Bruce Springsteen at the Bradley Center
One of rock's greatest live performers doing one of rock's greatest albums? Of course this was going to be incredible
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Let’s say you’re Bruce Springsteen. Congratulations, hypothetical Boss, you have at least three things going for you. 1) You’re ultra-rich. 2) You’re beloved by millions of people that you’ll never meet, thousands of people you’ve met only briefly, and at least 80 percent of everyone you’ve ever known personally. 3) If you never get out of bed for the rest of your life, 1 and 2 will still be true. So, what do you do? Do you buy an island for yourself and stock it with a lifetime supply of cheeseburgers, robots, and swimsuit models? Or do you somehow summon the energy to perform a 29-song, three-hour show that fully lives up to the hyperbolic legend of the (deep breath) “house-rocking, pants-dropping, brain-shocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, lovemaking, sexifying, electrifying, legendary E Street Band”?
The actual Bruce Springsteen is maybe the only guy on earth who would choose the latter over the former. At the Bradley Center Sunday night, he worked much, much harder than he had to. For instance, he probably didn’t have to freaking crowd-surf back to the stage after prowling his way into the center of the audience during “Hungry Heart,” a trick most performers would reserve for the show’s climax. (Bruce did it only three songs into his concert.) And he definitely didn’t have to collect a generous portion of song-request signs held up by fans in the first several rows, and then play those songs in order. (One of the requests included “Living Proof” off of 1992’s forgettable Lucky Town, which Springsteen had to re-learn for a few moments before quickly teaching it to the E Street Band, who didn’t play on the studio version. And it sounded pretty good!)
That’s Springsteen for you. We can debate over whether he’s the greatest live performer that rock ’n’ roll has ever known, but there’s no question that he’s the most determined. Nobody cares more about being the greatest—and you thinking he’s the greatest—than Springsteen. If “greatest living rock legend” is a rarefied position akin to being president of the United States, Springsteen is going door-to-door and winning hearts and minds one heart and mind at a time. He seemed up for pretty much anything Sunday night. When somebody tossed up a Santa hat—a hint to play the seasonal favorite “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—Springsteen initially balked. “Too early!” he said, like a dad telling his kids to leave their presents alone. But sure enough, he cued up the band and there was “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” Even if you hate “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—an understandable opinion, for sure—it’s tough not to admire Springsteen’s ability to infuse massive rock shows with an uncommon sense of “what the hell?” spontaneity.
(One more note about the signs: One of the best moments of the night was when Springsteen picked up a particularly crafty sign requesting the popular late-’70s outtake “Loose Ends” and remarked, “You’ve got some CREATIVE MUTHAFUCKAS HERE IN WISCONSIN!” Can we make that the state motto, please?)
What else did Springsteen do? Oh yeah, he also played one of the best rock albums of all time in its entirety. Introducing it as the record “that started the conversation for us,” Springsteen’s decision to play Born To Run from beginning to end wasn’t quite as enticing as picking The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle or Darkness On The Edge Of Town as he has in other cities. Since Born To Run is practically a greatest-hits record, he usually gets around to playing most of these songs live anyway. But no matter—hearing “Thunder Road,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and the rest in sequence was a testament to how much of a murderer’s row of classic-rock staples Born To Run is. While songs like “Backstreets” don’t have quite the same go-for-broke, life-or-death delirium in 2009 that they had in 1975, they now have something else equally worthwhile: a hard-won dignity that comes from steadfastly refusing to let your dream die. Because even if you’re 60 and a rock star with nothing left to prove, it’s still worth going out there and making the dream a reality for several hours a night, even if it means taxing your body beyond all reasonable standards of endurance.
Yeah, I can’t believe I just that wrote that, either. Call me a sap, but when “Big Man” Clarence Clemons—who otherwise hobbled painfully around the stage due to a series of hip and knee surgeries—stepped up and blew the full-bodied sax solo from “Jungleland” with the same authority he had in '75, you had to believe in the heaping pile of rock mythology these guys were selling and buy it up lock, stock, and barrel with everything you had. Because if Springsteen is still willing to go all the way, damn it, you might as well, too.