Around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 18, a line was growing outside the Philips Arena in Atlanta. Well, it looked like the Philips Arena. It certainly was a building; it certainly was the place where the Atlanta Hawks play their basketball games.
By 8:30, however, unbeknownst to the many patrons of the adjunct CNN Center, the Philips Arena had undergone an internal gutting of a transformation. Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band were here. They walked on stage and whatever “arena” they were inside instantly became a temple devoted to the highest of all faiths: rock and roll music. Springsteen stood in a shadow at the mic and introduced himself to the crowd in homage to James Brown:
“Good evening Atlanta! Are you ready for star time? Let me introduce to you right now a young man who brought to you such legendary hits as ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ I’m talking about the original ‘Hungry Heart.’ Mr. ‘Badlands,’ the Jersey Devil, the future of rock and roll himself! Currently riding the Billboard Charts in the No. 1 position, for FOUR! SOLID! DAYS! He’s sexy and he knows it! Let’s hear it for Bruce Springsteen and the legendary E Street Band!”
Then the antics were over, Springsteen took a step back toward his band, counted off, and launched into the opening notes of Wrecking Ball opener “We Take Care of Our Own.”
It was the first night of the Wrecking Ball Tour, but there was no rustiness for Springsteen or his band of 16 cohorts to shake off. Two pre-tour shows, including a SXSW appearance after The Boss delivered the keynote address, helped make the opening night of what some people are writing might be a 14- to 18-month world tour an errorless enterprise. While playing 10 of the 13 songs from his new album, Springsteen peppered in old go-to tracks for a setlist that the sold-out crowd appeared quite fond of. But in the end, it was very much an evening of moments.
The first moment came after the title track of Springsteen’s 17th studio record, when the Mighty Mighty Max Weinberg, star of late-night television, bumped the crowd into the opening drum booms of “Badlands.” A staple song in Springsteen sets over the last decade, the crowd sang along joyously, perhaps not thinking ahead and realizing what was closely impending – a saxophone solo was coming up. It was a minute away, it was a chorus away, it was a guitar solo away, Springsteen was playing the guitar, everyone was smiling, oh fuck, the saxophone solo was here and nobody was expecting it. As often happens when one is watching Bruce Springsteen perform songs in a live setting, everybody forgot about what was going on. They forgot about whatever they dealt with at work; they forgot about their home lives; they forgot about their term papers; for those first 10 minutes of the concert in Atlanta, they probably forgot Clarence Clemons wasn’t looming in the background. Certainly, Clemons’ recent passing was on the mind of attendees as they drove in their cars, as they paid $20 for their parking spot to the man in the yellow polo shirt, as they waited in the too-long line to get into the show, as they talked casually with a stranger in another line to pay $8 for a bottle of Bud Light, as they waited for the lights to dim in the temple. But for the first 10 minutes, when everybody was just watching Springsteen belt out the words to his two latest singles, they probably forgot that Clemons wasn’t standing near the back of the stage. Wearing a suit. Wearing a suit like he always wore. Wearing that suit and carrying that saxophone he used to wail on and that tambourine he used to shake. But when the saxophone solo crept up on everyone during “Badlands,” they all remembered at the same time.
Springsteen ushered in Clarence’s nephew, Jake Clemons, for his first solo in the big spotlight, and at once, the Philips Temple turned into a deafening cacophony of yelling and cheers. I tried to cheer. I couldn’t. Hearing the saxophone and seeing Clarence’s big-haired nephew play one of his uncle’s most iconic solos was like being punched in the chest by a fist the size of a city transit bus. I had forgotten there was a saxophone solo coming.
Two songs later, during “My City of Ruins,” a dark, gloomy surprise so early in the set, Springsteen began his roll call. Springsteen does a roll call of the E Street Band during every show. It’s the Professor Roy Bittan on the piano; it’s Miami Steve Van Zandt on the guitar; it’s the Mighty Max Weinberg behind the drums; it’s Garry W. Tallent on the bass; are we missing anybody? That’s what he kept repeating. Are we missing anybody? He used to say something different.
“Do I have to say his name?” he would ask.
The crowd would respond, “Clarence!”
“Do I have to say his name?!”
“Clarence!” The Big Man.
Not tonight. Tonight it was, “Are we missing anybody?” followed by the cries of “Clarence!” Over and over and over again. And not just for Clarence – but for the late Phantom Danny Federici as well. And at the end of the first of many tributes, Springsteen said, “All I can guarantee is that if you’re here…and we’re here…then they’re here.” And all at once it was everybody wanting to yell but everybody wanting to make sure the water welling up in their eyes didn’t turn into tears on their face spilling over. Because that’s what Sunday was – it was a night of moments. It was the most emotional performance I’ve ever witnessed.
