Bruce Springsteen's journey, through four hours and one song
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The nosebleeds at Gillette Stadium are not necessarily forgiving. After walking around nearly the entire perimeter of the complex and working up a series of ramps that makes the beer waiting on the 300 level seem like a grand oasis at the end of the Mohave, it’s time to figure out which set of stairs leads to the right part of the section — the part where walking over 20 sets of knees isn’t a necessity.
It’s up there where we got to experience Bruce Springsteen bring his nearly year-long tour to a glorious finish. Walking on stage at 7:50 p.m. and not walking away until 11:56, Springsteen took a packed stadium on a virtual tour of his life. He focused on his early characters first — Kitty, Spanish Johnny, the Cosmic Kid, Rosalita — and suddenly grew up through song, refusing to surrender and celebrating the earliest and brightest gems of rock and roll. He pushed through the badlands, rose up and ran through to the finish line.
There was a lot to take in, obviously — 33 songs can be overwhelming in any sense, never mind when a nearly 67-year-old man is defying age and physics to give each one his all. But it might have been his quietest moment that revealed just how skilled and special he is, when he stepped out in front of his versatile E Street Band and went it alone for “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” bringing the show to a tense, electrifying halt as he wound his way through one of the more vivid scenes in his bursting catalog.
But it was a while getting there, and each leg of the journey had its own thrills.
Riding a packed train from South Station into the suburban development mecca of Patriot Place cut out the consistently horrifying traffic situation leading in and out of Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium. And on this random Wednesday night with humidity hanging in the air and a thunderstorm threatening to derail the evening, there wasn’t a shred of pessimism among the throngs. The Boss was here to play his final show of 2016, and that’s clearly cause for celebration.
The weather held off. After some echo issues during the opening “New York City Serenade,” the sound suddenly shaped back into form. From there, Springsteen and his band started to journey up the Jersey shore, with the stories more reflective than the sometimes bitter tone of his between-song chatter from the 1980s and earlier. He was clearly having a good time and reveling in a wide-open setlist. When this tour began in January, he was taking crowds on the full-album journey of his 1980 double-LP The River, but since the summer, he’s made a habit of pulling from all the nooks and crannies of a career that has seen more than 300 official songs slip out of the vaults.
Much of the first third of the show leaned on his first two albums, as if setting the context for both the rest of the evening and explaining the roots of where he is today as an artist and a performer and a human. In those songs he rattled off stories of fights in the street, chasing the night in cars, breaking out from the expected norms and trying to find his place in the world along the way. He spoke about taking out a rhyming dictionary for “Blinded By the Light” after watching a fight over a parking space in an effort to write a single, and on how guitar became his new solitary vice on “Growin’ Up.”
In all, 11 of the first 16 songs he released made it into the show, but as he sprinted through the crowd during the finale to “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” he began grabbing signs and mixing it up. Out came 1984’s “No Surrender” by request. He traveled quickly back up The River with a pairing of “Hungry Heart” and “Out in the Streets.” He revisited “Because the Night,” outcast from the Darkness of the Edge of Town record and recalled “The Rising,” the centerpiece of the E Street Band’s revival nearly 15 years ago.
As is his custom, the “encore” wasn’t really a break for anyone but the band — he stayed on stage, pulled up another sign and played “Long Walk Home” on his own acoustic. And from there, it was a sprint to the finish, begun with an emotional reading of “Jungleland,” rolling through “Born to Run” and capping with a spirited version of “Bobby Jean,” which they played after fireworks were supposedly meant to end the evening. At this point, Springsteen was four hours into the evening and clearly not ready to let go of the night or the tour. Neither, it seemed, were the fans still in the seats, exhausted and always ready for more.
That adventurous spirit, so present in his best songs, comes out the most during the shows when he throws out the script and starts pulling requests from the crowd. Signs were responsible for “No Surrender,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Radio Nowhere” and John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” among others. But his reading on “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” seemed especially poignant. After a quick discussion, Springsteen began to play the song by himself on his Telecaster, slowly working his way up the boardwalk and through the lights.
But by the time he got to “4th of July,” it was nearly three hours into this marathon, and he had stripped away all the protections of the song’s arrangement to bring it to a new state. Patiently moving through the sights and sounds of the beach, revisiting the fireworks that punctuated his formative years and weaving all the elements of the south Jersey shore into one night that encapsulated his journey, and the journey of so many others, packed an emotional punch that was made all the more powerful by the starkness of the moment — a spotlight on one man and his guitar, with about 60,000 faces staring back at him.
Despite all the different backgrounds and experiences contained within those 60,000 in attendance, it’s not hard to substitute Asbury Park for Revere Beach or Seaside Heights or Rockaway Beach or any other bustling summer spot on the East Coast. If we’re lucky, we have those nights that become singular in our memories, and addresses and names immediately substitute themselves in for Asbury Park and Sandy.
A night like this is a celebration. It starts at the beginning, it builds momentum and it ends as a full-blown party, with fireworks and sing-alongs and that exhausted walk back to the train. The thought of going to work the next morning is there, but it’s just distant enough to allow reveling in the moment. And in the midst of this epic exercise in stadium rock, he broke nearly every large-scale show rule. He lightly picked his way through the song, singing in a raspy voice barely registering above a whisper. The story and its delivery was so powerful and moving that it held thousands in rapt attention.
Even on this grand stage, there is the potential to see true magic. On top of the strength and poise that’s required to burn through a four-hour set with no lags, and set in a giant, concrete structure built for anything but emotional connection to art, Springsteen is able to turn the focus back on the work, those lyrics and progressions he’s wrestled with for more than 40 years. In turn he allows the listeners to revisit those characters and stories that are so specific and so universal. It’s the highest form of escapism. In the moment it’s as though nothing else could possibly matter.
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org