Stage-diving. Tubas. Santa Claus. Crowd-surfing. And no politics.
Sure enough, it was all there. And everything fans expected from Springsteen and his E Street Band was also present. Singalongs. Slow dances. Sweaty high-fives. That ever-recognizable squint. And a long, passionate set of songs that have evolved over 40-plus years of American songwriting to define multiple generations and presidential campaigns.
Springsteen’s quintessentially sprawling set on Monday at the Pepsi Center was a wild ride that had the near-capacity crowd howling for more. Springsteen played for nearly two and a half hours before breaking for his encore, and the crowd wanted more. He played hit after hit, sharing his mic generously with the crowd, and the fans still wanted more. Springsteen crowd-surfed 50 or 60 feet of human hands early on in the show, spanning the distance from a mid-arena platform to the main stage, and the audience Bruuuuuu’ed for more.
Springsteen is a man of the people, the savior of the working class, and as he was carried across the crowd — truly a site to behold — he came off as a messiah of sorts.
And that’s par for the course for Springsteen, who cleverly started his Monday show with a rollicking take on Bob Seger’s “Get Out of Denver” — this only a few nights after focusing on his 1982 classic “Nebraska” during an Omaha, Neb., stop. The E Street Band had their frontman’s back all night — and they were strong, packing five horns, three back-up singers, two key-ticklers, two percussionists, two guitarists, a bassman and a violin player (among other shared instruments).
The night moved forward with crowd-pleasers “I’m a Rocker,” “The Promised Land,” “Hungry Heart” (a.k.a. the stage-diving/crowd-surfing song) and the new “We Take Care of Our Own,” which was the first single off his 2012 record “Wrecking Ball.”
The songs are important, as any Springsteen mega-fan will attest. But more pressing is the feeling of being near the Boss. Springsteen has a smile that is more infectious than the office cold. He has an enthusiasm that is as genuine as it is boundless. When he looks your way, the connection is real. And when he grabs your hand, that current is live.
More exciting than Springsteen’s steady gaze is the look of his fan — the young girl he brought up to help him sing, or the older dude who landed a high-five when the artist was making his way through the crowd — when they come into contact with him. He’s a rock star, yeah. But he’s also more than that. He’s Bruce.
Some of the other moments that made Monday so memorable.
During “Wrecking Ball,” there was a lights-up ovation during the lyric, “My home’s on the Jersey shore,” a subtle nod to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.
Seven members of the band closed the Celtic-tinged “Death to My Hometown” on the apron of the stage, a group exercise in windmilling and wailing. It was powerful.
At one point, a particularly frisky Springsteen bounced up and down like a prize fighter, asking: “Who here has never seen the E Street Band before?” After a large portion of the house responded vocally, he continued his bravado bounce: “That’s good. I like to have something to prove each night … I got work to do. And I fucking like doing it. Yes, I do.”
Springsteen later got literal in talking about post-Sandy life in his “adopted hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey” as he introduced “My City of Ruins,” a song often linked to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. (The song was written before 2001 — about Asbury Park.) “It’s heartbreaking to see so much of that washed away,” he said. “But it’ll be back.” Springsteen introduced the large band before later ad-libbing, “Are you missing anybody?” And the crowd was. Tenor saxman Clarence Clemons, a.k.a. the Big Man, passed in June of 2011. It was the first of multiple tributes to their fallen comrade.
The arena floor turned into a New Orleans dancehall during a mid-set “E Street Shuffle.” Talk about a great party.
Later, when Bruce collected signs from the audience for requests, he started with “Bishop Danced” from a young girl. “If a 12-year-old girl wants a 40-year-old song, we’re going to do it for her,” he said, almost nervously. “We can do it. We’re the E Street Band. And if not, you can go home and say we fucked one up.” Springsteen took a few seconds with his band and a handy floor-embedded teleprompter before looking back to his five-piece horn section: “Horns, be ready for something. I don’t know what.” Other requests followed, including “Human Touch” and “Savin’ Up,” which he’d written for Clemons — and he dedicated the jam to the Big Man on Monday night.
A favorite cover of the band’s, “Raise Your Hand” was as political as Springsteen seemed to get all night. Which is to say, it wasn’t political at all, though it was easy to read into the song’s inclusion as the singer preached to his adoring flock mid-song: “Is there something you want? Is there something you need?”
A pre-encore “Badlands” had the night’s most serious hand-clapping. And the encore was loaded with the hits you’d expect, including a searing “Born to Run.”
We expected a memorable night of rock ‘n’ roll. And that’s what we got. So it’s not right to say that we were surprised that Springsteen gave it his all for three-plus hours. But we’re still thankful that the magic is still alive and well on E Street.
John Leyba is a Denver Post photojournalist and regular contributor to Reverb.