On Thursday night at Nationals Park, a brief storm had passed, leaving the sky a deep burnt umber. A few thousand people covered the outfield, with tens of thousands more in the stands, a home run away from the stage. And just before 8 o’clock, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band opened their set with “New York City Serenade.” The Boss playing a baseball stadium in the last days of summer: Could there be anything more American?
Springsteen and company are wrapping up their 75-date “The River” tour with a handful of shows up and down the East Coast. This tour first hit Washington in January, with the band celebrating the 35th anniversary of “The River” by playing the 1980 album in its entirety. But these last few dates serve as an encore of sorts: marathon concerts drawn from Springsteen’s entire oeuvre, with plenty of hits, cult favorites and even a few sign requests.
Springsteen is one of the last monoculture giants who can fill a stadium and command such a massive crowd with ease. Three building-sized screens projected his craggy, emotive face (and occasionally, his iconic, jeans-clad butt) all the way to the cheap seats, and the sound was as clear as can be expected from a stadium show, trading nuance for raw power.
But if you want high fidelity, stay home and listen to a box set. If you want communion with 40,000 people, come to a Springsteen concert. For his fans, a Springsteen concert is a shared spiritual experience marked by both celebration and mourning. His distinct brand of Americana uplifts and unites people around a specific vision of the country — full of shuttered factories, late nights in Cadillacs and plenty of broken hearts — that seemed to resonate with his almost entirely white, mostly middle-aged audience.
Springsteen’s mission seems particularly important during this American moment: He has been trying to make America great again for years in a way that’s antithetical to those who co-opt his progressive songs for conservative purposes. On Thursday, after pondering the American Dream on “Promised Land,” he performed the solemn “American Skin (41 Shots).” Inspired by the police-shooting death of Amadou Diallo, the song is particularly poignant at a time when — as Springsteen sings — “you can get killed just for living in your American skin.”
Whether he was delivering political polemics or feel-good anthems, the 66-year-old Springsteen never slowed down, jogging the length of the stage and reaching out to fans who just want to touch the hem of his garment. And when he needed a break, he relied on his legendary E Street Band: joking around with Little Steven Van Zandt, sharing the mic with Patti Scialfa on a cover of “Because the Night,” or ceding the spotlight during a solo by drummer Max Weinberg or saxophonist Jake Clemons, the latter ably filling the big shoes left by his uncle Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011.
After a nearly three-hour set, the band encored with another eight songs. The stadium’s lights were turned to full blast as the band played classics like “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” By then, the rain had started again, with little effect on the crowd or the band. If Springsteen and company haven’t been stopped by the sands of time, what chance does a little rain have?