That church from Topeka that preaches the blasphemy of (among other things) rock and roll exercised its freedom of speech across the street from the Sprint Center on Saturday night. But the more spiritual and evangelical expressions of the heart and soul occurred inside the arena, where for more than three hours Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band unleashed a show for the ages. It was one steeped in love, respect, compassion, sorrow, elation, grief and regret and one that rocked, stirred and inflamed the congregation from the floor to the rafters nearly all night.
The inferno was ignited immediately, when Springsteen and his band, now bulked up with a big horn section and several more background vocalists, greeted the crowd with a brassy, soulful version of “Kansas City.” After that came two songs from “Darkness on the Edge of Town”: “Prove It All Night” and an urgent version of “Candy’s Room,” one highlight in an evening of many.
The setlist this night was stellar, drawing both hits and deep-album cuts from across his bountiful catalog. It included favorites like “Hungry Heart” and “Badlands” and standards, like “Born to Run,” but also a few classics for his early fans, such as “The E Street Shuffle” and “Incident on 57th Street.” That one, performed upon request from a fan bearing a handwritten sign, isn’t necessarily a great live song, but it was a much-appreciated treat for anyone who has followed Springsteen since the music that preceded his career-changing “Born to Run” album.
As appreciated as the redemption of that request was, it was probably the only lull in a show that was otherwise relentless and soul-stirring from start to finish. Since 2008, the E Street Band has lost two founding members: Danny Federici and, more recently, saxophonist Clarence Clemons. For this Wrecking Ball Tour, named after Springsteen’s latest album, the band has absorbed its losses by expanding, adding a vocal section now called the E Street Choir and a five-piece horn section that includes Jake Clemons, nephew of Clarence. The additions have transformed an already stout and steady rock/soul ensemble into a brawny and brassy rock/soul/gospel orchestra. At times the differences were profound, as during the remodeled version of “The E Street Shuffle.” Other times the band showed its diversity, as during “Shackled and Drawn,” a rousing gospel ballad from “The Wrecking Ball” album.
The orchestra deserves a torrent of hosannas for its freewheeling precision, and they all start with the leader of the band, who still lives up to a reputation born in the early 1970s: for being a fireball of energy and unrepentant zeal. He is a preacher, a salesman, a secular revivalist, a healer and a huckster, hokey at times, but never insincere. During “Hungry Heart,” he waltzed along the satellite walkway halfway up the floor, then crowd surfed, on his back, back to the stage. And what he’s selling is exactly what his congregants ordered: a blitzkrieg of rhythm and soul and rock and roll and sermons that promise justice, deliverance and redemption, no matter how dire the circumstances that precede it.
Springsteen was an open supporter of President Obama, yet there was no overt political pandering this evening, only songs like “We Take Care of Our Own,” a rock-hymn whose themes are as spiritual as they are political. But most of this show was about themes deeper than politics. In the wake of the storm that destroyed so much of the northeast, songs like “My City of Ruins” evoked a heavier gravity.
On the other hand, in these anxious times, songs like “Dancing In the Dark” — which rocked the joint as hard as any song — evoked an even warmer message of hope and perseverance. During that one, Springsteen responded to more signs in the crowd, pulling women on stage to dance with Clemons, Nils Lofgren and himself (Bruce got the mother/daughter combo). For the bright and poppy “Waitin’ On a Sunny Day,” he brought on stage a girl who looked no older than 7 years old to sing a verse or two. Things got really cute for a while.
They ended with one of his most beloved songs, which became a tribute to one of his most beloved band members. After he sang the signature line in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” — “as the change was made uptown and the big man joined the band” — everyone on stage froze and the video screens broadcast images of Clarence Clemons (and Federici, too). For several minutes, the crowd applauded and cheered and whistled and roared as it regarded those images. Then Jake Clemons ripped into the song’s signature saxophone riff and the room went berserk one more time.
There could be no better ending to this evening, which preached a few sermons: that that life survives the deepest of sorrows; that the heart may not forget but it does heal and forgive and discover redemption and salvation; and that, if you’re going to hand-paint signs for public display, better they promote music and love than hatred and intolerance.
Setlist: Kansas City; Prove It All Night; Candy’s Room; She’s the One; Hungry Heart; We Take Care of Our Own; Wrecking Ball; Death to My Hometown; My City of Ruins; The E Street Shuffle; Fire; Incident on 57th Street; Because the Night; Cover Me; Downbound Train; I’m On Fire; Shackled and Drawn; Waitin’ On A Sunny Day; Raise Your Hand; The Rising; Badlands; Land of Hopes and Dreams; Light of Day. Encore: My Beautiful Reward; Born to Run; Dancing in the Dark; Santa Claus Is Coming to Town; Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.