Bruce Springsteen’s Tour Resumption Is a Don’t-Miss: Concert Review


Most of the really essential rituals of American life — religious observances; Halloween and New Year’s Eve; opening day in baseball — are cyclical, endlessly repeatable experiences, independent from individuals or cults of personality. But to that list, a lot of us would add the ritual, stretching past 50 years now, of Bruce Springsteen in concert. And as the world found out last year, that guy can take a sick day. So, as if Springsteen tours weren’t already irregular enough, the fresh resumption of this U.S. tour, after a six-month timeout, has an extra resonance.

The feeling is: Get in while the getting’s good. With any luck, there will be more itineraries like this, but there won’t always be a time when you can see the greatest songbook in American rock history, being toured by the music’s single greatest artist. A total solar eclipse will at least cross American soil again in 40 years. The chance to cry a little during a mass sing-along of “Badlands,” led by its creator? That’s more commonplace, to date, but not nearly as guaranteed. So this year, for real fans, the only path of totality that matters is Bruce Springsteen’s tour routing.

At San Diego’s Pechanga Arena Monday night, Springsteen and the E Street Band were three gigs into a restart of the tour that was so rudely interrupted by his peptic ulcer last September, after an opening (or reopening) night March 19 in Phoenix, followed by a show in Las Vegas March 22. Some of these audiences have felt the paucity of Springsteen concerts in the past, not future uncertainty. Springsteen hadn’t played Vegas since 2002 when he finally returned last week. In San Diego, the gap had been mysteriously far longer: He had last been in the city to do a show in… could it have been?… 1981.

Springsteen didn’t directly bring up his illness or the postponement of the last leg of the tour when he talked to the audience at the Pechanga Arena, but he did address the absence that’d been on so many local fans’ minds over the last four decades.

“It is great to be back in San Diego,” he said toward the beginning of the show, and then bellowed: “Where the fuck was I?” He held his arms outstretched, comically, in a questioning, WTF pose, as if he really wanted to know the answer himself. And with that acknowledgement, all was forgiven, locally. (Of course, a decent portion of the crowd was made up of L.A. residents, who have not been nearly so starved, but who weren’t patient enough to wait for him to get up to the Forum on April 4 and 7.)

Bruce Springsteen at Pechanga Arena in San Diego, March 25, 2024
Chris Willman/Variety

Why hadn’t he gotten back to San Diego sooner? Maybe because he felt it’d be too on-the-nose, having name-checked the city so famously in “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”? Naturally, when that nearly eight-minute rouser did come up as an encore number Sunday, it got some special treatment for the occasion. Standing on the ramp that extended into the GA section with members of his band, Springsteen halted the song for a 21-second pause following the line “I know a pretty little place in Southern California, down San Diego way,” which, as a prompt for 13,500 people to go wild, probably could been extended a couple of minutes longer.

It’s a little bit surprising that Springsteen had not been back sooner just in that his last SD gig back in 1981 had also been at this same facility, then known as the San Diego Sports Arena. And the place maintains just a little bit of the old-school feel of his former favorite locale further north, the L.A. Sports Arena, which he had dubbed “the dump that jumps” before closing it down with a series of final concerts there in 2016. Speaking of things that will all seem funny, it may seem odd to point out the artist’s nostalgia for something as unsentimental as arenas, but he will tend to play the older of those venues when he’s coming to a city with more than one, as he did in San Diego and will when he shortly hits Inglewood’s Forum (his distaste for Staples/Crypto.com Arena being legendary). He’s got a thing for things that have escaped the wrecking ball; the Pechanga Arena has been upgraded above dump status, but on a night like this, it did jump, too.

The faithful haven’t been sure whether to call his 2024 tour (which has a lot of rescheduled Niorth American shows bookending a long summer trip to Europe) a continuation of the aborted 2023 U.S. tour, or something that counts as a new one. It does affect how songs are counted or not counted as “tour premieres” in the inevitable collation of setlists — which really boils it down to an especially first-world problem. The artist himself had a point of view on that when asked about it on the E Street Radio satelite channel earlier this month, saying, “There will be some things from last year’s tour that will hold over; some of my basic themes of mortality and life and those things, you know, I’m going to keep set… (But) I think I’m gonna move around the other parts of the set a lot more, so there’ll be a much wider song selection going on. So we’re looking at it like it’s a little bit of the old tour, but we’re looking at it like a new tour.”

The slight sense of equivocation in that answer is apropos, given that the bones of the set remain largely the same. But more hardcore fans who’ve been following the progress of these first few 2024 shows are already enjoying the fact that, on top of having made a few seemingly permanent setlist changes, Springsteen is indeed switching more songs in and out, something he’s long been known for but wasn’t so much into in ’23. (Warning: extensive setlist trivia to follow.)

