Best. Concert. Ever. (Wherein, Upon Seeing Bruce Springsteen Perform for the 14th Time, I Surrender to Hyperbole)
By Thursday morning last week, I had made up my mind to give the show Bruce Springsteen played in Baltimore on Friday night a pass. My attempts to procure a ticket through honorable means had failed. The aftermarket bidding for general admission tickets to the arena floor, where my friends would be, had inflated beyond my rationally justifiable price range. I'd already seen the great man perform with the E Street Band twice in 2009; five times in the last 24 months. That's enough Boss, surely.
Even before I was a semi-pro critic, I was skeptical of superlatives. To me, they always reduced criticism to mere marketing. I don't even like the year-end lists nearly every professional critic is compelled to compile. So that's why, after returning home in the small hours of Saturday morning having experienced a concert that left me elated like no rock show has in years, I hedged. "One of the three or five best gigs I've ever seen," I wrote in a excited Facebook post before going to bed.
But after chewing the matter over in the cold, clear light of a couple of days, I'm prepared to go all in: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's first show in Baltimore since 1973 was the best concert I have ever attended, by The Boss or anyone else. And I've been to a few concerts.
As it happens, the factors that drove me into the arms of a profiteering eBayer turned out to be many of the same elements that made the show so special. Because I believe in interrogating those superlatives, I am prepared to show my work. If you'll join me at the white board, please:
It was the next-to-last show of the Magic/Workin' on a Dream tour that kicked off more than two years ago, and it's unclear when the E Street Band will tour again. Clarence "Big Man" Clemmons is 67 years old, and reportedly needs surgery that will keep him off the road for at least a year. The first of the core E Street Band to succumb to mortality, keys player "Phantom" Danny Frederici, died of cancer in April 2008, a month after his final performance. Bruce himself is sixty. He's the most energetic, hale 60-year-old anyone has ever seen, but still. Though to their credit they've never promoted any of their jaunts as a farewell tour a la The Who or KISS, and I expect Bruce will play solo acoustic tours as long as he's able, the E Street Band is inevitably reaching the end of the road. On a related note . . .
They played Born to Run. It's not my favorite Springsteen album, but it might be his best. It's certainly the most iconic one with the E Street Band -- track 2 is "10th Avenue Freeze-Out," the group's own creation myth. The Boss said this was the last time they'd be playing it from beginning to end in sequence. (For last night's concluding show of the tour, they did Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, Bruce's 36-year-old debut.) I'm not wild about the recent play-the-album-in-order trend in concerts -- Washington Post music critic Chris Richards captured many of my objections in his fine story on this subject -- and I'll have more to say about it when I review The Pixies' upcoming Doolittle show in December. But fhe final performance of Born to Run, coupled with the uncertain future for Clarence -- such an essential element of that album -- gave the evening a stirring quality.
It was The Boss's first show in Baltimore since 1973, as I noted previously. His prior appearance? An opening slot for Chicago. He joked about this, recalling that he was allowed to play a 30-minute set and the tickets cost $2. When some clown heckled, "We're not here to see you!", he told the guy that people would come to see the once and future Boss, "and when you do, it's gonna cost you five bucks!" If only.
The Arena Formerly Known as Baltimore Arena is one of the smallest houses the band has played this year. It might have two-thirds the capacity of the Verizon Center at most, but it feels a lot cozier than even that. Smaller is better. On a related note . . .
We were in the General Admission pit at the front of the stage. This is empirically inadmissible as evidence, obviously, as it has more to do the vantage point from which I took in the proceedings than the gig itself. Even so: Awe. Some. When Bruce crowd-surfed from midfloor back to the stage during "Hungry Heart," I helped hold him up. One member of my party seized the opportunity, by which I mean the Boss-terior immortalized on the cover of Born in the USA. I respectfully kept my hands to his lower back and left boot.
