In a hot and outdated building that worked against the band, the fans and sound reproduction, Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band stayed invigorated for 2½ hours, hitting their highest marks on the oldest material and providing a night geared toward singing along with anthems. In the 14th show on the current tour, material from the month-old “Magic” album continues to come into focus; alterations, minor ones, improve some numbers, while the lack of adjustments dampen others.
It’s a rare night that Springsteen elevates “Born to Run” to tour-de-force level from mandatory run-through, and Monday at Sports Arena he gave it a straight emphatic reading accompanied by a chillingly tight perf from the band. He thrives on raising the intensity a notch here and there, and despite the fact that the show was nearly over, Springsteen started his best-known song at fever-pitch level and executed it on that plane to its conclusion. That final spark played a significant role in sending the crowd home encouraged and enlightened; a nasty bass rumble had ruined “Backstreets” and portions of other songs; the ensemble coasted through “The Promised Land” and hit rough patches in some songs, recovering time after time by playing a spirited final 20 or so bars of music to close out tunes on high notes.
Some of that owes to the without-out-a-net approach Springsteen has taken to performing for 35 years. As the faithful know, no two shows are alike even if they include the same songs or the same buildup to a climax — none of it is routine as evidenced by the high regard reserved for Springsteen’s early ’80s shows at this venue.
The Springsteen m.o. since reuniting with the E Street Band at the end of the ’90s is to elevate the energy over the course of a three-song block early in the set. Monday it started with the sixth song, a focused and growling John Lee Hooker-boogie-style “Reason to Believe,” followed by an intense “Candy’s Room” and a glorious “She’s the One,” an oft-overlooked gem from “Born to Run” that is emerging as this tour’s centerpiece.
Eight songs in, including “No Surrender” in the nightly revolving second slot, and Springsteen had the crowd forgetting the problems of the surroundings; he established a visceral connection between musicians and audience through borrowed elements from ’50s and ’60s rock — a Bo Diddley rhythm, the Hooker boogie, Phil Spector bells and beats, heart-pounding guitar solos. Awash in anthems, he galvanized the crowd without making them think.
But something quickly fell out of sync as he altered his relationship with the crowd. He has delivered nightly, as a prelude to “Livin’ in the Future,” a smart speech about the Bush administration compromising civil liberties and attacking the Constitution in the years since 9/11. On Monday, he delivered his rant in his preacher persona — a high-strung shouter of a man — which contrasted with the calm and rational delivery he used in New York two weeks ago; considering the low level of energy in the song, the more timid approach blends more easily with the message and the song, which felt flat after such a rousing introduction in L.A.
Similarly, another political tune from “Magic,” the striking “Last to Die,” continues to have a flaccid effect in concert. It felt that way in New York and here again — one of the more directly written songs on the album, it comes off ineffective and droning in concert. It’s the one tune that requires a re-thinking if Springsteen wants to make his political points as clear in concert as he does on record.
Conversely, Springsteen has improved “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” by singing it in a higher key (vocals on the record sound like they’re at the wrong speed), and the hearty yet gentle “Devil’s Arcade” benefits from spot-on enunciation and diffuse backing.
The other sharply realized oldie was a showstopper from the band’s early days when Springsteen was attempting to frame Dylanesque lyrics with R&B handiwork. “Thundercrack,” a 1972 tune that never appeared on a Springsteen album until the release of “Tracks” in 1998, has been getting considerable play on this tour, usually accompanied by a story about how it was played in a local venue. Monday’s anecdote concerned an Ahmanson Theater showcase in 1973, the first time he and his bandmates had traveled on an airplane. It was a fun reminder of the wild and the innocent days, when Springsteen wrote about a much smaller world, one that his characters were condemned to before he got the notion that there was a way out. It’s one of the few songs in the night that isn’t about change, escape or regret, and it shines in a different light from the rest.
Too, it’s a gentle reminder for some in this crowd, overwhelmingly over the age of 40, that Springsteen’s long history is paved in sincerity, whether it’s given a dance beat or a solo guitar accompaniment. His point that lost souls can be celebrated and saved is not only valid, it provides hope for his throng, united by the hits and guided by his vision.