I didn't think it was possible, but Bruce Springsteen took another step or two up the metaphorical ladder of his "legend" status in my eyes last Friday night. The man I consider my favourite music artist (although believe me, I'd have no problem posting a negative review where he's concerned if it was warranted) made the Toronto stop of his Wrecking Ball Tour at the Rogers Centre and gave about 40,000 delirious fans their money's worth and then some. The sole musical performer whose audience would feel cheated if they only received a two and a half hour performance played for a jaw-dropping three hours and forty minutes, seemingly daring the crowd to try and outlast his almost endless energy level. On his official website, a posting says that as Springsteen left the stage at the show's conclusion he remarked to his band, "That was the greatest audience we have ever had in Toronto". The Boss is well known for his epic concerts, of course, but the 62-year-old recently seems to have tapped into the Fountain of Youth, if his recent concert running times are any indication. On July 31st in Helsinki, the final date on the European leg of this tour, Springsteen and his E Street Band played their longest set ever at four hours and six minutes. Even more amazing? He came out and played a five song acoustic set for some audience early birds before that performance. The Toronto show length, according to a poster from Scotland on the Greasy Lake Springsteen fan forum, puts it at the fifth longest of the tour and his seventh longest show ever. Two nights later in Moncton, New Brunswick, his performance clocked in at a "mere" three hours and ten minutes.
A 29 song set touched on a healthy chunk of his 40 year career, with the core E Street Band consisting of drummer Max Weinberg, guitarists Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, bassist Garry Tallent, and pianist Roy Bittan augmented by regular Springsteen supporting players Soozie Tyrell (guitar/violin/backing vocals), Charlie Giordano (organ/accordion), plus an additional horn section and backup singers. That adds up to 17 people on stage, including the bandleader (his wife, E Street Band member Patti Scialfa, was absent to tend to the couple's kids). The stage setup, as always, was minimalistic and the light show nothing more than serviceable - the Springsteen concert experience may offer many things, but fancy frills are simply not one of them. A large HD video screen across the stage backdrop and a couple of smaller screens higher up at stage front, plus some lights across the facade of the main stage riser is about as razzle dazzle as his production gets.
In acknowledgement of the home of the Toronto Blue Jays, Giordano kicked off the show with a rendition of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game" on his accordion, before the entire band kicked into the rockabilly stomp of Born In The U.S.A.'s "Working On The Highway", followed by an audience singalong-assisted "Hungry Heart". Just a couple of songs in, Springsteen goes broken arrow from the setlist and rounds up a number of signs being held up by fans with song requests, considering the merits and difficulty factor of each ("That's tricky, very tricky" he says of one) before deciding on "Sherry Darling". A trio of songs from his latest album Wrecking Ball follow - "We Take Care Of Our Own", the title track, and "Death To My Hometown". The half dozen Wrecking Ball songs played (excluding "Land Of Hope And Dreams", which has been around in shows since 2000, but only just appeared on a studio album) are met with the customary pleasant-but-noticeably-less-enthusiastic reception from the crowd and seemed to be about the proper amount to share time in the setlist with Springsteen's staples and other unpredictable choices from his sizable back catalog. Said staples included back-to-back never-dull performances of "Thunder Road" and "Born To Run", "Dancing In The Dark" (Springsteen brought a girl who he'd shared the mic with earlier up onstage to assume the Courtney Cox dance partner role), "Badlands", and a more modern Springsteen classic, the always stirring "The Rising".
The beautifully soulful "My City Of Ruins", also from The Rising album, received an extended workout with a noticeably different arrangement that nicely incorporated the extra onstage personnel. A number of other songs also got expansive airing outs that were heavy on the guitar jams - "Prove It All Night" (Lofgren lit up his fretboard and finished off his moment in the spotlight with his signature multiple circle spins...you'd never know the guy had a double hip replacement just a few years ago), a slightly reworked "Sprit In The Night" (during which Springsteen downed a full beer from an audience member), a muscular "Murder Incorporated", and the rarity "Thundercrack". The latter was a request from a sign that featured a crudely drawn bare ass with a thunder bolt coming out of it, which Springsteen commented "must be the Canadian sense of humour". A lengthy "Waitin' On A Sunny Day", a song that can inspire some major invective amongst some of the Springsteen hardcore, encouraged and received the audience's singing participation and featured the vocal talents of a 10-year-old girl that Springsteen brought up onstage whose performance the crowd apparently ate up. I missed that, however, as I stepped out for a washroom break and a beer (personally, I like the song just fine).
