I had intended to post a review Thursday's Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show near Phoenix. But a funny thing happened on the way to posting. The hotel wi-fi dropped, and took the review with it. So I had to write another one. Here it is.
Glendale, Ariz. — Here's something you never hear Bruce Springsteen say in concert: "Elves, back into your places."
You had to know that given the fans wearing Santa hats in front of the stage (not to mention two little girls draped in Christmas lights), the Boss' long-running tradition of performing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" near the holiday and the fact that the second leg of his "Wrecking Ball" tour ends Dec. 10 in Mexico City that Thursday's show at the Jobing.com Arena would be, well, different.
Springsteen was in a giving mood all night, though he ordered the Santa hat-wearing elves/fans off the long walkway stage located about a third of the way from the main stage at the conclusion of the said "Santa Claus" song for a good reason. He needed the space for "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the fitting finale of a three-hour, 26-song that had all the humor, pathos and transcendence we've come to expect from the legendary rocker .
This wasn't as intense as some performances I've seen. I heard one of those obnoxious hardcore fans who travel show to show (Springsteen jokingly called them "stalkers" on Thursday) complain that the Anaheim show earlier in the week was better. I don't know about that. This is the only show I've seen on this tour (I've seen him about 20 times dating back to 1978).
It had more of a celebratory quality, with poignant, touching and dramatic moments, lots of humor, tons of spontaneity and a kind of wistful quality, particularly on a slowed-down "Thunder Road," that can come at the end of a long run of shows.
Hey, the guy's 63, he's got gimpy knees, plus two of his E Street Band members have died over the last four years, and Patti Scialfa, his wife of 21 years and 28-year E Streeter, wasn't there (as has often been the case on this tour, no explanations given). "She's with me," he said, tapping his heart during the nightly "roll call" band introductions that included spotlighted areas where saxophonist, foil and "Big Man" Clarence Clemons, who died last year, and keyboardist Danny Federici, who checked out in 2008, once stood.
Springsteen returned to his MIA brothers at the climactic finale of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," pausing the "Born to Run" classic and concert staple after singing the line about "the Big Man joined the band." He turned from his vantage point on that B stage to take in, along with the other 16 members of the expanded E Street Band, images of Clemons and Federici on the video screen behind the stage.
It was a moment of reflection, a rare bit of silence in a night of raucous rock 'n' roll, but also a fitting celebration of the two men, their spirits and the kind of transcendent experiences to which they've contributed to the Springsteen concert milieu over the last five decades.
As tired as Springsteen looked at times Thursday night, he did not scrimp on the energy, and certainly was full of surprises, opening the show with a solo acoustic version of "Surprise, Surprise," an obscurity from 2009's uneven "Working On a Dream" album. He introduced it by pointing to a member of the audience and saying, "I practiced this just for you backstage."
There was a lot of that kind of spur-of-the-moment stuff. He opened the five-song encore with the episodic street drama "Incident on 57th St.," Springsteen's gritty urban take on "Romeo and Juliet," performing the "The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle" classic alone on Roy Bittan's white grand piano. First time I've ever seen him play piano in concert.
He hauled up a little girl to help him sing the refrain of "Waitin' On a Sunny Day." She fared much better than the other three girls, including the two who donned lights, he called up later in the song. He called out aging hero Sam Moore of Sam and Dave, who lives in Phoenix, to join him on a spirited version of the Wilson Pickett chestnut "634-5789."
Moore looked shakey, not even venturing up to the stage, but when he opened his mouth, that high tenor sounded surprisingly strong and agile as the years melted away. It also capped a nice one-two soul music punch that began with a doo-wop treatment of the Temptations' Smokey Robinson-penned "The Way You Do the Things You Do," which featured the so-called E Street Choir (backup singers Clyde King, Cindy Mizelle and Michelle Moore), percussionist Everett Bradley and sax player Jake Clemons, Clarence's nephew, who not only acquitted himself ably on his uncle's iconic solos (particularly on "Thunder Road"), he dropped and did the worm on the front lip of the stage.
The early portion of the show dipped deep into Springsteen's extensive catalogue, with nice surprises such as "I'm a Rocker" from "The River," a rousing version of "Trapped" and an intense "Prove It All Night," the first of many songs to receive the crowd of about 14,000's official seal of approval, a chorus of "Bruuuccceeee!!!!" (a surefire way to know which songs, like "Hungry Heart," "Darlington County" and "My City of Ruins," went over particularly well that night).
The show's midsection included two audience requests, the rarity "Be True" and a driving "Light of Day," which he played after fishing out some of the numerous handmade signs that fans on the floor brought to request a favorite or play their version of Stump the Band. "Obscure, very obscure," he said after reading one of the signs, choosing "Light of Day" in response to a lighted sign.
It was a bit of relief from a heavier stretch of songs that touched on the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy on his old Asbury Park stomping ground and the financial devastation wrought on us by the recent recession, chronicled on this year's thrice Grammy-nominated "Wrecking Ball" album.
Springsteen reached back to his first album, "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.," for a poignant "Lost in the Flood," a song written when Bob Dylan's storytelling influence was more obvious. He followed with a succession of powerful new anthems — "We Take Care of Our Own," "Wrecking Ball" and "Death to My Hometown" — all of which had more muscle and vibrance live.
He ended the thread with "My City of Ruins," which he introduced as a song about "rebirth and resurrection," ghosts of the past and the reemergence of Asbury Park after so many years on the skids. Though "it was very hard to watch so much of it get washed away a few weeks ago," said Springsteen, who'll play the 12-12-12 benefit for Sandy victims at New York's Madison Square Garden.
He didn't talk politics, though he did visibly support President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. He didn't even say Merry Christmas, though he did bring old friend Garland Jeffreys up for the last two encores (and Clarence's son Jared Clemons for 'Freeze-Out').
He did tout a local food bank, pulled kids and even a couple of women up onstage to sing or dance with him, crowd surfed (during "Hungry Heart") and donned a fan-donated Santa hat (as did all the band members) for "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."
It was that kind of a night. Sort of a punch-drunk, every-last-ounce-of-energy performance. Complete with Santa hats and elves.