By Alan K. Stout
PHILADELPHIA - Relevance.
That's the word that came to mind quite often on Wednesday night at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia when Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band performed before a sold-out crowd of more than 20,000.
Yes, there are other seasoned acts that go out on the road and fill arenas each year, but few are as musically and socially relevant as Springsteen. He came into one of his favorite towns with a new album, "Wrecking Ball," sitting near the top of the charts, filled with songs about what he has described as the distance between American reality and the American dream. And nearly 40 years after the release of his first album, he is still writing new songs that connect with his fans.
Springsteen opened the show with the new "We Take Care of Our Own," and though it's only been a few weeks since his latest album was released, the song - a biting social commentary on the state of America - was greeted with the same affection of an old favorite. The crowd sang along, as it did with the second number of the night, "Wrecking Ball." This time, however, The Boss was also briefly met with a few good-natured boos, as a lyric makes reference to the New York Giants football team. Not a popular topic in Eagles country, but Springsteen smiled and shrugged and the cheers soon returned. A stomping performance of "Badlands" was next, followed by an intense rendition of the new "Death To My Hometown."
Four songs into the set, and Springsteen had already played three engaging songs from the new album.
Did someone mention relevance?
A soulful rendition of "My City of Ruins" allowed Springsteen to showcase some of the new parts of the E Street Band, which now includes two gospel singers and a five-piece horn section, including Jake Clemons, the nephew of the late Clarence Clemons. He acknowledged the absence of deceased E Streeters Clemons and Danny Federici with taste and dignity, first asking the crowd if someone was missing, and then simply stating that, "If we're here, and you're here, then they're here."
Springsteen then dusted off the rare "Seaside Bar Song" and later offered a lifting rendition of "Atlantic City." Through it all, however, the new material remained a centerpiece. He introduced "Jack of All Trades" as a song he wrote about two years ago that was inspired by the high number of people that had lost their homes and their jobs during what many viewed as a national recession. Cell-phones lit the arena like lighters of concerts past, and once again, he connected with a recent composition. And it happened again with performances of the new "Easy Money" and with one of the show's highlights, "Rocky Ground."
Even some of Springsteen's older numbers, such as 1978's "The Promised Land," seemed to mesh well with the tone of the "Wrecking Ball" material. It too talks about tough times and trying to rise above them, and it served as a reminder that throughout his career, Springsteen has remained dedicated to certain topics. "American Skin (41 Shots)," which he debuted 12 years ago amid much controversy, has been brought back to the show and many felt it had been done so in response to the recent killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida. On this night, Springsteen erased all doubts by dedicating the song to Martin.
Of course there were also many moments of levity. Despite often being inspired by the news, Springsteen also likes to throw a party. His new "Apollo Medley" of soul classics had him body surfing across nearly half the arena, he walked and sang in the aisles among the fans during a performance of "Raise Your Hand" - and also drank from a fans' cup of beer - and the house lights were on for a spirited rendition of "Born To Run." On two occasions, young members of the audience were brought to the stage to sing and dance and Springsteen seemed genuinely joyful while delivering one of his biggest pop hits, "Dancing In The Dark."
The show ended with "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." Three hours after he first took the stage, Springsteen, 62, was dancing on top of the piano. And again, during the number, he honored Clemons. When delivering the line, "When the change was made uptown and the big man joined the band," the music stopped. There was dead silence on the stage for two full minutes. The crowd roared and Springsteen encouraged them to keep roaring. And then the five-piece horn section played a saxophone part that was once played by one man.
At one point early in the set, Springsteen spoke of how the show was about beginnings and endings, and old friends and new friends. Throughout his energetic performance, he wove it all together very well. But again, what stood out the most was the quality and the acceptance of the new material. Yes, it's fun to see a band like The Rolling Stones play three hours of big hits and old favorites - something Springsteen is also fully capable of - but there is something quite gripping about seeing a songwriter of his stature continue to challenge and delight his audience with new songs. Eight of the numbers in the set - nearly one-third of it - were tracks from "Wrecking Ball" and several others came from the past decade.
It was, quite simply, a fine display of ongoing creativity and of the continued relevance of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band.