By Erik Flannigan
Part of what draws us to Springsteen concerts is the range of emotions they deliver over the course of a single evening. Songs of hardship and heartbreak intermix with those of liberation, love, and celebration. But on occasion, the mood leans strongly in one direction. Playing the third of three stadium shows on the eve of his 63rd birthday, and following a 120-minute weather delay, Bruce was of a mind to surprise and delight his hometown fans and set the energy dial to HIGH.
When attempting to describe the E Street Band in peak tour form, as we find them here, it can be difficult to resist cliches. East Rutherford 2012 evokes “well-oiled machine,” the attributes of which are fitting: smooth, powerful, polished, built to last. Jon Altschiller’s vibrant mix spotlights their outstanding playing and grabs the listener right out of the gate, an apt choice of words, as if there were a track announcer at MetLife she would surely be shouting, “They’re off and running.”
East Rutherford 2012 opens with ten straight, dare I say, bangers, ignoring any “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” advice in an effort to rouse fans who had been waiting patiently for hours.
The proceedings commence with the open invitation of “Out in the Street,” and the band-fan partnership is further reinforced via “The Ties That Bind” before a horns-accented “Cynthia” makes clear Stevie had a hand in this appetizing 34-song setlist. Bruce calls the Born in the U.S.A. outtake a Van Zandt favorite and a little bit of “E Street from the Underground Garage,” in reference to his pal’s Sirius XM radio show and channel. Lots of rockers + lots of rarities = Stevie’s unmistakable influence.
Turns out we’re just getting started. From there, “Badlands” into a fine “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” followed by guitar-crunching versions of “Cover Me” and “Downbound Train,” and the new-album three-pack: “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Wrecking Ball,” and “Death to My Hometown.” With that, the ten-track onslaught relents, and we catch our breath during a moving “My City of Ruins.”
The pace of the show picks back up with “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” still packing plenty of heat and preceded by an abridged version of Bruce’s Columbia Records audition story. A double shot with guest Gary U.S. Bonds (in fine voice) is another special treat, and the spirit of ‘81 is in full effect for a duet on “Jolé Blon” and a Bonds lead vocal on “This Little Girl.” The latter, a Springsteen-penned solo hit for Bonds, is performed for surprisingly only the fourth time ever with the E Street Band, which played on the original sessions.
After a Seeger Sessions-inspired “Pay Me My Money Down” come more rarities. As other live download releases have shown, “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart” is a surprisingly tricky song to nail; this is a good one, riding an excellent Springsteen vocal. After “Janey,” Bruce realizes the clock has struck midnight, which means it is now officially his birthday. He asks the crowd for his song, and a stadium full of fans sings “Happy Birthday” back to him. Then, reaching all the way back to 12/31/80 without a soundcheck safety net, Springsteen summons up Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” and damn if they don’t nail it. Sure, any self-respected horn section would know those parts by heart, but one can still marvel that an audible unplayed for more than 30 years can come off so strong.
The spiritual highlight of the night is the first and only Wrecking Ball tour performance of “Into the Fire” from The Rising. With MetLife mere miles from Ground Zero, the vividly detailed lyrics resonate deeply, and the richly layered arrangement, led by Springsteen’s tender, heartfelt vocals, reminds us this is one of his modern classics.
The third reel of this epic New Jersey tale continues apace, with “Because the Night” and “She’s the One” doing heavy lifting, “Working on the Highway” keeping things loose, and “Shackled and Drawn” making sure we’re grounded, too. The denouement arrives in the precious pairing of “Meeting Across the River” and “Jungleland” for the first time on the tour. With the stage bathed in indigo light, Curt Ramm’s bold trumpet refrain and Roy Bittan’s understated piano intertwine achingly, and Bruce’s vocal is on point: rich, measured, and world-weary. The passion surges to crescendo in the ensuing “Jungleland,” and like a dramatic stage revival, the Jersey street opera remains arresting.
“Thunder Road” provides release, “Rocky Ground” solemnity, and then party mode takes over. The rest of a lively encore romps through “Born to Run,” “Glory Days, “Seven Nights to Rock,” and “Dancing in the Dark” before we get to our final memorable moment.
“The boss of bosses has just come on stage,” Bruce says by way of introducing his mother Adele. Along with his in-laws the Scialfas and other family friends, she has come out to deliver a cake and sing a proper “Happy Birthday.” The birthday party ends the only way it could, with “Twist and Shout.”
“Thanks for a memorable birthday,” Bruce tells the crowd as he walks off stage. “My mother is for rent for $2.50 an hour for parties and Bar Mitzvahs.” A pretty good joke for two in the morning, and a funny, fitting end to one of the most electrifying shows on the Wrecking Ball tour.