A cold wind blew through the Wells Fargo Center parking lot in South Philly Thursday evening. People huddled around cars in a hopeless quest to stay warm. My wife Diane and I had been to the show the night before, when Bruce Springsteen and the 17 piece-strong E Street Band barreled through a near three-hour set of new and old songs, and were now prepping for tonight’s gig with other likeminded souls.
That Wednesday show kicked off with “We Take Care of Our Own,” the irony-imbued anthem that’s easy to misinterpret if you don’t listen to the verses. It brought everyone to their feet just as “Wrecking Ball,” the next song, brought with it good-natured boos at the mention of “Giants who played the game.” The song’s a metaphor, of course, and – as on album – the tongue-in-cheek salute to the Meadowlands morphs into a recognition of the hard realities of the present and, finally, defiance at the same: “C’mon take your best shot/let me see what you got/bring on your wrecking ball.” It segued into the classic “Badlands” and within seconds everybody was on their feet, shouting along with the lyrics and pumping their fists into the air. “Death to My Hometown,” another Wrecking Ball track, followed, and proved a perfect companion for the gospel-infused “My City of Ruins.”
That song included band introductions, something usually reserved for later in the night, and was meant to take care of a matter “Badlands” brought to the fore: Jake Clemons on sax in his late uncle’s stead. “Are we missing anybody?” Springsteen asked. “Are you missing anybody?” Clarence Clemons, aka the Big Man, was a musical force to be reckoned with, and plays such a large part in E Street mythology that fans needed catharsis. We got it then and again in the night’s last song, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” when Bruce recounted how the Big Man joined the band – he held up his microphone and everyone applauded and cheered “Clarence,” for the man who died last year from a stroke.
In between … well, I won’t recount the twists and turns of the entire concert experience, but suffice it to say: rare it was for those of us with seats to use them. One highlight: “American Skin (41 Shots),” written more than a decade ago after the Amadou Diallo incident in New York and dedicated, this night, to Trayvon Martin. It’s a powerful song, journalistic and matter-of-fact, stating poignant truths about life at the turn of the 21st century. Other highlights: a joyous cover of the Temptations’ “The Way You Do the Things You Do;” the audience sing-alongs that have become “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run;” and an ecstatic “Raise Your Hand” that found Springsteen in the section next to ours taking a seat and chugging a beer.
This night, Thursday night, we knew much of what to expect – but Springsteen, unlike many of his arena peers, changes sizeable chunks of his set night after night after night. It’s what leads some fans to attend every show in a multi-night city stand and others to follow him town to town. There are certain knowns – the hope-filled “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” for example, when he plucks a child from the crowd and has him or her sing along, or when he crowd-surfs – and as many unknowns. The opening played out much the same, though “Night” from Born to Run was swapped in for “Badlands.” It’s a great song, don’t get me wrong, but doesn’t fit the thematic mix – the one bum note, for me, in an otherwise stellar show. A third of Wednesday’s set was replaced, with highlights including a stirring “Streets of Philadelphia” (which took the place of “American Skin”) and a raucous “ Kitty’s Back.” “Dancing in the Dark,” which he played both nights, was just plain fun: he brought his octogenarian mother on stage to trip the light fantastic with him.
By the time we left the building, the cold wind had turned even colder, but no matter. We gathered with friends who’d been on the floor, near the stage, and recounted the highs of the concert. I’ve taken to watching the audience when the house lights come on during the encores, the thousands of fists pumping the air never ceasing to astonish me. For those who’ve never been to one, it’s easy to dismiss a Springsteen concert as just another rock concert, no more than a man and his band running through their hits. But for those lucky enough to be inside the building, it’s much more than that. It’s a Steinbeck novel played out in song, recognizing life’s oft-grim realities but refusing to give in.