Bruce Springsteen at Pechanga Arena in San Diego, March 25, 2024
Bruce Springsteen at Pechanga Arena in San Diego, March 25, 2024

Looking at what’s gone from last year, “Kitty’s Back” is no longer back, and “Glory Days” and “Out in the Street” are also out, along with semi-regular staples like “The E Street Shuffle,” “Candy’s Room” and “Johnny 99.” But since the show still clocks in at a very healthy 27 songs, spread out over about two hours and 40 minutes, additions are in place, like his 1973 debut album’s “Spirit in the Night,” which has been played at all three shows so far, after only getting two plays total in all of 2022. His cover of the Ben E. King/Aretha Franklin classic “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)” (as heard on his soul covers abum two years ago) also looks like it may be a nighty regular now, after having been bumped out of the set after a handful of appearances in Feb. 2022. The change-ups peculiar to San Diego included his first performance of “My City of Ruins” since 2017, and the revival of his “Detroit Medley,” which was performed only three times last year. “Death to My Hometown” and, in the encore, “Bobby Jean” also made what have recently counted as rare appearances.

What remains rock-solid from last year are the vast majority of songs a casual fan might be coming to hear, mostly from the 1973-84 era, although service is also paid to the “Rising” and “Wrecking Ball” albums and the two most recent releases that he is ostensibly touring behind, “Letter to You” and “Only the Strong Survive.” Songs that would be set-closers for anyone else are thrown in almost in random spots, until it becomes a sheer onslaught of classics. Rest assured that the show’s final stretch will allow everyone to resume ongoing internal debate over whether “Born to Run” is the quintessential rock song of all time, or whether that honor is rightly reserved by “Thunder Road.” (Team “Thunder,” here, after 49 years of consideration.)

It counts as a thunderously upbeat best-of show, in other words. But it’s an exhilarating greatest-hits show sandwiched within momentarily sobering ruminatings about death, and death’s effect on the living. Which is quite a hoagy.

These “basic themes of mortality and life” (as Springsteen put it in the above quote) aren’t something he’s added to the show since being forced off the road by illness. They were already a key part of it throughout the 2023 touring, as an expansion of the thoughts expressed in key songs from the “Letter to Me” album, which was influenced by the deaths not only of a couple of E Street Band O.G.s but also the passing of the youthful pal who hired him into his first rock ‘n’ roll band in 1965, George Theiss. In one of the few times that Springsteen speaks at any length during these 160-minute marathon shows, he continues to introduce “Last Man Standing” with a speech about his feelings at being the last survivor from that teen group, and visiting Theiss on his deathbed. “Death’s final and lasting gift to us, the living, is you get an expanded vision of the life you can live yourself,” he says in that nightly homily.

Also still a staple of the show from last year is another one of those recent songs about remembering missing loved ones, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” as a final benediction after the celebratory encore material.

On top of this, Springsteen has made some other additions to the show, whether for the entirety of the remaining tour or as recurring one-offs, that further reinforce this theme. For instance, the show no longer begins every night with “No Surrender” (which is still in the set, pushed back a bit); he’s replaced it with the brooding “Lonesome Day,” one of the 9/11-prompted songs from “The Rising.” As he thought about what kind of messaging to start these new concerts with, maybe Springsteen’s bout with illness made him realize that we all have to succumb to some surrendering now and again. More likely, it has something to do with providing an opening bookend to “I’ll See You in My Dreams” at the beginning — starting the show with an anxious response to death at the outset, so that his calming thoughts about it at the end feel like the conclusion to some kind of story.

In adding “My City of Ruins” to the set for the first time in seven years, Springsteen also used that as a bed for more of these thoughts, on top of full-band intros, extending that gospel-like ballad to 11 minutes in length — less than a third of the way into the running time. “I plan on sending you home with your feet hurting, your ass hurting, your sexual organs stimulated,” Springsteen promised during the “Ruins” spoken interlude, before getting down to business about having “a story to tell. It’s a story about yesterday and abiout tonight and hopefully tomorrow. It’s about hellos and goodbyes. It’s about the things that leave us and the things that remain.” After introducing the extended band (E Street Horns and E Street Choir included), he asked, “Are we missing anybody?” The crowd roared with implicit Clarence Clemons/Danny Federici appreciation. “Everybody’s missing somebody at this point,” he affirmed. “I don’t know where we go when this is all over, but I know where we remain. The only thing I can guarantee tonight is, if you’re here and we’re here, then they’re here.”

Bruce Springsteen at Pechanga Arena in San Diego, March 25, 2024
Chris Willman/Variety

Spaced out over the better part of three hours, these reflections aren’t going to hit anyone in the crowd as heavy-handed; if anything, they’re just barely enough in making the obvious point that everyone present who’s been with him for the long haul has probably been spending more time in hospital rooms or at funerals than revving up hemi-powered drones. Fortunately, there’s a timelessness to most of the classics that transcends youth, even if some of the aspirational dreams in the early material are long since in rear-view mirrors for much of the audience. “Let the broken hearts stand as the price you’ve gotta pay”: some things can sung along with at 18 or 88.

