At the close of the official set last night -- before the epic multi-song encore -- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band ripped through a riviting "No Surrender". With photos from the band's career projected up behind them, they made the subtle explicit. "There's a war outside still raging/You say it ain't ours anymore to win," he sang, as they celebrated the life of the band as they put it -- for now and probably forever -- loudly to bed.
Springsteen was serious and joyful at the same time, all night long. Starting off with the celebration of the mysteriously interesting "Wisconsin night" of "Cadillac Ranch" and ending almost three hours later with a soulful rendition of Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher", he was a man on a mission. No "Are You Loose?" tonight because he wasn't; savoring the last moments of the most-talented band of rock musicians to ever come together by draining each perfect note from every player ready to give it to him. After three more shows -- in exactly a week -- this tour will be over, with nothing further planned.
But it wasn't just about the band. Springsteen also engaged his other partners in his life's work -- his fans -- in every song. He pointed to various people in the crowd all night long, waving "hi", pretending like he was encountering long lost friends. He also gave up his body more than he has since he was crawling up the aisle during "Spirits in the Night" back at the Uptown in his famous first trip here in 1975; running down the side of the crowd to a small riser in the middle of the floor and letting the crowd in the front pit pass him back up to the stage during "Hungry Heart". Always the earnest populist, Bruce knows his strength as a showman has always derived from his abilty to connect, and he made the most of it this night.
The centerpiece of this show was the end-to-end playing of Born to Run, one of the greatest albums ever made. The idea of playing a whole album is an interesting one in concept, but less so in practice. Sure, you get eight of the best songs in anyone's catalog, in their original context. But the spontaneity of a usual Springsteen show is out the window for 50 minutes as one song follows the other. Also, some of the treatments of the songs have changed so much through the years -- I'm thinking of "10th Avenue Freezeout" -- that you wonder why it was ever placed between "Thunder Road" and "Night" in the first place. "Born to Run" seems jarring in the middle, unless you remember that it led off Side Two back when there were two sides to an album and you had to get up and flip the thing over. After watching the same exercise to much the same effect the night before at the Steely Dan show -- Royal Scam, all the way through -- I think I'd just as soon these guys go back to trying to surprise me.
Which he did, after he got back in control towards the end of the set. "Into the Fire", the most explicit of the The Rising's 9/11 songs and "The Rising" itself set a surprisingly serious tone before the "No Surrender" pseudo-finale.
But the highlights were both in the encore, with a long "Kitty's Back" and "Rosalita". During "Kitty's Back", Bruce led the individual band members in their solos, giving guest trumpeter Curt Ramm some extra time to stretch out and giving pianist Roy Bittan his full attention for a solo that must have gone on for over two minutes. It reminded me of the first time I saw him at the Bomb Scare show back in '75, when he left the stage and sat in a seat in the first row while he just admired his band. There was something he wanted to get from Bittan last night, and he was getting it. Again, savoring the moments.
With old age, Clarence's health, Max Weinberg's TV career and numerous projects pulling the E-Streeters in different directions, they'll never put this thing together again. Since they reunited from the last major break in 2000, Springsteen and the band has produced some of the greatest concerts of their career, as the strength of The Rising as a record and the incredible Rising tour gave them a momentum that carried them all the way through to last night.
They've done all they need to do and said all there is to say. There ain't no more, and there doesn't have to be. Springsteen will be out with various solo projects and maybe he'll be able to cobble together a better replacement band than he did in '92 or stumble into another interesting project like the Seeger Sessions. But Springsteen with E Street Band was a once-in-a-generation happy accident, both for him and for us. And they shared the results with us last night, one more time, with joy and pride and passion.
UPDATE: The most pleasantly chaotic moment of the night is up on YouTube. After the first bow, Bruce sees a sign for "Living Proof", a song about the joys of fatherhood from one of his non-E-Street projects in the misbegotten early '90s. The band acted like they never played or heard the song before (if so, what's this?) and they fumbled around like a rehearsal until they found the groove -- or a groove, anyway. Bruce holds up 1, then 4, then 5 fingers to let the band know where he is in the I-IV-V chord progression. It was an interesting way to watch he and the band work. The next song was..."Kitty's Back".