Willie VerSteeg is a skeptical spectator of a legend
THE WOMAN ON my left is at least twice (but probably closer to thrice) my age, though she's dancing as vigorously as her daughter beside her. The woman on my right is my own mom, excited but comparatively demure. In the pit, someone waves a crutch in the air mysteriously. Others wave signs that I think have song titles on them but I can’t really make them out from our seats (one appears to say “COURTENEY COX ME!” in glitter paint, a plea to reenact the “Dancing in the Dark” music video where Bruce pulls a fan up on stage to dance and whaddya know it’s Monica née Geller herself). We’re in the Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and more specifically, LeBron James, the king of Cleveland himself, subject of a titantic mural outside the arena among many other design accents inside the actual building. The effect is surreal—The Boss playing in King James’ castle—like a different god has shown up to church this week. The boards normally reserved for the King have been flooded by The Boss’ faithful subordinates (not as catchy as, say, Dead Heads).
There is no opener at a Bruce Springsteen concert. This leaves space for Springsteen to fill his famously gargantuan 3-hour set solo and still send us home before midnight. The audience, already drunk in the special way that only old people are, don’t need the hour-long excuse of an opening act to imbibe. When the band takes the stage—only a couple minutes after the scheduled 8pm showtime, which actually counts as way early in concert etiquette—the eight E-Street Band members precede the big man and receive loud but mostly anticipatory applause. With the conspicuous exception of 35 year-old Jake Clemons, the band members are all in their mid-60s. But it’s not until The Boss himself takes the stage that its clear they have aged as mere mortals against Springsteen’s nigh herculean body. One senses some sort of dark, youth-stealing pact in the fine print of an E-Street band contract, and mourns the fate of Jake Clemons. The applause is thunderous.
Springsteen is at the point in his career when venues have started advertising his shows as Maybe his last appearance in [city]! Fitting, then, that he approaches the mic and yells—I kid you not—“GOOD EVENING, PITTSBURGH!” He corrects himself immediately and the band kicks straight into their opener, “Meet Me in the City,” during which he proceeds to shout “CLEVELAND,” like, eight more times, perhaps as atonement for his error, though I get the sense he does it every night. For this entire first song the house lights are kept on, a choice I never would have realized was so cool without witnessing it myself—the ecstatic and packed arena (even the seats behind the stage are filled, which seems sorta bogus to me, because I feel like it’s the kind of ticket I’d buy without realizing until day-of, but w/e) is fully lit, the communal celebration just as much a part of the show. I’m not sure how many artists can get away with something like this. It’s moments like these that reaffirm his Bosshood.
The lights click off for the second song, “The Ties That Bind,” opening track from this tour’s namesake album, The River. This tour is of the mettle-testing sort wherein the band vows to play an entire album from their past, running through every track—in original order—whether they have aged like wine or like milk. Fortunately, there seems to be more of the former, an impressive feat considering the double-album’s 80+ minute girth (the drowsy, balladic “Point Blank” is the milkiest, and marks a moment when the crowd collectively refers to their phones to see just how far down The River we’ve drifted). This seems another thing that only Springsteen can get away with, as his fans know they’ll still get 90+ minutes of extra-River material after the band has made good on their oath—still plenty of time for the old standbys.
In the standard concert darkness, the most noticeable feature of the crowd now is the carnally throbbing pit. It has come to light that my mom managed to acquire a lone General Admission ticket around the same time I bought her these seated tickets for Christmas. Realizing she was going to go with me, she tried and failed to resell her ticket, and now points out that her GA ticket was one of the lottery winners that would have permitted her access to the cordoned-off area up front, the epicenter of the crowd’s throb toward which she now looks longingly. Every few songs, Springsteen travels—with stealthy escorts—along some sanctioned circuit of walkway that allows him to gyrate in his black skinny jeans right up on top of those blessed few lottery-winners. I’m clearly depriving my mom of this intimate proximity to The Boss’ crotch and have mixed feelings about it.
But she’s done it all before. For me, this concert is a first, and I definitely feel like an outsider. I’ve only given The River a cursory listen. So I’m trying to pick up certain cues, like the pungent wafts of weed that I assume to be marking songs as fan favorites (though retrospectively I’m wondering if a less-liked song makes for a better lighting-up occasion). I have no trouble picking out the names of tracks, due to Springsteen’s easy cataloguing system (one can tell when he has found a line he likes—and invariably the song’s title—because he repeats it 40-60 times). “Everybody Has a Hungry Heart” will linger in my head long after its melody has been reduced to a simple drone.
