BY DAVID R. STAMPONE Let’s say a vet music journo gets to freely review a Springsteen show. In fact, it’s an historic “Philadelphia Special” Bruce & the E Street Band gig, exactly like Wednesday night’s down at Citizens Bank Park: a diversified, mostly dazzling, protean stroll-sprint-walk-run through 34 oft-extended songs — and at 4:04:49, the Jersey guy’s longest-ever concert in the USA, second longest of his career. (Were you there in Helsinki for all 38 songs on 7/31/12? Do tell.)
The scribe’s inclination might be to write the review in quasi-”think-piece” form, waxing 1st-personal, braiding in “Me & Bruce O’er the Years” reflections, going back to that Del-Val-muggy hot August night in 1978 when he first saw The Boss, at work in the dearly departed Spectrum in South Philly on his “Darkness on the Edge of Town Tour” — a show still in Mr. Rock-Writer’s Top 25, maybe Top 10 Best, among thousands of witnessed performances. (BTW: Springsteen’s own autobiography is out later this month, a few days after he turns 67, two weeks from today.)
OK, I’m that reviewer and it ain’t happening. Even with theoretically unlimited cyber-pages available, the stand-out tremendousness of Wednesday’s mega-gig demands that such conceits be abandoned. Hell, the concert’s entire first half deserves more than, frankly, any number of words can convey. I’m referring to a solid-golden two hours of nothing after 1975, with a dozen precious, gleaming song-gems right off the bat, from before his breakthrough ‘75 album, Born to Run. (Notable if inconsequential: that this current tour is supposedly still showcasing Springsteen’s admirable 1980 double album, The River. Apparently not.)
Kinda had to be there, then? Fug that: a reviewer’s cop-out. Conveyance is doable. What helps is first focusing on The Opening Number. Because taking in all 11+ minutes of “New York City Serenade,” the jazz-bluesy woozy, ethereally cosmopolitan poetry-rock cut that closes Springsteen’s landmark ‘73 album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle – his 2nd full-length; his best — was to get filled to the brim most exquisitely. The string section augmenting the eight E Streeters helped. (The strings’ only other employ was on “Jack of All Trades” [song #18], the Boss’s 2012 class-conscious crap-economy lament).
“Professor” Roy Bittan rippled out the tune’s gorgeous, grandiose-to-blue-tinged solo piano intro, then Springsteen snapped out those first steely notes on his acoustic guitar strings, leaned in to whisper-croon the first lines — and the song was in motion, show: on. The singer sang the languorous “Serenade” with eyes shut, utterly within the tune’s confines as he emoted of its colorful characters – Billy, Diamond Jackie, “… fish lady, fish lady, she baits those tenement walls/” and “Listen to your junkman/ He’s sing-in’, sing-in’ …/” The song’s sweetly aching beauty suggested no less than a grit ‘n’ satin Mid-Atlantic transatlantic cousin to Northern Irishman Van Morrison’s exalted Astral Weeks tracks – highest praise; absolutely deserved.
Also notable: “Serenade” swings for an artful embodiment of something as mammoth and elusively complex as NYC — and connects. We Philadelphians should lustily boo our regional sports rivals and sometimes haughty NY neighbors — and enjoy an NYC-disparaging classic like “I Hate New York” by late local Philly punk icon Mikey Wild — but we’re close enough in many ways to have a hate/love thing. And when 9/11 happened 15 years ago, folks all over had an empathetic twinge for the city. I immediately thought of “Serenade” and these lines of wary resilience: “It’s midnight in Manhattan, this is no time to get cute…/ So walk tall/ Or baby, don’t walk at all.” There was this — released on 9/11/73, one learns — even before Springsteen wrote his 2002 reaction-to-9/11 track, “The Rising” (song #26).
The shamelessly verbose “Lost in the Flood” (from his January ‘73 debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.) was given an incendiary if nuanced read Weds. (song #6), the Boss ripping fire from his Telecaster. It carries an allusion to police malfeasance that Springsteen would explore in 2001’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” (song #19) amidst its verbal tumult: “Some kid comes blastin’ round the corner, but a cop puts him right away/ He lays on the street holding his leg screaming something in Spanish/ Still breathing when I walked away/…”
I’ll not say this Phillies ballpark Springsteen show eclipsed the August ‘78 show I saw a block or so away. Great as Wednesday was, in toto, there was sag — this reviewer shan’t blanch from deeming the light’s-turned-up treacle of closing-segment staple “Dancing in the Dark” (song #31) escapist fluff, ‘80s nostalgia-wallow. It’s not insufferable but it’s over-played, synthed-up poppiness can grate; it also always seems apart from The Springsteen Concert’s prevailing one-band mini-“Dad-[&-Mom-]Rock”-stock fest vibe. (Or not?) And the way the band extensively milked the start/stop gospel-y Isley Brothers hit “Shout” (song # 33), albeit to mass delight, was superfluous. But a great move: closing with “Bobby Jean” (‘84), a wistful yet taut “say goodbye” pop-rocker.
All that noted above, however, the show’s phenomenal first 2 hours, through Born to Run’s superior babe-&-car rocker “Night” (song #13), achieved a hallowed Delaware Valley Bruce-gig status that might seem impossible to top. He’ll probably try anyway tonight @ the ballpark, when Springsteen & Co. return to the scene of the sublime. FYI, many tickets still available (and/ or, scalping a scalper’s always fun).
*Up until five minutes ago, Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Dan DeLuca held the world record for the longest review of the longest Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band U.S. show in the history of mankind with this mammoth 883-word opus. Phawker’s review of Wednesday’s show at Citizen’s Bank Park is 904 words. A new world record! USA! USA! USA!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David R. Stampone is a Philadelphia-based music journo & more. He grew up in NW Delaware.