Photo by Rocco Coviello (roccosphototavern.com)


As we sit back and wait patiently (or not) for the Wrecking Ball tour to resume in a couple of weeks, many of us are thinking back on the shows we’ve seen so far this year and on the evolution we’ve witnessed. Springsteen tours always evolve: new material matures on the road, arrangements gel (or don’t), old songs move in and take a new place within the body of work, new songs go missing in action. Bruce once spent many weeks and many notebook pages revising songs – scratching lyrics in and out, adding or deleting entire verses, often resulting in final versions that barely resemble the initial drafts – anyone who spent hours (please tell me I’m not the only one who spent hours) studying the notebook pages on exhibit in Cleveland or Philadelphia can attest to this. Now, it seems that he uses a similar creative focus as he constructs (and reconstructs) his show.


I was fortunate enough to attend the Atlanta show in March – officially the tour opener, though many of us listened to Sirius XM’s live broadcast of the Apollo show and saw the setlist from SXSW, so there were perhaps fewer surprises than one would expect on a tour opener. Still, Atlanta was the official kickoff. And it felt solid. It felt like Bruce was very clear about the message he wanted to share and the story he wanted to tell – “tonight, all the dead are here.” It was a show of emotional extremes, with “My City of Ruins” (“if you’re here, and we’re here, they’re here”) and “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” re-envisioned as tributes to losses that still felt fresh, and with the joyous feeling of discovery when the expanded E Street Band (make that E Street Empire and Minor Outlying Islands – there are a LOT of people on that stage now) sounded strong and well-rehearsed, and both the old and new material held up to the huge arrangements.


I’ll never forget “Badlands” in Atlanta, how every single band member turned to focus on Jake Clemons as he took his first solo of the tour; I had such a sense of this being a risky endeavor, but that everyone on that stage was pulling together to support one another – it was like the band was both the tightrope and the net, if that makes sense. And I’ll never forget “Born to Run” that night, either. It hadn’t been played at the (pre-tour) Apollo or SXSW shows, and I’d entertained the notion that it might be dropped from the setlist – both inconceivable and perfectly possible. Hearing it, and watching Jake take the solo, was such a celebration of how the old magic still endures. Can we still do this thing? After all these years and the losses, can we still do this thing? And the answer was, of course, we can.


Atlanta was a short show by Springsteen standards – 2:35. And it felt compact, carefully wrought. The band was exuberant, joyful to be back onstage in an arena, but there was a feeling of carefulness, of making sure the message was clear and the story was told in full. And I’ll be honest: in some ways it didn’t quite feel like the E Street Band. The new material worked beautifully live, and the horns and extra singers sounded great, but – and maybe this was just me – I was so aware of the newness that it kind of felt like a different entity. Change is inevitable, and it was absolutely an enjoyable show, but I wondered whether it would ever feel like E Street again.


Fast-forward to Chicago in September. After a bunch of arena shows in the US and a summer of crazy festivals and shows overseas, I knew a bit about how the setlist had evolved. But I’d consciously avoided paying attention to every detail. I knew that some serious obscurities had begun to surface, and I knew about the four-hour show, and of course I read all about the plug being pulled at Hyde Park! And I watched a few of the setlists when the band returned to the US – notably the Fenway shows, which were pretty remarkable – but I tried not to fixate on the shows I couldn’t get to, wanting my own experience to feel fresh when it was finally my turn again. I wanted to feel for myself how the show had evolved.


After the first night at Wrigley, I said it was very nearly a perfect show. And I stand by that, even though people who were at some of the other shows (Fenway 2 in particular) swear up and down those shows were better. By “a perfect show” I don’t mean that it was the Best Show Ever. What I mean is that the setlist flowed really well, the performances were spot-on, the energy was incredible, there was (to my mind) an ideal mix of reliable warhorses and surprising rarities, and I was left exhilarated and thoroughly satisfied. And – despite the fact that the E Street Empire had acquired a couple of extra territories (aka Mr. Morello and Mr. Vedder), it felt like the E Street Band again. The horns and the singers weren’t just backing musicians anymore but truly felt like the E Street horns and singers. They felt integrated into the story in a way they hadn’t in Atlanta.


