“I was raised outta steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago,” Bruce Springsteen sang Saturday night at Louisville’s KFC Yum Center. The line, which introduced the title tune to his current album, Wrecking Ball, was telling. Penned initially as a makeshift last chorus for Giants Stadium in New Jersey before its demolition in 2010, the line could be viewed as somewhat autobiographical, especially when the veteran rocker they still call The Boss dressed it with the musical reverence and brassy vigor of a reconstituted, 17-member E Street Band. The tune morphed into a rally cry that was half resolute and half defiant (“Let me see what you got; bring on your wrecking ball”), but it also was a catalyst for an evening full of the intensely animated and physical rock ’n’ roll that Springsteen and the E Streeters have dealt in for decades.
On Saturday night, The Boss delivered the goods again with a performance that ran for 3¼ hours. Springsteen engaged the crowd in a sing-along chant before the stage lights even came on for the show-opening Shackled and Drawn. He exited after the finale of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out looking as if he could have gone another couple of rounds. Not bad for a guy who just turned 63.
In many ways, this was not business as usual for The Boss. Since its last Kentucky visit, his E Street Band lost two key members – keyboardist Danny Federici (who died in 2008, and was ably replaced last night by Charlie Giordano) and saxophonist and longtime Springsteen foil Clarence Clemons (who died in 2011). It took a five-man horn section to replace Clemons, although tenor saxophonist Jake Clemons neatly replicated his uncle’s trademark solos during Born to Run, Badlands, She’s the One and other staples.
Elsewhere, new and old hands had plenty of room to shine. Longtime drummer Max Weinberg and new percussionist Everett Bradley co-piloted the lean soul-funk charge of what was perhaps the evening’s biggest surprise, 1973’s The E Street Shuffle. Guitarist Nils Lofgren fortified Because the Night with a solo that had him physically spinning in circles before its conclusion. Pianist Roy Bittan’s boogie-woogie runs turned the elemental Nebraska rocker Open All Night into a blast of rockabilly-charged swing. And new vocalist Michelle Moore added a luster of gospel and even hip-hop to the finest of the Wrecking Ball tunes, Rocky Ground.
Springsteen’s wife and co-vocalist, Patti Scialfa, was absent though very much in the Bluegrass. She is in Lexington this weekend with daughter Jessica Springsteen, who is competing in the Alltech National Horse Show at the Kentucky Horse Park.
And what of The Boss himself? Well, as usual, he was a force of nature. Three songs into the evening – during Hungry Heart, to be exact – he was in the middle of the arena floor so he could crowd-surf back to the stage. For Spirit in the Night, he was rock evangelist (“Can you feel the spirit?”) and for the sloppy but tremendously fun encore of Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), he was mugging and merrily cutting up with co-guitarist Steve Van Zandt.
The concert’s set list also favored the joyous more than usual. Even My City in Ruins (dedicated to displaced victims of the Jersey Shore, decimated earlier in the week by Hurricane Sandy) and Land of Hope and Dreams (which Springsteen performed Friday on prime-time TV as part of a storm-relief benefit) were delivered with lightened tones of Impressions-flavored soul.
But the highlights were still the heavies. Atlantic City took on a deeply anthemic feel (a neat trick for a song that wasn’t exactly a jingle for tourism in the first place), the Wrecking Ball rant Death to My Hometown was delivered as something of a Celtic brawl, and the seldom-played Streets of Philadelphia was delivered with chilled but ultra-focused solemnity.
It was all there: rock nostalgia, performance vitality, social (but, refreshingly, not political) urgency, musical might, an epic song catalogue, a killer band and a frontman that made it all seem ageless and effortless.
It was all in a night’s work for Jersey’s man of steel.