Bruce Springsteen may well have miscalculated earlier this year when he released Working On A Dream, one of the most hopeful and downright happy sounding albums of his career just as a cratering economy was rendering the songs of struggle and strife that are his stock in trade more resonant than they have sounded in years.
But like a canny coach able to make necessary adjustments at halftime, Springsteen has headed out on the road - where he and the E Street Band arrived in South Philadelphia on Tuesday for the first of back to back shows at the Spectrum - with an altered game plan that wisely plays to his strengths.
He got straight to the point with "Badlands," with Max Weinberg's booming drums driving home the dread of "a fear so real" while the surging song held on for dear life to "the faith that could save me." And early on, the Boss laid out the business plan for what turned out to be a smartly conceived, sharply executed and
cathartic-as-ever 2 hour and 45 minute show.
In a preacherly "Working On A Dream" spoken interlude in which he made "a solemn vow to rock the Spectrum one more time," the 59 year old Jersey rocker explained that he and his E Streeters aimed to turn fear into love, despair into hope, and use sadness as a raw material to build "a house of joy."
(Later on, he praised the "democraticness" of the intimate-by-arena-standards venue, which is slated for demolition at the end of this year, as being "ideal for rock shows" and said "it's a treat to be in this lovely old building before it comes down. So we salute the Spectrum.")
To aid in turning the 40-plus-year-old arena with cramped concourses and not enough ladies rooms into a joyful house, Springsteen unveiled a host of "Philadelphia special" highlights, not to mention a frantically effective final encore of "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)."
Rarities included a by-request "Fire," a smoldering and satisfying "The Fever," and a rollicking "Mountain Of Love," which, Springsteen noted, he frequently played at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr in the early '70s. And for good measure, Springsteen threw in a surprise encore cover of The Dovells' South Street-citing "You Can't Sit Down."
All those crowd pleasers sated the set-list watching Springsteenophiles who could go home assured that, yes, Philadelphia is still the place where the Boss pulls out all the stops. But the show's emotional foundation was constructed out of the down-and-out material that followed "Working On A Dream," which was one of only four songs played from the new album, along with a campy "Outlaw Pete," moody "The Wrestler" and tender "Kingdom Of Days," which was dedicated to Springsteen's wife Patti Scialfa, who was absent due to injuries sustained when she recently fell off a horse that, he joked, "she borrowed from Madonna."
"Working" was succeeded by "Seeds," the Reagan recession era song about out-of-work Texas oil workers, that builds to a horn-fueled rage as it draws a picture of "tents pitched on the highway in the dirty moonlight, and I don't know where I'm going to sleep tonight."
That was of a piece with "Johnny 99," the Nebraska tale of a condemned killer who goes willingly to the electric chair which has been transformed into careening locomotive fired by Nils Lofgren's stellar lap steel guitar and Soozie Tyrell's swinging fiddle. And that song, in turn, gave way to "The Ghost Of Tom Joad," the Grapes of Wrath-inspired title song from Springsteen's downbeat 1995 album. It also benefited from a fleshed-out full-band arrangement that once again demonstrated Springsteen's knack for writing songs whose somber subject matter is counteracted by defiantly resilient music.
This go round, E Street ensemble behind Springsteen includes backup singers Cindy Mizelle and Curtis King, keyboard player Charles Giordano (who has replaced original band member Danny Federici, who died last year), and Weinberg's 18-year-old son Jay. The young drummer handled himself ably on his father's throne for an eight-song stretch in preparation for covering for him full time while the elder Weinberg makes good on his commitment to play with Conan O'Brien when the late night host takes over The Tonight Show next month.
Mizelle and King, who were both members of Springsteen's mid-decade Seeger Sessions band, haven't yet been fully integrated into the E Street arsenal. But their voices lent soul power to "Hard Times Come Again No More," the pre-Civil War ballad written by Stephen Foster that, Springsteen said, showed that "the more things change they more they stay the same."
That song was delivered with a folkie yet fierce snarl, and it kicked off a 40-minute encore that included a strutting "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," as well as the communal celebrations "Land Of Hope And Dreams" and the Irish jig "American Land." Each of those two were spirited, even if they're starting to feel like overused leftovers from previous tours.