There is no way around it: Bruce Springsteen is just kind of ridiculous. He has been ridiculous since at least the mid-1980s, when he decided he wanted to be more like Rambo. He takes big, wild artistic swings and occasionally he whiffs, sometimes hilariously. But when he connects, he's peerless - the world's greatest. Nobody can hit the ball as far as Bruce Springsteen.
I was at Springsteen's last show in Kansas City, in 2008, and it was just OK - not quite the religious experience you hear about when people talk about Springsteen concerts. (He was scheduled to perform here in 2009 but canceled at the last minute after his cousin and tour manager, Lenny Sullivan, died of an overdose at the InterContinental Hotel.) It was depressing to see saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died last year, so obviously ill and immobile. He sat on a weird throne all night, rising only occasionally to solo. I remember watching Springsteen gear up to do a knee-slide across the stage and thinking there was something deeply sad about the whole thing.
"Kansas City!" Springsteen shouted. "Missouri! The Show-Me State!"
"Well, we're here tonight because we're gonna fuckin' show you something!"
On "Hungry Heart," Springsteen tromped from the stage to an elevated walkway in the middle of the crowd. He slapped high-fives to the fans at his feet, then crowd-surfed the 25 or so yards back to the stage. A Springsteen show is that rare event where it's worth it to spend the extra cash for the floor ticket, because of how frequently he wanders out into the crowd.
The audience was eager and enthusiastic throughout, although less so in Section 116, Row 9, where I was seated. Everyone in my general vicinity was about as old as Springsteen. But unlike Springsteen, they do not take HGH or whatever hormone drug it is that allows a 63-year-old man to play three-hour shows. One end of my row was blocked by a man so old and obese that it seemed cruel to ask him to even move his legs in order to pass by. Two seats down, a post-menopausal woman literally slept in her chair for two hours, her iPhone tucked in her shirt between her breasts, her arms dangling skeleton-like at her sides. The women she was with got crabby with a younger couple in the row in front of us for standing during a song when most of the rest of the section was seated.
"I paid $110 for these seats. I'll do whatever the fuck I want," the woman barked back, correctly.
"It smells like a nursing home over here," my friend snickered under his breath.Nils and Stevie would jump in from the sides and sing a line into the same mic, then Bruce would jump back in, and so on.
The set list was heavy on the anthems - "The Rising," "Badlands," "Land of Hope and Dreams" - but made room for some offbeat selections and deep cuts. People bring signs with song titles on them into Springsteen shows, and sometimes he will wade out into the crowd and take the sign, and then the band will play the song. He did this for "Fire" and for "Incident on 57th Street," which was darker than it sounds on The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle but still weighty enough to give me the tingles. Another highlight was "I'm on Fire," an old favorite of mine. The lights went low, and that cold '80s synth line galloped along somewhere in the dark. At the end, Springsteen howled, just like you wanted him to, just like he does on the record, even better maybe.
"City of Ruins," from The Rising, was stretched into an extended jam, in the middle of which Springsteen spoke of the song's renewed meaning in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the destruction it wrought on his adopted hometown on Asbury Park, New Jersey. Then he introduced the band and held a moment of silence for Clemons. "The quieter we get, the closer he is to us," he said. On "Waiting on a Sunny Day," he gave up the mic to an adorable little girl in the crowd, who sang the chorus. "Scarred for life," he said after, to laughter from the crowd.
The encore kicked off with another rare-ish cut, "My Beautiful Reward," from Lucky Town - a dedication to his cousin Lenny. Then the first notes of "Born to Run" sounded out, and the lights went up - way up, like closing-time-at-the-bar up, and they stayed up through "Dancing in the Dark" (a much more epic version than the original), "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (Bruce in Santa hat), and closer "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" (which called for another trip out to the middle of the crowd and another tribute to Clemons, this time on the big-screen TVs). "Thank you, Kansas City, for a great night! The great and powerful Oz!" Springsteen shouted. I don't know what he meant - a Kansas-Wizard of Oz reference, I guess? - but after a show like that, you're pretty much allowed to say whatever the hell you want.
Prove It All Night
She's the One
We Take Care of Our Own
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
The E Street Shuffle
Incident on 57th Street
Because the Night
I'm on Fire
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
Raise Your Hand
Land of Hope and Dreams
Light of Day
My Beautiful Reward
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out