Springsteen walks on stage 20 minutes late. Dressed in a black three-piece suit and white shirt (no tie), he immediately launches into “Badlands,” the first cut of the new record. It establishes the pattern for the evening. Even though the audience hasn’t heard the album, Springsteen has planned the concert around his new material, most of which he will play in the first set. It’s an eminently intelligent decision. He has sprinkled enough familiar songs (“Night,” “For You”) and standard show-stoppers (“Spirit in the Night”) to give the audience something to hold on to while force-feeding them songs he doesn’t expect them to grasp entirely on first hearing.
The strategy backfires, however. Springsteen seems concerned more with putting across the new songs than with performing them, and most come across as tentative. “Badlands” jumps out of the racing blocks before it stumbles somewhere between Springsteen’s solo and Clemons’s, and “Something in the Night” sinks under its own weight. Springsteen has dressed up the song since his last Boston concert, with new lyrics and more instrumentation, and its original loneliness has been lost. Perhaps its first-night nerves, but the band is rushing even through the old material. On “Spirit in the Night” Springsteen is like a story-teller who both has lost his rhythm and is not sure of the punchline. Even when he jumps down into the crowd (standard for the song), not much conviction is apparent. It’s not until “The Promised Land” that the set takes off. The band explodes as Springsteen clenches his fist and shouts between gritted gospel teeth, “I believe, I believe in a promised land.” Over the “la la la” chorus he takes a harp break that’ snot on the album, and it’s as if he’s sweeping over the country with it. There’s no blues in the playing – it’s not a wail or a moan. Rather, it recalls country jigs and fiddle contests, jaunty and majestic at the same time. It’s one of those moments when the world seems right.
In interviews Springsteen refers to the E Street Band as our band, and the instrumental break that opens the second set is an example of why he does so. An excuse to show off riffs, the instrumental is one of those nothings that rock ‘n’ roll abounds in and invariably makes joyous. Springsteen has paced the second set carefully. With the exception of “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” which are side by side, the set alternates between abandon (“Saint in the City”) and despair (“Backstreets”). Springsteen has his routines down; tonight they feel both rusty and pat. The guitar duel between him and Miami Steve Van Zandt during “She’s the One” should look like a scene from an Italian Western. But someone doesn’t turn up Van Zandt’s amp until the tension has dissipated. It might as well have been a pillow fight. Even “Rosalita,” the concert’s closer, seems a little tired. Three encores later, the show ends with a cover version of the Dovells’ “You Can’t Sit Down,” a properly rousing finish. It hasn’t been a bad concert – Springsteen on a rough night is better than most performers on good ones – but it’s not been great either.
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