After a two-hour-plus main set that slammed home themes of mortality and impermanence and the way of all flesh, Bruce Springsteen reemerged on Madison Square Garden’s stage Saturday night, April 1, for his usual lengthy encore, and announced “something special for New York City.” He pointed over at Soozie Tyrell, who began a dead-on recreation of one of rock’s few canonical violin melodies, over piano from all-time-great arpeggio purveyor Roy Bittan. They eased the E Street Band into the 11-minute-long, 48-year-old mini-rock-opera “Jungleland,” played and sung with enough muscle and drama and soaring perfection to momentarily make the rest of the show’s messages seem like a lie. Death? Impossible. Decline? Not tonight.
That paradox, that dance between age and agelessness, is at the heart of Springsteen and the E Street Band’s current tour, which is dedicated to both prove-it-all-night power drives and relentless reminders of a coming day “when all our summers have come to an end,” as he puts it in the wrenching, solo-acoustic show-closer, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” In the wake of Springsteen and the band’s first hometown-ish show in seven years, here’s what the show taught us about the tour, the current state of the E Street Band, and more.
Springsteen has called the E Street Band “the world’s greatest bar band,” but that’s not what they are on this tour.
For all the looseness and spontaneity Springsteen has cultivated onstage over the years, from constant last-minute song switches to taking sign requests at stadium shows for songs unplayed since the Ford Administration, the other side of the band has always been a mercilessly rehearsed tautness. It’s that aspect he’s emphasizing this time around, with a nearly static setlist, perhaps in part to allow the band to focus their finite energy on the details of some of his best-known songs in lieu of staying ready to play one of a hundred obscurities on a millisecond’s notice. There’s a clear narrative to most, though definitely not all, of the song choices, as well as an obvious intent to show off almost every side of the band and each epoch of his career, from the Van Morrison-derived jazz-rock of 1973’s “Kitty’s Back” and junkyard R&B of the same year’s “The E Street Shuffle” forward. If “The Eras Tour” wasn’t taken by a certain other artist, the name could well apply.
Still, he could mix it up a bit more.
Besides the “Jungleland” addition, there is one near-wildcard slot in the setlist, filled at MSG with his taut-as-ever, if overused over the years, reworking of Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped” (at the previous stop on the tour, it was “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in that slot, which would’ve been more welcome). In the actual Eras Tour, Taylor Swift has a truly rotating song slot, offering a chance to slip the deepest of cuts into the set every night. With Springsteen’s vast catalog, including the entire, as-yet-unplayed-before-a-paying-audience Western Stars album from 2019 (that title track, one of his best-ever songs, should kill live), slipping in one real obscurity every night certainly couldn’t hurt. There’s other songs, too, including “Johnny 99,” that seem eminently swappable on any given night.
The band sounds ridiculously good.
From the start, the E Street Band has always been something of a society for creative anachronism, and that’s even more true in 2023, when guitars and other remnants of the rock era aren’t hard to find in current mainstream music, but actual bands are. Even with multiple septuagenarians on stage, they made as powerful a case as ever for music created from scratch in real time, while Springsteen’s one-meal-a-day commitment to preternatural fitness seems to have spread to the rest of the band. A trim Steve Van Zandt looked and sounded noticeably reinvigorated, practically sprinting across the stage at times.
Max Weinberg, who has the greatest physical challenge of anyone in the band as a 71-year-old arena-rock drummer, has been preparing for this tour practically since the last one ended in 2017, and his feel, groove, and sense of time seemed subtler than ever. A shades-wearing Garry Tallent was, as always, impossibly locked into Weinberg’s kick drum, even as the arena’s inevitable muddiness sometimes meant he was more felt than heard. It’s always fun to figure out what parts Nils Lofgren — now a simultaneous Crazy Horse member and E Streeter — is adding to the mix, from a fancy rhythm guitar-bit on “No Surrender” to a chops-enhanced version of a guitar break originated by Springsteen on “Rosalita.”
This tour’s extra horns and singers only enhanced the show — with just a couple of exceptions.
The horn section, in particular, is most welcome when it’s doing something interesting, which is often, as on the New Orleans breaks of “Johnny 99,” on the twin songs from The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, and of course “10th Avenue Freeze-Out.” It only feels superfluous when the players are roped into recapitulating, and almost overpowering, signature riffs during two encore hits, “Dancing in the Dark” and “Glory Days.”
Jake Clemons is a miracle.
Springsteen’s songs evoked ghosts throughout the evening, and Clemons invoked one just in his playing and presence. His big-lunged tenor sax tone has always had an uncanny resemblance to his late uncle Clarence Clemons’ otherwise singular sound. But at the Garden, after more than a decade in the band, Jake sounded more like his late predecessor than ever, even as, at age 43, he continued to bring his own youthful-by-E-Street standards energy to the stage. From the start, the other 21st-century replacement for a departed E Streeter, skilled keyboardist Charlie Giordano, has seemed less wedded to Danny Federici’s organ parts. But then again, Federici himself was rarely wedded to his own studio parts on any given night.
No one knows how to behave at concerts anymore.
There have been many post-pandemic complaints that TikTok-brained Gen Zers have begun attending shows without any idea how to act, leading to unprecedented acts of rudeness to performers and fellow attendees alike — but it turns out the problem is more universal than generational. Just look at the dude captured on camera standing right next to the stage, texting relentlessly without a glance at the band during a tour premiere of “Jungleland,” or the group of middle-aged finance-y bros in a lower side section who engaged in a bellowing conversation about their kids’ SAT scores during Springsteen’s hushed version of “Last Man Standing,” dedicated to his late Castiles bandmate George Theiss. It should be noted that the most consistently engaged section of the audience — the ones waving their arms in unison to “Kitty’s Back,” for instance — was in the rear rafters, a sign, perhaps, of issues with the ticketing process and pricing for this particular tour.
Even if some of the crowd had trouble staying in the moment, Springsteen never did.
He still shut his eyes in utter immersion as he sang “Badlands” for the 1,229th time, and still drew energy from the audience in some eerie yet very real way. (Yes, that’s correct, per Brucebase.) And he still has some surprises left on guitar, with his solo on “Kitty’s Back” noticeably straying from his usual harmonic vocabulary to match his horn players’ more adventurous note choices. And his voice continues to do that weird thing where it somehow sounds stronger towards the end of the show than at the beginning.
It’s “sways,” damn it.
Newly aware of the mildly ludicrous debate over whether Mary’s dress sways or waves on “Thunder Road,” Springsteen is now singing “sways” with exaggerated clarity and a huge smile.
The show’s ending echoes its opening.
In a sign of just how carefully designed the setlist is, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” could well be telling the end of the story of a friendship begun with “No Surrender.” The vinyl they busted out of class to hear and the six-strings that cracked worlds open in the earlier song are now mementos of a vanished companion in “Dreams” — “I got your guitar here by the bed,” Springsteen sings. “All your favorite records/And all the books that you read.”
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Madison Square Garden Set List
“Prove It All Night”
“Letter to You”
“The Promised Land”
“Out in the Street”
“The E Street Shuffle”
“Last Man Standing”
“Because the Night”
“She’s the One”
“Born to Run”
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
“Dancing in the Dark”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
“I’ll See You in My Dreams”