It’s no secret that Bruce Springsteen fans love him. Like, really really love him. For decades he’s had one of rock’s most passionate and dedicated fan bases, and pilgrimages to his shows are often met with a fervor that the faithful of other religions and icons save for their most sacred sites in distant lands.
But only Houstonians got to spend a specific Saint’s Day—Valentine’s in this case—with the Boss and his expansive gang of merry men and women on the first leg of their current U.S. tour. It was also his first stop in Houston since the Woodlands Pavilion on May 6, 2014.
Somewhat surprisingly, the holiday went unremarked in an evening skimpy on love songs. Maybe because his own paramour, wife and band member Patti Scialfa, was not performing on this date (though one fan held out hope—and a sign—for the sweetness of “Sunny Day”).
And one Apostle of E Street was missing—guitarist Nils Lofgren was out with COVID. But guitarist/consigliere Steven Van Zandt (and his killer fit) and multi-instrumentalist Soozie Tyrell—who both missed the previous show in Dallas for the same reason—were back in the fold (so no emergency call to Tom Morello this time).
Somewhere in an attic, there is a painting of Bruce Springsteen aging. Clearly, there’s no way—at 73 years old—he could put that much into a performance with the energy of a man half…nay a third of his age.
Whether attacking is signature Frankenstein-ish Fender Telecaster/Esquire, singing with enough passion and feeling to cause a brain embolism, or skipping/shimmying/pogoing across the stage, he was a physical wonder to watch over the course that lasted three solid hours. Not once did he leave the stage. Not once.
The 28-song set covered pretty much the entirety of his now 50-year recording career (debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. hit store shelves in 1973). And highlights included some of those Big Guns: a faith-driven “The Promised Land,” the Bo Diddley-beat of “She’s the One,” another trip to a symbolic church with the 9/11-themed “The Rising,” and the fist-pumping “Badlands.”
The Most Transformed Song of the Night Award goes to “Johnny 99.” Where the band took the original stark just-Bruce-and-his-acoustic-guitar approach on Nebraska and turned it in fun, funky workout.
His last two albums of newer music were also represented: The elegiac but still forceful medication on death, loss, and passing of time Letter to You. And Only the Strong Survive, a collection of soul covers from the ‘60s-‘80s from artists who inspired him.
The former clearly held sway with the burning full-band intensity of “Ghosts” and his solo acoustic “Last Man Standing.” Bruce didn’t speak much to the audience this night, but he explained how the latter was inspired by the death of his former bandmate George Theiss, leaving him the literal “last man standing” from his first teenage band, the Castiles.
Another highlight from the record was “If I Was the Priest”—a tale of the Old West and the New Testament that Bruce wrote when he was 22 and just got around to properly recording recently. According to setlist.fm, it's the first public performance of the song since 1972! And show opener “Night” was a tour debut.
Unfortunately, the two picks to play from Only the Strong Survive were among the weakest on the album (even though the crowd responded to the Commodores’ “Nightshift,” if only because it was familiar). And while they certainly have their adherents among Spring-Nuts, “Prove It All Night” lacked for the passion of delivery and “Kitty’s Back” remains an overextended piece.
Of the E Street band, saxophonist Jake Clemons has grown into the Shoes of the Big Man, his uncle Clarence, but brings a lighter and more deft style of playing. A much slimmed-down Van Zandt got in some nice, stinging solos, and 71-year-old “Mighty” Max Weinberg put in the evening’s No. 2 Most Physical Performance.
The keyboards of Roy “The Professor” Bittan and Charlie Giordano played nicely off each other all night. The core band was augmented by a four-man horn section, four backup vocalists, and an added percussionist.
The show hit the final stretch with the Super Big Guns. That would include “Born to Run,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” “Glory Days,” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” The band clearly had fun with the last, and Bruce made the rounds around the floor of the Toyota Center hopping on dividers and slapping the hands of excited fans along the way.
Houston pops up occasionally in Springsteen lore: The city is mentioned in “Seeds.” And he often speaks fondly of the original band’s four-night stint at Liberty Hall in March 1974, now the subject of Springsteen: Liberty Hall, an upcoming book of concert and casual photography by Nicki Germaine, whose longtime partner is E Street bassist Garry W. Tallent. But alas, no “Cadillac Ranch” tonight, which has often appeared in Houston.
It should be noted that the Houston stop did make some pre-gig national news. When tickets went on sale for this first leg in July, Springsteen’s management and Ticketmaster engaged in “dynamic” pricing. In a nutshell, price would be dictated by the algorithms of demand. This left a lot of fans in uproar as mid-level seats were going in the range of $4,000-$5,000. It was such a blow that Springsteen’s #1 fan outlet, Backstreets, all but cited it specifically as the primary reason for ceasing operations after more than 40 years.
But as Forbes and other outlets reported earlier this week, secondary ticket sellers (learning the hard way about supply and demand) were looking to unload Houston tickets for far below face value and as little as $10 (and hours before the show…$4!). Still, last night’s show wasn’t a sell out with seats available across all levels.
The concert ended not with the final blast of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” but after the band left the stage leaving only Bruce Springsteen, again holding an acoustic guitar. More than a few tears were shed with his simple and affecting performance of Letter To You’s “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” Isn’t it what we all want to do for those we’ve loved and unfortunately lost in life? It was a touching and perfect way to end an evening.
But back to that Bruce-as-religion theme. Concertgoer Mace Wilkerson—who has seen Springsteen “nearly 20 times around the country” since the mid-‘80s, was in my row. He also represented the middle of three generations of his family who sat together. He summed things up walking out of the Toyota Center:
“Seeing Springsteen live is the closest thing to going to church. It’s spiritual, and it’s pure joy.”
Amen, brother. We’re Bound for Glory Days.
Prove It All Night
Letter to You
The Promised Land
Out in the Street
If I Was the Priest
Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)
The E Street Shuffle
Last Man Standing
Because the Night
She’s the One
Born to Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
I’ll See You in My Dreams