Decades of performance have only made “The Boss” that much more worthy of the title he defends with every gut-busting, nonstop show that the 62-year-old Bruce Springsteen slays, along with the one-and-only untouchable E Street Band. During his triumphant Aug. 29 concert at Vernon Downs, the energy never lulled, the set list never slacked and Springsteen never failed to impress with a voice that throws listeners back to his 1970s self.
Some artists mellow as they age. Springsteen, however, chose instead to throw the legacy of rock’n’roll on his back, carry it along and let it keep him youthful—proven by his stamina on stage in every facet of performance. He wails when he sings, grinds out the guitar, backbends to the floor, conducts the band and consequently shows every rock’n’roll frontman out there that this is how it’s done.
Although tickets dictated a 7:30 p.m. start time, it was no surprise to not see Springsteen and company until about 8 p.m. when the three big (as in huge) screens on stage showed the E Streeters walking on. The stage was absolutely massive, with one screen spanning the entire horizontal length and two others on either side hanging vertically. While the players were specks to anyone back near the concession area, the screens helped most viewers feel close to the action.
There were exceptions, alas, as several handicapped audience members found out upon their arrival. They were told there was no handicapped section and were therefore unable to physically see the show at all. Further problems occurred at the gate as the Will Call window had been switched the day of the show, with passes lost in the mix-up. It was unfortunate that such a spotless musical performance was marred for some by logistical failures.
On the flip side, the concert helped raise thousands of dollars for the Food Bank of Central New York. And 2,300 tickets were donated to the active military service members and their families stationed at Fort Drum as well as serving the New York state National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard.
The crowd, topping out at about 19,000, was a relatively small gig for an arena-rocking band that can fill 65,000 seats in Giants Stadium. But the beauty of Springsteen is he can make nearly any seat in the house a great one—whether it’s among the in-the-pit stage-side fanatics or nosebleed, mile-away rockers.
Springsteen didn’t waste time getting into the meat of the set. The first three songs proved explosive: “Out in the Street,” “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City” and “Hungry Heart.” The audience seemed timid during the sing-along section of “Hungry Heart,” perhaps caught off-guard by its early spot in the set. Luckily, they warmed up and progressively became more animated and vocal as the night wore on.
Sign requests were happily accepted by Springsteen, who literally went among the crowd and collected a stack of them. Those signs inspired performances of rarer cuts like the tour’s premiere of “Stand on It”; a wild, rocking “I’m a Rocker”; “Frankie,” which Springsteen reminded was about fireflies as he asked the crowd to lift their cell phones to light up the field; and the massive-sounding, dance-inducing “Open All Night.”
As the tour has continued throughout the summer, it seems the set lists have backed off Springsteen’s material from his still-new Columbia CD Wrecking Ball, although not completely. “We Take Care of Our Own” kicked off a run of new tracks, which also included the New Jersey anthem about the demolition of the old Giants Stadium, “Wrecking Ball,” and the Irish-infused “Death to My Hometown.” Later on, the slow and beautifully all-American “Jack of All Trades” and rowdy “Shackled and Drawn” would also make their way through the speakers.
Longtime fans were well served by a set list that covered many bases, including “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The E Street Shuffle,” “Human Touch” (another song performed for the first time on the tour) and “Darlington County.” “Prove It All Night” also ranked as a crowd favorite thanks to the 1978 guitar/piano intro and fiery guitar solos tossed between Nils Lofgren, Steven Van Zandt and Springsteen. E Street was on fire.
The 15-piece band was tighter than ever, powered by the cannon smacks of Max Weinberg’s drum set, fierce keys, organ, percussion, violin, bass and double guitars. Not to forget a loud and proud horn section that included Jake Clemons in place of his late uncle, Clarence Clemons, and several backup singers that contributed a gospel edge.
Springsteen frequently commented on the perfection of the night: brisk, but warmed by the many bodies squeezed together and highlighted by a nearly full moon hanging in the sky. He talked about ghosts, reminded his fans to live life, enjoy life and remember those they love. He led by example in the gigantic encore, as “Thunder Road” opened the seven-song scorcher that included “Born to Run,” “Rosalita,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Quarter to Three.”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” hit an emotional nerve when the Boss reminded the audience of some of the ghosts he had mentioned earlier. He raised the microphone in the air and let the crowd roar for “The Big Man,” Clemons, who appeared in videos and photos across the huge screens on stage. When Springsteen was pleased enough with the audience’s response, he broke furiously back into the tune and wrapped up with a number the band used to close with “way back in the day,” “Quarter to Three” into “Twist and Shout.”Springsteen shows are inspiring yet demanding: They’re long (this one ran nearly four hours), they’re intense, the energy is phenomenal. And as hard as Springsteen and the E Street Band are working, they make the audience work as well. Voices sing out, arms are raised, bodies are moving and for a few hours everyone in that venue believes everything happening in front of them. It proves that rock’n’roll is alive, breathing and getting carried along by a certain Boss.