The thing I’ll remember most is the guy running around in circles.
Springsteen played Boston tonight, and when the house lights went up for “Born to Run” you could see this guy at the far end of the floor, where it wasn’t as crowded, and he was running in circles with his hands in the air like he had just won the Olympic mile. Half an hour later, when the house lights went up for the second time (more on that later), the same guy was still running, high-fiving people, his pants falling down. He probably dropped two waist sizes just running around in circles while Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band showed for the 9,000th time why they are the best live rock ‘n’ roll band there has ever been.
For the fanatics: He played “Adam Raised a Cain,” and “Seeds,” and “I’m Goin’ Down,” and “Johnny 99,” and — a first for me, I think — “Growin’ Up.”* Jay Weinberg (son of Max) filled in on drums for the last four songs of the main set. Clarence was awake for the entire show. Here’s the full details.
*In the spirit of objectivity, we should report that Springsteen also played “Outlaw Pete,” which by pretty much unanimous acclimation is the worst song he has ever written — when you lift the melody from a KISS song, you’re in trouble from the start.** “Outlaw Pete” gets the full production treatment — fog machines, special lighting, a black cowboy hat that Bruce dons dramatically. It doesn’t help. I’ve decided that this is some sort of bet Bruce has made with the band that they can get ANY song over in concert. Next tour: “Mandy.”
**He also played “Radio Nowhere,” a much better song, but I can’t forget that the first time Alix heard it she said “That sounds like ‘867-5309.’” I think Bruce might be listening to the ’80s station a little too much.
Tonight I finally figured out what it is with Bruce and carnivals. From the beginning, the imagery of the carnival and the circus has cut all through his music — from “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” to “Tunnel of Love” to “The Last Carnival,” his tribute to the late keyboard player Danny Federici, who loved to make the organ sound like a merry-go-round.
Of course Springsteen grew up on the Jersey shore and the boardwalk is in his blood. But there’s something else about it. The beautiful thing about a carnival is that it promises something you’ve never seen before. Buy a ticket and see the two-headed cow, watch the Great Mephisto catch a bullet in his teeth, close your eyes as the man throws knives at the beautiful lady spinning on the wheel. In our minds, we know the Great Mephisto has the bullet in his palm the whole time, and the two-headed cow was sewn together by a taxidermist. But we buy the ticket anyway because we long for that unique experience, that moment we can’t miss because it won’t ever come again.
I have just described every Bruce Springsteen show.
At this point it’s built in — the audience brings posters with song requests, and he stacks them up on stage and pulls a couple out. (“I’m Goin’ Down” and “Growin’ Up” were the choices tonight.) On this tour he’s added a Stump the Band segment where people request ANY song, by anybody, and the E Street Band figures it out. Tonight it was ZZ Top’s “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” — whoever made the poster helpfully put the lyrics on the back.
I was a music writer in Charlotte for a while, and I knew it was time to quit when I would see the same act come through town for the third or fourth time with the exact same show. Springsteen NEVER does that. He’s always ad-libbing the setlist, calling out solos for the other band members, sticking his guitar into the front row to let the crowd play the chords.
He’s the barker AND the freak show AND the trapeze act — everything polished and rehearsed and professional until he decides to make it raw and daring and personal, this show, right now, for nobody but you.
Tonight, for the fourth song of the encore, he played “American Land” — a song he often closes with. Just about the whole band grouped together at the front of the stage to jam. Big finish. Springsteen walked off toward the back of the stage, having played 25 songs in two and a half hours, having jumped on top of the piano and held a backbend for half a minute and skidded across the stage like a kid on a Slip ‘n’ Slide.
He got almost off the stage. He paused for a second. Then he asked for a fresh guitar.
“It ain’t over ’til it’s over!” he said, and the band kicked into “Rosalita” — “Rosalita”! — and the house lights came back up, and there was that guy still running in circles on the floor, the absolute picture of joy, and in all my life I’ve never seen anything like it.