“You do this every night?” a winded Steven Van Zandt asked Bruce Springsteen, only five songs deep into the E Street Band’s three-hour concert at Mohegan Sun Arena on Saturday night.
“Every [expletive] night,” Springsteen answered.
Springsteen wasn’t being facetious. If there’s anything you can expect at a Springsteen concert, it’s a breathless, red-blooded rock and soul workout, served up without frills, devoid of hydraulic stages, strobes, videos or fog machines. (In fact, the night’s most dramatic lighting came during the final stretch, as the house lights were turned on for “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and “Shout.” They were turned off for Bruce’s solo acoustic encore.)
The evening marked Van Zandt’s return to E Street, just in time to close out the tour. Perhaps in response — but more likely because that’s just how Bruce rolls — Springsteen offered plenty of highlights, most of which fell a few years on either side of 1978, the year “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” a sweet spot in a back-catalog that’s full of them, was released: “Racing in the Street,” the night’s opener, “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Prove It All Night” all were played with force and finesse by the 18-member band. There’s safety in numbers; E Street is less a band than a small orchestra (or maybe a football team). When they stripped back to nine players for “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” with Tom Morello trading lead vocals with Springsteen and capping the song with a lengthy, virtuosic guitar solo, the nonet felt like a punk band.
Morello, the former Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave guitarist, plays all over “High Hopes,” Springsteen’s latest album, and he was an often-spotlighted player last night, sharing lead vocal duties on “Tom Joad” and a cover of the Clash’s “Clampdown” and adding whammy-pedal leads to “High Hopes” and “American Skin (41 Shots).” (You have to admit, however, that it’s a little surreal to see Morello hamming it up on “Dancing in the Dark” and “Shout.”) Longtime E Street guitarist Nils Lofgren didn’t exactly take a backseat, and he may have had a whammy pedal of his own, which allowed him to soar and dive into nether regions on “Prove It All Night.” During Lofgren’s lead break on that song, the guitarist whirled around the stage. On “Light of Day,” Springsteen’s ‘60s-style rave-up from the 1987 movie (starring Joan Jett and Michael J. Fox), Lofgren and drummer Max Weinberg — who, unlike Van Zandt, never once looked even remotely tired at any point during the evening — traded fours in a barrage-filled guitar-drums duet.
Anyway, who needs hydraulic stages when you’ve got Bruce, Little Steven and Max? During “Raise Your Hand,” a Stax-worthy stomper, Springsteen emerged on a second walkway in the middle of packed floor and crowd-surfed back to the main stage. There were impromptu moments and a few surprises; Springsteen signaled the start of “Quarter to Three,” an early-’60s hit for U.S. Bonds (in the past, the E Street band has played as an encore) by telling the band it was in the key of B; it felt genuinely unrehearsed. “Stayin’ Alive,” the Bee Gees’ 1978 disco hit played without a trace of irony on the High Hopes Tour, was done as an acoustic guitar-led groove-rocker masquerading as a protest song. (The inclusion of “Stayin’ Alive” itself is ironic, considering the whole “disco sucks” movement in the mid-’70s, which, back then, most likely involved a number of Springsteen and Who fans.)
Aside from the expected hits and transformative epic-rock numbers — we’ll call that Bruce Being Bruce — a subtle line of protest music, starting with Pete Seeger and extending through Morello’s work with RATM, was embedded in the setlist. Seeger was represented by “Jesse James,” a Billy Gashade song from Springsteen’s 2006 album “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions”; in five minutes, “Jesse James” compressed the whole history of American roots music, moving from an acoustic duet between Springsteen and Lofgren (on banjo) to a dixieland procession, with bite-sized solos from trombonist Clark Gayton and trumpeter Barry Danielian. “Clampdown” brought the protest-music line into the ‘70s, with the Clash’s 1979 “London Calling” album, and Bob Dylan hung out somewhere in the shadows of “Tom Joad.” (You felt that maybe Bono and the Edge were lurking in the chord progressions and ambient energy of “American Skin.”)
