Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Cleveland, OH, 5 April 2023

there's gonna be a rumble out on the promenade

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Cleveland, OH, 5 April 2023

New haircut, new oxblood red Doc Martens, and an ebullient IT’S GOOD TO BE BACK IN CLEVELAND greeting opened the show tonight at the INSERT CORPORATE NAME arena .1 The energy was sparkling. It wasn’t just that Bruce seemed to have more physical energy but that he was also more relaxed and focused and just felt more positive as compared to last week in Detroit. The setlist and the show still have issues but the performance was absolutely elevated tonight.

“Prove It All Night” was a moment close to magic. Cleveland loves themselves some Steve Van Zandt, this was like the Jukes’ second home back in the day. It felt like it was both happening right now and also conjuring every other version of “Prove It” that’s ever been played in Cleveland. It’s deja vu if you were there, but even if you weren’t, you probably tried to conjure it in your mind all those years you spent listening to bootlegs. I wrote “INCENDIARY” in all caps in my notebook after the “Prove It” solo and that is not a word I would have applied to anything I saw last week.

“Nightshift” was beautiful but ruined by the drunk people to my right. “Backstreets” once again brought the whole place to attention. It is such a difficult song to sing because you cannot phone it in. He has to draw from someplace truly deep within himself to render that song in this fashion night after night. I am used to a Bruce Springsteen concert where every song was delivered from this wellspring and maybe it is unrealistic of me to expect the same intensity from him at 73 that we got at 66 -- and he is still agile and spry and is still giving close to three hours every night. The interlude in “Backstreets,” where instead of an expression of longing or desire a la “Sad Eyes2” he tries to connect it with the story he has just told us before “Last Man Standing.” The speech before “Last Man Standing” is scripted and on the prompter. The recitation during “Backstreets,” how he keeps everything right here, as he taps his chest over his heart, is not. There’s a reason “Backstreets” is kind of quasi assuming the place “Jungleland” used to. [Side note: I am okay with that song taking a rest. It was in a reasonable place in the recent set at MSG but I don’t want it sullied with bad sequencing.]

I was behind the horns again, but lower down, so I could observe things like how the teleprompter displays SOLO in red when it is time for, well, you know, and also could spy the setlist being attended to (or something) by a crew member literally right below me. With a little camera zoom help from a friend I could see “Saint” was on the setlist, which made sense because it came out in Brooklyn. My response to that at the time was “we don’t need another epic in this set” but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t be happy to see it. It got audibled out and we got the completely unnecessary “Pay Me My Money Down” which I hate less than the equally absurd “Johnny 99” because the horn breakout is contextual and appropriate from a genre perspective, but not by a whole lot; when I saw the acoustic guitar come out I was sure we were gonna get “Darlington County” which I have a real soft spot for but it sometimes gets too hammy, and this tour has too many opportunities for ham as it is: the ‘more cowbell’ stupidity in “Johnny 99,” the Three Stooges shtick [which I know is not new but is tired] in “Rosie,” and what I consider the absolute disrespect of “10th Avenue Freeze-Out.”

I don’t like the exaggerated comedic gesture of Bruce ripping his shirt open. Like I know he has done dumb things like this before, with shaking his ass, or inviting fans to drum on his butt, and he’s doing it during a vamp that is if not borrowed from James Brown is definitely derivative of some rhythm and blues revue moment and those people were not fucking around onstage. He’s also doing it before the story about the band, and we’re still showing like five seconds of a video of Bruce and Clarence. If Bruce wants to keep that element of the set in place for the rest of his life, god bless him. It was such a heart-rending, communal moment on that 2012 tour and I was grateful for each and every time I got to be part of it. But this is not that. The center platform is there for literally only this moment3 and it’s now become a fucking circus, with everyone in the pit running back in a mad dash and suddenly there’s a dozen signs that aren’t requesting songs, but making demands (tonight he kept trying to keep singing “10th” while signing the cast of a kid with a broken arm, whose father had held up a SIGN MY SON’S CAST? sign all night). I surmise he is doing the platform because he can’t jump on the piano any more.  But all of this is killing one of the most important songs in the E Street Band’s repertoire. It used to be A MOMENT. The build of the intro to “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” is epic, it is one of my favorite Steve Van Zant guitar riffs, that moment when he comes in with that chicken scratch. And it must be hard to sing that song about your friend when your friend isn’t there onstage with you any more, and at least he isn’t trying to recreate that with Jake, which would be wrong and weird for everybody involved. Go out in the crowd with “Hungry Heart” or literally anything else. 

At least he did not spit water on anyone tonight. BRUCE! WHAT ARE YOU DOING

I’m never not going to enjoy “Kitty’s Back” but it definitely lost momentum and focus again. I love this fucking song, I love the lyrics and the cadence of the lyrical delivery and I just want it to be perfect. “E Street Shuffle” was tighter tonight, and the interlude between Max and the percussionist was once again a delight. It almost becomes a big Casablanca Records-type disco number towards the end and that is 1) not a bad thing and 2) very appropriate for the era. The horn section as an ensemble are simply outstanding.

