“Do you have to get up for church tomorrow?” Bruce Springsteen bellowed out well past the three-hour mark of his Saturday concert at Console Energy Center in Pittsburgh. Truth was the capacity crowd was already at the holy temple, waiting with bated breath for every word from their faithful leader.
While comparing a Bruce Springsteen concert to a religious experience is nothing new, Springsteen’s performance Saturday night was truly one of his most cathartic to date. Springsteen delivered a fiery and often introspective and deeply moving rock and roll sermon about transformation, discovery, love, loss and faith.
Touring in support of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, a box set that includes the 1980 River album and outtakes from its recording sessions, Springsteen and the E Street Band took to the stage with all of the house lights on shortly before 8 p.m. The lights remained on for the entire opening number, “Meet Me in The City.” The River outtake served as a lively introduction to the evening ahead and was quickly followed by just the second performance of The River album in its entirety. Rowdy rockers from the album such as “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” “Two Hearts,” “Cadillac Ranch” and “Hungry Heart” had fans roaring with approval and not just singing along but shouting along to every lyric. In keeping with the tradition of past tours, Springsteen ventured out into the audience for “Hungry Heart” and crowd-surfed his way back to the stage. If it weren’t for saxophonist Jake Clemons, Springsteen could have easily been adrift in the audience for the rest of the show. As Clemons belted out his rousing solo with one hand, he reached out with the other to pull Springsteen back onto stage. The exhilarating moment led to a deafening roar from the crowd.
Though all of the rockin’ numbers were smokin’ on this night, it was the slower, more introspective tunes that proved to be the magical part of the evening. “This was the record where I was trying to find out where I fit in,” Springsteen told the crowd. “I wanted to make a record that was big enough that it felt like life.” Before performing “Independence Day,” the tale of a strained relationship between father and son, Springsteen talked about the moment in his youth when he realized that adult life was about compromises and how that scared him. “I Wanna Marry You,” with its mesmerizing pairing with the outtake “Here She Comes,” was introduced as a piece about love and the disheartening realization when it falls apart. “Drive All Night,” another song about lost love, had to have tugged at many heartstrings thanks to an incredibly powerful saxophone solo by Clemons. Fans swayed back and forth, eyes closed and arms raised, completely lost in the haunting and gripping beauty of the song’s arrangement. As The River set came to a close with “Wreck on the Highway,” a song in which the character comes upon an accident scene and watches as a young driver passes away, Springsteen lamented about time and how quickly it passes, “You only have so much time to get things done.”
Luckily, Springsteen took his time getting things done on Saturday night. Following the two-hour River performance, Springsteen led the E Street Band directly into a hour-one plus string of 12 high-energy hits that had the audience on their feet from beginning to end. Packed with anthems (“Badlands,” “Wrecking Ball” and “Backstreets”) and surprises (“Brilliant Disguise” and David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”), the grand finale raised the bar on Springsteen’s legendary live show reputation.
The set also allowed other members of the E Street band to shine. Nils Lofgren’s blistering guitar solo on “Because the Night” had the crowd in an absolute frenzy. Spinning around in circles as his fingers danced furiously along the neck of his guitar, Lofgren stretched the solo out as far as it could go and then some.
Just as I thought the night couldn’t get any wilder, or end for that sake, Springsteen shouted out, “Have you got anything left?” Fortunately, Pittsburgh had plenty left. The crowd danced wildly and chanted along to the party anthem, “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and then raised their hands vigorously and in unison to the show finale, “Shout.” With the house lights turned on once again for the final songs, I couldn’t help but turn my attention to the sold-out crowd. I was drawn to their faces, each one filled with contagious joy, and was amazed that even three hours later, no one had gone home.
Just as churches welcome their visitors with open arms, the stranger next to me said before the show, “We’re all friends here tonight.” Indeed, church was in session, and Springsteen once again proved to his faithful followers that no matter what life throws at you, rock and roll can be your savior!
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