The question came crossing the parking lot, barely out of Hampton Coliseum that January night in 1985. "So, do you have someone for your extra ticket tomorrow night?

She had turned it down weeks ago, saying she was sure Bruce was great, but she could not imagine seeing someone, anyone, two nights in a row. After three heart-pounding, fist-pumping hours, and 27 songs, she'd been converted. But, she knew the answer. It was too late. I had another date.

Since then, I've seen Springsteen 18 more times, each show as rousing, redemptive, reflective, and joyous as the first. I know the next one, at Farm Bureau Live in Virginia Beach, will be no different.
Over the decades, Springsteen shows have been my church, taking me to the promised land. I've seen hundreds and hundreds of concerts. U2, The Dead, The Stones, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Prince. Nothing compares to Bruce.  I know, I know. You don't get it. I had friends who didn't get it either, until I bought them tickets and they became fervent, lifelong converts. Springsteen is revivalist preacher and James Brown showman. He is conscience and cheerleader, mirror and projector.

He can evoke both our carefree joy and our sacred responsibilities. From hungry hearts to the land of hope and dreams.
His best songs -- and there are many -- are like the best art. What they mean changes over time. His work has evolved over time, from the early rock operettas that appeal to our memories to the leaner focused meditations on responsibility, community, and navigating life’s dark mazes.

A song like "The Promised Land" offered an unbroken horizon of possibilities hearing it in the back of an Audi on the way to a Lehigh-Penn game in 1978. By “The Rising” tour in 2003, it was a balm, the possibility of redemption. Now, it’s a reminder to still believe, to still explore, to be present for the ride. It's my favorite song on my favorite album and it never grows old.
“Most of my songs are emotionally autobiographical, “ Springsteen once said. “You’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you for them to mean anything to your audience. That’s how they know you’re not kidding.”

He gives an audience not only what it wants, but what it needs. There is no performer who more desperately wants the audience to take his love and reflect it back to him.“That ticket is my handshake. That ticket is me promising you that it’s gonna be all the way every chance I get,” he told an interviewer in 2012.

Even when he’s tired, hitting the stage is magic. “Suddenly the fatigue disappears. A transformation takes place. That’s what we’re selling. We’re selling that possibility,” he adds. “It’s half a joke: I go out onstage and—snap—‘Are you ready to be transformed?’ What? At a rock show? By a guy with a guitar? Part of it is a goof, and part of it is, Let’s do it, let’s see if we can.”

Depending upon the night, he will be soaked with sweat a few songs into the show. The slides across the stage into the arms of the late Clarence Clemons for a kiss are gone, replaced by body surfing, letting the crowd lay hands on, transporting him to the rear of the general admission section and back again.

“I want an extreme experience,” he says. He wants the audience to leave the concert, as he often tells them, “with your hands hurting, your feet hurting, your back hurting, your voice sore, and your sexual organs stimulated.”
At RFK Stadium during the “Born in the USA” tour, the upper deck literally rocked up and down to "Dancing in the Dark." In Chapel Hill during the “Tunnel of Love” shows, a reserved Bruce in a bolo tie asked "Is it a date?" before launching into "Be True." At the Richmond Coliseum on “The Rising” tour, friends in the row behind me were so emotional they couldn't stop the tears from flowing. At the Verizon Center on the “Magic” run, he screamed "Is there anybody alive out there?" before an ecstatic "Radio Nowhere." At John Paul Jones arena in Charlottesville, I glanced to the side and caught my daughter, at her first rock show, pumping her fist and shouting "Tramps like us..." swept up in the moment.

There’s always rock ‘n roll goofiness. At Nationals Park in 2012, he teased: “Are you done? Are you done? Washington,” he said drawing out the word, “you have just seen the heart-stoppin’, pants droppin’, Earth shaking, hard rocking, curfew hating, Viagra taking, history-making E Street Band.”

Springsteen shows are many things, one merging into the other. Somehow, some way, they give us each what we need that night.

