The XL Center lights went out at 8:05pm in Hartford, and the crowd immediately announced their presence with authority. The band took the stage — still dark — as the PA played the theme from “The Magnificent Seven,” with Bruce, as always, coming on last. When the lights finally came on to reveal Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band ready to go, the crowd’s response was deafening. This night would go on to be a shining example of how a band and an audience can be in perfect “concert,” bringing out the best in each other.

The show itself got off to a very hot start. The opener was the tour debut of “Held Up Without a Gun” — the B-side to the 1980 “Hungry Heart” single — and despite its obscurity, the crowd seemed to know every word. A chest-thumping “Radio Nowhere” followed suit, and it was clear already this night was special. Two rockers from The River album kept the momentum going, with a slightly re-arranged “Jackson Cage” and a crowd-surfing “Hungry Heart” up next.

After a trio of songs from this year’s Wrecking Ball album, Bruce finally slowed things down a bit with “My City of Ruins,” the song where he lays out his purpose. Sort of, anyway:  “The E Street Band is on a mission! We don’t know what it is, but we’re on it!”  “My City of Ruins” is also the song that allows Bruce, the band, and the fans to pay tribute to those we’ve lost, particularly Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. In an especially poignant moment, Bruce walked over to the spot on the stage where Clarence stood for many years and said, “You can feel the ghosts beside you.” The very appropriate “Spirit in the Night,” up next, featured Bruce asking the crowd if they can “feel the spirit,” and the fans responding, just as Bruce requested, with a “mighty yeah-yeah!”

From a bevy of sign requests, Bruce’s eye was caught by a pink sign requesting — what else? — “Pink Cadillac.”  Of course, it was the printed lyrics on the back of the sign that Bruce truly appreciated, as it’s a song they’d yet to do on this tour, and he showed his gratitude with a very soulful performance, complete with blaring horns. The second request was “Incident on 57th Street,” the legendary epic from his second album; while the band didn’t segue into “Rosalita,” as they do on The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, they did go into a very powerful and passionate “Point Blank.”

After an incredibly hot “Because the Night,” including a hopping and twirling guitar solo from Nils Lofgren, Bruce and the band continued the River theme with “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” and “Out in the Street,” seeking out Max Weinberg’s 97-year old mother in the crowd on the latter.

Stripping things down momentarily, Bruce gave Roy a reprieve from piano duties and sat down at the keys to play “For You” by himself. “For You” is not usually a sing-along, but the respectful Hartford crowd softly joined in, resulting in a powerful moment between artist and audience. The band then back to full strength, the main set closed with the trio of “The Rising,” “Badlands,” and “Land of Hope and Dreams,” the last of these finding Bruce jumping on his monitors in front of the drum kit and facing off with Max.

The encores opened with “Kitty’s Back,” the closest thing Springsteen and the E Street Band have to a jam in their canon, and jam they did. Each horn took an extended solo, and it was amazing to watch Bruce conduct Max and Roy through their solos. Of course, Bruce himself took a guitar solo, and an extended one at that, taking the song and the show into the stratosphere. As the house lights came on for “Born to Run,” the party was on. “Bobby Jean” and “Dancing in the Dark” utilized the horns to great effect, blasting out the riffs between verses.  During the closing “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” Bruce sang the last verse from the mini-stage between the two general admission sections on the floor, reaching out to everyone in the arena, and he watched the tribute to Clarence and Danny on the video screens just like everyone else, making for a very touching close to the show.

Flynn McLean, backstreets.com