Rock Concert Review: Bruce Springsteen at TD Garden — Largely Choreographed and Celebratory

By Paul Robicheau

So yeah, mortality was a heavy theme in Bruce Springsteen’s passion play — or what he could still impressively summon at 73 after rocking oft-mythical local shows for five decades.

Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt at TD Garden. Photo: Paul Robicheau

There was an extraordinary moment in the middle of “Backstreets” at TD Garden Monday where Bruce Springsteen made his eyes water. Lids clenched shut, he turned a mantra around the song’s “Until the end” lyric into musing about a box of personal artifacts from a departed friend. “The rest I’m carrying right here,” he said, tapping his guitar-picking hand brace against his chest, repeating “Until the end.” He finally opened his eyes, reared his head, and blinked into the spotlights.

It was one of a few moments where the legendary New Jersey rocker cracked a deeper plane of emotion in a largely choreographed, celebratory near-three-hour show with his E Street Band, expanded on many songs to 18 members. A more expected moment came when he delivered a sole soliloquy before a solo acoustic rendition of the new “Last Man Standing,” written after the death of the only other surviving member of the Castilles, Springsteen’s first band as a teenager. “At 15, it’s all tomorrows and hellos, and then later on, a lot more goodbyes,” he said. “It makes you realize how important living every moment of every day is…”

So yeah, mortality was a heavy theme in Springsteen’s passion play — or what he could still impressively summon at 73 after rocking oft-mythical local shows for five decades. There’s no guarantee that we’ll see him play Boston again with the E Street Band (they’re now slated for Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium on August 24 and 26), but he made this one count.

Even as fans seized the importance of living in a shared moment at the Garden, the show carried the weight of Springsteen letting Ticketmaster use “dynamic pricing’’ so that entrance to the kingdom soared to hundreds of dollars, disappointing his Everyman base. Some budget-savvy diehards who showed a little faith in magic for the night scored a deal about an hour before showtime when a smattering of behind-stage balcony seats popped up for $65 face value. Of course, that was eight times what I paid for my first Springsteen show at the Music Hall in 1977, yet it was a comparative break to be at least — as the saying goes — in the door. Springsteen’s stage was wide open on all sides and ringed with both speakers and video screens.

Bruce Springsteen at TD Garden. Photo: Paul Robicheau

The other issue on the road to Boston were recent Covid sit-outs for a few core E-Streeters before the postponement of three concerts “due to illness,” prompting speculation the Boss himself was waylaid. But three shows back, Springsteen was in solid voice as he and the E Street gang (minus his singer/wife Patti Scialfa, who has missed most dates) returned to fighting form with a mighty 27-song Garden concert that edged beyond the tour’s carefully constructed but unusually static set lists with “Out in the Street” and “Trapped.” That Jimmy Cliff cover began with the quiet pulse of Springsteen, pianist Roy Bittan (on synth) and drummer Max Weinberg before the full E Street Band — complete with five horns and four extra backup singers — swelled the chorus to climax, only to snap back to a whisper.

This wasn’t the four-hour marathon of Springsteen’s last area E Street visit at Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium in 2016 when — in the wake of his memoir — he broke open a watermelon of memories from his early ’70s albums of poetic boardwalk jive. But he kept a hearty slice from that era for mid-set. First came a 12-minute big band “Kitty’s Back,” Springsteen launching a solo turn with fierce bent-string sustain on his Telecaster while stroking his grayed hair with the other hand. Then the Boss became conductor, cuing the horn section in elephantine cacophony before the ensemble kicked “The E Street Shuffle” with a soul-funk groove echoing Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up,” sliding into a propulsive timbales/drums duel. A cover of the Commodores’ “Nightshift” was another nice touch, showcasing the backup singers, particularly in a call-and-response between Springsteen and Curtis King.

Granted, it took a while for the show to get there. Surging beyond a shrill initial sound mix, Springsteen set the night’s tone from the start with the brotherhood broadside “No Surrender” (sharing a mic with pirate-dressed foil Stevie Van Zandt) and the new “Ghosts,” emphasizing the line “By the end of the set, we leave no one alive.”

