Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Detroit, MI, 29 March 2023

Dressed in snake-skin suits packed with Detroit muscle

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Detroit, MI, 29 March 2023

The finest musical moment in last night’s Springsteen show here in Detroit was when Bruce took off his guitar and moved to the front stage platform in partnership with Curtis King. It was for his version of “Nightshift” by the Commodores, from the disappointing soul covers album this tour is ostensibly in support of. There are many things wrong with Only The Strong Survive, but they were all absent at this particular moment and I was thrilled beyond belief.

I was not looking forward to this song. I had, in fact, sat down in anticipation, figuring this would be the moment to go back through my notes thus far. But his delivery of the first line: “Marvin, he was a friend of mine” -- which, here in motherfucking Detroit City, received a giant cheer of recognition -- and I knew this was going to be exquisite. Bruce’s body language changed. He did a little Jackie Wilson footwork. But mostly, he sang from a place of love and respect and you felt it. You believed him. And the backing instrumentation was multi-dimensional, perfect and true, because it was the E Street Band. Oh my god, it was glorious. It was Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band paying homage to music that shaped him, still repping the r’n’b that they all worshipped and tried to emulate. It was breathtaking, I swear.

Bruce has spoken, many times, of how he used to go to the Satellite Lounge at Fort Dix and watch Sam and Dave, watch Sam lead a band, how much he learned from watching his idols. I thought of that tonight with my horn section view of the stage, seeing how much he relished directing the horns in “Kitty’s Back,” the genuine pure enjoyment manifesting in his body language during every solo, immersing himself in the improvisations. “Kitty” showcases individual strengths in such a charming and unmistakable 70s fashion; it’s a time capsule. The rest of it was a little slack, a little indistinct -- “Kitty’s Back” is meant to be loose and elastic but that’s also what makes it tricky. When “Kitty’s Back” used to show up in the setlist as a rarity, it was easy to forgive it if it went astray somewhere between point A and point B. When it is a song being played every night of the tour, it should sparkle from end to end. This did not.

Detroit, my hometown show, was my first of the 2023 tour. Plans fell through for Houston, Columbus got cancelled. This was already not a normal tour, because 2023 is not a normal year, after a succession of terrible years. It was the first show I bought tickets for and that was when I watched every ticket I touched explode in price. I panic-bought a pair of bad tickets -- I was out of practice, I had not yet been to LCA, I was reeling from $4,000 tickets in the front row of the 100 level halfway back on the floor. Then I came back in and managed to find something behind the stage. I did not try to upgrade. I was, however, very pleased with my seat.

I was nervous about this show. Contrary to popular belief, at no point have I ever been in doubt of the ability of the E Street Band. These guys have been playing for the last 50 years, much of it together. I recall that line from Born To Run where Bruce says “People always asked me how the band played like it did night after night, almost murderously consistent, NEVER stagnant and always full balls to the wall. There are two answers. One is they loved and respected their jobs, one another, their leader and the audience. The other is…because I MADE them! Do not underestimate the second answer.” What I was worried about was, would the show do the same thing for me that it always has? Would I still feel like I belonged, like this was home? Did I still believe Bruce Springsteen and trust him as an artist? What would it be like to be in a Springsteen audience again? Who were these people who could afford $1000 to be in the pit? This was a man who has made every European promoter tear their hair out because he insisted that his fans be allowed to queue outside the stadiums. Would he not see the difference in the audience and worse, would he just not care? I haven’t really written about this in depth because it’s been such a hard thing to figure out.1

I’m going to type, “I just do not know what he is doing with this setlist” and roughly 500 of you are going to gravely inform me that Bruce Is Struggling With Loss And Aging and I am going to scream because what do you think he has been talking about since 2008, when we lost Danny Federici, or 2012, after we lost Clarence? (And this is without the losses of other people close to him) Yes, the 2012 tour also touched on economic inequality and racial injustice, but it was essentially a moving wake, mourning Clarence Clemons together with his fans in public. This is hardly new territory.

