May 14, 2014

Notes from the road: Albany

Bruce Springsteen called last night’s show in Albany “audience participation night,” and for good reason: dancers joined him on stage for four different numbers, and a stretch of six straight songs in the middle of the show were played by request. Bruce and the band were truly working in concert with what he called a “phenomenal” crowd.

But the crowd’s involvement wasn’t the only story of the night. Bruce’s own selection of cover tunes provided some of the evening’s best moments, starting right out of the gate with INXS’s “Don’t Change,” the first of two of the special Aussie openers that made their U.S. debuts here in Albany.

The guitar magic continued with rip-roaring versions of “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and “No Surrender,” with each of Bruce, Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello taking turns showing off their chops. After being played in Australia and teased in numerous recent soundchecks, the U.S. debut of “This is Your Sword” followed.

Four songs later, Bruce and the band debuted a phenomenal cover, “Treat Her Right,” the 1965 hit by Roy Head and the Traits. Bruce introduced the song by explaining that the lyrics to so many soul songs are as important as the music, even though they are often overlooked. He emphasized to the men that they should “listen carefully to the lyrics. They have wisdom.” (Patti’s reaction to this introduction would have been interesting, but she was not in attendance last night.) After working on the number in soundcheck, the band nailed it, with the horn section in particular shining.

Bruce then silenced the audience with the haunting and soul-wrenching “Something in the Night,” which then led into the all-request portion of the evening. The first one Bruce selected actually came in multiple parts. It requested a picture with Bruce, which sent him into a tirade against “selfies.” Next, he was requested to read a letter to the audience; it explained that while Bruce was the writer’s mother’s hero, the writer herself looked to her mother as her hero. As a present for Mother’s Day, the letter asked that Bruce dance with the writer’s mom. Saying that the band needed to find a good dance number, Bruce fulfilled the request to the mom’s evident joy, dancing while singing “Save the Last Dance For Me.”

This was followed by a more traditional sign request for “Better Days,” which Bruce noted the band rarely plays. The next sign request also asked for a dance on stage. Bruce brought up three young girls (he referred to them as “tweens”), noting that the song they requested, “Seaside Bar Song,” was significantly older than they were. The girls bounced up and down for the length of the song.

The fourth consecutive request was a multiple-choice sign, the sign-maker being unable to limit her choice to a single song. Springsteen chose “Mary’s Place,” placing a checkmark in the box. Request number five reflected the influence of the live downloads on the audience, reaching back for another of the great covers from the Australian tour earlier this year. This reworked version of the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” was one of the highlights of the night, with Bruce trading the disco beat for meaning in the lyrics. The final request of the evening was for “Kingdom of Days,” played as a solo acoustic number that highlighted the beauty of this rarely played Working on a Dream song.

After so much impromptu fun, some semblance of setlist structure returned to close out the main set with “Shackled and Drawn,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “The Rising,” and “Light of Day,” which again featured a drums-and-guitar face-off between Max Weinberg and Nils during the middle break.

The encores kicked off with the powerful double-header of “The Wall” into “Born in the U.S.A.” before “Born to Run” brought the house lights up. The featured dancer for “Dancing in the Dark” carried her Italian flag on stage with her, and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” finally brought Bruce out to the stage at the back of the pit. The Albany crowd was treated to yet another audible, for a rocking “Ramrod,” and the show closed with “Shout” and a full-band version of “Thunder Road,” which left the participative audience not only feeling empowered but also extremely satisfied.

—Lowell D. Kern and Rebekah Mann