And, as many others have noted, Jake Clemons had truly come into his own. Yes, iconic solos like those in “Badlands” and especially “Jungleland” will always be performed in memory of Clarence; they’ll never truly belong to anyone else, and that is as it should be. But by September, Jake had developed a tremendous confidence with them that hadn’t been apparent in March – and even better, he’d begun to play things that were his own, like the wonderful jazzy riffing on “Spirit in the Night” that was unlike anything Clarence had ever played. It’s no coincidence, I think, that “Spirit” is the song in which Bruce now says to Jake “this [meaning the story he’s telling in the song] was all before you were born.” You don’t keep a spirit alive by simply echoing notes from the past, but by moving forward and creating something new as well – and that’s what has begun to happen on E Street.


Not only that, but unlike the way that some past tours have evolved, the message and the story of this tour is even stronger than it was at the beginning. I get goosebumps when Bruce talks about ghosts during “My City of Ruins” – how when you’re young you’re afraid of ghosts, but as you grow older they walk alongside you. In Atlanta, the show was about recognizing and naming and honoring those ghosts. By Chicago, the band was walking comfortably with those ghosts, weaving them into practically every song – and even finding them in songs that hadn’t previously fit into the original carefully sequenced setlist. (“None But the Brave,” I’m talking to you.)


You can honor your ghosts and pay tribute to them but still be held back, paralyzed by fear (“you can hide ‘neath your covers…”). But the genius of what Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are doing now is that they are walking with those ghosts, not living with them in the past but moving forward with them as if they were alive, which of course they are. I think that’s why I find “Thunder Road” in its new arrangement even more poignant than ever before (and it’s always been my favorite song). After “we’re pullin’ out of here to win” there is the guitar solo, so familiar; then Jake’s sax rings out, full of everything that is and isn’t Clarence, that is and isn’t the past. And then the entire horn section rises in to join him, and that moment thrills me every single time. The sax reminds us of everything we’ve loved and lost, and then all the horns just lift the whole thing up in a way that says to me yes, we’re here, we’re all here – all of us, ghosts and all, alive.


And I can’t wait, I really cannot wait, to find out what comes next.


Photo by Rocco Coviello (roccosphototavern.com)

As we sit back and wait patiently (or not) for the Wrecking Ball tour to resume in a couple of weeks, many of us are thinking back on the shows we’ve seen so far this year and on the evolution we’ve witnessed. Springsteen tours always evolve: new material matures on the road, arrangements gel (or don’t), old songs move in and take a new place within the body of work, new songs go missing in action. Bruce once spent many weeks and many notebook pages revising songs – scratching lyrics in and out, adding or deleting entire verses, often resulting in final versions that barely resemble the initial drafts – anyone who spent hours (please tell me I’m not the only one who spent hours) studying the notebook pages on exhibit in Cleveland or Philadelphia can attest to this. Now, it seems that he uses a similar creative focus as he constructs (and reconstructs) his show.

I was fortunate enough to attend the Atlanta show in March – officially the tour opener, though many of us listened to Sirius XM’s live broadcast of the Apollo show and saw the setlist from SXSW, so there were perhaps fewer surprises than one would expect on a tour opener. Still, Atlanta was the official kickoff. And it felt solid. It felt like Bruce was very clear about the message he wanted to share and the story he wanted to tell – “tonight, all the dead are here.” It was a show of emotional extremes, with “My City of Ruins” (“if you’re here, and we’re here, they’re here”) and “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” re-envisioned as tributes to losses that still felt fresh, and with the joyous feeling of discovery when the expanded E Street Band (make that E Street Empire and Minor Outlying Islands – there are a LOT of people on that stage now) sounded strong and well-rehearsed, and both the old and new material held up to the huge arrangements.

I’ll never forget “Badlands” in Atlanta, how every single band member turned to focus on Jake Clemons as he took his first solo of the tour; I had such a sense of this being a risky endeavor, but that everyone on that stage was pulling together to support one another – it was like the band was both the tightrope and the net, if that makes sense. And I’ll never forget “Born to Run” that night, either. It hadn’t been played at the (pre-tour) Apollo or SXSW shows, and I’d entertained the notion that it might be dropped from the setlist – both inconceivable and perfectly possible. Hearing it, and watching Jake take the solo, was such a celebration of how the old magic still endures. Can we still do this thing? After all these years and the losses, can we still do this thing? And the answer was, of course, we can.

