“Are you ready to go home?”
That was the question posed by Bruce Springsteen, 64 and still full of rock ’n’ roll fervor, as his performance Wednesday night at the U.S. Bank Arena in Cincinnati hit the three-hour mark. The Boss certainly had every right to think everyone was. He and his battalion-sized E Street Band (18 members, but without the services of longtime guitarist Steve Van Zandt) had already hammered out a show full of the stamina and urgency that would have landed lesser artists in the ER. But there were still two songs to go before Springsteen called it a night. Both were covers bearing the emotive and stylistic duality that also distinguished the original material that drove this exhilarating but exhaustive performance.
The first was the Isley Brothers soul staple Shout, which the E Streeters injected with the same summery joy that pervaded Springsteen’s Waiting on a Sunny Day and Hungry Heart earlier in the evening. Then the band was dismissed leaving The Boss onstage with a pump organ to close with a mantra-like version of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream, a song Springsteen has made his own over the last decade. It revealed a meditative ambience that fueled the darker, more topical immediacy of his the original American Skin (41 Shots) during the show’s second hour.
One of the many fascinations of a Springsteen concert remains the ability of these extremes to sit so naturally next to each other. For example, Roy Bittan’s clear but quietly dramatic piano lines propelled the dark parable Lost in the Flood (a gem from Springsteen’s debut 1973 album Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and one of the night’s biggest surprises) but didn’t miss a beat as The Boss followed with the romantic epic Because the Night. Ditto for how the heartland anthem The Promised Land set up a New Orleans street parade version of Pay Me My Money Down that sent nearly all of the E Street Band’s auxiliary members (including a vocal trio and quintet of horns) to the front of the stage.
Of course, none of this properly sums up Springsteen’s still-outrageous command as a physical performer (shown by his crowd surfing journey from half-court on the arena floor early in the evening), raconteur/street preacher (an odd but hysterical story about automatic toilets that prefaced a seriously gospel-esque Spirit in the Night) and sobering protest singer (an electrified The Ghost of Tom Joad with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, a recent E Street draftee).
So, no. Even at the end of this 3¼-hour celebration – which opened with the brass and percussion rumble of High Hopes and included no intermission or encores – no one was ready to go home. Mind you, everyone – audience and artist – appeared wiped out as the clock hit 11. But that’s what great rock ’n’ roll does. It continues to nourish your consciousness long after your body tells you to split.