More than twice, I've been asked, "Have you ever been to a Springsteen show?" usually in the same reverent tone used when asked, "How would you describe your relationship with Christ?"
I've always been a Springsteen agnostic, never entirely understanding the fierce devotion he garnered. But people whose musical taste I trust say that if you see him perform live, it all becomes clear.
On Tuesday, when Springsteen and the E Street Band stopped at Hard Rock Live for his first South Florida performance in seven years, it was an opportunity to study this phenomenon up close among his acolytes.
At 7:45 p.m., the house lights dimmed, and one by one, the ten members of the E Street Band walked on stage. There was drummer Max Weinberg, former bandleader on Conan O'Brien's late-night shows. There was Mrs. Springsteen herself, backing singer and guitarist Patti Scialfa. There was former Sopranos star and guitarist Steve Van Zandt dressed in his trademark pirate bandana.
And then came the howls from the crowd: "Bruuuuuucce!" And out he walked, clad in a black T-shirt and jeans, looking impossibly fit for a 73-year-old.
One explanation I'd heard for the cult of Springsteen is that he's the hardest-working man in show business. Every time he steps on stage, he gives it his all, and on this night, he certainly did. He seemed to feel every single lyric, closing his eyes as though the working class struggle he often sings about was too much for him to bear.
The E Street Band, which expands to 17 members, including backing singers and a horn section, is a tight unit. The band finds a way to incorporate a sax solo and never miss a note. Utilizing the members' blues and country influences, it serves as history's biggest bar band. After a rendition of "Out in the Street," Springsteen complimented the musicians by calling them "the greatest band in the world 'cause they cover the Boss' ass."
It's that kind of humility that his fans eat up and is the essence of his popularity. Most of our musical heroes, from Elvis to Harry Styles, are flawed. But through nearly 50 years of public life, Springsteen has seemingly been an exemplary human being. There have been no #MeToo accusations, no misogynistic or racist interview snippets or lyrics. He might charge a fortune for admission, but he is going to earn that money through sheer effort and an honest work ethic. He is a decent man who writes and sings about decent people aspiring for the American dream.
It wasn't until nearly two hours into the set that Springsteen played a song I recognized, "Because the Night." His die-hards knew all the older, deeper cuts, singing along to "Badlands" and "The Promised Land." Toward the end of the third hour, he ripped into faithful renditions of many of his greatest hits like "Born to Run," "Dancing in the Dark," and "Glory Days." At the end of his performance, he pulled a trick out of the former Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, James Brown, by pretending he couldn't go on any longer.
Finally, he wrapped things up with "I'll See You in My Dreams," performing the song solo on his acoustic guitar before wishing us all a good night. The usher working the door I was exiting couldn't believe it was over. "Isn't he forgetting a song?" she asked, referencing his biggest hit, "Born in the USA." "I can't believe he's not playing my favorite song," she said, disappointed, seemingly uncertain if this was a dealbreaker in her joining the Church of Bruce.
- "No Surrender"
- "Prove It All Night"
- "Letter to You"
- "The Promised Land"
- "Out in the Street"
- "Candy's Room"
- "Kitty's Back"
- "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)"
- "The E Street Shuffle"
- "Mansion on the Hill"
- "Johnny 99"
- "Last Man Standing"
- "Because the Night"
- "She's the One"
- "Wrecking Ball"
- "The Rising"
- "Thunder Road"
- "Born to Run"
- "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"
- "Glory Days"
- "Dancing in the Dark"
- "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"
- "I'll See You in My Dreams"