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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Xcel Energy Center, 11/11/12

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Xcel Energy Center, 11/11/12
Photo by Steve Cohen

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Sunday, November 11, 2012

If there are two Americas -- or realistically, a lot more -- it's safe to say that a good portion of them were represented for Bruce Springsteen's show Sunday in St. Paul. The show was the Boss' return to full-scale performances after the 2012 election. The first of back-to-back nights in town meant showing the packed Xcel Energy Center what it means to get back to a tireless work schedule.

"Good evening, good evening, Minneapolis-St. Paul!" called out the energetic 63-year-old rocker, clad in a mussed collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a black vest to mask the sweat, and dark jeans for full range of motion. "We're glad to be here tonight in a city where there's two streets named after us. Just today. Not tomorrow. They want to honor us, but not too much. Just enough."

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The humble and proud Springsteen did seem to enjoy a bit of this pomp from the jacket-and-tie portion of his constituency, but there's no way to place the roar of 18,000 or so folks bellowing "BRUUUUUUCE" on the mantle. And, damned if he was going to let an opportunity to charm and incite his crowd elude him as three hours quickly rumbled by.

Anyone who digs more than a spoonful into Springsteen's lyrical content can gather that there's no need for lengthy diatribes on any topic when entertaining is the first order of business. Every message he's needed to put across has been turned into a song already. So, was the passionate opener "We Take Care of Our Own," a finger-wag at anyone able to turn a blind eye to the downtrodden "wherever this flag's flown," the right place to start because the show fell on Veteran's Day? He left that interpretation to us.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Xcel Energy Center, 11/11/12
Photo by Steve Cohen

Not long after, a gospel take on "My City of Ruins" lept out of its origins as a song about revitalization of Springsteen's beloved Asbury Park, New Jersey, and grew into a chance to openly acknowledge anyone we missed that night. For the E Street Band, this proved to be the first proper nod to the Big Man, now-departed saxophonist Clarence Clemons -- as well as a fervent introduction to his nephew Jake, a tall, bespectacled gent with an impressive afro, who proved he can seriously blow all night long. So while the ten-minute song was dedicated to the ghosts living in our memories, it was also a lengthy showcasing of the living, breathing 16-person ensemble spread across the rising stage.

Multi-tasking proved essential as Bruce Springsteen attempted to touch, roll, crawl, and slide on his knees 'cross every corner of his stage, the long catwalk set up in the middle of the floor, and obviously into every beating drum inside the audience's chests. For how many people get to pat him on the back, slap their hands on his guitar, and scream into his microphone, it's apparent that it's never enough as far as he's concerned. This level of audience interaction reached a sweaty peak as the Boss fell into the masses and enlisted all the "strong men and women" to carry him, wearing a "don't you dare drop me" grin on his face, from the middle back up to the front of the stage during "Hungry Heart." Germaphobe, he is not. 

 

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Xcel Energy Center, 11/11/12
Photo by Steve Cohen

An expected pleasure of the live Springsteen experience are the requests taken in the form of hand-made signs from the audience. One orange piece of poster board lobbying for "Savin' Up," a song written for Clarence Clemons' 1983 album with the Red Bank Rockers, was brought up to the stage. "We've been pretty good so far," Bruce said with a laugh. "So we can afford to fuck one up." The next minute or so was spent deciding which key to play the song, and some vamping and clowning by the band. But then -- then! -- this was a moment to behold. The firing of the five-piece horn section, the muscle of Nils Lofgren and Little Steven on guitars, and the rhythmic surge of drummer Max Weinberg and bassist Gary Tallent all felt as vital as at any moment all night. Perhaps it was just the perception that they could screw up, but moreso it seems that the E Street band is particularly well-armed for anything kissed by gospel and soul at the moment.

Just as quickly as one might settle into a soul revue, though, things turned sharply. The band banged out a rock-a-billy, boogie classic from Nebraska, "Open All Night," and then glued Bruce and Nils together back at the center of the arena for a twangy "Darlington County" overflowing with lusty "sha la la"-ing. Next, a sign request for "Two Hearts" brought Little Steven to share the mic with the Boss, and the churn of Americana continued. 

