the philadelphia special
The Spectrum, Philadelphia, PA
20 October, 2009
4 of 4
Let us begin at the end.
Everyone who was at Philly #4 is testifying like nobody’s business. Everyone who wasn’t at Philly #4 wants to shoot themselves. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle. Here’s the thing: the problem with Philly #4 was that there were these tremendous gigantic enormous EVENTS… and then there was the rest of the show. Which wasn’t bad, but it’s not like you missed 3 hours and 17 minutes of pure perfection, the best show ever, give up, don’t ever bother going to another one.
Yes, “Higher & Higher” was beyond unbelievable. To paraphrase my learned colleague Flynn McLean, it was the finest E Street Band moment in the last decade. Flynn is not prone to exaggeration, and he is also not wrong. It absolutely was the finest E Street Band moment in the last decade. It was a song that hasn’t been played since 1977. It was a JACKIE WILSON song, and Bruce loves to play at being Jackie Wilson, and ups his game when he does (see: 2003 Christmas shows). People have always brought “Higher & Higher” signs, but there was no chance that they were going to do it without a horn section. If you look at the context of when the song was last played, it was at the last show of a tour and Bruce wanted to thank the people of Boston – the #2 Springsteen city in the US – for their support.
Bruce took the sign. He deliberately sought out and took the sign. And then we had an E Street Band firing on all cylinders, because of 8 months on the road and rehearsals and extra soundcheck and we had the closest that we’ve had to a horn section in years, and it was the last night at the Spectrum. Bruce could have officially closed out the joint, because he was the first choice, the obvious choice to do so – that flag in the back corner ain’t bullshit – but he had already committed to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame shows. So this was it. This was goodbye to the place that was one of the epicenters of the live Springsteen show for so many years.
He tries to find the riff – he’s close but he’s doesn’t have the key right. Charlie has it, plays the refrain. He plays it once – just once – and Bruce has it dialed in. Calls to the horns – and of course, Clarence goes first, even though I bet any amount of money that Curt Ramm knew it immediately – and then the Professor for good measure. (I am sure some of this was to give Kevin time to get the lyrics on the prompter.) And then – BOOM. Holy mother of god, they are doing it. They are playing it. They are going to play “Higher and Higher.” At the Spectrum. The thing about doing this in Philly is that you’re going to get enough of a OH MY FUCKING GOD reaction from the crowd to give the band energy to keep going. It’s like trying to play “Thundercrack” anywhere outside of the East Coast – maybe Detroit, once upon a time Cleveland (but not now), Boston, maybe Chicago – but anywhere else it’s going to drop dead in the water because no one in the crowd knows what to do.
And he’s loving it. That’s just it, it wasn’t just that it was fun or okay or goofy, it was Bruce loving every single second of the song. It was Garry W. Tallent swinging back there on the bass. It was Nils Lofgren swaying back and forth with gusto. It was the backup singers FINALLY HAVING SOMETHING WORTHWHILE TO ACTUALLY DO, where their presence was vital to the performance of the song and not superfluous. It was Stevie having to actually pay attention to what’s going on. It was singing and dancing and waving your arms in the air and it lasted for almost ten minutes. You got religion. You stood there for 10 minutes thinking, I am closing down the Spectrum singing “Higher and Higher” with the E Street Band. This is the kind of moment you dreamed about when you first started collecting Springsteen bootlegs.
So, yeah, if you weren’t there, you missed THAT. If you were there, you know that maybe I came close to chipping away a little bit at the top of it, but words are not going to express this moment adequately (and I have been trying since the show ended). You walked out of the show floating on air because of that moment, that song, that performance.