What this setlist is lacking is any kind of strong thematic or narrative arc. Yes, there are songs about loss and he speaks about his bandmates and “Last Man Standing” but they’re just presented in the setlist without any connection or relevance. Like, sure, I can see the connective tissue between the nostalgia presented in “No Surrender” and then shifting to “Ghosts,” going from the past to the present. Maybe I could also extend that same split to “Prove It All Night” -- youthful past -- to “Letter To You,” but that’s, like, a generous fucking interpretation, and I have had to ponder this at length to arrive here. Most people are not doing that, they are just there experiencing the show, and if you don’t make it easy for them to come with you on the journey you want to take them on, they’re there but they’re not with you. And then we’re at “The Promised Land” and in this context it is a non-sequitur and this is a fucking sacred talisman, it is THE PROMISED LAND. The audience’s response is, “I like this song, it’s a great song” and it is all of those things, but we’re now going down a route towards “Out In The Street,” “Candy’s Room” and “Kitty’s Back.” Those three songs in a row in that order is really close to what radio would call a trainwreck. The rest of the set continues to zig zag in this fashion until we get to the encore.

Not having reliable reportage on this tour is problematic (RIP Backstreets) in that I cannot confidently weigh in on Bruce’s overall energy level from night to night. He was definitely struggling through the first three songs energetically and vocally but what I also saw was how both Stevie and Max were effortlessly filling in the gaps. Steve Van Zandt looks great / he seems to have lost a lot of weight2, but he is is just full of energy and is more truly engaged than I think he has been since the original River tour. This is not necessarily a diss; he always spoke in recent times of how he understood what his role was in the post-Reunion era, he was there as a foil, as comic relief, to play the part of the best friend. For every person who insisted that Patti Scialfa’s guitar was often not in the mix, no one ever would suggest the same for Steve even when he was doing what seemed like more hamming and less playing -- not that anyone in their right mind was happy about any of that. I always felt like it was generous of him to be willing to come back and re-assume that position, I just wished we were able to avail ourselves of all of Steve Van Zandt’s many talents, so it was nice to once again see them all on display. 

He definitely kept the train running in the first part of the set in concert with Max Weinberg, whose precision was phenomenal tonight. I thought I would not at all like his interaction with the percussionist (and this has to be the first time there have been timbales on the E Street stage, please let me know if I am incorrect on this front) but it was a great boost of energy and they’re both talented and interact fantastically together. It made me wish there had been a permanent percussion musician and not just the various stylings of Clarence Clemons on castinets and triangle or various E Streeters shaking maracas with the minimum amount of competence required.

Of course the reason Max and SVZ can do this extra work is that the rest of E Street are humming at full throttle like they always do. Part of Nils Lofgren’s enormous skill is his ability to be seamless and tiptoe around the edges, it’s why he worked so well with Neil Young. He is a virtuoso who loves to meld and blend. I am glad he got at least one moment in the spotlight, where his volume was high and lonesome in the mix. Garry Tallent is Garry Tallent, and it’s not like this rhythm section has ever been in any kind of question. It’s solid and reliable. That’s what you want your rhythm section to be. I mean, again, I don’t need to enumerate every individual on that stage despite my unabashed love for these horns and for these backing singers and what I certainly noted and appreciated beyond their unimpeachable artistry was the continuity they provide, the quiet teamwork, the choreography, the fist bumps.

Small quibbles: it is somewhat weird that the singers and the horns are offstage for like half the show and I get that’s probably part of the way it is sequenced the way that it is because Bruce doesn’t want them sitting idly or parading on and off but that just means your setlist needs some more thought. If only you had a person available to you who was well versed in your entire repertoire as well as the history of rock and roll. That person is Steve Van Zandt!

I didn’t realize “Darkness On The Edge of Town” was a tour premiere until I sat down to write this. It was a little unsteady, falling right after “Nightshift” in the set; that’s just a tough transition, the polar opposite, smooth soul into the ultimate in male angst. ”E Street Shuffle” also had a hard time gathering momentum but it got there, it always gets there. I think it’s in the set even though there is already another lengthy epic from that era because Bruce likes that particular call and response, oh-ho-oh-oh-oh/everybody form a line. It’s a hard song to deliver even when it’s sequenced well, the fluidity of the verses is key to the vibe of the song, that quasi-hipster-ish3 beat poetic somersalt: schoolboy pops pull out all the stops / dressed in snake skin suits packed with Detroit muscle -- the crowd liked that4. I think this is where I surmised that some of the zig-zag in the setlist is Bruce trying to pace himself. He hasn’t ever had to do this, and now he has to start. I think that’s why he’s sticking with a static setlist more than any other reason. He cannot do whatever he wants any more and make it through a three-hour show. “Kitty” gives him a break physically and vocally, as does “Shuffle,” these long meandering journeys that otherwise seem a little out of place in this setlist. 