While the E Street Band behind Springsteen always had their tambourines to bang when the arrangements didn't include them, moments from the custom-built Grammy-mobile Wrecking Ball, got all 16 cylinders, including a tuba, firing. "Shackled and Drawn" is one of the rawest country-folk stomps in his entire catalog, and seeing Bruce testify -- spilling hoary lyrical guts everywhere -- was captivating. Adjoining vocalist Cindy Mizelle willingly pushed him as far as he could go, and by the end, a line of E Streeters were stomping together at the front of the stage.

And, this was only about two-thirds of the way through this three-hour marathon. No one gives in until the Boss gives the okay, and so the final hour was a fireworks display of the hits. The gritty glory of "Badlands" enveloped us, and then then the familiar harmonica strains leading into "Thunder Road" gave the entire Xcel a chance to air out their vocal cords, to the obvious pleasure of our host. If this was the end of the regular set, there was not to be any proper breather. While the rest of the band left for Bruce's spare and heartfelt solo showing of  "If I Should Fall Behind," dedicated to a married couple who had the song played as their first dance, this was but a momentary respite.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Xcel Energy Center, 11/11/12
Photo by Steve Cohen

After another gospel achievement featuring the full band, "Rocky Ground," the lights came up. All of them. And it was brutal at first as our eyes adjusted, but then this display worked the final spell of the evening. Concert-goers are typically shrouded in darkness and their individual experiences, but the most-familiar songs of the night felt like a group effort.

 

Seeing the entire place crammed with fans has to be just as important for a band that has spent 150 minutes grinning and still pushing onward.  The all-powerful "Born to Run" cascaded into "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," and all the rubber-faced mugging by Bruce and Little Steven probably made several Instagrammers' dreams come true. Spirit fingers flew, and Springsteen closed out the song by proving that his hips could still shimmy and complete some Irish jig moves. The memory-making continued as an 88-year-old woman was brought to the stage the way Courteney Cox was many decades ago during "Dancing in the Dark" Bruce told us over and over, "You look good!" and he was right.

There was just enough left in the fuel-efficient tank for the last song of the night. Now vestless and in no mood to bother with hiding how sweaty he was, a 63-years-sprightly Springsteen vaulted atop the stage's white grand piano, spreading our eyes to another corner of the stage yet again. On such a chilly night in St. Paul, it would only be apt to wrap with "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." He eventually rushed to his mic stand and, treating like a stripper pole, contorted himself -- knees out, back bent a little too far back. As expected, the music stopped midway through as a final, deafening remembrance cheer sounded for Clarence Clemons.

Visibly moved, Bruce spent the song's moments of closure making his way 'round one more time and reminding everyone that they'd be punching in again on Monday. Just another night at the office for the Boss, but plenty of good work done.   

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Xcel Energy Center, 11/11/12
Photo by Steve Cohen


Personal Bias: As a Springsteen first-timer, it's impossible to know where a show like Sunday's fits into the spectrum. For me, there are few live acts that can mesh a career's worth of material, a band of virtuosos, and stadium-sized heart so convincingly. He's only eight years younger than Bob Dylan, but what a difference in the level of energy. Also, you can see how everyone from Bono to Craig Finn (especially on "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City") gleans from Bruce's infectious live persona. In two cities filled with aspiring Springsteens everywhere, this is a masterclass on how to get an audience (and band) on your side by leading with unbridled spirit.

Overheard in the Crowd: A guy behind me was trying to be funny and asked "Can you try and stand up a little more?" because I think he actually wanted to sit down a little more. Some folks, huh?

The Crowd:
The perfect mix of expensive jewelry, trucker caps, and even an Abigail Breslin look-alike wearing a Nirvana T-shirt who Springsteen brought onstage to sing "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" with him.

By the Way: Bruce's wife, Patti Scialfa, was not performing with them Sunday. She was home with their daughter, he said.

Setlist:
We Take Care of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Out in the Street
Death to My Hometown
My City of Ruins
Spirit in the Night
It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City
Hungry Heart
Jack of All Trades
Atlantic City
Savin' Up (sign request)
Open All Night
Darlington County
Two Hearts (sign request)
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
Long Walk Home
Badlands
Thunder Road

Encore:
If I Should Fall Behind (sign request)
Rocky Ground
Born to Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Dancing in the Dark

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out


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