Mortality may be a central theme of Bruce Springsteen’s recent work, but at his concert with the E Street Band at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night: Despite several COVID-related bandmember absences and three recent show postponements for reasons unstated beyond the vague “illness,” the group isn’t going down without a fight.
Indeed, Springsteen took the stage at 7:50 pm looking healthy, fit, and ready to rumble, greeting the crowd with a “Philly, my people!” — a nod to his and the band’s deep South Jersey roots — as the band roared into the opening song, “No Surrender.”
At 73, Springsteen may not be a young man anymore but when he hits the stage, he still transforms into a rock and roll superhero, foisting his Fender like a sword and later ripping his shirt open, as if to quash any concerns about his health that arose with the vaguely explained postponements of the three shows before this one.
No mention was made on stage about the postponed show or what the “illness” might have been, but it seems an old-fashioned throat or respiratory ailment may have been the cause — Springsteen got a tad hoarse a few songs in, taking care with vocal arrangements on songs like “Kitty’s Back.” The 18-piece band was nearly at full strength — Springsteen’s wife, singer/guitarist Patti Scialfa, is still absent — but they filled the stage as always, guitarist Steven Van Zandt in his usual role as the Boss’ foil, mugging for the audience, clowning with Springsteen and saxophonist Jake Clemons on “Rosalita” and treating the crowd to a dazzling array of vintage guitars. Lead guitarist Nils Lofgren shined on “Because the Night,” Roy Bittan’s piano intro on “Backstreets” still summons chills, and Springsteen did some vamping on the song’s lyrics, talking about having a box of 45 records near his bed in a sweet interlude.
The show was easily the shortest one on the tour — with 25 songs in just over two and a half hours, that’s short by E Street standards — as the band got back into the groove after a few nights off. During “Ghosts,” Springsteen made it a point early on to engage early on by walking up a cat walk and sing “Count the band in, then kick into overdrive/ By the end of the set we leave no one alive.” From there, he launched into a ferocious “Prove it All Night” with guitar hero heroics on the solo, and a spare spotlight shone on Max Weinberg for the crashing intro of “Candy’s Room.”
Touching on the mortality theme, Springsteen brought backup singers Lisa Lowell, Michelle Moore, Curtis King and Ada Dyer to center stage for “Night Shift,” a Commodores song honoring Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson from his recent soul covers album, “Only the Strong Survive,” but picked up the mood with a joyous “E Street Shuffle,” marching around the stage with the horn section.
The playful moments continued, with a call and response chant for “more cowbell,” a romp through “Johnny 99, and Springsteen’s knowing grin as he sang “Wrecking Ball” — a song that references the New York Giants football team, which brought loud “boos” from Philadelphia Eagles fans in the crowd. A cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped” — performed for just the second time on the tour — elicited fist-pumping and a singalong.
He also took a moment to reflect on his life with the song “Last Man Standing,” from the 2020 album, “Letter to You,” talking wistfully about the late George Theiss from his first band, the Castiles.
“You only get one shot at life,” Springsteen said. “How at 15, everything is tomorrow, tomorrow and hello and goodbye, and later on there’s a lot more goodbyes. But it makes you realize how important living every moment of your life is. So be good to your loved ones, and be good to yourself and be good to this world we live in.”
But the mood shifted to a more celebratory remembrance for the encores, as photos of the late E Streeters Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici filled the screen during “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run,” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” Springsteen wrapped with the pensive, acoustic version of “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” and bid a fond farewell to Philadelphia.
Prove It All Night
Letter To You
The Promised Land
The E Street Shuffle
Last Man Standing
Because the Night
She’s the One
Born to Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
I’ll See You in My Dreams