Atlanta was a short show by Springsteen standards – 2:35. And it felt compact, carefully wrought. The band was exuberant, joyful to be back onstage in an arena, but there was a feeling of carefulness, of making sure the message was clear and the story was told in full. And I’ll be honest: in some ways it didn’t quite feel like the E Street Band. The new material worked beautifully live, and the horns and extra singers sounded great, but – and maybe this was just me – I was so aware of the newness that it kind of felt like a different entity. Change is inevitable, and it was absolutely an enjoyable show, but I wondered whether it would ever feel like E Street again.

Fast-forward to Chicago in September. After a bunch of arena shows in the US and a summer of crazy festivals and shows overseas, I knew a bit about how the setlist had evolved. But I’d consciously avoided paying attention to every detail. I knew that some serious obscurities had begun to surface, and I knew about the four-hour show, and of course I read all about the plug being pulled at Hyde Park! And I watched a few of the setlists when the band returned to the US – notably the Fenway shows, which were pretty remarkable – but I tried not to fixate on the shows I couldn’t get to, wanting my own experience to feel fresh when it was finally my turn again. I wanted to feel for myself how the show had evolved.

After the first night at Wrigley, I said it was very nearly a perfect show. And I stand by that, even though people who were at some of the other shows (Fenway 2 in particular) swear up and down those shows were better. By “a perfect show” I don’t mean that it was the Best Show Ever. What I mean is that the setlist flowed really well, the performances were spot-on, the energy was incredible, there was (to my mind) an ideal mix of reliable warhorses and surprising rarities, and I was left exhilarated and thoroughly satisfied. And – despite the fact that the E Street Empire had acquired a couple of extra territories (aka Mr. Morello and Mr. Vedder), it felt like the E Street Band again. The horns and the singers weren’t just backing musicians anymore but truly felt like the E Street horns and singers. They felt integrated into the story in a way they hadn’t in Atlanta.

And, as many others have noted, Jake Clemons had truly come into his own. Yes, iconic solos like those in “Badlands” and especially “Jungleland” will always be performed in memory of Clarence; they’ll never truly belong to anyone else, and that is as it should be. But by September, Jake had developed a tremendous confidence with them that hadn’t been apparent in March – and even better, he’d begun to play things that were his own, like the wonderful jazzy riffing on “Spirit in the Night” that was unlike anything Clarence had ever played. It’s no coincidence, I think, that “Spirit” is the song in which Bruce now says to Jake “this [meaning the story he’s telling in the song] was all before you were born.” You don’t keep a spirit alive by simply echoing notes from the past, but by moving forward and creating something new as well – and that’s what has begun to happen on E Street.

Not only that, but unlike the way that some past tours have evolved, the message and the story of this tour is even stronger than it was at the beginning. I get goosebumps when Bruce talks about ghosts during “My City of Ruins” – how when you’re young you’re afraid of ghosts, but as you grow older they walk alongside you. In Atlanta, the show was about recognizing and naming and honoring those ghosts. By Chicago, the band was walking comfortably with those ghosts, weaving them into practically every song – and even finding them in songs that hadn’t previously fit into the original carefully sequenced setlist. (“None But the Brave,” I’m talking to you.)

You can honor your ghosts and pay tribute to them but still be held back, paralyzed by fear (“you can hide ‘neath your covers…”). But the genius of what Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are doing now is that they are walking with those ghosts, not living with them in the past but moving forward with them as if they were alive, which of course they are. I think that’s why I find “Thunder Road” in its new arrangement even more poignant than ever before (and it’s always been my favorite song). After “we’re pullin’ out of here to win” there is the guitar solo, so familiar; then Jake’s sax rings out, full of everything that is and isn’t Clarence, that is and isn’t the past. And then the entire horn section rises in to join him, and that moment thrills me every single time. The sax reminds us of everything we’ve loved and lost, and then all the horns just lift the whole thing up in a way that says to me yes, we’re here, we’re all here – all of us, ghosts and all, alive.

And I can’t wait, I really cannot wait, to find out what comes next.