Philadelphia Calling, 4-29-2009

As originally published on And some of you may have heard me on with Dave Marsh this morning, talking about Joe and May Day and “London Calling” on Live From E Street Nation. It’s been quite a week.

Twenty-something years ago, when I heard the line in “Jungleland” about kids flashing guitars just like switchblades, I didn’t think of New York City, I thought of Philadelphia. I thought of Philadelphia because the crowds down there were deadly earnest, did not trifle with their rock ‘n’ roll, and playing a show down there was taking a stand for or against something, anything, but it was taking a stand. Philly audiences would settle for nothing less than blood on the stage, but they gave as good as they got.

Twenty-something years later, not much has changed.

Bruce playing the Spectrum was not about the new arena across the street being booked. It was because Bruce wanted to play the Spectrum. I have been to the Sports Arena Complex in Philadelphia many times over the years, but driving into the Spectrum parking lot this afternoon, knowing I was going to see E Street on that stage tonight guaranteed instant flashbacks. I can only imagine what it was doing for Bruce, and in my mind the setlist showed us, beginning with that opening one-two punch of “Badlands” into “The Ties That Bind.” (As a note, “Outlaw Pete” in the number-three slot seemed to flow much better.)

But the key ingredient in Philly is the audience, and they, too, delivered. The opening drumroll–not even the intro organ chords, the drumroll that opens “Spirit in the Night” generated the loudest response from an audience for that song within recent memory. The loud, welcoming cheer starting all the way in the back of the room when the camera went to the “Thundercrack” sign warned any pretenders to vacate the premises. And, when “Hungry Heart” gratefully substituted for “Sunny Day,” the audience gave the first verse back loud enough to shake the rafters. It was a singalong out of the ’80s, when the song was new and barely on radio but it was there and it was ours and we were going to sing it loud and proud. Bruce soaked it all up, running over to the side of the stage at the end to put his mother on the spot and made her sing along, too.

When someone in the GA line mentioned that “London Calling” had been soundchecked I paid them absolutely no mind, dismissing it as the uninformed ramblings of the delusional. I saw the sign get picked, but I saw a lot of signs get picked. I did not expect to hear this song played, and it completely blew my mind. It might seem hypocritical to dwell on a non-Springsteen song after my previous nostalgic waxing for Ye Olden Days, but to me, having “London Calling” here in this room, in this set, was no disconnect. “The River” says 1981? Well, nothing says 1979 in my house like “London Calling.” At the moment those chords came out of the PA, I wanted to call every single person I knew in high school and yell, “SEE? PUNK ROCK DOESN’T SUCK AFTER ALL!” — until I remember that those people didn’t much like Springsteen, either (at least until 1984, anyway). Special props here go to Garry W. Tallent, because that bassline executed anywhere south of flawless would have killed the song.

Joe Strummer would have been proud to have been in that room tonight. Joe Strummer would have been honored by that performance.

I am still picking myself up off the floor.

From the Out Of Nowhere Department: “Red Headed Woman,” in a duet that I would like to say would have made Johnny and June Carter proud, except that I’m not sure about how June would have actually felt about it. In front of us, some proud parent seized the moment to put their child on their shoulders, and all I could think was, “Please put her down, do you really want your young daughter acknowledged during this song?” (And in case you were wondering, no, he didn’t sing that verse.) Compare that interlude to the lovely, appropriate “Streets of Philadelphia,” making its first appearance in Philly since 2003. (More kudos to the crowd who voiced their approval at the very first synth chords.) It is easy to forget how beautiful and powerful the lyrics of that song are.

And when we thought we were done, and we couldn’t stand no more: “One more for Philly!’ and Bruce in the spotlight and those knife-sharp chords heralding the return of–well, you know who: “Kitty’s Back.” No one was leaving early, no one was trying to beat the traffic. It was rapt, joyous attention to the very last note.