And then, let’s not forget the opening number. There is so much baggage attached to “The Price You Pay” – he wouldn’t play it, why wouldn’t he play it, people brought signs and I even stood next to one insane woman once who wrote out sheet music for it. I could not see this, because 1) I was too busy picking my jaw up off the ground and 2) I didn’t have the right angle, but my SO, who was on the floor with a buddy (I had sidestage, picked up on the drop, since I had to work that day – no I am not complaining) claims that Bruce had this little smile between verses, that he knew exactly what he was doing. And you know what? The last night of Bruce Springsteen at the Spectrum is the night that that you fucking take out the song you haven’t played since 1981. I am lucky, I have heard this before (my one River tour show, 12/12/80), but I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I actually remember it in detail (or at all, as the case may be).
But it was an odd choice as an opener, I gotta tell ya, especially when you look at the other openers during the week – it fit with the ‘We are commemorating our last shows in this room” theme, and it fit with the usual Boss modus operandi of hitting the audience with the new and difficult thing early, but let’s be honest – the song is a downer. When you come out with a poppy little ditty like “Seaside Bar Song,” even if you don’t know it, you can connect with it. No one who didn’t know what was going on was connecting with “The Price You Pay”. The band walks out, the band starts playing, and everyone around me kind of looks – confused. In fact, there was such a non-reaction around me that at first I thought I had the song wrong.
This is probably why we had the “Wrecking Ball” “Out In The Street” “Hungry Heart” shiny happy people interlude immediately afterward, which destroyed all the intensity built up with TPYP and just felt like eating ice cream and smoked salmon together. I also felt that “Wrecking Ball” as the #2 song was the cheap and easy way out. This was not exactly a stellar interlude, folks, and I have to tell you that during “Out In The Street” my hopes for this show actually started to fade a little bit. There is a known precedent of the second-to-last show beating the crap out of the last show. And then I decided it didn’t matter even if it did, that when I was in high school I would have sold my grandma for a chance to dance around to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live at the Philadelphia Spectrum, and I was going to take advantage of it. I was going to sing along to USA like it was 1985 again. So I did.
The album performance was outstanding. This is another place where you start to visibly, deliberately observe the impact of repeated shows. The guitar work was tight, compact, focused. Bruce’s voice was, again, in great shape. Nils’ “Cover Me” solos were also right on; unlike Nils’ solos during the Darkness performances, they work here, because he played them live the first time and they were perfectly contextual. I was thrilled that Adele got the last dance, and not another child perched on their parent’s shoulders, blocking the view of the people behind them. (The parent with the sign that said ‘I’M 8 YEARS OLD AND THIS IS MY 24TH SHOW’ should not be proud of this.)
Tuesday night was my night to watch the rhythm section. My vantage point afforded me the ability to watch Roy and Garry, and Garry and Max, and the three of them, and every once in a while Nils comes over for good measure. I miss Garry down front. I know, he just fills whatever space is there for him to fill, and he’s probably happier up there close to Max or near Roy. I am not anti-Patti by any means, but I miss when the boys had the microphones.
Coming out of the album, we picked up speed again, once again demonstrating that the key to these album shows is how Bruce decides to frame the show around the record. “Promised Land” as the after-dinner mint is so far superior to “Sunny Day” that I cannot believe that he even considers “Sunny Day” a viable option. I don’t care how much you might like the song, do you really want to hear that after coming out of “Meeting”/”Jungleland”? (No, really. Do you?) It was an excellent run but it didn’t have the strength of the Darkness show the previous week. I think that was a stronger show and a more consistent overall performance, but it’s not like this show was terrible. Some people have commented that Bruce seemed exhausted, but I was pretty close to the stage and I did not get that, at all.
It does seem like Bruce is tired of the signs, or at least tired of having a set period in the show where he walks around and collects signs and is expected to act like a jukebox. The problem that’s presented is this: without having a set period to hold up the signs, you have inconsiderate bozos who bring enormous signs for ridiculous cover songs the band will never, ever play, who hold them up throughout the night without regard to who might be standing behind them. I don’t know what the solution is. Clearly, the signs can be beneficial, but they’re no longer a fun ritual. I don’t know what’s going to happen with this. Probably nothing. Or something will happen and Bruce will get pissed off and there will suddenly no longer be signs allowed. I do wish that people would think and not just bring ridiculous signs in order to get noticed (said the woman with the WHITE RIOT sign. It was just my way of saying, “Hey, you know, I loved Joe too,” and I didn’t hold it up the whole night and it didn’t bother anyone else.)
