9, PHILLY 2: RISING UP ON A HOT NIGHT
It might already be September, but the weather and the E Street Band cooperated to create a hot summer night at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia Friday evening. It was warm and sultry in the twilight as the string section once again took their places on the riser behind Roy Bittan before the band entered, Bruce came onstage, and the unmistakable introduction of "New York City Serenade" filled the ballpark for the second night. "Serenade" remains this incredible jewel of a moment, and the band still seems slightly amazed by the beauty that is created in those ten minutes at the start of these shows. "I'm a young man, I talk it real loud," Bruce sang, with echoes of remembrance and longing. Roy once again excelled in performance tonight, with an energetic crispness to the notes. It's also lovely how absolutely psyched the string players seem, and their enthusiasm shines through their performance.
At the end, the very end, Bruce is telling us about the junkman, and he's singing, and singing that last refrain, stepping back from the mic a bit, giving the vocals some more room to grow. Part of it was probably to encourage the audience to raise their voices, but it just seemed like he didn't want to break the spell. Finally, however, the song came to a close, and Bruce regarded the band and the auxiliary musicians with a warm, satisfied smile before acknowledging the strings as they stood for a bow and left the stage.
"How we doing tonight?" Bruce asked. "It's hot!" he said, stating the obvious, especially to those at the front of the stage who had been standing in 90-degree heat for the last four hours. The show would kick off with "Out in the Street" and "Sherry Darling" before a lengthy sign collection interlude — almost as though Bruce was trying to clear the sightline to the stage, because there were so very, very many — and as a result, tonight would veer all over the place.
The first result of this collection would be a version of "From Small Things (Big Things Come)" that echoed St. Louis more than Memphis, Roy channeling his best Johnnie Johnson. "I'm Goin' Down" was a crowd sing-along favorite. "Loose Ends" was a welcome surprise to the audience, but it seemed like a not-so-welcome surprise to Jake Clemons, who did not seem to be acquainted with the sax solo. He eventually figured it out, but not before cracking up Bruce and various members of the band as a result.
"I'd like to bring out an original member of the E Street Band," Bruce said, bringing on "Saint Vincent Van Gogh Lopez" aka Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez. "This kindly looking senior citizen was a freakin' mad dog in 1973," Bruce assured the audience. Vini would contribute his tambourine stylings to a strong "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," complete with sizzling guitar duel between Bruce and Steve. Vini also waved the tambourine around on "Spirit in the Night," which ended with Bruce howling at the moon, literally hanging over the very top of the stadium in the back.
"4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)" was soft and perfect, dedicated to anyone from the Shore, but then the opening notes of "Kitty's Back" brought the room to attention, sparking off Bruce's fretboard. "Kitty" is always interesting, but let's be honest: live, it's an extended, free jazz exploration that can, sometimes, veer off course, or meander a little too much — it's just the nature of the composition, the risk you have to take to get the end result. Tonight, however, was another story. The song swung like nobody's business. The band was tight yet loose, weaving together, soloing in a compact, concise fashion with no bloat. Charlie Giordano's solo embodied some of the late Phantom's swing and lift; Jake's solo was sharp and melodic; and once again, the Professor just brought it home with a strong, authoritative run, Max Weinberg crisp behind him, and Garry Tallent holding the bottom down almost invisibly. Bruce urged them all on, intently watching every note. And then of course, he took his own solo, sweat visibly pouring down his fingers. It was the E Street Band at its best. (Props to the audience member on screen wearing a full-head cat mask, jumping up and down holding a sign reading "Kitty.")
From here, Bruce decided it would be a good idea to jump straight into "Rosalita," bypassing "Incident on 57th Street" entirely. To be fair, it was very hot, and "Kitty" was huge, and intense, and it might be greedy to expect it after the previous four shows following that form. But "Rosalita" did not work here; it threw the audience off completely, and it just didn't make sense. This is probably why Bruce went back to the signs, pulling out one reading "Can a College Student Play 'No Surrender,'" with impressive notation about capo placement and chords. The young man was brought up onstage to accompany Bruce on acoustic guitar. While an audience member might not generally expect to pay $196 for a talent show, the gentleman did actually possess talent and personality, and Bruce had a great time up there with him.
