Bruce Springsteen Blasts One at Fenway Park

All photos by Matthew Reed Baker

The start of a Bruce Springsteen show is one of the greatest buzzes in live rock music. There are people who make pilgrimages to see their first concert and others who have dozens under their belt by obsessively following him on tour. There are teens on dates and aging boomers holding hands. But all their eyes are on the stage, waiting for their rock’n’soul messiah to arrive—and they explode in deafening joy when he does. They know that the next three hours are going to be one of the most thrilling experiences of their rock lives. And this buzz was amped even higher last night by the fact that he was playing in the Friendly Confines of Fenway Park, where his name was spelled out on the Green Monster scoreboard.

Springsteen’s arrival was appropriately dramatic. Soon after the lighting guys ascended the rigging, the screens showed the Boss and the E Street Band emerging from the tunnel and climbing the stairs to the stage. (There was even a glimpse of his son Evan, who just graduated from Boston College.) When you see Springsteen go up the stairs to face the crowd with a guitar in his hand, you’re reminded that anything this guy does is an iconic image, and for the next three-plus hours, the 62-year-old Springsteen made you think this was a tour from 1975 or 1978 or 1985 or 2003—legendary years evangelizing albums like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born in the U.S.A., and The Rising. This tour is promoting his latest, Wrecking Ball, a song cycle about the recession/recovery and the 99 vs. 1 percenters—and it’s shaping up to be as classic as any of those eras on the road.

This concert was perfect for all fans: a mix of classics, new songs, and an occasional rarity thrown in. He opened with “The Promised Land” and hit other major career points like “Thunder Road,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Rosalita.” The brawny, angry songs from Wrecking Ball sounded fantastic, thanks in large part to the newly expanded E Street Band and its full brass band. When you have 17 musicians on stage, you risk an acoustic muddle, but the arrangements were fierce and tight. It had been a while since Springsteen’s music sounded this muscular, whether on the rollicking new song “Death to My Hometown” or an electric “Because the Night.” And as for those rarities, a truly groovy, Latin jazz “E Street Shuffle” and a dreamy, aching “Drive All Night” (an epic slow burn from The River) were firsts for me at a Bruce show—and both were transcendent in entirely different ways.

And then there was the showmanship—the Boss was having lots of fun out there. If you haven’t seen Bruce Springsteen live, and largely think of him as a noble (or overly earnest) rocker, you’d be surprised at how much of a ham he is. He brought a kid from the crowd on stage to sing “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” (seriously, he picked the boy up and carried him up the steps); he ran into the crowd again during “Darlington County,” found a pretty Boston policewoman and danced with her; and he dutifully made the Boston–New York sports jokes. The man just knows how to milk the crowd, and he does it with a knowing grin.

But the spectre of Boston sports also provided one of the more moving moments: A monologue tribute to the late Johnny Pesky, Red Sox #6, who died the day before the show. Springsteen introduced “My City of Ruins” by talking about how the land and spaces that we know bear the traces of ghosts that are with us every day, and then he dedicated the song to the man who inspired the right-field foul pole. Later, he showed pictures of Pesky on screen and held up a “Johnny” sign from the audience. It was a classy move by one of the world’s most famous Yankee fans. The other poignant tribute was during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” when the music stopped for a montage of Bruce’s late saxman/right-hand man/Big Man, Clarence Clemons. (His sax parts are now played with impressive verve by his nephew Jake.)

By the time Bruce and the band closed with raucous covers of “Dirty Water” (again, a nice touch!) and “Twist and Shout” (complete with fireworks over the Green Monster), this classic Springsteen gig felt like one big 40,000-person party. The beer vendors on the field were singing and dancing, and the security guys atop the left-field wall were shooting videos on their iPhones. It was a special evening for each of those people, and considering that Springsteen famously got his big break here in 1974, you get the feeling it was special for him as well.

And now, the set list:

“The Promised Land”
“Out in the Street”
“We Take Care of Our Own”
“Wrecking Ball”
“Death to My Hometown”
“My City of Ruins”
“Spirit in the Night”
“The E Street Shuffle”
“Jack of All Trades”
“Atlantic City”
“Because the Night”
“Johnny 99″
“Darlington County”
“Working on the Highway”
“Shackled and Drawn”
“Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”
“Boom Boom (a cover of the John Lee Hooker song)”
“Drive All Night”
“The Rising”
“Badlands”
“Thunder Road”
“We Are Alive”
“Born to Run”
“Rosalita”
“Glory Days”
“Dancing in the Dark”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
“Dirty Water”
“Twist and Shout”