By Max Simon
The Boss bends a note midway through “Kitty’s Back.” Then, he holds it.
The band–eight of the usual E Streeters, augmented by more horns, more percussion, and more background vocals–watch The Boss. He is completely still, slightly hunched over his Telecaster. The bassist stands, thinking, Bruce? You in there? The Boss’s note wavers slightly, like a windswept siren.
Without looking up, The Boss raises his right hand. He makes the come here motion with his fingers, and a roadie scrambles out from backstage holding a mirror. The Boss only looks up once the mirror is planted firmly in front of him.
The projector catches him checking himself out. He isn’t just fit-for-being-73, he’s ripped. Clad in the same black-on-black outfit he graced on the cover of Only the Strong Survive, he raises his right hand to his hair (which he has finally decided to let gray). He runs his fingers lightly through the side of his perfect hair, and deeming it perfect, his hand falls back to his guitar.
His flurry of notes sends the roadie back to the shadows. The band swells around him, and the gravitational pull of the audience leads him across the stage to their outstretched fingers. He finishes his solo with his head tilted skyward, the hands of the audience playing his guitar as much as he is.
Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band will, undoubtedly, do this bit 88 times this year, one for each night in each new city on their 2023 tour. This bit is, undoubtedly, an idea that a bored, performance-hungry Springsteen cooked up while itching to reunite the E Street Band in every arena he could find. This bit will, undoubtedly, land. Every. Single. Time.
The calculated spontaneity of a Springsteen show is an infinitely joyful experience. The relative minimalism of the stage setup suggests a lack of theatrics, so instead, the audience relies on the band for all aspects of the performance. The focus pays off: The Boss embodies the full range of emotions depicted across nine albums’ worth of lyrics sheets–desperation, lust, fear, triumph. Bruce’s recent time on Broadway has lent a studied depth to the emotional core of his catalog, and these live interpretations make up for the flubbed notes and slowed-down tempos that encroached on some songs. If nothing else, the Boss makes a hell of a case for being the best actor in the band (sorry, Silvio).
Save for a few unavoidable cuts, the Boss oscillated between two of the more apolitical categories of his catalog last Monday night in Seattle: songs about love, and songs about mortality (mostly due to including a few Letter to You tracks). During the former, he played the boyish, horny character from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The latter, however, provided new territory for the Boss–that of the storyteller at the end of his line. While Redditors and other internet sleuths have picked apart the minutiae of recent shows (the Ticketmaster scandals, the comments between songs, whether or not he’s dying his hair, etc.) for hints about whether or not this tour will be the Final Big Bruce Tour, Springsteen, however, suggests something more akin to the prayer he repeated onstage during his first Big Man-less tour in 2013: “If you’re here, and I’m here, then he’s here.”
In a time when most arena acts are either a) hollow cash grabs from bands that have less than half of their original lineup, or b) non-rock acts who debuted at least 30 years after Springsteen did, it’s a bit of a headfuck to see an earnest, chest-beating rock star put on a three-hour show with most of his original band intact. It is a conscious depiction of how he and his E Street consiglieres are not merely embodying arena rock tropes, but rather, they invented them. Regardless of whether or not you see him on this tour, whether or not this is the last big tour, or whether or not you like him in the first place, his ghost will haunt any spectacle that takes place in an arena or any performance that has the hint of what it means to embody rock n’ roll.
I don’t know if this will be the last big Springsteen stadium tour. I don’t think he does either. What we both know, though, is that one Monday night in Seattle, there was a goddamn rock show.
(And yes, his ass looks just as good now as it ever has.)