Springsteen sandwiched the title track to new album Letter to You with old favorites “Prove It All Night” (Jake Clemons coming forward to make his late uncle Clarence proud with his throaty tenor-sax tone) and “The Promised Land,” where the crowd shouted “Blow away!” as an enjoinder to its lyrics about dreams and lies. Finally, the door opened to “Candy’s Room,” a short palate cleanser that stands alone in Springsteen’s catalog as it builds from softly steamy to wildly passionate.

Not everything made sense when the larger group came aboard. A full-band version of Nebraska track “Johnny 99” turned a tad hokey when it shifted from a country roadhouse feel with Nils Lofgren on lap steel and Soozie Tyrell’s violin to the Boss implying a “Saturday Night Live” joke around singer King’s banging of a cowbell. And having 18 musicians on stage merely clogged up the Bo Diddley rhythm of “She’s the One.” But the main-set homestretch was still pure gold in the piano-led roam through “Backstreets,” “Because the Night” (made famous by co-writer Patti Smith, with Lofgren uncorking a fiery guitar solo), “She’s the One,” and even the newer-yet-seasoned songs of resilience “Wrecking Ball” and “The Rising.”

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at TD Garden. Photo: Paul Robicheau

When a crowd chant from set-closer “Badlands” bled into the start of the encore, Springsteen scratched his head and called to the band to play the night’s biggest surprise: the Standells’ Boston anthem “Dirty Water,” which sounded sweet with all the horns. Then, with a dedication to the staff of Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Springsteen took a trip down “Thunder Road,” starting with a resonant harmonica prelude and revving up a sing-along from the crowd, which gave new meaning to the line “You’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.”

House lights were up for a long finale that bridged “Born to Run,” “Rosalita (while long past hopping on pianos, the Boss friskily danced and mugged with his mates at the stage extension), stock crowd-pleasers “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark,” and the fun-time showstopper “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Springsteen accepted a leather jacket from a fan seated next to the stage and paced back, forth, and out to a mid-floor catwalk, where he stopped to point out pictures of fallen comrades Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici up on the screens.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at TD Garden. Photo: Paul Robicheau

In turn, when the band again bowed and finally exited, Springsteen strode back alone with acoustic guitar to close on a hushed note that returned to the night’s theme. “For death is not the end,” he sang, “and I’ll see you in my dreams.”

And after a request for fans to donate to the Boston Food Bank at the exits, Springsteen left the building.

Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at the Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.

No Comments

  1. Richard McHale on March 22, 2023 at 8:45 pm

    You must have been furiously taking notes, as this article seems to have captured ALL of the important elements of yet another epic 3-hour Springsteen/E Street Band show. Quite the enjoyable read. Thank you.

    • Paul Robicheau on March 23, 2023 at 1:44 pm

      Thanks, Richard… yes, I did take some notes, if not quite furiously.

      • Richard Loethen on March 24, 2023 at 5:32 am

        Thanks you guys enjoy all that money you make me I do not not need to be rich to be happy I live day by day as Lynyrd Skynyrd’s songs a’ Freebird& a SIMPLEMAN’

  2. Jon Garelick on March 22, 2023 at 8:47 pm

    “… broke open a watermelon of memories….” Don’t think I’ve heard that one before! Nice! I also like the well-considered qualifications about what otherwise sounds like a great night of live music.

    • Paul Robicheau on March 23, 2023 at 1:46 pm

      Thanks, Jon. Sometimes we get those juicy thoughts!

  3. Blake Maddux on March 23, 2023 at 11:11 am

    He played “Candy’s Room”? YES!!! Darkness On the Edge of Town is one of my favorite Bruce albums, even if I’ve never been all that keen on “Prove It All Night.”

    • Paul Robicheau on March 23, 2023 at 1:51 pm

      I would have liked to see Adam Raised a Cain again, but I’ll gladly take a trip to Candy’s Room any time — even if it loses some of its intimate dynamics when it’s played in a big arena.

  4. Richard Loethen on March 24, 2023 at 5:28 am

    Won’t be able to see Bruce when he comes to Phoenix,Az cannot afford the exorbitant ticket prices nowadays and before pandemic would go to about ten concerts a year and that was living on $870.00 a month

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