By Brian Ives
At the E Street Band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, guitarist Steven Van Zandt noted in his acceptance speech that the group owe much to Bruce Springsteen‘s “relentless striving for greatness, his insistence on our constantly evolving music excellence, and his continuing writing of songs of a unnecessarily high level of quality, that is both historically unprecedented and profoundly inspiring.”
The “unnecessarily” was an interesting word choice — it insinuates that his fans are so loyal, they’ll roll with him no matter what. Or, that no matter how good his new music is, it’s unlikely to make the cultural impact that his albums did in the ’70s, ’80s, or even in the ’00s with The Rising. Van Zandt could also have added that Springsteen’s shows are also unnecessarily high quality. At this point, who would begrudge him if he stuck to fan favorites and kept his shows to two hours?
No one. But that’s where the “relentless striving for greatness” comes in. He’ll use the classics in concert, but he doesn’t rely solely on hits. And as the E Street Band wrapped up their latest tour at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Sunday night (May 18), he still pushed the band by throwing tour premieres into the setlist, along with rarities and one song that he never played live and learned on the spot.
The opening was catered to the obsessive fans: out of the first seven songs, six were tour premieres and the other was a cover of Van Halen‘s “Jump.” Opening the show by popping a bottle of champagne and playing a pair of Human Touch songs, “Roll of the Dice” and “Leap of Faith,” he followed with “Jump,” and then the Born in the U.S.A. outtake “Frankie.”
He took requests early, and when a cute child with great seats held up a sign with “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” he happily obliged. After that came a somewhat bigger challenge as Bruce spied another sign that read, “Seven Angels.”
“I’ve been seeing this song [request] at the last few shows,” he said. “Out of the hundreds of songs that have been played, this song has never been played.” The band huddled briefly as Bruce informed the audience “We’re looking for one chord!” before announcing “Tom found it!” And so, because a few fans wanted to hear an outtake from Human Touch (that album again!), Bruce and the band learned “Seven Angles” in real time, adding one more song to their ever-growing repertoire.
Morello contributed more than on-stage lost-chord retrieval, of course. Morello is a featured performer on seven songs from Springsteen’s latest album, High Hopes (he also contributed to 2012’s Wrecking Ball), and he has surely influenced the setlists on the current tour (covers of “Jump,” AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and the Clash’s “Clampdown” were likely his idea). The longtime metal fan got his Eddie Van Halen on while playing the solo on “Jump,” but he truly shined, of course, on the duet version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” His vocals drew cheers from the audience, but his wild guitar solo on the song, which featured everything in his arsenal from Randy Rhoads-ian runs to Terminator X-ian scratching, got roars.
Given Morello’s left-wing politics, he didn’t hog the face-melting guitar heroics all for himself. While Springsteen took a lot of solos, it was Nils Lofgren who may have had the most mind-blowing solo, on “Youngstown,” which was him spinning with abandon while firing off notes from his fretboard, as Morello and Springsteen watched with admiration.
So, with Springsteen, Morello and Lofgren all on guitar, why was it such a big deal that Steven Van Zandt returned to the band the night before? He’d missed much of the tour while filming the Netflix series “Lilyhammer,” which is what led to Springsteen’s inviting Morello to fill in. Are four guitarists really necessary? Well, maybe not. But Springsteen’s music is about community and loyalty, and with players this good, everyone knows how to stay out of everyone’s way. And anyway, Van Zandt isn’t just a great guitarist and mandolin player, he has a vibe: the iconography of Springsteen and Van Zandt sharing a mic is a powerful part of the Springsteen mythology.
That point was brought home on “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” a song which just wouldn’t work without those two sharing the mic (and let the record show that Little Steven tore up the guitar solo in that song). It’s a partnership that lives on through Springsteen’s most recent material: last night they shared the mic on “Frankie Fell in Love,” off of High Hopes.
(Bruce Springsteen dances with Maureen Van Zandt/Instagram photo by Brian Ives)
Steven Van Zandt’s wife, Maureen, even got her moment. She was invited to the stage for the coveted dance partner position during “Dancing In The Dark” (which makes sense, as she’s a choreographer). The biggest spotlight of the night, however went to Jake Clemons, reprising his late uncle Clarence’s immortal solo on “Jungleland,” one of the show’s true highlights. After Clarence Clemons’ passing, Springsteen seemed to want to avoid the appearance of replacing his longtime comrade-in-arms, which is probably what led to the recruiting of a full horn section.
But for “Jungleland,” Jake was the sole horn player on stage, a quiet but powerful statement. He met his uncle’s most iconic sax solo note for the note, and the audience thanked him with roars and cheers and not just a few tears. Before “Jungleland,” they played the ode to the band’s legend, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” and the monitor screens showed photos of a younger Bruce with not just Clemons, but late E Street keyboardist Danny Federici. It was a poignant reminder of the love that the fans have for all of the members of this timeless mind, but also an optimistic note: the mission continues without the E Street’s fallen blood brothers, and honors their memory by doing so.
Either “Jungleland” or “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” would have been a perfect ending for the show. But after “Jungleland,” Bruce embraced each member of the band (which included longtime E Street members, and newer additions like Clemons and the rest of the horn section), as they exited the stage, the young saxophonist getting his own bow. Bruce then sat at a small keyboard for one more performance: his cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.”
It’s not typical of the rest of his music, and was an odd choice. But it was a reminder that, as his consigliere noted last month, he is still constantly evolving and striving for greatness. He and his band of brothers and sisters achieved that greatness last night and left fans both wanting more (even after a show that was minutes shy of three hours) and wondering what he’ll do next.
Bruce Springsteen Setlist:
Roll of the Dice (Tour premiere)
Leap of Faith (Tour premiere)
Jump (Van Halen cover)
Frankie (Tour premiere)
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town (Tour premiere)
Seven Angels (World premiere)
Don’t Look Back (Tour premiere)
Darkness on the Edge of Town
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
Frankie Fell in Love
Adam Raised a Cain
I’m a Rocker (Tour premiere)
The Ghost of Tom Joad (w/ Tom Morello sharing lead vocals)
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Dream Baby Dream (Suicide cover)