Springsteen 2024 Tour Analysis: US Leg 1

Now that the first 10 shows of the 2024 Springsteen tour are over and he's heading for the European run, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the set.

Springsteen 2024 Tour Analysis: US Leg 1


Now that the first 10 shows of the 2024 Springsteen tour are over and he's heading for the European run, I wanted to offer some thoughts on the set based on an analysis of the songs performed and from listening to a few show recordings: LA night one, SF night one, and Albany. These were chosen based on feedback from friends and other trusted sources and also what just looked the most interesting. 

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The initial reports from the first two nights of the tour were not great, but, you know, it is the beginning of the tour and even with rehearsal it can take a while to get a large ensemble rolling smoothly. There are some bands that start the tour strong so you want to be there right at the beginning and then there are some who finish strong, and E Street has always been the latter. But I referred to the initial setlist as “a jumble sale” and rolled my eyes when I heard Bruce on E Street Radio telling Jim Rotolo “I’m waiting to see where the show’s gonna take me” when asked about the setlist. Given that he’d had the time to contemplate what he wanted to say, it just felt disappointing. 

But something changed after Las Vegas, when he showed up in California wearing the shirt, vest and tie after showing up in Arizona in a red flannel shirt. He got back to California and put on his father’s clothes again, and it looks like things snapped into place. I don’t think that’s accidental.

As noted, this assessment is not based on actual live experience. I did not make it to a show but never had plans to hit this run. My closest option was Columbus, and I had made plans for that weekend long before the tour had started. I was encouraged by the initial feedback from out west that indicated that Bruce’s energy and onstage demeanor were drastically better than 2023 and that’s definitely audible in the show recordings. However, I also heard reports from sources that the band was not in its best form, which the recordings also confirm. On the one hand, an aspect of E Street’s professionalism is that when that happens, they just keep rolling and most people in the audience aren’t even going to notice. 

On the other hand, people are paying a lot of money to see this show. Travel is expensive, parking is expensive, and tickets are expensive (we will argue about this later), and it’s a significant gamble of time and money for a show that may or may not live up to expectations. It’s one thing to drive a couple of hours to Philly or Boston or Albany and hit an off night; it’s another entirely to get on a plane or drive a day and take a chance, especially if your only option is to sit in the 200 level. 

I think it's important to stipulate that in my opinion what makes a show (by anyone) great or not is not about whether or not he pulls a good sign out of the audience or throws in a wildcard to open the show; those gestures enhance shows, they can pull a performance to another level, but one rare song does not automatically mean that Bruce is “on fire!!!!” nor is it a singular basis upon which to evaluate a set. As a friend put it when I asked if I needed to upend my current plans to get to a show in this run (it was after the first LA show which was an exceptionally great evening for this tour), “this is not a life-changing show.” I haven't heard anything (yet) that has made me rethink that, and that's even with knowing I missed "Streets of Fire" by not going to Columbus.

Onto the setlist.

The most significant improvement is the three-song run of “Ghosts” / “Letter to You” / “Promised Land.” One of the biggest problems I had with the 2023 set is the mistreatment, if you will, of “The Promised Land.” It was early in the set, sandwiched most of the time between “Letter to You” and “Out In The Street.” I think that he was probably trying to make the same thematic point he is doing here in this sequence, but wasn’t treating TPL with the gravitas it deserves and that sequence wasn’t consistent energetically with the intention of the song. This new framing is part of a set that is sleeker and more streamlined, especially because the epics are gone. (More on that below.) 

This three-song combination is, in my opinion, the beating heart of the set. No matter what else is going on on either side of it, this is a combination that is meaningful, that says something. It's not accidental (and is actually fantastic) that he's using two newer songs to make this point. This is a combination that goes deeper than the last time out. This is far more nuanced, and it is also more engaged. He's not just stating that he's thinking about how he's still here and he's still working even though he's lost so many people who were important to him. The fact that he then follows those two songs with "The Promised Land" is a statement of purpose. It is a pledge. It is him committing to his audience, his art, and himself. 

