Bruce Springsteen’s Summer ’17 tour is the party we all need right now

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band walk onto the AAMI Park stage to deafening cheers. ‘We stand before you, embarrassed Americans tonight… We’re gonna use this to send a letter back home.’ He rips into a cover of ‘Don’t Hang Up’, The Orlons’ 1962 novelty hit, just him and his acoustic guitar. Just hours after Donald Trump’s train–wreck of a phone call with our prime minister, Bruce fires back, making global headlines. He’s been speaking truth to presidents since Reagan, Bush, Bush junior — so Trump’s in good company right? As are we, all 30,000 of us. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

But this isn’t the giant E Street Band of Bruce’s last two Australian tours. Steve Van Zandt is back, but without replacement-turned-supplementary guest guitarist Tom Morello, Bruce’s wife Patti Scialfa, backing vocalists or a horn section, the band’s down to the core nine-piece. It’s the smallest they’ve been since 2008. Tonight’s the most straightforward of the five shows I’ve seen, with the fewest surprises — for once, he doesn’t take any sign requests. But whether it’s your first or tenth time, there’s nothing to complain about — Bruce never just shuts up and plays the hits.

“This is an immigrant song!” He kicks straight into ‘American Land’, a celebration of diversity. Americans belong, regardless of where they were born — and that’s equally true of Australians. What’s an ‘illegal’ immigrant to a country of boat people?

The first third of the night is all driving, no-nonsense rockers: ‘The Ties That Bind’, ‘No Surrender’, ‘Two Hearts’, ‘The Promised Land’. Jake Clemons’ first saxophone solo gets an ovation — the Big Man’s nephew has assumed his mantle. No longer one among a horn section, he’s blossomed over these last three tours. And when Little Steven, finally joins Bruce at the mic in ‘No Surrender’, everything’s as it should be.

‘New York City Serenade’ has become a centrepiece of this tour. As the last track on Bruce’s second album, it serves as a farewell to both the original E Street lineup and the jazzy, Billy Joel-like sound they’d never recapture. As the song descends to an eerie whisper, accompanied by a shimmering string section, you can feel their absence. Of that 1973 band, only Bruce and bassist Garry Tallent remain.

No over live act makes you feel light and darkness quite like the E Street Band. As Bruce opens ‘The River’, easily the most stunning song of the night, the lights dim, and the full darkness of sunset hits you. Lit in blue, half his face in shadow, Bruce wails on his harmonica, exorcising the last of his demons for today.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band

Photo by Anthony Smith

Bruce hasn’t been all that talkative so far, but now he yells like he’s reading his memoir’s audiobook — ’We need a house party! I’ve been so fuckin’ depressed, man! Shit is fucked up!’ ‘Mary’s Place’, ‘The Rising’, then ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’; this is Bruce, the estranged Catholic, channeling the power of black, Protestant gospel music. He doesn’t even need backing vocalists — the E Street Band’s become their own choir.

He dips into Born in the U.S.A.: the country twang of ‘Darlington County’ and ‘Working on the Highway’, then ‘I’m on Fire’, where he sounds more like Elvis with every passing year. When the band finally breaks into ‘Badlands’ — that drum fill, that iconic piano riff — it feels like the night’s just started.

“Even at 67, Bruce Springsteen shows no signs of slowing down. But where does he go from here?”

We barely have to wait for the encore – one last moment of melancholy, a solo ‘Long Walk Home’, lit by a single spotlight. “This is a song I wrote during the Bush administration, but I guess it still applies.”

The house lights turn up for ‘Born to Run’. We can finally see the rest of the crowd, and they know every word — it’s everyone’s life story. In ‘Dancing in the Dark’, the pit fills with signs — ”Bruce 2020″, “Dance With This Nasty Woman: Love Trumps Hate”. A lucky few get to play Courtney Cox for the night.

Times are dark, but the E Street Band’s resolve is stronger than ever. Images of the departed Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons play over ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’, but don’t feel as sad as they used to. For ‘Shout’, Bruce does his comic preacher schtick — ”You’ve just seen the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making legendary E Street Band!” ‘Twist and Shout’ ends the night near the three hour mark — and by their standards, this is a short gig.

Even at 67, Bruce Springsteen shows no signs of slowing down. But where does he go from here? After his gigantic Darkness and River box sets, Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. are sure to be reissued sometime in the next four years. His bleakest album, then his most triumphant — they’ve rarely felt more relevant. ‘Atlantic City’ is every bit as true as ‘Dancing in the Dark’. There’s no joy without melancholy — the two contrast, embrace each other. But tonight, Bruce chooses to end on a happy note. Do we deserve it? Who’s coming back on Saturday?

Follow Richard S. He on Twitter. Lead photo by Anthony Smith.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band @ AAMI Park, 02.02.2017 setlist:

‘Don’t Hang Up’ (The Orlons cover)
‘American Land’
‘The Ties That Bind’
‘No Surrender’
‘Two Hearts’
‘The Promised Land’
‘Glory Days’
‘Hungry Heart’
‘Wrecking Ball’
‘New York City Serenade’
‘Atlantic City’
‘Johnny 99’
‘Murder Incorporated’
‘Death to My Hometown’
‘The River’
‘Mary’s Place’
‘Darlington County’
‘Working on the Highway’
‘I’m on Fire’
‘Because the Night’
‘The Rising’
‘Land of Hope and Dreams’

‘Long Walk Home’
‘Born to Run’
‘Dancing in the Dark’
‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’
‘Twist and Shout’