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Notes from the road: Nashville

The first “moment” of every show has become a question: does the host city get a special song relevant to the region?  With its rich musical history, Nashville would have been an obvious choice to receive a unique opener; instead, Bruce opted for the basic out-of-the-gate option, the title cut from High Hopes. But while he may not have had honky tonkin’ on his mind, the show in Music City was filled with special moments. “High Hopes” was followed in rapid succession by a trio of songs that showed that Bruce came to Nashville ready to rock — “Badlands,” “No Surrender,” and “Death to My Hometown” — and the crowd-surfing exploits of “Hungry Heart.”

A sign in the front of the pit stated that the concertgoer had traveled 400 miles to ask the city of Nashville one question.  Bruce handed his microphone over to the signholder, who sang boldly, “Can you feel the spirit?” With that sign proving a success, after “Spirit in the Night” Bruce took a large collection of signs and sorted through them, looking for the next number.  Not finding what he wanted, he went back to the crowd for yet another sign, which led to the next special moment: a version of “Burning Love” complete with numerous Elvis moves and poses thrown in.

On a roll now, Bruce went into the seats stage left for yet another sign, coming away with not only the next song, but a backup singer as well.  A young girl, maybe 10 or 11 years old, had a sign for “Satisfaction,” complete with the Rolling Stones logo.  Not only did she get her request played, she shared a mic with Nils, contributing backing vocals and tambourine. She returned to her seat with the tambourine as a souvenir.

Springsteen being an expert at shifting the mood, soon we were out of classic rock ‘n’ roll rave-up territory and into something more contemporary and intense for more special moments: guitar solos from Tom Morello and Nils Lofgren on “American Skin (41 Shots).” More understated than his trademark flourishes on “Because the Night,” which followed two songs later, Nils’ solo on “American Skin” particularly fit the mood of the song.

The double-shot of “I’m on Fire” and “Downbound Train” was yet another special moment.  Played in the reverse order than they appear on Born in the U.S.A., the songs still appeared as two parts of the same story. And lest things get too dark, in came “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” this time with a choir of little girls up from the crowd to sing, presided over by kindergarten teacher Mr. Springsteen.

However, the best moments of the evening were still to come. Springsteen encores are typically loud, boisterous affairs, filled with his most well-known hits. But the encores started last night with the elegiac “The Wall,” dedicated to “Brian” (presumably Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem, who was in the house and who had previously expressed an interest in covering the song). The haunting memories of the soldier killed in Vietnam hushed a great crowd at the Bridgestone Arena.  Bruce then doubled down on this mood, following up with a somber reading of “Point Blank.”  The catharsis came in the form of the first version of “Born in the U.S.A.” performed in the United States since November of 2009.

This trio of songs, so atypical of a standard Springsteen encore, worked together to build a specific mood, making the impact of each song greater than if each had stood on its own.

Perhaps recognizing what he had asked of the crowd at the beginning of the encores, Bruce waved off the pump organ which had been set up for “Dream Baby Dream,” opting to close the show instead with a lovely acoustic “Thunder Road,” a reward for an attentive crowd that shared many special moments over the course of the evening in Music City USA.

- Lowell D. Kern, backstreets.com

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Notes from the road: Columbus

April 15, 2014 turned out to be strange day to hold a concert in Columbus, Ohio. If you were lucky enough to have filed your taxes on time, you still had to contend with weather that went from 70 degrees to snow in 24 hours. Who better to assist with these conditions then the newly Hall of Fame-inducted E Street Band and their fearless leader?

Let’s get the formalities out of the way: Little Steven was not with us tonight, likely shooting a new season of Lilyhammer. Ms. Scialfa was not to be found, either, despite her wonderful return for a week of shows through the last one in Virginia Beach. We were left with 17 other extraordinarily talented musicians, more than enough to get the job done. Steve’s absence moves Nils to stage left with Garry, the latter bearing his new sunglasses look and singing backup more than he has in many years, while the former became an integral part of the show and delivered over and over again, like it was 1985.

Three big surprises of the night: two sign requests, “Blinded by the Light” and the extended ’78 version of “Prove it All Night,” and the main-set-closing “Light of Day.” A staple of previous tours, “Light of Day” rarely comes out these days, but this was a powerful reminder of just what a raucous blast it can be. As High Hopes has given us studio recordings of some previously live-only tracks, “Light of Day” feels worthy of that treatment, too.

About a third of the way into the show, Bruce poked fun at his infamous 2009 “Hello Ohio” greeting to a Michigan crowd, acknowledging that it hadn’t been his best night. No need for concern, as one fan says: “We’re Ohio — we thought it was hilarious that he called our rivals by our name.” But if Bruce had any lingering guilt over that one, he made up for it tonight, winning over the audience with such secret weapons as the new arrangement of “Johnny 99,” horns ablaze. There were few if any asses in seats.

Along with the rave-ups, there were also moments of weight and intensity: “Trapped,” with an extended intro; “American Skin (41 Shots),” lit up with the power and pathos of part-time E Streeter Tom Morello’s guitar; and a fine “Backstreets” to begin the encore.

A note about two performances that continue to evolve: Cindy Mizelle’s role in “Shackled and Drawn” gets better and better, and if this is possible, so does Morello’s “Tom Joad solo.” Just awesome. Cindy and Curtis King seem more prominent in general these days, perhaps making up for the missing backing vocals of both Steve and Patti.

The requisite group of exhilarated fans, a couple of whom had just graduated high school, adorned the stage for “Dancing in the Dark.” One was sweet enough to greet each and every member of the band personally — one of the nicest moments of a very nice night. Bruce and the band repaid the kindness by getting “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” just right and wringing out every last drop of energy with “Shout.”

After the band filed off stage, Springsteen took a seat at a small pump organ, closing things out himself with a swirling, magical “Dream Baby Dream” to send everyone out into the unusually cold, snowy night. A strange day in Columbus, but a pretty darn successful E Street Band show — whether you finished your taxes or not.

- Gary Rubin Backstreets.com

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