Concert Review: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Mohegan Sun Arena, May 17, 2014
When the house lights went down Saturday night, I had a lot of hopes for the evening. I was waiting for that moment when Steve walked back on stage again, I was waiting for the first notes of the first song, I was waiting for the crowd to settle in and the gaggle of teenage boys next to me to stop poking me with their elbows. I was not at all expecting to hear the first notes of the alternate “Racing” and was pretty sure that I was wrong and that I was going to feel pretty dumb once Bruce started singing — except that, yes, Bruce was starting the Saturday night penultimate show of the tour at a casino by playing the alternate version of “Racing In The Street” from The Promise. Which is an interesting choice to say the least, but interesting from the perspectives of tone and intent: it’s brighter, not as solemn as the album cut, but it’s obscure as all fuck to the casual fan and could run the risk of falling over flat and then it’s a flurry of gathering signs or “Hungry Heart” to try to win them back.
And then I forgot about “Clampdown.” I know, right? I forgot about “Clampdown.” To be honest I was kinda worried about seeing it live, it’s been difficult for them to get it down, and please do not try to tell me that the raggedness is its charm and that the Clash wouldn’t have sung a polished version, because that just shows me that you do not know what you are talking about. “Clampdown” ALWAYS delivered, and this is exactly one of the songs where you have to nail it, you have to hit it hard, or it doesn’t work. Morello sings the song like someone who’s been singing it his entire life and Bruce is singing his interpretation of it and there have been some, shall we say, mixed results. And I wasn’t sure I liked the horns or the tone, it was just too bright and cheery for a song that’s about social justice and inequality and prejudice–which is of course why it is perfect for the E Street Band.
But then the first notes hit and it was like Pavlov just rang a bell: “WHAT ARE WE GONNA DO NOW??” and all bets were off, I took off my glasses and stuffed my notebook into my purse and threw myself into that song like there was no tomorrow. I mean, I know the words to “Clampdown” like I know the words to “Born To Run”. I hung the words to the “Anger can be power” verse on every dorm room door I had in college. And it was tight and brilliant and worked, it really worked, and THEY ARE SINGING THIS IN A CASINO where the Republican Party of Connecticut is having their annual convention right next door, and it was all pretty fucking great. (Okay, maybe the end was a little rough and Bruce couldn’t quite figure out how to end it crisply and we were working in a few too many places, really, no complaints here. None.)
“Badlands” after is just about as great as a segue you can hope for, Bruce smashing the guitar against his chest for maximum distortion, and then against the mic stand, over and over again. Bruce audibles in “Ties That Bind” and yells “C’mon, Steve!” and the sub-sonic roar that arose from the crowd as he stepped to the mic was gorgeous and heart-rending and the very definition of homecoming. He kept it going by going into — of course! — “Two Hearts,” and the two of them played it up for all that it was worth, wrung every bit of fun and goodness and friendship out of every single moment, every single second. And the second-best thing was watching the smiles on everyone else’s faces, Roy and Garry and Nils and the horns and, well, everyone was glad Stevie was back. At the end of the song, Steve acts fatigued. “You do this every night?” he asked. “Every fuckin’ night?” “He’s a little out of shape,” Bruce magnanimously explained to us, before they brought it home.
I don’t remember what Bruce said next, exactly, that made me realize what the next song was going to be, but then when he started asking, “What does one plus one equal in math?” it was a lock, and we’re screaming THREE and he’s saying, “No, no, in MATH” and we yell TWO and then he says, “Okay, what does one plus one equal in rock and roll?” and we yell THREE! THREE! “Einstein didn’t know! Shakespeare didn’t know! Math isn’t math at all…it’s magic.” And beautifully, perfectly, the front of the house screams ‘GOOD MORNING, GOOD MORNING, THE CHURCH MOUSE IS SNORING..” along with Bruce. “Frankie Fell In Love!” It was wonderful and gorgeous and they totally nailed it.
One more time for “High Hopes,” which I love so much that I hope he finds a way to keep it in the set from time to time. “Raise Your Hand” was unexpected, and got all the signs up, except that I’m not sure he really wanted that to be a sign interlude more than he wanted something to get him to the back platform. And it’s shorter than, say, “Hungry Heart,” which caused Bruce to gesture to the band to keep vamping because the XL beer he bogarted along the back rail was taking him longer to finish and he wanted to finish the whole goddamn thing. (The teenage boys adjacent loved this display of machismo, while previously looking askance at the crowd’s enthusiasm for anything they didn’t know or understand, which seemed to stop right around “Darkness”. Really, you cannot make fun of me at a Bruce Springsteen concert because I am a wholehearted and unabashed dork, they were just too loud when they were doing it, which is what pissed me off.)
Signs were retrieved upon the semi-successful delivery of Mr. Springsteen’s ass to the center platform, and what looked like a paper plate with a fork on it turned into “Quarter To Three” at full blast. Apparently Steve and Bruce were having a great time during the beginning of the song, which I could not see because of the fuckwit at the center platform who continued to hold their enormous sign up despite the fact that the signs had been chosen AND WERE BEING PLAYED. But it was still “Quarter To Three” and any “Quarter To Three” is amazing for me. This would be saxophone solo #1 for Mr. Eddie Manion this evening.
