There’s a Bruce Springsteen quote on the wall of the National Constitution Center, which is currently housing an exhibit called From Asbury Park to the Promised Land. It reads: “The American idea is a beautiful idea. It needs to be preserved, served, protected and sung out. Sung out.”
Four miles south at the sold-out Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday night, Springsteen went to work, putting enthusiastic emphasis on those final words.
The nearly three hour show that ensued was - remarkably, considering the gravity of the State of the Union subject matter on his defiant new album Wrecking Ball, and the fact that, let’s face it people, the guy is now 62 years old - every bit the ecstatic revival meeting and master class in rock and soul catharsis that Springsteen’s ardent fans have come to expect over the course of a 40 year career.
Yes, with the support of his now 16 strong E Street Band - augmented with two back up singers, a percussionist and a five man horn section, including the late Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake Clemons, who acquitted himself just fine on saxophone - he ventured out to sing into the middle of the Wells Fargo floor before crowd surfing all the way back to the stage.
Yes, he slid on his knees across the stage, just like in the old days. And yes, he included a pair of especially-for-Philly nuggets from back in the day: The roller rink organ rarity “Seaside Bar Song.“ which he prefaced by saying “I played this at the Main Point… I think,” and the joyous Dylanesque ramble “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street,” from his 1973 debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.
(There was also a Celtic-tinged rocked-out take on Nebraska's "Atlantic City," that was a late addition to the set list. The song, whose hope-against-hope theme fit in nicely with the concerts thematics, might have been added due to its "they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night line" or perhaps to spite New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie, the Springsteen superfan who the day before had called for the Boss to play Atlantic City's new Revel casino and plans to attend the Wells Fargo show on Thursday but was absent last night.)
At the start, Springsteen introduced himself as “Mr. Badlands, the Jersey Devil himself …His latest record stood on the top of the Billboard chart for ONE consecutive week!” And in the end, he tore the house down with the old-school R & B one-two punch of Eddie Floyd’s “Raise Your Hand” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” taking to the crowd and sitting down in the row in front of this critic to have a swig of somebody’s beer during the former.
But amidst all those hijinks, the Boss also took the time to pose probing musical questions about the condition of the populist, communal ethos that he sees as being at the heart of the American idea.
And he went looking for answers. “Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?” he sang, over Max Weinberg’s pounding drums, in the opening salvo, “We Take Care Of Our Own,” which suggests that we should, and concludes that we don’t. (On the concourse, volunteers for FoodTrust.org were collecting cash, doing their best to help out.)
Later, he banged a big marching band bass drum himself, on the downcast soul ballad “Jack Of All Trades,” an only moderately successful Wrecking Ball tune that stepped up its game with mournful elegance in its live version.
This iteration of the E Street Band has more vocal power than ever, and Springsteen put it to use in digging deep into gospel and soul grooves. He prefaced “My City Of Ruins,” a song originally written for a crumbling Asbury Park that fit seamlessly on 2002’s post-9/11 spirit-lifter The Rising, by saying “It’s good to be back in the City of Brotherly Love. Brotherly love, that’s hard to come by these days.”
For years, Springsteen has spoken like a preacher in the pulpit, ministering to his flock. And with singers Cindy Mizelle and Curtis King adding their voices to the mix, he has a more powerful arsenal of vocal weapons to make a 20,000 seat arena seem like church.
He brought that power to bear directly on a soul music interlude that included covers of Smokey Robinson’s “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789,” as well as his own gospel-suffused songs like “Land Of Hope and Dreams.“
And a spiritual element was clearly present in “American Skin (41 Shots),” the song that Springsteen wrote after the death of Amadou Diallo, who was shot and killed by four police officers in New York in 1999. In introducing it, Springsteen mentioned slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, and the song that turns on the phrase, “You can get killed just for living in your American skin” was clearly performed in his honor.
Not everything was seamless. The Smokey Robinson segment could have been more silky, less shouted out. The band has only been on tour for a couple of weeks, and there were reports of uneven sound in different pockets of the arena. “Rocky Ground,“ the gospel-rap experiment that works so well on Wrecking Ball, is still coming together live, with singer-MC Michelle Moore joining Springsteen on stage to drop 16 well-placed bars of rhyme into the middle of the song.
It’s a work in progress in performance, but deserved a better reaction than the smattering of boos that came from disgruntled hip-hop haters. Rap has been around for nearly as long as Springsteen, but part of his fan base, it seems, would still prefer that it didn’t exist.
There was another moment of Philadelphia booing, but it was more good natured. It came during “Wrecking Ball,” a song written in 2009 to mark the then-impending destruction of Giants Stadium, with Bruce fans letting him have it, as he egged them on, after the line “Here where the blood is spilled, the arena’s filled, and Giants played the games.”
“Wrecking Ball,” the second song Springsteen and the E Streeters performed, set the scene for the expertly paced evening that followed. It’s a song about decay and hard times and how, inevitably, “all our youth and beauty has been given to the dust,” and there‘s nothing we can do about it.
Nothing, that is, except look that instrument of fateful destruction in the eye and say: “C‘mon and take your best shot, let me see what you‘ve got / Bring on your wrecking ball.” Take a good look around and assess just how bad things are, and along with your rock and roll band, find a way to celebrate all the good that remains. That’s what Springsteen does, and - still - he does it better than anybody else.
Springsteen and the E Street Band play the Wells Fargo Center again on Thursday night.
Previously: Bruce Springsteen setlist Follow in The Mix on Twitter here