Other band members were given ample room to shine. “Shackled and Drawn,” from the 2012 “Wrecking Ball” album, ended with a vocal cadenza by backup singer Cindy Mizelle, which Bruce directed with hand motions: He needed more. Saxophonist Jake Clemons, the nephew of the late Clarence Clemons, interjected short but powerful bursts of R&B playing throughout the evening. “Hearts of Stone” and “Talk To Me,” longtime E Street staples written by Springsteen for Southside Johnny, offered a study in contrasts, the first a laid-back breath-catcher, with atmospheric organ swells from keyboard player Charles Giordano, and the second a double-time stomper, allowing Springsteen to take suggestions from the crowd as to why women talk all the time, but never when you want them to. (“Men are ____,” Bruce asked a number of women; Answers ranged from “stupid” to “wonderful.”)
Several songs from the 1980 album “The River” were hauled out, including “The Ties That Bind,” “Two Hearts” (with high harmonies supplied by Van Zandt), and “The Price You Pay,” a mid-tempo rocker with a dynamic breakdown in the middle. “Radio Nowhere” and “I’ll Work For Your Love,” both from the 2007 album “Magic,” got full-band and solo acoustic treatments respectively, and the wordless chorus of “The Rising,” from the 2002 album of the same name, provided another sing-along moment, in a night full of them.
“A good song should work with just a guy and a guitar,” Springsteen said, before launching into “Growin’ Up,” toward the end of the show. His encore — stirring solo versions of “If I Should Fall Behind,” from the 1992 album “Lucky Town,” and the classic “Born to Run” opener “Thunder Road” — certainly proved he practices what he preaches.
Sunday night’s show was at once both celebratory and somber, for reasons you could imagine: the last show of the tour, the exhaustion of playing so many dates, the realization that all good things must end. It was also looser show than Saturday, with Springsteen taking multiple audience requests: “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (requested by a young girl with a sign); “Seven Angels,” an obscure blues-based outtake from “Human Touch” with a Kinks-like riff and John Entwistle-like bass licks from Garry Tallent; and “Don’t Look Back,” recorded in 1977 for the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” album but never used and quickly learned on stage by the band. “Breaking out all the oddities tonight,” Springsteen explained.
Compared with Saturday, Sunday was more guitar-oriented, with longer solos from Springsteen (on “Adam Raised a Cane” and “Murder Incorporated”), Morello (he played guitar with his teeth on “High Hopes”), Lofgren (who did some blistering finger-picking work on “Youngstown”) and Van Zandt, who took leads on “Johnny 99″ and “Cadillac Ranch.” A few songs were repeated, but it didn’t feel gratuitous; they clearly got off on playing them and wanted to do it again.
“Jungleland,” the set-closer, was as epic as you’d imagine, and dark; Clemons, clearly broken up after his long solo, got a hug from Springsteen before the song even ended. During the encore, “Dream Baby Dream,” Bruce was on his knees. It felt right to see that.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Conn.
May 17, 2014
“Racing in the Street,” “Clampdown” (The Clash), “Badlands,” “The Ties That Bind,” “Two Hearts,” “Frankie Fell In Love,” “High Hopes,” “Raise Your Hand,” “Quarter to Three” (Gary U.S. Bonds), “Stayin’ Alive” (Bee Gees), “Hearts of Stone,” “Talk to Me,” “The Price You Pay,” “American Skin (41 Shots),” “The Promised Land,” “Prove It All Night,” “Jesse James,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “Radio Nowhere,” “The Rising,” “Light of Day,” “I’ll Work For Your Love” (solo acoustic), “Growin’ Up” (solo acoustic), “Born To Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” “Shout.”
Encore (solo acoustic): “If I Should Fall Behind,” “Thunder Road.”
May 18, 2014
“Roll of the Dice,” “Leap of Faith,” “Jump” (Van Halen), “Frankie,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Seven Angels,” “Don’t Look Back,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” “Frankie Fell In Love,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “High Hopes,” “Youngstown,” “Murder Incorporated,” “Johnny 99,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “I’m a Rocker,” “Loose Ends,” “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” “The Rising,” “Badlands,” “Born to Run,” “Ramrod,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” “Jungleland.”
Encore (solo, with pump organ): “Dream Baby Dream.”