With concerts, as with anything else in life really, there are various levels of greatness. There are so many different ways to see a live show with all the divergent types of venues and festivals and setups that we now have today. Talking about the greatness of such shows becomes a completely subjective venture and it’s hard to pinpoint any one objectively phenomenal show. I find this all the time when I go the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Tennessee every June. I tend to see upwards of 50 acts in four days and am always amazed at how just about every show is jam packed with fans. And no matter how much of a no-brainer it is for me to see a certain band in a timeslot, there are thousands of others who have another must-see act at that same time and couldn’t care less about the band I’m so excited to see. It’s clear we’re all looking for something different and that’s really great because it allows for stimulating debates and conversations about music in general. Having said all that, I can’t help but think that amongst all these subjective opinions and interests, there is one objective truth (well, as close as you can get to one anyway) that the greatest performer we have with us now is Bruce Springsteen. And I found myself at one of the first shows of the U.S. leg of his current tour in Tampa, Florida last Friday night; from the highest seat in the very last row of the Tampa Bay Times Forum. And there was no place I’d rather be.
To close out my Concert Series, it is quite apt that I’m doing so with a performance by one of my all-time favorite live acts. I first saw Springsteen in 1998 in Philadelphia with my brother. At the time I didn’t really care much for him and I think the only album I had was Born to Run. After the show, I was singing a different tune as I was experienced to the most energetic, passionate, and exciting show I had ever seen. Since them I have seen him six more times, including the most recent one, and I have done so from all vantage points. From the very last row in Tampa, to a nosebleed seat behind the stage in Albany, to the box seat in the arena in Philadelphia where I was served beer and appetizers, to a seat on the field of Shea Stadium, to the right side of the stage during the 5 hour “Vote For Change Tour” back in 2004, to the 20th row in the pit at Bonnaroo where Springsteen fell right into me as he shredded a solo during “Out in the Streets”. Yes, though I’ve only seen him 7 times, I feel like I’ve seen it all. And it’s never been disappointing.
For this show, I attended with mostly family members as my uncles are all crazy Springsteen fans and have been ever since I can remember. My two cousins were the ones who got the tickets and although they tried to get tickets as soon as they went on sale to the general public, the best they could do was the last two rows. Springsteen sells out in minutes, even in a crappy music place like Florida. No matter though. The show was nearly three hours long which is two to three times the length of most shows. What’s amazing about it though is the fact that when he plays it’s almost like one continuous song. He barely takes any breaks between songs and after rocking out one tune for 8 minutes or so, the band will be holding out a long note while Springsteen walks to the back and picks up another guitar, comes back to the microphone, screams out “One, Two, Three, Four!” and then rocks out into the next song. The energy level is unparalled and regardless of your affinity for him or not, you have to respect that. Nobody else does what he does in the way that he does. And the dude is 62 years old.
This tour is in support of his most recent album Wrecking Ball which has been hailed by many as his best post 70’s and 80’s album. I’m not entirely familiar with his catalogue, but I can say that the album is excellent. He played many tracks from the album but he also did a great job of mixing up the tunes from all of the decades and albums. He kicked off the show with two new tracks and then dove into a blistering version of “Prove it all Night” which ends with one of the best guitar solos you’ll see at a Springsteen show. Blown away afterwards I turned to my mom and said, “That was only the third song!!!!” He could have easily closed the show with it. Another highlight was his selection to play “American Skin (41 Shots)” which was originally written in response to the Amadou Diallo shooting back in 1999 who was shot 41 times by police officers. Springsteen made no comment about the song to the crowd but it was quite evident he played this in response to the recent and tragic killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. I had totally forgotten about that song but was glad he played it. It was stunning.
This is also the first tour Springsteen has played since the death of founding E Street member Clarence Clemmons. In his stead, was his nephew Jake Clemmons who was featured quite prominently during the show and he did an amazing job of filling in for someone who is nearly irreplaceable. One of the great things during a Springsteen show is when he introduces the band and when he speaks to the crowd. The man talks like a Southern Baptist preacher and it’s hard to not feel spiritual when he gets going, saying things like “We’re here tonight to put a whoop-ass session on the recession!!!” and goes on about the spiritual and healing powers of rock n’ roll. Nobody does stuff like this and if anyone tried, I would venture to guess most would come off as cheesy and lame. Springsteen makes you believe it.
He also makes it a point at several moments to get down from the stage and run onto the floor while he shakes hands with fans and climbs into the seats with them. At one point he ran to about a quarter of the way onto the center of the floor and leaned back into the crowd with arms spread open and just laid in their outstretched arms in his own version of a crowd surf. He gave no instructions but just laid there as still as possible with a huge grin on his face and the hands slowly but surely passed him towards the front to the stage. It was a total organic moment and it was cool to see the fans converge on the floor to try to help out and get a hand on the Boss. My dad is also 62 years old. No way could I see him doing this.
The encore came about two hours into the set and was played with most of the house lights up so from our perspective we could see just about everything, including the security guards chasing people on the floor who had somehow made their way out there without having the right credentials. I had to hand it to the guards, they were tenacious in their pursuit and retrieved each of hooligans and returned them to their rightful seats. The closing songs were mostly the hits you’d expect, “Born to Run”, “Glory Days”, “Dancing in the Dark”, and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”. And with that, it was over. I looked at my phone and noted he played for just under three hours, 2 hours and 50 minutes to be precise. It felt like 45 minutes.
Throughout this series, I’ve written about different types of shows and I’ve tried to center each one on a varying theme to keep it a little more interesting. I still feel the Avett Brothers are a band that just about anyone can like, the Lemonheads are a better band because of nostalgia, Radiohead is on another planet, the Black Keys have skyrocketed to fame in a short period of time, and JustinRoberts writes some of the best pop hooks even though he is for the kids. But if there was one that I would say is a must see regardless of your tastes, it would be Springsteen hands down. I don’t care if he’s not your thing. I don’t care if you never really got into his music or if you don’t get him. If you are a true appreciator of music and in particular, live music, he should be at the top of your list of must see shows. He is a living legend but unlike other such artists he can still bring a live show and do so better than most of the younger acts out there. His shows are more of a happening and cultural and spiritual experience than anything else and are worth every dollar of the 63 you’d spend to see him from the last row. As an added incentive I’d say that given his age you’d better go see him soon since he can’t do this forever, but in actuality the opposite is the truth. The way he’s doing this whole music thing, he’s just getting started.
I think I've mentioned before that my uncle Danny regularly complains that he's always left disappointed by other live shows because they can never compare to a Springsteen show. I always tell him how unrealistic this statement is. It's like saying that you can't read any poetry or literature because nobody is able to hold a candle to Shakespeare, or that you don't like to watch movies because nothing has come close to as being as fantastic as The Godfather, or that sitcoms are all lame and unwatchable because The Honeymooners make them all pale in comparison. Hell, why eat anything else because lobster tail is the greatest thing you've ever had and nothing will ever top it? Live concerts all have their benefits and all try to do different things through different mediums. To forgo all other live shows because they're not Springsteen is totally ridiculous and unfair. You might as well hole up and just give up on listening to new music. Uncle Danny has chosen to go down this path and I feel bad for him because there is so much that he is missing. But every time I see a Springsteen show, I understand where he's coming from. And in some ways, he's not wrong.