There were some important variations around this trio: the first night in San Francisco, "Ghosts" was in the #3 slot but he brought in "Atlantic City" and "Death to My Hometown" before LTY and TPL, and the next night, he kept the three together but followed them with "My City of Ruins." I looked at the first night's setlist and thought it was a commentary on San Francisco, a city that had always been a stronghold for Bruce and one in which he hasn't played since 2003. But it's also, in a larger sense, a commentary on any big city and how they've become expensive homogeneous malls with rich people living above parking garages and the end of neighborhoods, which is particularly painful in a place like SF which was such a vibrant cultural center. The addition of MCOR confirmed this.

LA night two saw "Death to My Hometown" following TPL, and then in (of all places) Mohegan Sun, he threw "Seeds" in there. "Seeds" is a song he should be playing every single night, and I don't know why it came out in a casino in Connecticut, but I'll take it. "Ghosts"/LTY/”Seeds”/TPL is something else. It is a vivid and correct reflection of America in 2024 and I love that it is, again, using new material alongside one of the most underrated songs in his catalog along with one of the most important and profound songs he has ever written. 

These 10 shows had tighter sets that still had room to breathe and I believe the key to that is the disappearance of the epics: “Kitty's Back” and “E Street Shuffle” were nowhere to be seen. One might wonder if these lengthy numbers were both in the set almost every night in 2023 because the bandleader was under the weather and they allowed him to be engaged but not have to be physical and gave him a little break. As noted above, I heard a few reports from sources I implicitly trust and who have decades of Bruce show experience that this band was not as tight musically as one would expect from Bruce Springsteen (which the recordings also validate), and instead of spending days of rehearsal time trying to get 18 musicians in line one might decide to give up on the more complex pieces. And, also, again, he's clearly, visibly, energetically in a different space right now, another aspect conveyed to me by the people I've spoken to about these shows (and that you can hear on the tapes), and he doesn't need the respite those 10-12 minute songs were giving him. 

I remained puzzled by the continued presence of “Lonesome Day” in this set. I believe it is where it is because it's an early way to raise energy from the crowd with something that isn't too full throttle and isn't a warhorse - the "it's alright/it's alright/yeah" chorus. But my problem is that it is so so so indelibly part of the story of The Rising for me that I cannot think of anything but its original meaning.

Maybe my read is wrong and its presence so high up in the set is Bruce acknowledging that everything sucks and the world is burning but we're going to keep going, we have to acknowledge the world in which we live but we also have to keep doing our work – Patti Smith said something along these lines when she played a show the night the bombing started in Ukraine, but she also acknowledged it onstage explicitly, and it's a common theme she returns to regularly in her newsletter. If that’s the case and he didn’t take advantage of the bully pulpit of E Street Radio to expand on that, that’s on him, because the rest of the set doesn’t allow one to easily draw that inference. 

Part of that I think is because the back half of the set is so loaded with gigantic hits, it’s like he’s trying to reward the crowd for sitting through the beginning. I wish he wouldn’t do that but he’s not going to turn into Dylan overnight and just start doing whatever he wants to do onstage, audience reaction be damned – plus, I’d argue that he is actually already doing whatever he wants to do, which includes “More cowbell!” jokes and whatever other hijinks are on hand. But Bruce Springsteen has always had the ability to accurately read an audience and he doesn’t function well in an E Street Band setting if he’s not getting the right energy back from the crowd. He never wanted to be a nostalgia act and Bruce fucking Springsteen has more to say than just a string of feel-good hits. But 20,000 people aren’t coming to see him play “Long Walk Home,” and if the set is too challenging for a crowd, an audience that is already treating a concert as the background to that evening’s conversation is just going to double down. Then you're playing in front of a noisy and inattentive crowd and that sucks for everyone.

