bruce shouted to the over 45,000-strong audience: “Welcome to the Labor Day Labor of Love!” and it was evident that the crowd was there to party, dancing and shouting themselves hoarse. I watched the show tonight from the soundboard, which afforded a fantastic view of the entire proceedings, the whole stage, the spectacle of the show, how the band is arranged onstage and how much they embody a true Rock & Soul Revue. And something must be said for the lighting, which is really wonderful on this tour – particularly during “We Take Care of Our Own.” The sound mix also – crystal clear – really outstanding.
During “Wrecking Ball” a video on the screen behind Bruce showed the Spectrum crumbling to the ground, a place where I myself (a Philly girl) attended many a concert and Bruce and band burned up the floor boards many a night. The set list was again liberally augmented with sign requests tonight and old favorites that Philadelphia fans hold dear to their hearts like “Lost in the Flood” and “Spirit in the Night” as well as “Thunder Road” and covers like “Jersey Girl”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (“we haven’t played this in twenty years!” – Bruce) and “You Can’t Sit Down.”
“My City of Ruins” is the moment where the show takes a beat, pauses to reflect and remember. As Bruce said to the crowd, “This is a song about ghosts…deeper than memory, they get in your bones, in your blood, they become part of what you are…Ghosts walk alongside of you and remind you of the preciousness of life.” The song, originally written about the demise of Asbury Park, has come full circle and now has clearly become much more personal. It’s about those who are no longer up there on that stage: two men who were a fundamental part of the sound of the E Street Band for decades. And a man who stood larger than life up there, holding a saxophone, a man who embodied so much of the E Street Band dream, who leaves a gaping hole (“you took my heart when you left”…”tell me how do I begin again”). Bruce urged the crowd to give voice to their pain (“Are we missing anybody? Let me hear your voices”), as the music swells and we embrace the loss so we can all move on, always honoring the past, the ghosts. “I wish you a life filled with many ghosts,” he smiled, and meant it.
“Spirit in the Night” appropriately followed “My City of Ruins,” with the earth-shattering glory of the gospel choir answering Bruce’s question “Can you feel the spirit? Can you feel the spirit now?” with a hearty “yeah, yeah!!” There are moments when you can actually feel the direction of the show move into a higher plane and this was one of the those. The show took off into the stratosphere here and kept its altitude until the encores when it was racheted up even higher.
Plenty of classics from all time periods enlivened the set list, many of them from sign requests (collected during a fantastic rendition of “Green Onions”, another tip of the hat to Philly’s soul roots): “Cadillac Ranch,” “I’m On Fire,” “Candy’s Room,” “Mona / She’s the One”. A collective deep breath was taken during “Jack of All Trades,” which to me is a touchstone of the current tour. Besides the message which reflects “We Take Care of Our Own” in that “baby we’ll be alright” in spite of the horrors lurking outside our doors, there’s the melody itself. And the ending, with the sobbing violin that never ceases to bring tears to my eyes, the trumpet, Nils’ soaring guitar solo, and Bruce somberly playing the big drum as the notes fade.
“Human Touch” made another welcome return, and was even better tonight than the Vernon Downs show last Wednesday. “Working on the Highway” is a delight, and tonight the background singers were joined by Garry Tallent’s lissome daughter Olivia, and Michelle Moore’s eight year old little girl. “Shackled and Drawn,” which gets better every show, is beyond belief at this point (this song needs it’s own live video), and has now been enlivened by an ensemble shuffle at the end with the entire front line.
Much has been said of the European audiences and I’ve seen them in action myself. But the chanting after “Badlands” was as fierce and manic as anywhere in Spain or Sweden or Italy and steered the song back into its glorious coda to a smashing end. A stunning rendition of “Land of Hope and Dreams” preceded the much-missed “We Are Alive.” Bruce stood at the mike and repeated, “there’s a train comin’…..there’s a train comin’…..” The screen behind him showed a full moon wreathed in mist. “With this song I tried to answer that question – when is the train comin’…I look back at the voices that waited for that train…I wrote a ghost story about all the people who waited for that train.” He held up the guitar as a tribute to those ghosts and to all of us watching.
“Thunder Road” contains another bittersweet nod to the past, and an embrace of the future as Jake Clemons raises his horn to play the line that answers “we’re pulling out of here to win” but instead of continuing on solo, is joined by the entire horn section for the next line. It seems to say, Clarence can’t be replaced by one person (even if it is his nephew) – we need an entire horn section to attempt to do that job. And the crowd has clearly taken Jake into their hearts.
A rip-roaring “Rosalita” came out during which Bruce fell backwards onto the crowd a few times (which I’ve never seen him do at a stadium show before) as if to indicate that yes, it’s us who are holding him up – and don’t forget it, because he doesn’t forget it. All in all, an incredible show fully worthy of any of those he’s done in Philadelphia before; sorrow and joy, looking back, looking forward, and a liberal dose of the silly sauce we all need as we go on back outside to our everyday lives. With a big smile on our faces. And our feet still dancing.