The “Stayin’ Alive” sign was Bruce’s head on Travolta’s body with a row of disco lights around it. And the singers come down front and Curt Ramm is there with the trumpet, this amazing, deconstructed interpretation of the song. I didn’t expect to EVER see this and it was absolutely tremendous in its execution and performance. At dinner after the show I said that there are certain moments in E Street history where I feel that the performance is amazing — the cover of “Thrill On The Hill” by Hank Ballard for one, “Frankie” (the other one) for two — and “Stayin’ Alive” was one of those moments. Every person on that stage was on their A game at that moment.
“Hearts of Stone”? Hearts of fucking Stone? Are you kidding me? Are you KIDDING me? And phones come out and people are called and you hold your breath, you really just hold your breath and try to take it all in, the vocals and the emotion and the depth and the soul. The song finishes, someone plays a note, I say “Talk To Me” and am scorned, except that – YES! TALK TO ME! And although I wish sometimes Bruce would lay off the shtick and just play the song, it was short and sweet and genuine and didn’t take away from the actual song, and he’s pulling out his pockets to show they are empty on the “full week’s pay” line. People behind the stage, all the way up on the top level, were going crazy. This is a small, intimate arena and these people did not sit down, they were on their feet dancing all night, everywhere I could see.
The 12 string guitar came out and I was guessing and praying this would be “Seven Angels” (which I’d seen the soundcheck spoiler for) and I have to tell you that I did not see “The Price You Pay” coming. “Price You Pay” into “American Skin” into “Promised Land,” got us back into an arc, and also delivered three of the best performances of those songs you will see. (“Promised Land” after “American Skin” remains one of those all-time genius, I-am-not-fucking-around segues, like “The Wall” into BITUSA.) They had sound problems during “Prove It” that were so bad that at first I was not sure what song they were playing (no piano, Max too high in the mix) and then “Jesse James” came out next (but at least it wasn’t Pay Me My Money Down, which was the second enormous sign at the platform that drove me bonkers with its size and I prayed he didn’t see). But it worked into “Shackled,” and Cindy was fabulous, like she always is, Bruce encouraging her to keep going again, and again, and again.
I was a little worried that the earlier festivities might mean they would omit “Ghost of Tom Joad,” but it was there and it worked and it was absolutely the best version of this version the song I’ve ever seen; the emotion was high but in check, the solos were phenomenal, the vocals were tight and crisp and striking, you wish for it to go on forever, you wish for missing friends to be here to see this. If this one of the last times I see Tom Morello sing this with Bruce, this was a good one to go out on. I love Tom and I am glad to have a new guitar foil for Bruce, but this was never going to be forever and we knew that going in.
“Radio Nowhere” is always great, and the crowd — who were not lost or distracted, but still there, hanging on every note — loves it. “The Rising” sounded fresh and crisp, and going into “Light of Day” was outstanding. The intro solo was muscular and powerful, Bruce pulling everything he could out of the guitar. Getting rid of the “Land of 1,000 Dances” makes the song stronger and I love the interlude of Nils and Max interplay.
“I’ll Work For Your Love,” acoustic, as the first song of the encore dissolves me in an instant puddle of tears, because that song in that spot is about us. The band comes back on and Bruce waves them off gently, talking about how a good song just needs a guy and a guitar to sing it, telling the story about how the next song is what he thinks is one of his best songs, talked about writing it in a beauty parlor at night on an out of tune piano, shared some thoughts on the history of hair care (“You used to have to dry your hair by sitting under these things the size of Pepsi machines! And you couldn’t talk to anyone why you did it!”) before explaining, “I was trying to invent a superhero whose sneakers I could fill,” and giving us “Growin’ Up.” There were by my count at least six signs in the pit requesting this song because the sign holder had just graduated high school / college / grad school, and I was glad for them that they got this, in this version, where he sang and then asked us to sing, and the entire arena fairly vibrated with the lyrics being sung back to him.
House lights, and BTR / DITD / 10th / Shout. I was glad that the hijinks for “Dancing” were capped to one special dance where Bruce got into the pit to dance with someone who needs crutches, and there were no karaoke, ‘can I dance with the lighting rigger’ ridiculous requests. We knew there would be at least one more because when Kevin came out to bring him the electric guitar before BTR, he definitely told him what he wanted after that, and while I expected “Thunder Road” I did not expect “If I Should Fall Behind,” another bittersweet song that in this place again spoke to us in the crowd. And then “Thunder Road,” the crowd singing loud and proud and full of love and emotion to meet Bruce’s.
And that was it; the night was done. It felt like a minute; it felt like six hours; it felt like forever. It was amazing and unpredictable and perfect, it was strong and Bruce drove the show with a clarity and vision that never faltered. It is a fine way to end the 2014 Springsteen Touring Season. I loved this band, I loved the horns, I loved the backing singers, I love them and will miss them next time out, whenever that will be.
P.S. To answer the questions, no, I am not there tonight, I have a commitment that could not be avoided.
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