Bruce Springsteen showed up to Columbus ready and able.
In a 26-song, three-hour set (give or take on both quantities) Tuesday night at Nationwide Arena, Springsteen proved he was phosphorescent, incapable of burning out. Even when he seemed on the verge of quitting from exhaustion, the Boss would reckon a shout in the form of, “Columbus, do you have anything left?”
There is precedence for a Springsteen show. It was expected from reputation that the 64-year-old New Jersey musician, backed with the latest brand of the E Street Band, would plow through an unrelenting list of hits and refusing, with a smile, to settle down.
Springsteen did sprinkle in some choice cuts from “High Hopes” — the freshest record in the catalogue, one that’s comprised largely of previously unreleased material, covers and refurbishments of old tracks.
“High Hopes,” the title track from the aforementioned record, was first up. Although the songs that make up “High Hopes” are by-and-large sort of average listening on a personal level, the texture of the live format is far more fleshed-out — something I suppose happens when you have 16 supporting musicians, not including Springsteen himself.
Still, much to my appeasement and everyone else’s, the Boss strayed toward the past with his setlist.
It’s with difficulty that I choose the highlights from Springsteen’s set, as each song was performed with the drive of an encore performance. “Shackled and Drawn” saw the whole band come to the edge of the stage while Springsteen and one of his backup singers took turns throwing around a soulful croon, followed quickly with the entire crew doing a synchronized dance during the song’s bridge. Then, even though the arena was clapping and singing along as Springsteen directed the whole night, he literally got the audience involved when he brought two young fans up on the stage to help him sing the chorus to “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,” and again with even more fans on “Dancing in the Dark.”
The musicianship of the E Street Band oughtn’t be forgot, either. Saxophonist Jake Clemons, replacement for and nephew of deceased E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons, shredded at a moment’s notice on his tenor for the majority of the setlist. Tom Morello, guitarist of the politico-metal outfit Rage Against the Machine, took on the guitar reigns typically held by Steve Van Zandt (who is out filming for Netflix’s “Lilyhammer,” for which he plays the lead role). Morello was a different, yet extraordinary substitute. In an updated “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” the guitarist not only helped lead sing but also executed such an impressive solo — in the true wah-wah, squeal style perfected under Rage — that even the oldest of the folks who were trying to sit down for the entire night had to contribute to a rightful ovation.
Then there’s the Boss, an exceptional frontman and entertainer. Springsteen would dance, sort of in the endearingly awkward way a parent would, and, more importantly, acknowledge the audience. Besides inviting dancers to the stage, every other time one would look up, he would be wandering the outskirts of the general admission floor, crowdsurfing, taking photos or singing while falling into dozens of fans.
The truly wonderful part of Springsteen’s show is how it’s done without gimmicks. Save some transitional color lighting, Springsteen and his band played their songs true to form with purely musical embellishment. The climax of the show, when the lights went up for a five-song stretch toward the finale, is exemplary of this. “Born to Run,” “Bobby Jean,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and an elongated cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” were all played in succession right before the night’s end. It was during this time that the arena seemed to no longer be hosting a concert, but instead a party of sorts, where a community arose on the basis of these songs and these songs alone. Possibly the most distinguished of the Springsteen library, these songs particularly did not need anything else, save a light to see who else was singing along.
Only someone like Bruce Springsteen could write songs like that, let alone force himself and his band to keep going in order to play them. Preceding show-closer “Dream Baby Dream,” a “High Hopes” track covering ‘70s electronic punk duo Suicide, Springsteen gave a shout out to the Children’s Hunger Alliance, an organization helping to feed children in insecure homes. Within that lens, the lyrics of the concert’s final tune — “Come on, open your hearts / Come on dream on, dream on baby” — were principled. Whether or not you think he has virtue for this promotion doesn’t matter, and that’s certainly arguable. Nonetheless, Springsteen, for over 40 years, has continually written and performed with purpose, which he did just Tuesday night.
I think that may make up for no “Thunder Road.”