Bruce Springsteen was nearly an hour late starting his show at D.C.'s Verizon Center Sunday night, and the crowd was getting a little restless. But when he finally took to the stage about 8:30 p.m., it took all of about 30 seconds for that frustration to be forgotten.
Nobody puts on shows like The Boss, and no one appreciates them more than his fans. In their eyes, the man can do no wrong. Not that he usually does.
From the opening chords of "We Take Care of Our Own," the same song he used to open the 2012 Grammy Awards broadcast, Springsteen and his 17-piece E Street Band rocked out like nobody's business, with an energy and enthusiasm that belies the fact they've been doing this for some 35 years.
Rarely letting up through a set that included 26 songs, consisting of equal parts old standards ("Born to Run," "Thunder Road," "Dancing In the Dark"), new calls to arms (8 songs from his most recent album, "Wrecking Ball") and the deliciously obscure ("Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" "Seaside Bar Song" from 1999's "18 Tracks"), Springsteen and the E-Streeters kept the crowd on its feet for pretty much three hours straight.
Is there any performer who gives more of himself to his audience -- sometimes literally, as when he rides a sea of hands from the floor back to the stage, or when he picks young fans from the audience for an impromptu dance or sing-along? The band was tight (nothing new there), while the extra horns and percussion (even Springsteen pounded a bass drum on one song) gave some of the songs an extra sense of rhythmic majesty.
True, there was a hint of melancholy in some of the performances, especially when it came time for Clarence Clemons' blistering sax solos, and the Big Man wasn't there. But his nephew, Jake, was, and if his sax playing wasn't quite the force of nature to match his late uncle's, it was close enough. When the younger Clemons provided the piercing sax intro for the third song of the evening, "Night," the audience spiritually lifted him up on their shoulders.
Yes, the moment was emotional, but it was later trumped during "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," when Springsteen stopped the song cold after singing the line, "When the change was made uptown / And the big man joined the band." For a full minute at least, the audience clapped and cheered as loudly as their hands and lungs would allow. It was a lovely, heartfelt moment for everyone there.
It seems that Springsteen's shows these days are equal parts celebration and revival meeting; clearly, Springsteen is troubled by some of the directions the country is taking (which may explain why "Born in the U.S.A.," a song as misunderstood as it is revered, seems to be absent from the current tour). Early on, he explained the mission of the evening: "We want to bring the news to you with a beat." And the news, conveyed through such pessimistic (if never totally devoid of hope) songs as "Wrecking Ball," "The Promise," "Easy Money" and "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," certainly has its dark -- even angry -- side.
It's clear Bruce Springsteen strongly believes in both the redemptive and restorative powers of rock and roll -- the former as demonstrated in such go-for-broke classics as "Born to Run," where victory lies in smashing the barriers life sets up, the former by such songs of hope in the face of despair as "My City in Ruins."
At times, that despair threatened to overwhelm Sunday's show. But Springsteen's too good a showman to let that happen. Whenever things threatened to get too down, he'd throw in an unexpected gem from his vast playlist -- it was great hearing "Adam Raised a Cain" and (in response to an audience request) "Out in the Street."
Later, when he followed talk of playing New York's Apollo Theatre with a rousing, feel-good medley of Smokey Robinson's "The Way You Do the Things You Do" and Wilson Pickett's "634-5789," there was more than music in the air. There was magic, pure and simple, as only Bruce Springsteen can provide it.
We Take Care of Our Own
Death in my Hometown
My City of Ruins
Seaside Bar Song
Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?
Jack of All Trades
Adam Raised a Cain
She's the One
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
The Way You Do the Things You Do / 634-5789
American Skin (41 Shots)
Because the Night
We are Alive
Out in the Street
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Land of Hope and Dreams
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out