The next sign would end up supplying the emotional heart of the show, when Bruce pulled a sign out of the audience reading "We Rose Up" and displaying a photograph of the World Trade Center. "My City of Ruins" was next, and it was a great moment — but what made it even greater was the fact that Bruce chose to follow it with "American Skin," huge and raw as it ever was, and how it always is, Jake Clemons holding the "hands up, don't shoot" pose in the back, quietly, persistently. And then, the coup de grâce, the only possible follow-up, the logical conclusion: "The Promised Land." It was tremendous. It was strong. It was bold, it was courageous, and it was undeniable. You stood there, afterwards, vibrating from it all, not believing that it just happened.
"Candy's Room" and "She's the One" brought us back to mundanity, and then, another sign would steer the set back to course: "Racing in the Street." For some reason, this was like putting up a sign that read "Everybody Talk Now." But it didn't matter, because it was "Racing in the Street." Those opening chords, tender and tragic; the opening lines, matter-of-fact and tragic. The organ comes in to decorate a little, bring in some light. Sometimes Bruce is telling a story, sometimes he's in the story, but he always makes you believe it before handing you over to Roy Bittan. And tonight, Roy's solo was astonishing, and extraordinary: it was rich and expressive, full of complexity and shadows, a palette of color and emotions. And the interplay with Max was enormous, this piano/drum improvisation that you felt in the center of your chest. The instrumental is the end of the story; it's what goes on after Bruce finishes singing to you, the conclusion. Sometimes it's bright; sometimes it's deep; tonight it was borderline Coplandesque, making you feel a sense of hope and promise.
"Lucky Town" is always a welcome thing to hear, and it would be the last off-track rarity as the band charged into the back stretch of hits. "Streets of Philadelphia" would be dedicated to the evening's charity beneficiary, Philabundance. "Streets of Philadelphia" is the oddest candidate for a stadium, and most people were cheering the word "Philadelphia," but it remains one of Bruce's best opening lines, and it is an undeniably powerful and important song that should actually get played in more places besides the city in its title.
The epic tonight would be "Backstreets," guitar aloft in tribute, the audience at attention. And it was during this song that you knew that part of what you'd miss if you couldn't see this band anymore was the communal feeling of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with people who are singing the same words as you are, the words you've sung for years, feeling the shared goosebumps, that collective energy that you can only get from seeing live music, from only this group of musicians. And it's "Backstreets" — "We swore we'd live forever," Bruce sang, with all of the pathos necessary to deliver this song. You never think he doesn't mean it; you can't phone "Backstreets" in. At the end, over the piano refrain, Bruce would murmur, "Forever friends" repeatedly, both arms aloft, eyes closed, visibly moved, and you would swear it wasn't sweat at the corner of his eyes — or maybe it was yours, too.
And then, that moment, that guaranteed moment of awe and delight, that count you'd know in your sleep: "One, two!" "Born to Run" careened off the stage for yet another night. There would be dancing and tribute and more dancing. Bruce introduced the band by running down everyone's educational achievements: Roy the only college graduate, Garry graduated high school, Stevie didn't get out of grammar school. That delightful James Brown cape moment — where does one order a sequined cape reading "The Boss" anyway? — is extended as Bruce retreats down the stairs, and Stevie is left to vamp at the mic: "Bruce is crawling back up the stairs…" "Bobby Jean" comes back because Bruce clearly loves the sight of an entire stadium waving back at him, and then there's "Jersey Girl," and there's more sweat pooling near the corner of Bruce's eyes (and again, maybe yours) before the fireworks go off and you turn into a pumpkin, your feet suddenly hurt and your hands ache from clapping and your throat is sore from singing and yelling. You've just seen the E Street Band.
- Caryn Rose reporting - photographs by A.M. Saddler