Volume! Bruce and Co. played 31 songs, if you count "Green Onions," which the band vamped while Bruce was collecting request-signs. He played from 8:25 until 11:50 with no encore breaks -- he never left the stage. It's the longest single-act rock show I've ever seen by far (The runners-up? All Springsteen shows, predictably), and there were no dead spots.
The setlist was epic, much better than what was on the written setlist. It's well-established that Bruce draws up a play list before each show, then deviates at will. The requests-via-sign thing is new in the last year or so, and it's been one of the most enjoyable aspects of this tour. I've had -- well, not lousy luck with song selection at Bruce shows, but a lot of the same "rarities" seem to come up over and over. Two of the requests he took were "Spirit and the Night" and "For You," both of which I'd heard him play in Richmond last year. I've heard "Stand on It," a B-side, played live three times. And he always seems to play "No Surrender" and/or "Bobby Jean," neither of which I've ever much liked, passing over worthier Born in the USA tracks like "I'm on Fire," "Glory Days," or "Downbound Train." (The latter was requested via one of the best signs I saw, visible in the right margin of this shitty cel-phone photo.)
In Baltimore Friday night, Bruce skipped over a couple of set-listed warhorses I've already heard enough times -- "Lonesome Day" and and "No Surrender" -- in favor of audibles like "My Love Will Not Let You Down," "Ramrod," and, at long last, "Glory Days," a truly spontaneous extra after Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher," which had closed several concerts just prior to this one. He also added an unscripted performance of the glorious anthem-cum-gospel-number "Land of Hope and Dreams," of which I'll never tire. And he played two Magic songs I hadn't realized I'd missed this year, "Radio Nowhere" and an epic "Long Walk Home," which somehow morphed into a Sam Cooke-style soul ballad at the end with Bruce and "Little Steven" Van Zandt trading yelps at the mic. Wow.
The show opened with "Wrecking Ball," his raucous, celebratory requiem for Giants Stadium, where six weeks earlier Bruce & Co. played the final shows the venue will host before being demolished next year. The greatness of this song is context-specific -- it feels like Bruce probably wrote it in about 20 minutes --but it was a bracing way to begin, rippling with more energy than most bands' finales. And while the lyrics are nothing to write a 1,500-word blog post about, it's also pretty clear that this AARP cover boy isn't just singing about a stadium:
Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust And all our youth and beauty, it's been given to the dust And your game has been decided, and you're burning the clock down And all our little victories and glories, have turned into . . .
Well, "parking lots." The end of that line is "parking lots," which kind of napalms the metaphor. Unless parking lots are graveyards!
But let's cut to the chorus:
Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you've got Bring on your wrecking ball
This is one band that won't going quietly. Finally:
He didn't play "Outlaw Pete." Here in DC three weeks ago, he opened with it, eight interminable minutes of suck, easily one of the five worst songs he's ever recorded. But all is forgiven.
What do you want from a rock and roll show, anyway?
Best. Gig. Ever.
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band at the 1st Mariner Arena, Baltimore, Friday, November 20, 2009
01 Wrecking Ball 02 Prove It All Night 03 Hungry Heart 04 Workin' on a Dream
Born to Run
05 Thunder Road 06 10th Avenue Freeze-Out 07 Night 08 Backstreets 09 Born to Run 10 She's the One 11 Meeting Across the River 12 Jungleland
13 Waitin' on a Sunny Day 14 Spirit in the Night ("In honor of this hat," a newsboy cap given him by the little girl he brought on stage to sing "Sunny Day") 15 Green Onions 16 Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (by request-sign, though it was on the setlist) 17 E Street Shuffle (by request-sign) 18 For You (by request-sign) 19 Radio Nowhere (by request-sign) 20 My Love Will Not Let You Down 21 Long Walk Home 22 The Rising 23 Badlands
24 Ramrod (by request-sign) 25 Hard Times 26 Land of Hope and Dreams 27 American Land 28 Dancing in the Dark 29 Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) 30 Higher and Higher 31 Glory Days