The show is simply awesome. I hesitate to make any claims about it being “worth the price of admission” because I’m trying very hard to forget said price (which is itself gross and then becomes grotesque when the extremely “convenient” fees kick in). But the band is coordinated just short of being mechanical. They are comfortable, but never once giving the impression that they are on autopilot. Perhaps no one is having as much fun as Springsteen himself, though Steven Van Zandt in his sorta drunken pirate get-up is giving him chase.
Van Zandt’s weird paisley do-rag notwithstanding, the E-Street raiments seem mostly standardized, the basic feature being the black skinny jeans which are put on full display early on when Springsteen ends a song by shouting “CLEVELAND, SHAKE YOUR BOOTY!” On cue, all the players turn around and proceed to do just that to the whole crowd (except, of course, those seated behind the stage, the yin to the front pit’s yang). This initially strikes me as the type of dance command that a singer-for-hire would give to preschoolers for endless giggles, but trust me when I say that it plays just as well with this crowd.
There is something transcendent in the bond between a frontman and his drummer. Springsteen and Max Weinberg clearly completed their mind meld decades ago. This allows Springsteen to wander the various walkways (during the first few songs the stage seems to almost be expanding as he appears in new areas) for many measures past the endings of the original recordings until he’s had his fill, at which point a simple glance to Weinberg is all that’s needed to bring the song to a close.
The Boss’ guitars appear and reappear seamlessly. Sometimes he takes a song off from playing (surely he can afford to take every song off if he likes—there are three other guitarists on stage which would seem to me to pose a mixing nightmare but I suspect at least one of them is nearly muted), but most of the time he has his iconic honey-colored telecaster, complete with the worn spot on the back where it has rubbed against his waist for eternity. At one point I catch a glimpse of Springsteen hurling this legendary artifact 15+ feet to his guitar tech, which gives me a visceral secondhand fear of the pass going errant, the guitar snapping in two on the stage floor. I do not envy the guitar tech’s role in this exchange, and wonder if they have practiced this with lesser guitars—or, more cynically: if the guitar tech’s duties include sanding down the backs of new honey-colored teles.
In fact, it’s hard to tell how much of the performance is prepackaged, canned, delivered every night with—hopefully—the correct city on its label, versus how much cynicism I’m importing to project this impression. Maybe it’s the absolute joy, the revival-esque ecstasy on display in the packed arena that sets me off looking for where the wool might be coming down over my eyes. My skepticism is at its highest when Springsteen gabs a little between songs (okay, the booty-shaking, too), but even then he proves slippery and cynicism-resistant. When he introduces “Independence Day” as a song he wrote when realizing that his parents “had their own dreams, their own plans, and that maybe they didn’t always work out the way they expected,” it’s hard for me not to think about my mom beside me, Southern Californian through-and-through, someone who would never be caught dead in Ohio until I started my own family here. And I’m certainly not the only one caught up in it—most people seem to be here in cross-generational pairs of parent and kid. Sure, Springsteen is playing the crowd, but it works because it’s poignant. Later in the set, he steps to the microphone wielding four maracas and asks if anyone here remembers their first kiss. My mom claps and hollers more enthusiastically than I want to acknowledge.
Even the most heart-hardened must soften at the look The Boss gives to Jake Clemons as he rips into a sax solo. Clemons, as most know, is the replacement for his late uncle, Clarence Clemons, Springsteen’s bandmate for almost forty years (that’s longer than Jake Clemons has been alive, by the way). There’s something wonderfully ordinary in the way Springsteen looks at him taking over the center of the stage, a certain blend of awe and guardianship, of trepidation and pride, not unlike a parent watching their own child. “The Boss” seems like an inaccurate nickname in this moment, as when he is looking at Clemons he seems just as much a spectator as the rest of us. For reasons that I can’t put my finger on—reasons that might be more my own problems than facts of the world—there is something dissonant in this palpable sincerity against the backdrop of an obvious product. The performance is somehow both performative and not, and Springsteen, at its helm, is somehow both showman and everyman. Sure, he’s putting on the show, but, like us, he’s also here for the view.
WILLIE VERSTEEG is mostly a poet from San Diego, CA currently living in Columbus, OH. His poetry, criticism, and nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Slate, The Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Hayden's Ferry Review, and many other journals.