Springsteen blitzed through a barrage of new songs and old hits, with the new songs getting mixed reactions and the old ones garnering expected euphoria from the diehard crowd. “Death To My Hometown,” “Shackled and Drawn” and “We Are Alive” from Wrecking Ball all sounded fantastic. The latter two don’t seem like they’d be great live songs, but if there’s one thing Springsteen does better than anyone (there are actually multiple such things), it’s transforming a piece of music for the live stage. Meanwhile, “Jack Of All Trades” and “Easy Money” probably could have been left off the list in favor of some “Backstreets” or “Rosalita,” but there’s no use pondering in what-could-have-beens. “Rocky Ground” was another of the iffy new songs, although it was very cool to see Michelle Moore perform her rap verse live.
There were some gems in the older performances. The band came together for a rousing rendition of “The E Street Shuffle,” one of The Boss’ very best songs, and “The Promised Land” elicited an expected roar from the crowd. There’s still nothing quite like watching Springsteen hammer out the lyrics, “There’s gonna be a twister that’ll blow everything down / That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground / Blow away the dreams that tear you apart / Blow away the dreams that break your heart / Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted.”
“Lonesome Day” leading into “The Rising” was a well thought-out transition, as the bellowing climax in the former might have been when the band was at its most energetic all night. Nils Lofgren played that slidey thing he plays so well on his guitar while Weinberg went nuts on the kit – Weinberg may well have stolen the show from the rest of the band, as the 60-year-old showed no signs of age at all, ripping it on the drums all night.
But alas, it was a night of moments. Moments like when, during a cover of Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789,” Springsteen decided to venture out into the middle of the general admission standing area and then crowd surf back to the stage. The Boss is the youngest 62-year-old to ever crowd surf, as it was reported earlier today. Moments like when, during “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,” while Springsteen was navigating his way into the lower-level seats near the side of the stage, he saw a little girl, maybe 5 years old, holding a sign asking for the song he was playing. And he held out the microphone to her during the chorus, and she knew the words, and I thought, ‘Man, I wasn’t that cool when I was five.’ Moments like when, many songs later in the middle of the encore during “Dancing In the Dark,” everyone had a flashback to the first time they ever saw Courtney Cox when Springsteen brought a maybe-10-year-old girl on stage to dance to the monster 1985 pop hit with him.
And that’s the thing about a Bruce Springsteen set, isn’t it, that he can play only one song from his most commercially successful record over the course of two and a half hours. That he can leave out songs like “Born In the U.S.A.” and “Jungleland” and “Darkness On the Edge of Town” and “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In the City” and “Lost In the Flood” and “The River” and “Atlantic City,” because I guess in 40 years he still hasn't figured out how to play all his songs in one night yet, but oh my god it was my seventeen-hundredth time seeing him and was that the best set list of all time? Was it the best ever?
It doesn’t matter what he plays. Everyone leaves the temple happier than they were when they got there; and even though everyone agrees that the economy is shitty, no one complains about the price of the tickets because what just happened?, for once in our lives, the price of something was actually worth it and it was Bruce Springsteen’s fault.
Not all the moments were about dancing and small girls showcasing their singing skills. There was the moment during the last song before the encore, a particularly tear-jerking rendition of “Thunder Road,” when Jake Clemons again stood tall and delivered an iconic saxophone solo. But it was perhaps like no other solo Jake had ever played before because, seemingly, the world stopped turning for 40 seconds and he was dominating the outro of the song, and maybe even the E Street Band got a little blinded by the light because everybody on the stage was just staring at Jake that whole time. The same thing happened again during the encore, with the house lights on in typical Springsteen fashion, for a thunderous performance of “Born To Run.” Two of the best songs in rock and roll’s history and everyone was just watching Jake Clemons play the saxophone as if nothing else ever mattered.
After playing the Celtic-inspired “American Land” came the final song to round out the evening – a song no one thought was coming. Springsteen has closed most of his shows during the Magic and Working On A Dream tours with “American Land,” and I think most people thought this show would end that way too. But the four- or five-piece horn section, I can’t remember how many of them there were on stage, started playing the intro to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and everybody knew Springsteen had one more left in him, and despite the E Street Band’s promise to send everyone home with their “feet hurting, voices hurting, and sexual organs stimulated,” everybody knew they had one more left in them as well. And in the middle of the song, with the lyric that, this time, everybody was aware of and waiting for, looming close, Springsteen reminded the crowd, “This is the important part, now!” And he sung, “The change was made uptown / And the Big Man joined the band.” Then everything stopped one last time. And the crowd cheered.
On and on they cheered, clapping, yelling, pounding their feet, shaking their hands in the air, and just stood there, Springsteen did, his arms outstretched, waiting expectantly for more. The temple kept giving. And I’ve only been privy to so many occasions in life where that many people have had such a good excuse to cheer, so I compared it to the one thing I could think to compare it to – it was as though the Florida Gators had scored a game-winning touchdown in the closing minutes of the biggest football game of the year. But it wasn't a roar of joy so much as it was an avalanche of nearly tangible emotion; it was like that for two minutes. Literally, two full minutes. Of just cheering, and yelling, and stomping, and the world’s biggest tribute to the Big Man happened in that temple that night.
Call it the biggest “fuck-you” to a moment of silence ever.