A little more than an hour into his concert at Capital One Arena on Monday night, Bruce Springsteen stopped to tell a story about joining his first band at the age of 15 in 1965. That was 10 presidents ago in Washington speak, an astonishing run. And given his full-throttle, nearly three-hour performance, he probably has a few more presidents still to go.
From the first notes of the first song, “No Surrender,” the 73-year-old and his magnificent E Street Band planted a hard-charging declaration of resolve in the face of everything that has tested them over a half-century of music-making and life-living. When they reached the chorus, the fans, full-throated, joined in their pact:
“We made a promise we swore we’d always remember. No retreat, baby, no surrender.”
It was the perfect opening statement for a night of music that did not back down and that reminded listeners of rock-and-roll’s ability to distill complex emotions and feelings into seemingly simple singalong anthems. Few do that better than Springsteen, who has delivered decades of irrepressible songs that also explore deeper themes of struggle and survival, resilience and resurrection, community and commitment.
Taut, tan and dressed all in black, the Boss was a commanding figure as he led his band — and that exuberant crowd — through favorites that have spanned his career.
“Prove It All Night” sounded as urgent and unrelenting as it did when first released on “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” in 1978. And on the raging “The Promised Land,” when Springsteen howled, “Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted,” it felt like a cathartic call to a world that has been swimming in uncertainty and fear these past few years. The joyful “Out in the Street,” a forget-all-your-troubles-and-party banger, was more cause to celebrate.
The band, which would eventually swell to 18 members with backup vocalists and a horn section, was held down by Springsteen’s longtime sidemates, including drummer Max Weinberg, guitarist/pirate Steven Van Zandt and local boy made good guitarist Nils Lofgren, who grew up in Bethesda. Saxophonist Jake Clemons summoned the spirit and the chops of his late uncle Clarence Clemons, the legendary Big Man of Springsteen’s band until his death in 2011.
Springsteen reached way back in his catalogue for two playful songs, “Kitty’s Back” and “The E Street Shuffle,” from 1973’s “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.” And on “Johnny 99,” he brought his blistering five-piece horn section to the crowd, turning a grim tale from his stark 1982 solo album, “Nebraska,” into a full-on rave-up. Never has a life sentence sounded like so much fun.
The concert marked Springsteen’s second trip to Washington in the past week. Six days earlier, he received a National Medal of Arts at the White House, where President Biden described him as “a poet, troubadour, a chronicler of American life and resilience and hope and dreams.”
Bruce Springsteen playing “Thunder Road” last night in DC. Tremendous show pic.twitter.com/R7I2yAhe7w— Joe Heim (@JoeHeim) March 28, 2023
If there was a shadow over the show, it was the still-lingering bad taste from the dynamic pricing Springsteen and his team agreed to, which led to sky-high ticket prices when they went on sale last year. Some fans paid well over $1,000 for seats that cost just a couple hundred a few years ago. Many ordinary Joes and Janes, forever staples of Springsteen’s base, couldn’t afford to plunk down those big bucks. There isn’t a fan who doesn’t think Springsteen should be handsomely rewarded for his shows, but that money grab felt a little grubby.
For those in the arena for the 26-song tour de force, however, that misstep was probably soon forgotten or forgiven. The generous opening set ended with a roaring version of “Badlands,” and the band quickly returned for a seven-song encore, which included “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run,” “Rosalita,” “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark.” Not too shabby.
There has been no announcement that this will be the last tour that Springsteen will do with the E Street Band, but there are no guarantees, either. (The summer leg of this tour will return to Washington for a concert at Nationals Park on Aug. 28.) For Bruce and those in the band in their 70s, delivering a show with this much energy and verve is a lot more taxing than it was in their 20s, 30s and 40s. The party can’t go on forever.
Indeed, the theme of mortality and loss was woven into the night’s offerings, such as with “Ghosts,” from Springsteen’s 2020 album, “Letter to You,” and with his cover of the Commodores’ “Nightshift,” from his record “Only the Strong Survive.” As if to make sure that point wasn’t missed, Springsteen closed the show with the beautiful “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a song of holding dear to memories of the people he has lost along the way. People like E Streeters Clemons and Danny Federici, as well as his friend George Theiss, the leader of that first band he joined 10 presidents ago.