At a sprightly 74, Springsteen doesn’t come off as as a concert marathon-runner at 74? Not much noticeably different from when he wrapped up his last world tour with the E Street Band at the very beginning of 2017, let alone from what he was doing when the 2023 tour was in full swing — except that his crowd-surfing days may finally be past. He’s still in fighting trim, although he was trimmed out Monday night in a formal vest and necktie, which he kept tucked into a denim shirt. (Closeups on the overhead screen are effective now not just for seeing veins bulging, but for verification that Bruce ties a very neat knot.) His fashionable look aside, there was no standing on formality when it came to his trademark swagger or full-throated vocals, which still find him aspiring to be a 1960s R&B shouter. It wasn’t by accident that Springsteen promised to “bring the joyous power of rock and soul music into your life,” and he could have been counted as successful on all counts even if he hadn’t covered the Detroit Medley, an Aretha/Ben E. King hit and a post-Lionel Richie Commodores hit. (The latter song would be “Nightshift,” a 1980s-era tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson that, in Springsteen’s hands, is now a salute to a salute.)

The stage for this tour is almost hilariously basic, if you’ve been to any major superstar outings lately, and witnessed the bizarre shapes of the ramps that extend into SRO floors and practically twist around each other. Springsteen’s ramp doesn’t look to extend much more more than 15 feet into the audience, as if to dare the incoming audience to imagine how much he can do with just a minimum of thrust staging. (Honestly, we’re trying to keep this as clean as we can here.) He spent plenty of time on that modest extension, which allows plenty of room for camera angles catching the surrounding crowd, and for occasional visits from mobile band members and backup singers, without having to go so far out into the crowd that it looks like he’s, you know, overcompensating.

Bruce Springsteen at Pechanga Arena in San Diego, March 25, 2024
Chris Willman/Variety

As is tradition, he and some of his traveling accompanists occasionally visited the rear riser, which now holds a five-man horn section, to provide eye candy for the audience watching from behind the stage. Everyone turning around to give the folks in the so-called cheap seats a thrill is especially nice when it’s timed to one of his great key changes, as it was in the instrumental bridge of the Pogues-like “Death to My Hometown.”

Memorable moments stand out almost randomly: Nils Lofgren going crazy on “Because the Night,” making up for the lack of solo time he gets as one of three guitarists by doing a whole night’s worth of shredding in one tune… Saxophonist Jake Clemons leaning on Springsteen’s shoulder during “Prove It All Night,” in what has to be a subtle but intentional inverse of his late uncle Clarence’s famous “Born to Run” cover pose… A moment when backup vocalist Curtis King joins Springsteen on the ramp during “Nightshift” for a few modest steps in unison. (Guaranteed, the only actual dance choreography of the night.)… Springsteen taking a sign from the audience and saving it for much later so that he could dedicate “Last Man Standing” to a specific fallen serviceman.

And the lighting — of the audience, that is. Veterans of Springsteen tours are accustomed to the house lights being fully up during encores of “Born to Run” in the past. But by now, there’s a design to the show that has the lights on the audience being at about half-mast for much of the concert, albeit often in different hues of yellow or red. There’s a directive inherent in not ever keeping the audience itself in a blackout for long, a message that they’re part of the show, too. It’s a little bit corny when you say it out loud, but it’s a nice touch to deliver that message as subliminally and artfully as Springsteen’s low-frills production does. All that mood-lighting washing over the crowd was useful for anyone who wanted to look around and be assured they weren’t the only ones getting misty-eyed over the notion that it’s still no sin to be glad we’re alive. (Even if the badlands never stopped fucking us over. Sing louder! This is not the show where people will get in your face about that.)

Meanwhile, here’s an advisory for anyone coming to the tour down the road: plan for traffic and invest in a watch. The tickets say 7:30 p.m., and so far on this leg, that is exactly the minute the band walks on stage. The ultra-prompt start allows Springsteen and company to prove it for what still feels like all night, yet get everyone home before the witching hour. It’s true: a benevolent boss is always looking out for everyone’s health.

Bruce Springsteen at Pechanga Arena in San Diego, March 25, 2024
Chris Willman/Variety

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band setlist, Pechanga Arena, San Diego, March 25, 2024:

Lonesome Day

Prove It All Night

No Surrender

Death to My Hometown

Ghosts

Letter to You

The Promised Land

My City of Ruins

Spirit in the Night

Don’t Play That Song (Ben E. King cover)

Nightshift (Commodores coer)

Mary’s Place

Last Man Standing

Backstreets

Because the Night

She’s the One

Wrecking Ball

The Rising

Badlands

Thunder Road

Encore:

Detroit Medley

Born to Run

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

Bobby Jean

Dancing in the Dark

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

I’ll See You in My Dreams



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