Along with other set highlights that included "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)", "Candy's Room", and the Bo Diddley-inspired "She's The One" (with an intro of Diddley's "Mona"), one of the high points of the show was a spectacular version of "Incident On 57th Street", with just Springsteen on stage accompanying himself on piano. The song is a bit of a live rarity (the ridiculously exhaustive Brucebase online resource shows it's only been played four times this tour) and the piano-only "solo Incident", as the hardcore fans refer to it, is even rarer and considered a major treat. The isolated stillness and expansive narrative of the song seemed to be a momentum killer for some (I heard a little more talking during the song than I would have cared to), but for the most part the audience was highly receptive.
For the Springsteen concert veteran, a palpable feeling of loss hung over the proceedings due to this being the first tour involving the E Street Band without Clarence Clemons, who died last year. Numerous references to the departed were sprinkled throughout the show - "Are you missing anybody?" and "Are we missing anybody?", Springsteen asked during one song, while the poignant and uplifting "We Are Alive" lyrically celebrated the lives of those no longer with us (E Street keyboardist Danny Federici also passed away in 2008). Clemons' void was most directly addressed during a show-stopping (literally) "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out", where Springsteen, now out in the crowd on a mini stage riser, stopped the song following the Clemons-referencing line "and The Big Man joined the band". As The Boss and his band stood still and silent, a brief Clemons video tribute then played on the video screens, leading to sustained cheers and applause from the audience - it was quite a powerful and heart-tugging moment. Clemons' nephew, Jake, assumed most of his uncle's saxophone duties and did an admirable job under what must be extraordinary pressure.
I must admit that at around the three-and-a-half hour mark, about halfway through a long and repetitive cover of The Isley Brothers' "Twist And Shout", I was thinking that maybe it was time to wrap things up (some of you who have read this far might be thinking the same thing about this review). That probably had more to do with the fact I've never cared much for the song, plus the fact my back and feet were killing me. My brother and I both made the rookie concert mistake - and especially for a Springsteen concert - of failing to wear comfortable shoes. That I'm complaining about my body aches feels ridiculous, as Springsteen has twenty years on me and kept up his energy level for as long as he did. He's toned down the displays of enthusiasm previously exhibited somewhat, but the man is still awe-inspiring to watch work a stage and is clearly still having a blast while doing it. And the fact he's onstage for virtually the entire show cannot be overlooked - there's no five or ten minute breaks while a guitar or drum solo gives him a breather. An amusing late-in-the-show moment came when Springsteen mock collapsed and laid still while Van Zandt brought him back to life with water wrung from a sponge onto his face. Despite my reservations to "Twist And Shout", he won me back with "Glory Days" to finish off the show and that's not a song of his that I'm even terribly fond of. That he wanted to play it seemed to surprise the band - even they were probably wondering just how much juice could have been left in their boss' batteries.
The notoriously dodgy Rogers Centre sound was decent, although it was occasionally a little difficult to make out what Springsteen was saying between songs. A beautiful late summer evening meant the dome roof was open and combined with the light show from the CN Tower next door, I actually found myself rather enjoying the setting, which has to be a first for a concert I've seen at the venue. One of the nicest offstage sights was the female usher, probably in her mid 40s, who was working the area in what would be the baseball left field section of the floor. I noticed the woman when the house lights came up and stayed on during the encore with about seven songs left in the show, dancing away with a smile on her face the whole time, even though her job duties required her to have her back turned to the stage. Oddest sight? The two guys down on the floor in the same area who seemed to be by themselves and spent much of the approximately hour-long encore with their backs to the stage, filming themselves dancing on their phone cameras.
Even though this was my seventh Bruce Springsteen concert and I'm well-versed in his history and own over 300 of his bootlegs, I still found myself amazed at the spectacle I'd just witnessed. The only thing holding this show back from an A+ rating would be the fact my seats (row 13 and left of the stage in the stadium's lower bowl) were by far the furthest I've been from the stage for one of his shows. When you've been in the general admission pit four times and had a front row spot on a couple of those occasions, anything else pales in comparison. That being said, I'm still hugely grateful to Kathie from Newfoundland, who hooked me up with my tickets. Missing this incredible show probably would have haunted me for the rest of my days.
Working On The Highway/Hungry Heart/Sherry Darling/We Take Care Of Our Own/Wrecking Ball/Death To My Hometown/My City Of Ruins/Spirit In The Night/Thundercrack/Jack Of All Trades/Murder Incorporated/Prove It All Night/Candy's Room/Mona-She's The One/Darlington County/Shackled And Drawn/Waitin' On A Sunny Day/Incident On 57th Street/The Rising/Badlands/Land Of Hope And Dreams
We Are Alive/Thunder Road/Born To Run/Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)/Dancing In The Dark/Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out/Twist And Shout/Glory Days
Mediaboy Musings related posts: Bruce Springsteen's Wrecking Ball album review (from March), Clarence Clemons remembrance (from June 2011), Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band's London Calling: Live From Hyde Park Blu-ray review (from November 2010)