Bruce Springsteen’s affinity with Philadelphia goes back decades to “before the E Street Band,” he said at the Wells Fargo Center Thursday, the second of two sold out shows. Almost back to the days of Wells Fargo itself, maybe, but not quite.
He and his scruffy band thought they had really made it, crossing the river to play the Main Point up in Bryn Mawr, a legendary place in a community served with no rock clubs currently.
So he’s been digging way, way back to his earliest sets in these shows. After doing “Seaside Bar Town” and “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street” on Wednesday he inserted a sprawling “Thundercrack” and equally long “Kitty’s Back” on Thursday. Because it was the second of a two night stand on his East Coast tour, he inserted fully eight different songs from the first show, landing solidly with fans who loved to hear “Night,” “Trapped,” “Prove It All Night”, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The Promised Land” and, of course, “The Streets of Philadelphia.” He brought his elderly mom out to dance the Courteney Cox part for “Dancing in the Dark.”
Springsteen’s got an agenda to bring and story to tell with every tour, even if it is something as generic as community and keeping faith and structures his shows like few other rockers. In addition to introducing the new songs from the recent release, “Wrecking Ball,” he had to acknowledging the loss of his key E street Bandmember and onstage foe, Clarence Clemens.
That came first in the exhilarating “Night,” in which clemons’ son provided the blistering sax break, but more fully in the staple “My City in Ruins.” Always a moving gospel-tinged song, especially as it was the first he used in the days when smoke was still burning after 9/11, it carried even more emotion during a segment of band rollcall in which he asked plainly “Who’s missing?”
It cam up a couple more times as well, particularly at the closing “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” in which the line about “the big man came to town” got a minutes-long, show-stopping ovation.
There have been further renovations on E Street other than the loss of Clarence, though. The addition of a full horn section, two backup singers and an additional percussionist — with 17 onstage in all — gave a big band boost to his songs that, with their populist themes seemed more akin to his work with the Seeger Sessions band than the old stuff he’s still relied upon to play each tour.
Blending Irish rebel songs with oldtime Americana, grassroots folk provides a terrific punch to his new material, which is more direct than ever over the fat bankers and starving working man. More than one song was underscored by the beating of big marching band drums hijacked from a fife band, reviving a people’s Spriit of 76 by the way of occupy nation drum circles. But how much of this is getting through? The very picture of fat man banker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was prominent at Thursday’s show, tweeting wildly his enthusiasm for old songs (but not lyrics of the new ones).
After playing “American Skin (41 Shots)” four nights in a row in reaction to the Treyvon killing, he mixed the set up a little more with his singular intensity and commitment. Still, the expected song to end the main set, “Thunder Road,” never sounded so lax, minus the urgency he can better find in the songs from “Darkness,” now his go-to set of songs for modern shows.
It’s a small complaint of a show when all you want to hear is more — but I’d also like to hear a wider variety of his material, something from “The River,” or the Seeger Sessions album that would have fit in so well, “Tom Joad,” even something from his last studio album, “Magic.” But part of the cost of playing big tours is fulfilling the expectations of fans who want to hear their favorites. The obvious solution is playing multiple nights in cities, such as this one — especially those that are named in the title of his songs, as “Streets of Philadelphia” was.
Unlike his mentor Bob Dylan, Springsteen doesn’t carry around his Oscar for “Streets of Philadelphia” around with him on tour. But coincidentally, it happened to be in Philly as well during the show, in the ambitious exhibit “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life of Music of Bruce Springsteen,” playing all summer at the National Constitutional Center across the lawn from Independence Hall.
There, it served as the perfect aftershow — a place to marvel over early posters and listen to unusual early tapes from his earlier teenage bands; to inspect the nicks and scratches in his first guitars and more than anything else, pore over his handwritten notebooks of lyrics, album ideas, possible titles, and broad general aims (“1. Elvis Song – horn riff,” he writes on a list of album ideas before “Born to Run.” “2. Bo Diddley song – party”).
There’s a nice Corvette he bought after an early success and pictured on some of his record sleeves, and the motorcycle he rode across the West before “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” And, because this is organized from an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a whole lot of his clothing: shirts he wore on stage or in album cover portraits, and especially the jeans and T-shirt from “Born in the U.S.A.,” the black motorcycle jacket from “Born to Run.” Your reaction, just as it is in Cleveland, is: This is from a tiny person.
There are parts of Springsteen’s life left out: Where are his weights that suddenly pumped up his image in the early 80s? What about the rifts with fans caused by recording and touring without the E Street Band, or by his first marriage and its demise? What about the backlash of some rock fans to the double-barrelled hype of Time and Newsweek covers in the same week? Or one of those posters he hated declaring “The Future of Rock and Roll,” that nonetheless played a part in his own struggles with fast fame? His own ambivlence with politics is mentioned briefly but could have been developed: resisting Ronald Reagan’s attempt to co-opt his themes, touring later for John Kerry and especially Barack Obama. A video of his performance at the inaugural would have had more of an impact than just seeing the designer coat he wore.
After slowly building the story through early bands, and the first three albums, the exhibit jumps all over the place, free to touch on (or ignore) albums as the whim strikes them. It’s truncated and incomplete, in other words, in a way that a Bruce show never is.
It’s not easy to see a Springsteen show, though; the exhibit continues to Sept. 3.