By Erik Flannigan
Our nostalgia for great concerts of the past is not dissimilar to that of sports. For over 20 years before it went on-demand, ESPN Classic aired some of the most memorable football, basketball, and baseball games of the last few decades. NBA TV still does. You know the stuff: Buzzer beaters and walk-off home runs in game sevens. Bowl and playoff games with miracle finishes or remarkable individual performances. Retro sports programming helped define what constitutes a classic performance and naturally led to the idea of an “instant classic,” a recent game with the same kind of thrilling dynamics as those revered events of yore.
In live Springsteen concert collecting, a (relatively) clear consensus has been reached as to the all-time great shows from his first three decades on stage. Concerts like Passaic 9/19/78, E. Rutherford 8/20/84, and the Christic Institute benefits from 1990 enjoy near-unanimous agreement as to their exceptional quality. Recent archive releases like London 11/24/75 rise from the vault to join them, gaining appreciation thanks to the availability of incredible new audio.
Assessment of performances from the reunion era to today tends to be more subjective. One obvious bias for the current audience comes from having attended contender shows in person, which isn’t the case for most people when it comes to ’70’s and ’80s concerts, save for a lucky few. So what constitutes a post-reunion instant classic?
St. Paul 11/12/12 provides a worthy example. This excellent show checks a lot of boxes. Great versions of songs from Bruce’s most recent album? Check. Strong performances of core, classic material? Rare and surprising setlist inclusions? Bruce calling audibles, telling stories and jumping into the crowd? Check, check and check.
I make it a point not to presume the thinking behind a particular decision Bruce makes, but it does feel safe to infer that his decision to audible “I’m a Rocker” to open the St. Paul show—having never opened a set with it before—likely reflected his enthusiasm in the moment. It’s a lively rendition that sends a cue that the audience is in for an especially good time.
Ensuring his point isn’t missed, “Hungry Heart” comes second, with the crowd immediately answering the call to sing their part, verse one, quite capably. Bruce matches them, singing with intention to connect all the way to the back of the hall. He points to Jake Clemons, who makes the “Hungry Heart” solo more his own than his uncle’s.
“No Surrender” extends the “we’re in this together” sentiment, and the band is playing hot already when we arrive at a four-pack that would be a thrill to witness, for those of us who appreciate great songs that lie deeper in the catalog.
“Night” isn’t the rarest song, but its power and precision always resonate, and it has played a role in many a classic show. Jon Altschiller’s mix nicely balances guitars and piano to propel the performance, and here Clemons follows The Big Man’s footprints appropriately.
The final note holds and charges into “Loose Ends,” the outstanding River outtake in only its 25th live appearance. Again, guitars and Roy Bittan’s piano do the heavy lifting, with Garry Tallent’s bass part richly realized as well. Stevie Van Zandt, perhaps THE strongest advocate for performing outtakes, matches Springsteen’s true-to-the-original vocals and helps make this one of the best live “Loose Ends” ever.
Without so much as a breath taken between songs, Bittan starts the moving piano melody that opens “Something in the Night.” The band is locked in, and Springsteen sings with gravelly passion in a gorgeous overall reading. With feelings already heightened by “Something in the Night,” Bruce selects what for my money is the saddest and most emotional song he has ever written, “Stolen Car.”
In just its second appearance with the band since 1985 (the first being the 2009 River album set at Madison Square Garden), “Stolen Car” is about the recognition of love unraveling. The song’s musical arrangement illustrates the range of the E Street Band to marvelous effect, connecting with as much prowess in the spare grace of their playing on “Stolen Car” as they do in the crescendo of “Born to Run.” “Something in the Night” and “Stolen Car” also carry poignant accents from the horn section, adding new tones and colors to these genuinely profound performances.
Following that memorable quartet we move through the core of the 2012 set with tour-honed versions of “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Death to My Hometown,” “My City of Ruins” and “Pay Me Money Down.”
In addition to making his standard band introductions, Bruce addresses the crowd in “My City of Ruins,” telling them he and the band love “repeat customers” (St. Paul was the only market on the fall arena tour with two shows) and, rather amusingly, that special recognition of their status in the Twin Cities can be fleeting. “We are the band that yesterday had two streets named after us right here in the city,” he brags. “Today, nothing! No streets! Back to Butthole Avenue or whatever it was before yesterday.”
Also slipped into the set after “My City of Ruins” is an exuberant version of “The E Street Shuffle,” complete with horn-section tune-up prelude, an Everett Bradley percussion solo that walks the song to the edge of Santana, and a full outro. Perhaps less faithful than the version on the Christmas release from 11/7/09 but no less fun.
With the second St. Paul concert falling on the Veterans Day holiday, Springsteen worked up the first-ever, full-band version of “Devils & Dust.” The solemn and striking arrangement leverages the full capabilities of the expanded line-up: Curt Ramm’s trumpet and Soozie’s violin set the initial tone; Max Weinberg’s drums along with Nils Lofgren’s and Van Zandt’s guitars carry the majestic middle; and the E Street Choir add their graceful voices as the song eventually grows to its fully realized conclusion.
“Youngstown” feels appropriately positioned just after, reminding us of the plight of veterans who return to hometowns as the jobs that long sustained and provided identity to their working class are disappearing. “Murder Incorporated,” 2012 edition, is a horn-led affair in addition to a triple-guitar showpiece.
Sure, the junior vocalist on “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” may be in slightly over their head, but 2012 also means we have the E Street Choir to ensure the rest of the singing is sweet (they performed the same service in “Hungry Heart,” which also featured audience members on mic). Choir voices also further enliven “She’s the One” and provide backbone to “Shackled and Drawn.”
“The Rising” and “Badlands” both stick their landings, and the main set concludes with “Land of Hope and Dreams” calling on the horns and extra voices for additional heart and soul power. For the encore, Jake steps into the biggest of the Big Man’s shoes and delivers his own soul power to “Jungleland,” soloing impressively above Bittan’s fluid piano runs. “Born to Run” sustains its crescendo an extra long time, with horn blasts keeping the tension building. “Dancing in the Dark,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” and “American Land” send everyone home happy and inspired, as well they should.
Perhaps “instant classic” is a term best left in the sports realm, but contemporary subjectivity acknowledged, what more could one want from a Wrecking Ball tour performance than what Bruce delivers on the second night of St. Paul?