It was heavy.
That went for both the rumble and the message that came from the Verizon Center stage Sunday night when Bruce Springsteen delivered three hours of rock-and-roll in his signature blend of romantic, redemptive and reflective. Springsteen and his supersized E Street Band know how to preside over a party, and although Sunday’s show had its share of arms-around-your-buddy, beers-in-the-air moments, the bad times were clearly more on the Boss’s mind than the good ones.
The tone was set early when Springsteen opened with “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Wrecking Ball,” the title track of his latest album. Both songs find Springsteen stepping into the role of Everyman conscience of America, one he has played startlingly well for nearly four decades. On the former, he slashed at his Fender Telecaster and sneered the titular chorus, which has a message that’s equal parts “we’re in this together, America” and “get your act together, America.”
Between songs, the Boss was in his usual rock-and-roll preacher mode (“We wanna wake you up, shake you up and take you to higher ground!”), but those sound bites were nothing more than a spirited version of a flashing “Applause!” sign. Springsteen is the rare performer who goes off script with his song choices, not his banter. His message was underscored with the inclusion of “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song written in response to the killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed Guinean immigrant who was shot by New York police officers. The song is Springsteen at his most outspoken and has reappeared on recent set lists. Springsteen didn’t say the name Trayvon Martin as he did at previous shows; he didn’t need to. “The Promise,” a 35-year-old song about the bleak prospects of Middle America (“When the promise is broken you go on living, but it steals something from down in your soul”), spoke to the current economic condition much more elegantly than his cheap-cheer line, “We want to put a whoop-ass session on the recession.”
Another rarity to make the cut Sunday was “Adam Raised a Cain,” a thundering, brooding track from 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” It shook the arena with the force of three bands — mostly because that’s pretty much what Springsteen had onstage with him. This 17-piece incarnation of the E Street Band is a true power-in-numbers ensemble that succeeds on sheer abundance of sound. When the band took the stage, it was something like an NFL team assembling into a wildcat formation, and the expanded lineup helped rescue some of the limp new material. At times, it was like a rock-and-roll version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” There were five guitarists strumming, four tambourines shaking, three trumpets blasting, two keyboards buzzing and one Max Weinberg sitting behind the drum kit holding everything together with his fierce and precise playing.
Of course, the E Street Band roll call was not entirely complete; organ player Danny Federici died in 2008, and saxophonist Clarence Clemons died in June. This is Springsteen’s first tour without the Big Man, and it was hard to envision him onstage without one of rock-and-roll’s most iconic sidemen to his right. A five-piece horn section helped cushion the blow, and that it was headed by Clemons’s charismatic and able nephew Jake was a nice multi-generational touch for a show that featured plenty of parents with children in tow. “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” an old Clemons showcase, ended the concert, and when the music cut out after Springsteen sang the line, “When the change was made uptown / And the Big Man joined the band,” cheers erupted for a full minute in tribute.
Not that it was all death, doom and gloom. Grown men hugged each other during “Born to Run.” A medley of soul chestnuts including “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “634-5789” saw Springsteen race across the stage and into the audience, touching dozens of hands that probably won’t be washed for a good two weeks. He plucked a sign out of the crowd and granted its request of fan favorite “Out in the Street.” He shook his hips like it was 1984 in a houselights-on version of “Dancing in the Dark.” Moments like these are standard at Springsteen shows, and the fact that he can still make them feel special is a testament to his abilities as a pure entertainer.
Springsteen could have offered nothing but entertainment and pure escape, and it would have easily been a show worthy of his reputation as one of live music’s best. But on Sunday, he didn’t escape, he dove headfirst into the heart of America, and if what he found wasn’t always pretty, it sure was powerful.