Once again he tried to make "Don't Play That Song" work in the set before taking his own advice and, thankfully, not playing the song. (I have already written about this, so let’s not rehash it.) "Nightshift" remained as the sole survivor from Only The Strong Survive, and it usually led into the next significant pairing in the set, "Last Man Standing" and "Backstreets." This is something that he used in 2023 but the difference is in the lead-in. In 2023, it usually came off of “E Street Shuffle” and “Johnny 99.” I love ESS but no set after 1974 requires two epics (both ESS and “Kitty’s Back”) and the artificially brightened and hokey “Johnny 99” of modern times is absolutely terrible and I wish it would vanish forever. I will never understand how a song about the death penalty turned into a full-blown musical theater number. I am a believer in the “if the man asks for a train, you give him a train” but “Johnny 99” is in the red on the parody meter. It’s not that serious topics can’t be addressed by anything except a dirge, it’s the particular overly bright and exaggerated quality of this version of “Johnny 99” that I find objectionable because it’s lazy. There are many other songs in Bruce Springsteen’s catalog where a 10 minute 30 second hoedown would enhance the audience’s experience. “Johnny 99” is not one of them, especially in a country and a world where extrajudicial killing continues apace. 

If you think I am taking this too seriously, this is the man who wrote Nebraska. Come on!

It's striking that in 2024, “Last Man Standing”/”Backstreets” would be prefaced by some combination of "Nightshift" and a heavier, contemplative number like "My City of Ruins" or "Racing In the Street". I don’t know that MCOR works thematically, but it definitely works dynamically, whereas “Racing” works because it’s always felt like an adjunct to “Backstreets,” it’s another aspect of the lives of those characters. “Nightshift” has stayed in the set, I believe, for many reasons: working with Curtis King, getting to be a soul singer, the tribute to Marvin Gaye, the contemplative and retrospective vibe of the song in general.

All of the above are positive improvements over 2023 and definite indicators that he hasn’t lost his skill in building a thoughtful and powerful setlist. Whether or not he wants to invest the energy in doing so is up to him. He’s got enough hits that he could play a full 30-song show full of them and most people would go home happy. 

I wish Patti Scialfa was at all the shows because it is a better performance when she is there, it always has been. Her appearance in Los Angeles was, I believe, part of the reason that first night was as good as everyone says it was. 

That is utterly amazing, and “Tougher Than The Rest” is also always worth the time of day. It is a more complete story when Patti Scialfa is there, which is illustrated by the run of set both nights in LA, how the interlude with Patti followed "The Promised Land." Bruce is happier when she is there. I have never bought the argument people made that he was “looser” when she was not there, as though she was some kind of stern taskmistress that had any kind of control over his onstage persona. It is the kind of thing that says more about the people who insisted on it than any kind of knowledgeable commentary.

Finally, let’s circle back to ticket prices. I don’t want to hear from anyone about watching the drop and getting in at face or under face and how “easy” it was. Those things did happen but they required fanatic attention to the ticket market, and “face” was still at a significant markup compared to what we were used to paying. Also, there were cases where it simply did not pan out, like in Los Angeles. 

There were GA’s available at face for Syracuse on Ticketmaster for weeks but every time I looked at those $368.50 tickets (the all-inclusive price), all I could think was that I bought two tickets – one with a VIP add-on – to see Bob Dylan in a 1200 person club for less than that one GA ticket. Those shows – where he has not changed the setlist since the tour started, with the exception of one song that can change from night to night – were life-changing, and I was just honestly hopping on the chance to see Bob Dylan in a small venue, I am not any kind of diehard. But those shows were on another level.   

My current plan is to hit the first Pittsburgh show in August and then make decisions on the Canadian arena shows after that. I am not going to stadiums anymore for anyone and I hate rock music in ballparks, a venue with the absolute worst sightlines for concerts. Add to that the fact that you can’t just buy a reasonably-priced GA and make the best of it, this isn’t a gamble I’m willing to take. Like, give me the chance to complain about not hitting the lottery again and being stuck back at the soundboard. At least that didn’t cost $400. 

There’s nothing I’d love more than to go to Pittsburgh and find it so compelling I hit up the rest of the arena shows for 2024. But there are plenty of people out there for whom these shows are the greatest thing they’ve ever seen in their life, and if my dude wants a victory lap, he’s certainly earned the right to it. I just always hope for more.

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