Thursday night, late in his encore at PNC Arena, Bruce Springsteen stripped down to a T-shirt and shucked his guitar, surveying the house as the crowd roared. He bobbed and weaved like a boxer about to enter the ring. Yet another marathon performance was under his belt, and he still looked fit enough to jog to the next city on his tour.
Springsteen will turn 65 in September, retirement age for most people, and you figure he’s got to slow down at some point. But he showed no signs of doing so anytime soon, running through 26 songs in just under three hours.
The E Street Band, Springsteen’s long-time backup ensemble, has gone through plenty of phases and stages over the past 40 years, including the deaths of two members since 2008. The current incarnation that Springsteen presides over is a rock ’n’ roll orchestra, 18 pieces strong, capable of an impressive wall of sound when they hit it at full blare.
One of the band’s most dramatic changes of recent years has been the addition of Tom Morello, guitarist in Rage Against the Machine, who brings an intriguing new dimension to the arrangements. Morello added a healthy dose of jagged-edge skronk to the opening number “High Hopes,” and he turned “The Ghost of Tom Joad” – a song Springsteen originally recorded as a quietly reflective ballad in the mid-1990s – into a sprawling guitar faceoff.
Still, if you want to talk E Street Band drama, it all comes down to saxophonist Clarence Clemons, the late great Big Man, who died in 2011 and still casts a long shadow over his former bandmates. During the “Big Man has joined the band” line of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” there was a video-screen tribute to both Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici (who died in 2008), a gesture that was both moving and classy.
Meanwhile, Clarence’s nephew Jake Clemons has developed into a more-than-capable stand-in for his uncle, playing his solos in a style that honors the original parts without being too slavish about the details. He has also stepped into his uncle’s role as Springsteen’s physical foil, joining him at the center-stage microphone more than once.
Thursday’s show also served as a matriculation party for Springsteen’s daughter Jessica, who he announced is graduating from Duke University. Dad brought his daughter onstage to dance as Jake Clemons played the saxophone solo of “Dancing in the Dark,” which was a very sweet touch.
But the party wasn’t limited to immediate family. The stage setup included a catwalk that bisected the PNC Arena floor, and Springsteen spent a lot of time out in the crowd letting people maul him (and his guitar) and take pictures that are no doubt already all over social media. He brought up a few of his daughter’s friends to sing during “Growin’ Up,” and two very cute little girls for “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.”
The crowd played its part with the customary unbridled adoration, including song requests via poster-board signs. Springsteen obliged the audience requests with “Brilliant Disguise,” “I’m on Fire” and a cover of Manfred Mann’s 1960s-vintage hit “Pretty Flamingo” (to the delight of his backup-singer wife Patti Scialfa).
Nevertheless, the best moments were the songs you knew he’d play, the ones you’d feel cheated if he left them out. Going on 40 years later, “Born to Run” is still among the most amazing songs in the arena-rock canon, a delirious audience sing-along that was as powerful as always. Same for “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Thunder Road.”
On a more fun and less epic note, the encore cover of the Isley Brothers party standard “Shout” gave Springsteen the perfect venue for making the standard spiel he gives at the end of every show:
You’ve just seenThe heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-makingle-gen-daryE! Street! Band!
Long may they wail.