They are nostalgic and topical, fond remembrances of long ago days as self-conscious kids dancing in the dark and pointed reminders of today's realities facing those shackled and drawn.

When I last saw him at Nationals Park, he played "My City of Ruins," a song written about his hometown of Asbury Park that took on a vastly different meaning in the wake of 9/11. On that September night, though, it became about ghosts resurrected with the sing-along refrain of "Rise up, rise up..."
"We all have our ghosts that follow us around, walk with us. Not just people, but old guitars, old buildings," he said. "When you're a kid, you're taught ghosts are scary. As you get older and those ghosts who walk alongside of you add up, you realize they walk alongside you to remind you of the preciousness of time, the value of friendship , the goodness of this day. So we're going to do this tonight for our ghosts and your ghosts.

The shows are both carefully scripted and spontaneous. "The Rising" concerts brilliantly embraced grief, plunging the audience into despair before finally carrying them along on a frenzied celebration of the hope central to life.
At Nationals Park for the "Wrecking Ball" tour, he walked to the edge of the stage to start the show and said, "This is a request," before a searing guitar solo opened "Prove It All Night." He followed with "My Love Will Not Let You Down" and "The Ties That Bind," which seemed a promise. There was nothing he would not do to transport us over the next several hours.

“For an adult, the world is constantly trying to clamp down on itself,” he says. “Routine, responsibility, decay of institutions, corruption: this is all the world closing in. Music, when it’s really great, pries that shit back open and lets people back in, it lets light in, and air in, and energy in, and sends people home with that and sends me back to the hotel with it. People carry that with them sometimes for a very long period of time.”

Lately, the shows have gotten looser with Bruce taking sign requests and playing stump the band. The E Street Band has swelled to 17 with the addition of Tom Morello on guitar. There is seemingly nothing they can't play. What favorite gem will they play this night, maybe only this night? In Australia earlier this year, he asked the audience if they wanted him to play more song requests or "The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle" from beginning to end (they chose the album). That show opened with a funkiliciously amazing version of The Bee Gees "Stayin' Alive" (look for it on Youtube).
Speaking of hours, Springsteen shows are marathons. And they're getting longer. Springsteen, who is 65, has spoken more than once about the light at the end of the tunnel getting closer, though it's hard to believe he's mortal. Clearly, he is not going to leave anything behind.

On July 31, 2012 in Helsinki, he played a five song, 30 minute pre-show acoustic set as the crowd was filing in, then launched what has become a legendary 33-song, four hour and five minute show with no breaks (like in the old days at Hampton Coliseum when he'd take an intermission). Note to Farm Bureau Live: don't even think about pulling the plug at 11 p.m.

At their core, though, Springsteen shows are joyous affirmations of community.
We will break bread together, quietly mouthing the heartbreaking lyrics to "The Rising," singing and swaying along to "Waitin' On A Sunny Day," and eventually finding fist-pumping redemption with the house lights up, screaming that we gotta get out while we’re young, even though we no longer are.
In that moment, time stops.

Show a little faith, there's magic in the night.

Views: 980

Comment by Steve Ford on March 21, 2014 at 7:17pm

Well said, Jim. When I wrote this piece back in February, my subconscious message was: "Don't take Bruce Springsteen for granted!" I suspect some ND readers may think Bruce too mainstream, but the people who have covered his songs indicate his standing with roots music/Americana artists. Apart from Dylan, who could boast a list that includes people like Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, The National, John Hiatt, Dar Williams, The Mavericks, The Hold Steady, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band? The consensus of my music loving friends is that the recent concerts by Bruce and Leonard Cohen are streets ahead of anything else we've seen in the last ten years.

Comment by Jim Moulton on March 21, 2014 at 9:54pm

Bruce Springsteen is an icon. People loved him, what a career and  I know guys who have seen him recently that say He is better than ever. But I would have to say that he was mainstream, just because he had so many fans. It seems like yesterday when "Born In the USA" came out. I don't think anyone takes Springsteen for granted. Great review!!

