Before Bruce Springsteen began his sold-out, two-night stand at the ultimate summertime “land of hope and dreams” – Wrigley Field – he owed a debt to his loyal Chicago fan base. After all, when Springsteen began his current tour earlier this year in March, he oddly bypassed Chicago as he trekked to arenas from coast to coast. So when he finally arrived here with his ever-expanding E Street Band, there was the usual anticipation, but also a sense of an unspoken “big payback” for the earlier snub of this longtime and loyal Springsteen stronghold.
From the first chord of his two-night residency at the baseball shrine (beginning with “Prove It All Night,” but enticingly offered with an infrequently played dark and edgy introduction highlighted by piano and Springsteen’s string-bending solos, known to the diehards as “The ’78 Intro” because it was initially played only on his tour 34 years ago), Springsteen seemed committed to making good on his debt.
In a musical megathon that lasted upwards of three and a half hours, featuring inspired guest appearances by two local heroes – Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder – and including 28 songs sampled from his entire four-decade career – ranging from sing-along crowd pleasers like “Hungry Heart,” and “Out In The Street;” urban, escapist epics “Born To Run” and “Jungleland;” trademark anthems “Badlands” and “Thunder Road,” a smattering of rarities (“Trapped,” “My Love Will Not Let You Down”), an obscure ’80s outtake to treat the true Springsteen stalwarts (“None But The Brave”), plus a healthy dose from his latest album, the angry and politically-charged Wrecking Ball, – Springsteen was able to trot out a team of hits and winners that the Chicago Cubs’ Theo Epstein hasn’t been able to field on Wrigley’s hallowed ground this season (he even suggested he perform an exorcism on Wrigley, referencing to both the team’s age-old curse and current dismal season).
Having attended the opening night of this tour in Atlanta back in March, Friday night’s show conveyed both a thematic and performance level shift and elevation. Initially, this tour began strongly, highlighting material from the then just-released Wrecking Ball album, with a dominating message of political injustice and economic upheaval. While just the night before, Springsteen’s latest “We Take Care Of Our Own,” was wrongly used as a triumphant rallying cry after President Obama’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, the song is actually a stinging indictment of America’s fading values and neglect of its most needy citizens. Springsteen delivered it Friday with its intended meaning, but its anthem-like beat lends it to the same misinterpretation by the masses that plagued the Reagan-era “Born In The USA,” which is meant to proclaim anger and resentment, instead of flag-waving patriotism. And though he played other Wrecking Ball tracks that expose the gap between the American dream and the American reality, Springsteen didn’t couch them with heavy-handed speeches this time around.
Also, Springsteen and his newly-constructed E Street Band (now 18 members strong) must deal with the sudden death of its most iconic member – sainted saxophonist Clarence Clemons – with the addition of a five-piece horn section, back-up singers and a percussionist. As the tour opened in March, this new version of The E Street Band, convened by necessity and the dictates of the new material, understandably sounded tentative and overly rehearsed, which at times siphoned some of the loose, wild energy that has come to define the Springsteen concert experience.
Six months later and having traversed North America, and recently finishing a frenzied foray throughout Europe, the reconstruction project on E Street is fully complete. The band now provides a smooth pavement of veterans, including the ever-pounding drummer Max Weinberg, guitar hero Nils Lofgren, the steady bassist Garry Tallent, poignant pianist Roy Bittan, and longtime friend and foil Steve Van Zandt, plus recent additions and newcomers – most notably, the nephew of the late Clarence, Jake Clemons, who now confidently replicates most of The Big Man’s classic sax solos. Time and touring has transformed this new E Street Band into a tight, pot-hole free foundation that enables Springsteen to eagerly lead his flock to his sonic promised land.
The show has grown past just the political themes of *Wrecking Ball and includes a strong and overriding sense of loss and mortality. Springsteen shared how his elegy to Asbury Park, “My City Of Ruins” has taken on deeper, personal meanings – how it now deals with ghosts of the past. However, Springsteen asks his audience to embrace these ghosts, to remember them for their contribution to life and our lives, and listen to the messages they share.
Ironically, Springsteen’s meditative message of ghosts and glory days could never have a better setting than Wrigley Field. Springsteen’s nostalgic, reverential concept resides in and defines “the friendly confines,” with its dominant, hovering history of champions and legendary players of yesteryear (in fact, during Springsteen’s sermon, a spotlight shined on the left field flagpole displaying the number “10,” belonging to the immortal and ultimate Cub player and fan, the recently departed Hall of Famer, Ron Santo). During “Ruins” Springsteen subtly acknowledged the loss of both Clemons and founding E Street member – organist Danny Federici – not by name, but instead with two spotlights on their former places on the stage, and with the present thought: “If we’re here, and you’re here, then they’re here.”
Later, the Johnny Cash-tinged, “We Are Alive,” the haunting, John Steinbeck-inspired, “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” (punctuated by a searing, soaring solo by Tom Morello), and a tear-inducing video montage of Clemons during the rousing and playful, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” called back and cemented Springsteen’s urging to respect and resurrect the memory and spirit of those who have gone before us.
However, for all its moments of deep reflection, this concert was above all a fun, freewheeling, energetic rock ‘n’ roll show. Ever the showman (sometimes to the point of a corny carnival barker) Springsteen frequently abandoned his behemoth of a centerfield stage with a gleeful smile and jaunt to join his adorning throngs deep in the field seating, doing his best to make a cavernous baseball field of more than 40,000 people to feel as intimate and urgent as a 2,000-seat theater or even a dingy dive bar. He even gave an incredulous shout out to the rooftop patrons across the street from Wrigley, asking with a chuckle, “How much did you pay?”
Whether it was sharing the stage with a little girl singing the jubilant chorus to “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,” or doing the obligatory call-up of a young woman for a Courteney Cox moment during “Dancing In The Dark,” Springsteen never lost sight that the people were there to rock, party, and have a good time during the waning days of summer, which he more than delivered song after song.
Nearing midnight, clearly dismissing those Wrigley neighbors who might have been trying to get some sleep, Springsteen left the crowd in a tizzy with an elongated, stomping version of “Twist And Shout” that ended the show on an adrenaline high. On Friday night, though Wrigley Field this season may be a “town full of losers,” Bruce Springsteen “pulled out of there to win” and did so in vintage fashion.
— James Turano