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Notes from the road: Pittsburgh

Bruce Springsteen loves Pittsburgh, and The Burgh loves him back.

From the days at the Stanley Theatre (still there, different name) to the Soldiers and Sailors Hall and Nick’s Fat City, this has been a romance built to last. Sadly the iconic Civic Arena (aka The Igloo) is now a Wrecking Balled parking lot, but the shiny new joint across the street is, in fact, built on holy ground.

Walking into Consol Energy Center on Tuesday night, the big question was, how do you raise the bar on what happened in Charlotte? You do a completely different-themed show. And how is it that a man and a band that you first saw in 1976 can take you to the same heights in 2014? By proving it all night.

You would have had a better chance of winning the Pennsylvania Lottery than you would have had at guessing Tuesday’s first song. It was The Clash, and it wasn’t “London Calling.” To most in the audience, it was a total obscurity: a fierce “Clampdown.” From that point forward, it was everything you have ever loved about Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band and more: the iconic songs that are never short of exhilarating – “Badlands,” “The Promised Land,” “Born to Run” – and the sort of rarities, on-the-fly changes to the set list and requests that personalize each show.

Even the things you think you know about a Springsteen show are never givens. Usual encore number “Seven Nights to Rock” was upfront at No. 5, capping an incredible three-song run that began with the full-band “Johnny 99” and continued with the tour premiere of the now-rarely played “Stand on It.”Back to “Seven Night to Rock,” Patti stole the song, just as she did with “Talk to Me” at Virginia Beach 10 days earlier. Here, she was the tease, joining her husband at the center mic and stopping him in his tracks with the line, “A different boy every night.”

But as rare as “Stand on It” is, Springsteen pulled out an even bigger surprise – three times: After “Hungry Heart,” he fulfilled a sign request with a delightful “I Wanna Be With You,” performed only twice since 1999; opened the encores with a gorgeous solo piano rendition of “The Promise”; and made “Frankie Fell in Love” the middle of three songs played with Pittsburgh native Joe Grushecky.

A gut-wrenching “Back in Your Arms” after “I Wanna Be With You” signaled a change in tone, from the party atmosphere that opened the show to a sequence of songs that revealed the deeply moral and spiritual side to Springsteen’s music. From the economic ruin of nearby “Youngstown” to the social disconnect of “Radio Nowhere” to the pairing of “The Wall” and a refreshed “Born in the U.S.A.,” this portion of the show was both personal and universal in its execution.

Tuesday night, it was clear that Tom Morello was not just a great guitar player in the role of hired gun, but part of the fabric of the E Street Band; similarly, Joe Grushecky and his son, Johnny, are no longer simply guests, but part of the E Street family. In fact, on stage, Springsteen announced two shows at the aforementioned Soldiers and Sailors Hall in late May where Bruce will be the guest.

For veteran Pittsburgh audiences, Tuesday’s “Land of Hope and Dreams” felt especially appropriate because Consol sits on land once owned by the Church of the Epiphany that sits next door; for years, that Catholic church held a 2:30 a.m. Sunday Mass that often attracted, among others, the whores and gamblers of the night. Pittsburgh is no longer Steel Town. From McKeesport to Homestead, the mills where our fathers worked are all gone. But Bruce Springsteen’s love for this city endures. And he will always be one of us.

- Mike Collins and Andrew S. Hughes, Backstreets.com

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Notes from the road: Charlotte

A darkened stage, the band entering one by one, and that sense of anticipation —what will tonight’s show be like? What’s the first song? Before there was time to think about it too much, spotlights illuminated Bruce Springsteen and Roy Bittan, and there were the opening chords of “Iceman,” a fan favorite from Tracks, which to this date had been performed live only once by Bruce and never by the E Street Band. The stunning performance was reminiscent of “Meeting Across the River” and featured Roy on piano, Charlie Giordano on glockenspiel and Garry Tallent on bass, with the backing singers adding vocal parts for additional effect. It was dark, desolate, moody, and absolutely exquisite.

A strong run of opening songs followed, including the first performance of High Hopes’ “Just Like Fire Would” in the United States, and a rollicking “Cadillac Ranch,” complete with full band dance routine at the front of the stage. “Cadillac Ranch” also featured not one but two shout-outs to the locale, both in the “Junior Johnson running through the woods of Caroline” lyric and the customized “driving alone through the Carolina night.” It was all greeted loudly by the enthusiastic Charlotte crowd, on their feet even in the upper levels.

Bruce then began to gather signs from the crowd, walking back and forth on the stage and peering into the audience, waving when a particular sign caught his favor. The first group of signs chosen turned the E Street Band into the best Saturday night cover band you’ve ever seen: “Louie Louie,” “Mustang Sally,” and later, “Brown Eyed Girl,” Bruce channeling Van Morrison as he prowled the crowd down front around the main platform.

The next group of signs would be for Springsteen originals, both for popular favorites such as “No Surrender” (for a group of very excited teenage girls in the front row) and “Out in the Street” (with a trio of backing singers from the crowd, who had to be specifically coached by Nils Lofgren to sing into the microphone), and also for rarities such as “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)” dedicated to “the lady from Mahwah,” “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” and a commanding performance of “Racing in the Street.”

Bruce started the encore with a sign for “Darkness on the Edge of Town” from a group of Spanish fans, also noting that fans from many countries were in the audience — Sweden, Germany — before the crowd answered back with a “USA! USA!” chant. Bruce playfully acknowledged, “We’ve got a lot of fans from there, too!”

“Darkness” was followed by a heartfelt reading of “The Wall,” with Bruce giving a long introduction about his first exposure to a “rock star,” recalling Freehold musician and inspiration Walter Chicon, who was killed in action in Vietnam. “This is a short prayer for my country,” Bruce said, and then dedicated the song to the veterans in the audience, whether from Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq. A fierce, intense rendition of “Born in the U.S.A.” followed, Bruce gripping the microphone stand with both hands as he snarled the first verse. As the song built to its conclusion, Bruce turned to his right, encouraging Tom Morello’s incredible guitar solo, followed by Max Weinberg’s thundering drum break.

A playful rendition of “Shout” at the end of the night featured Bruce telling the crowd not once, but twice, that he was “just a prisoner of the everlasting power of rock and roll!” and also, after introducing the band, urging everyone in the house: “I want you to go tell your friends… wake up your neighbors… go up to strangers on the street… and tell them that you just saw the heart stopping… death-defying… E Street Band!”

- Caryn Rose, Backstreets.com

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American Beauty celebrates Record Store Day

American Beauty is a collection of songs I cut at home. Upon revisiting them for High Hopes I recognized their potential and Ron Aniello and I worked on them until we’d turned them into the music before you. In the song “American Beauty,” I get to sing in a part of my range I don’t often visit and that along with its ‘guitar wall of sound’ gives it a little ‘exile on E Street’ power. “Mary Mary” is a lovely mystery, a small piece of heartbreak poetry that sneaks up on you with its slippery groove, punctuated string section and spectral lyrics. It came closest to making the High Hopes cut. “Hurry Up Sundown” is a fun piece of modern power pop, while “Hey Blue Eyes” rounds out the EP with one of my darkest political songs. Written during the Bush years, it’s a metaphor for the house of horrors our government’s actions created in the years following the invasion of Iraq. At its center is the repressed sexuality and abuse of power that characterized Abu Ghraib prison. I feel this is a shadow we as a country have yet to emerge from.

Enjoy the music.

- Bruce Springsteen