Anyone who brings a Santa sign earlier than mid-November should have their sign confiscated and destroyed.
“Outlaw Pete” has clearly left the building. It is too early to tell if it is for good or if he will return for the one-off shows. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a bad song, per se, it’s just unbelievably long. I know he has fun playing it. I know he wanted to write his big Morricone epic. I just don’t know that we need to take up 9 minutes at the beginning of the show with this song. I would also say ‘I don’t think people are buying tickets to the show to see “Outlaw Pete” but then that goes into the discussion of the fact that this isn’t supposed to be a nostalgia tour but yet we are now down to ONE song from the current album in the set and only one, maybe two songs from the excellent and superior predecesor. And I suppose someone will write in and tell me how great “Outlaw Pete” is, but you also probably really love “American Land,” and if that is the case we do not speak the same language anyway.
The encore. Now, the encore started off as something truly worthy of Philadelphia and the last night at the Spectrum. “Spirit” – and Bruce finding another very appropriate use for the mid-floor platform. He took a hat from a 20-something kid down front that was straight out of the early 70’s, and proceeded to wear it as he worked his way around the floor, in a very early 70’s “Spirit”-ish way. I could see how every time Bruce thought there was a chance that someone might try to grab the hat off his head, he took it off and held it in his hand. It was a nice wool hat, and I’m sure the kid who wore it was kind of wondering, “Well, it’s awesome that Bruce took it but gosh I really did like that hat,” but I was pretty sure as I watched that Bruce would remember exactly where he borrowed it from, and sure enough, he returned it to its rightful owner – with a bow of thanks – at the end of the song. It was the kind of loose but rollicking “Spirit” that is the song at its best. Kitty had to come out, too, and then we had to endure “American Land” (why? no really, why? I do not understand, but I will file this under the things I do not understand but other people do, like “The Office,” Hawaiian pizza, and the designated hitter.)
All was forgiven, however, with a soulful, heartwrenching version of “Save The Last Dance For Me.” Unlike Kansas City last summer, it was clearly planned, and well rehearsed. The entire building was quiet.
And then… we got “Sunny Day.”
(I know, sometimes you write a song to hear the audience sing it back at you. I get it. But look at how many people sang “Higher & Higher” – let’s be real. Everyone would sing along to everything except “Reno,” and even then you would find some stubborn motherfuckers who would do it on principle. People were even singing along – loudly – to “Loose Ends”. You don’t have to keep creating these artificial crowd participation moments because there are enough real ones already, and I’d argue it’s called THE ENTIRE SHOW.)
The harmonica in one hand signaled that it would be “Thunder Road” singing us out of the house, and I thought this was the right way to end things, the last note to be played, the last memory we should have, the coda of “Thunder Road” ringing in our ears as we walked out of the building. But he wasn’t ready to go yet, and I can’t blame him for bringing Rosie out – I mean, I can, because “Thunder Road” was just so perfect, just so fitting, but then again, 30 years ago I would have given my eye teeth to be sitting four rows off the floor in front of the stage at a Bruce Springsteen show at the Spectrum, singing along to “Rosalita”. He worked the stage, he worked the crowd, he sang to the front, the sides, the back, the middle level, the people in the 400’s. He made eye contact with as many people as he could.
Then the guitar was held aloft in thanks and tribute as the E Street Band made their way down the stairs, and waving at us one more time, we were done. It should have been sad but it was more bittersweet; the room is wonderful, and they don’t build them like that any more.
I will tell you that we sang “Higher and Higher” almost all the way home, and it has been echoing in my head every day since.
Say what you want about the show, highs and lows, good and bad – it was still one for the ages. It was a worthy run to close down the house. I want to hope that they will just keep getting better as we work our way towards the end of this run.
the flickr set
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