That said, I did not think this was Jake Clemons’ best night and I also really do not like how he has been moved into a role of Clarence Lite. This is not his fault; no one does anything on that stage that Bruce Springsteen has not told them to do. The audience likes it; the audience cheers the interactions with glee and relish. I just think it is being done because it is easier than trying to figure out how to do something else. Bruce was so careful about not trying to replace Clarence with one person, that they were replacing him with an entire horn section; I also enjoyed watching the interactions between Bruce and Jake grow and morph over time on that first tour, which were organic and at the time it felt like the natural progression of things -- I’m thinking of that moment in Hyde Park in 2012 where Bruce sat down on the stairs at the front of the stage and had Jake come sit next to him and he started telling a story about “me and your uncle.” But that was back when Bruce Springsteen talked during his shows (more on this below) and Jake wasn’t being deployed as a placeholder for his uncle, he was there as himself. And I was angry and annoyed when I found out that the bit at the end where Jake is the last one to go offstage when the band leaves and they have an extended hug and a short conversation is a thing that apparently happens at every show now.

What I didn’t see on that setlist image was what would come after “Nightshift,” as Max hit that cadence on the snare and I had a momentary out of body experience as I realized it was “Atlantic City” and that no, this had not been played on the tour yet. I don’t know that it needed horns and I also didn’t dislike the horns, but the power of “Atlantic City” is that it doesn’t need anything at all whatsoever but this was still a gift. I also wondered if it was veiled commentary on recent political events, but I also realize that is me wanting it to be, because this show is just so neutral about everything that it feels disconnected.

There was a terrible USA Today review of the DC show which, among other ridiculous statements, lauded Bruce for not saying anything during the show. Somehow this person did zero research before writing her story because she would have learned that this man has been talking during shows since forever. We memorized his stories, his raps, his tall tales, his sagas about the Gypsy Lady and going to see God and Little Melvin and the Invaders. We go to Freehold and stand in front of the house on South Street and think about the stories he told us about his father going out back and getting under the car on cold mornings to get it to start, or his dad turning on the gas to try to get him to stop playing guitar. We heard him remind us “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.” We wished he had a more concise introduction to “Living In The Future” (was that just me? probably). We made Home Depot jokes to each other about his stories about building a house. The point is that TALKING IS NOT EXTRA AT A BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN CONCERT, except that Bruce is not doing that except in very few spots in the show on this tour, many of which are scripted and running on the prompter.

A couple of things about that: we are so used to the show being a story that its glaring absence this time out is creating an odd sense of disconnection which is definitely new to me and to other people whose opinions I trust on Bruce Springsteen. I believe that some of it is an attempt to keep the show moving and so he can fit everything he wants to fit into the three-hour container. I believe the rest of it is because not saying anything means that no one can misinterpret your words. We already know that it doesn’t matter what the actual words of Bruce Springsteen’s songs are, but it’s the between-song comments or stories that can end up as attention-grabbing headlines the next day. It is also something that someone paying $1,000 for a ticket might decide to get upset about.

Another terrible casualty of this lack of dialogue is that suddenly E Street is a place where we rush through band introductions. I know that with 18 people onstage if you do elaborate introductions the way you have for the last almost 50 years it could take up the place of a song. But that was deep, deep tradition, we all knew everyone’s nicknames, we used to make jokes them and eagerly anticipated any updates that Bruce was gonna make as the result of some inside joke. The intros are an element that came from rhythm and blues and old rock and roll, which is why he did it and why it was important that he did it. I am a person who pays attention to these things and after two shows I still don’t know the name of the percussionist or the new trombone player4, and the absence of acknowledgement that Patti Scialfa is a member of the E Street Band does not sit right with me, and not just because too many people sitting around me think Soozie is Patti Scialfa and don’t find out she’s not until the end of the show. No one in the E Street Band is getting their moment in the spotlight that we are all entitled to - the audience for their role in the tradition and the band members who have earned it.

Finally: it is 2023 and he is are playing in front of an audience in many of the places the tour is going where the women aren’t in control of their own bodies, and everywhere he is playing in front of parents (and grandparents) who wonder if their kids will come home from school safely, and other fans who might be gay or trans who have in the past been able to feel they were welcome on E Street through explicit words and actions. Bruce Springsteen has very real experience traveling with black men in his band when there were still very real repercussions for doing that. Now, he once again has a diverse and multiracial band which includes two Jewish men5 and one Muslim and in 2023 those are not popular groups in America. so when you sandwich “The Promised Land”, which you used to play after “41 Shots” and once dedicated to Trayvon Martin, between "Candy’s Room" and OITS, and at no point acknowledge this fucked up place we are living in right now, the only interpretation I can come to is that he wants to make sure that people paying $400 and more for tickets and whose politics do not agree with his don’t have time to remember that this was the same person who brought Pete Seeger to Obama’s inaugural celebration and made sure to sing all the verses of “This Land Is Your Land.”

I don’t want to hear that you go to concerts to forget about reality or whatever, that has never been what a Springsteen concert is about. As a Jewish woman I will never ever ever again be able to “leave politics out of it” because my fundamental human rights are under attack every single day, especially in Florida and Texas and Ohio and many other states in which Bruce Springsteen has or will perform at. A concert isn’t a place most of us can go to forget things any more. I’m not saying he needs to dwell on it. But some artistic acknowledgement of what we have been through isn’t a lot to ask and given the decades of precedent, to expect that he will keep telling our story isn’t unreasonable. Cleveland was a better show, but at some level it still feels impersonal and untethered. A lot of rock bands play their sets like that. Bruce Springsteen never did.

PERSONAL TO ANYONE WHO CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS: Roy Bittan is not high enough in the mix.

  1. I am not giving these people free advertising. It doesn’t matter. It will be something else next time you are there.

  2. i mean the 78 version of Backstreets, not the standalone song that shares the same title

  3. yes, I know, so far

  4. yes I can (and have) looked it up. if you reply guy me with their names do not get surprised if you are blocked

  5. A zizzen Pesach to all who celebrate.