Comment by L A Johnson on March 21, 2014 at 11:32pm
Bruce is mainstream. Love the bloke although High Hopes was sort Meatloaf meets Bruce? For me Dave Alvin & Band are the best live act at the moment, Bruce's fans tend to be let's the t-shirt on and wait for the hits! The mainstream means that he's compromised his sound and some of his most recent records.
Comment by Julia S on March 25, 2014 at 7:19am

And that's why we call him, "The Boss" :)

Your words perfectly summed up my feelings and love for Bruce- thank you.

I was 17 when I first saw Bruce- in 1978.  36 years and many shows later, my 17-year-old son will be my "date" for one show of Springsteen's 2014 tour.  And, like I did in the younger days. I will be seeing Bruce two nights.  (though not consececutively this time.)  Once in Nashville, then 5 days later in Pittsburgh.  My husband thinks I am nuts, but then, has admitted to not ever "getting" Springsteen.  What can I/we say?  If the man's music, lyrics, and passion don't put tears in your eyes, chills down your spine, and a smile from ear to ear, then that is something I can't exactly "teach".  I'm hoping (and expecting) my son to experience just that- and be transformed on the night of April 17 (just as we have been so many times).

Comment by Rocky on March 25, 2014 at 7:33am
The folks who read this site aren't the kind of people who don't get it. (Reference to your 2nd paragraph.) Jes sayin'.
Comment by Julia S on March 25, 2014 at 1:33pm

@ Rocky-  Actually, my husband does subscribe to this site (there are a lot of artists we do both enjoy) I'm hoping that the Springsteen article doesn't catch his eye, and he then fowards it to me (in the event I missed it).  So, honey, if you're reading this, I  love you in spite of your misunderstanding of Bruce ;)

Comment by Bernie Howitt on March 25, 2014 at 4:16pm

Great post Jim. Having just seen three more shows in Sydney and the Hunter Valley, you absolutely capture the essence of why I have to explain to my wife each time he tours - yes I am going to all the shows, and I'm taking my son with me. This time we were banned from going out of state, but those three shows were special events. My first Springsteen album was "Greetings" way back when. I'm still trying to figure out how I heard about him in those pre-Internet days, but word got through in magazines and whispers about this emerging talent. I bought 'Greetings" and fell in love from the moment "Blinded By The Light" came spilling out of the speakers. I've been there ever since. I once thought that arriving at LA airport on the night he was playing Winterland in 1978 was as close as I would get to one of those legendary live experiences. He finally made it in 1985, and I was there every night in Sydney. I've hit 19 shows, and am hoping that the 20th will be something really special. As someone who has spent their professional life getting rock'n'roll included in the National History curriculum, and having Australian history students recognize the contribution Australian popular culture has made globally, being in Sydney to see Bruce open his show with "Friday On My Mind" by OUR Easybeats (who were the first proper rock'n'roll concert I ever saw) was vindication of the last forty years of work. Head over to and check out the video of "Friday." I can tell you, that these last concerts in Australia were perhaps the best I have ever seen him, and the band play, and that is really saying something. You are in for an absolute treat.

Comment by Steve Pellettiere on March 26, 2014 at 8:29am

Only 8 shows for me (dating back to The River), but unlike with other acts that I've seen multiple times, there is always a clear memory of every Bruce performance that I have witnessed...more like, experienced. And this will probably make the Springsteen haters want to vomit, but I really can't express enough how much his music and live performances have affected my life over the last 35 years.

Comment by Rich Layton on March 28, 2014 at 8:41pm
You had me at "my church." Can't say I've read anything that better articulates the redemption that Bruce has always delivered, even when I doubted he still could. I stayed home and studied when he first hit Austin Texas, but never missed a Texas show after that. Between Bruce and Dave Alvin, I found a musical spot I could claim for myself, and continue to bring their spirit to the stage, one neighborhood beer joint at a time. Thx again for nailing the essence of the Gospel according to Bruce.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.