“Backstreets” was the moment tonight that got me, dissolved me into a pile of dust. Straight to the heart, Bruce holding the guitar aloft like I’ve seen him do forever, facing front and then turning around and facing behind the stage for the same amount of time, saluting us like he might never get to do it again, like it might be the last time some of us get to see him do that. Excalibur. This guitar kills fascists. “Backstreets” was majesty, it was grandeur, it had power and strength and vitality and furor. Roy Bittan was magnificent as ever. Bruce’s voice was raw and sinewy, it wasn’t bravado or arrogance, it was authoritative but also tinged with regret.

Trying to learn to walk like the heroes / we thought we had to be

I thought my heart would explode.

The encore is now just one long string o’ hits. The Stones do this incredibly well, the diehards refer to that part of the set as “the warhorses” and that is not an insult. “Gimme Shelter” is, in fact, a majestic steed riding into battle. But this is a newer concept on E Street and needs some fine tuning. It begins promisingly with a “Because the Night” / “She’s The One’ pairing. People love “Because the Night,” but it felt like -- again -- it suffered being on the other side of “Backstreets.” “She’s the One” is no longer a locomotive of smoldering lust but it’s still very much about desire. “Wrecking Ball,” however, does not belong in this pantheon, “Badlands” jammed in the middle feels claustrophobic (although I did appreciate that we are no longer doing the interminable OH OH OH OH OH and the song actually concludes). “The Rising” also does not belong in this string o’ hits; it is an important song, and I understand that Bruce likely feels people ‘need’ to hear it but they also ‘need’ to hear “Born In The USA” and you are not giving them that either, so we can retire “The Rising” for a bit. It will really be okay.

The rest of the encore is… fine? I mean they’re huge tremendous joyous hits, but I would love to see him sit down and string them together in a more artful fashion. I realize no one else in LCA had this thought, they were too busy jumping up and down to “Dancing In The Dark” and “Born To Run.” But! BTR deserves that full scale WOW it is able to deliver, that moment of awe and wonder, and right now it’s just stuffed into a string o’ hits. I want more for it. It deserves it.

I forgot that the show closed with “I’ll See You In My Dreams” which is a poignantly powerful moment -- but he first sends off the 18 person E Street Band individually -- something I respect and appreciate! -- he hugs Jake Clemons for an extended period of time, and then he picks up an acoustic guitar and walks to the mic. I guarantee you a healthy percentage of the venue started heading out when we got halfway through the handshakes, and everyone else was all, ‘why are the lights still out, the band just left, is the band coming back. The song and the moment deserve better, is all.

This was a very very good show by any universal standard, and a very good show by E Street standards. The setlist needs tuning, and in my opinion it needs paring down. What I am not seeing happen in the future is the setlist “opening up”. The tour has been running for two months now and there have not been any signs at all whatsoever of Bruce wanting to make any substantive changes. I am also not criticizing the setlist for being static within the context of Bruce Springsteen setlists as a whole. I am, however, criticizing it as being oddly devoid of intensity, and I think that is honestly just a factor of Bruce Springsteen is 73 years old and he can’t run the show like he did in his 20s or 30s, nor should he have to do that.

I did find it curious that while he was once again talking about the friends he has lost, there was zero acknowledgement of any of the massive losses of life Americans have experienced since the last time we were in the same room with the E Street Band. I mean, there wasn’t even any kind of, “I’m so glad we’re back together” invocation. That is the thing that sits wrong with me the most right now.

I am seeing the show again next week in Cleveland, and I am curious what my thoughts will be after being able to see it again and I am over my initial first-time jitters. However, I am mostly reassured that I still have a home on E Street. I am still angered at the ticket pricing debacle and still find Only The Strong Survive completely unlistenable. Last night in Detroit I felt like he still means it, he still cares about his audience and his band and his craft. There are other things missing but I am still working my way through that. For now, this is where I find myself. It is a weird place to be but 2023 is a weird place to be.

  1. I don’t want to hear that you could buy $5 tickets on stubhub or whatever spin you’re going to put on it, that is not the point of what happened and you know it.

  2. It’s a “Sweet Soul Music” reference

  3. real hipsters