The first 10 songs of the April 26 show in Atlanta rocked hard, relentlessly, and ruthlessly. As has been the case with each show of the Working on a Dream tour, the band opened things up with the classic "Badlands." The crowd was ready for it and the show got off to a fast start.
The early shows on the tour had WOAD song "My Lucky Day" in the 2-hole. That quickly went away and the second slot has become a rotation of different songs. Just like in Los Angeles, "Darkness On The Edge of Town" stepped in next. I was not only surprised, I was ebullient.
"Outlaw Pete" drew a mixed reaction from the crowd. On record, "Outlaw Pete" is long and unwieldy. Some of the lyrics are a bit cringeworthy. On stage, it takes on an almost campy feel. By playing it loose, "Pete" doesn't have to be an epic ballad. By playing it loose, it's hard to understand why the song needs to go on for eight minutes. It was better than I thought it would be, but paled in comparison to the songs that preceded it and the one that followed.
The "cleanup" spot in the setlist has seen many songs rotated in and out over the first several shows of the tour. Not only did Springsteen choose a great song for the job, he and the band turned in a powerful, smoldering, roof-raising, paint-peeling version of a classic. "She's the One," from Born to Run, was explosive, energetic, loud, and raucous. In Nashville last year, he did a bit of Bo Diddley's "Mona" to segue into it. He didn't reprise that in Atlanta, but it wasn't missed.
He followed that with "Working On A Dream," the title track to his new record. Some sound problems marred the performance and there seemed a drop in energy in the room. Some of that is likely due to just how great "She's the One" was. Some has to be attributed to this new album not being warmly embraced by the band and/or the fans.
Before you jump on me about my assumption, let me say this: Bruce hasn't played more than six songs from the album all tour and quickly cut two of them. He played more covers — more on that later — than he did songs from his new record. You can't convince me that doesn't say something about the commitment to the record or the reception of it.
After that, Max Weinberg stepped aside to allow his son, E Street Band apprentice Jay Weinberg, to step in and drum on a few tracks. A few words about Jay before we discuss the next several songs. That young man is a beast behind the drum kit. He hits hard, he swings steady, and he has an energy to him. Seeing him bash away and mouth the words to songs he probably grew up listening to was quite a sight.
Jay's first stint began with a blistering "Radio Nowhere," played earlier than it has been at the majority of shows. From there, the band did the so-called "Recession Trio." "Seeds," "Johnny 99," and a rotation of either "The Ghost of Tom Joad" or "Youngstown" has been assumed by fans to be Springsteen's "State of the Economy" sermon. Following the great rendition of "Radio Nowhere," the energy and intensity of these three rockers was fierce and formed one of the strongest moments of the show. In Atlanta, "The Ghost of Tom Joad" was selected to be the final piece and it was at turns beautiful, stirring, and incendiary, the latter coming through the incredible guitar work of the great Nils Lofgren.
To kick off the "Sign Request" chapter of the show, the band does a cover of "Raise Your Hand," an old staple they've played many times over the years. The song is fun and does function nicely as a call to arms, or signs in this case. It was the first of three consecutive covers.
The first sign Bruce flashed to the audience taunted the band, boldly claiming they wouldn't know "96 Tears" which brought about the funniest moment of the night. Holding it up, Springsteen said, "We're talking about the greatest bar band in the world. You don't think we know '96 fuckin' Tears?'" It turns out they did…and they didn't.
Roy Bittan needed two tries to get the keyboard intro. It took another turn or two for Bruce and Roy to decide what key to play it in – something Bruce changed once or twice during the performance. It also found Bruce staring at a teleprompter or the back of the sign to get some help with the lyrics. It was fun and seemed enjoyable to the crowd, but it overstayed its welcome, especially when it was clear the band knew it but didn't. I still don't understand what's wrong with playing Bruce Springsteen songs at a Bruce Springsteen show.
The next slot was a real gut buster. Bruce first showed the crowd a sign that said "Ramrod." It wasn't the sign I made, but I did have one for "Ramrod." I was ready to be launched into a great roadhouse rocker, only for Springsteen to pull a bait-and-switch and flip the sign over, revealing they would instead play "Trapped." I like "Trapped" well enough but really wanted "Ramrod" and felt a bit abused. Besides, he played "Trapped" almost a year ago to the day in Atlanta. This made for a third consecutive cover.
I was emo about the switcheroo and it got worse for me when "Waitin' On A Sunny Day" came up next. I despises this song and cannot understand why it gets played night after night after night, so I did the most punk rock thing I could: I turned my back to the stage to make a stand. This allowed him to see that many in the crowd actually enjoyed the song. I saw images of people happily dancing to their death and questioned their sanity.
"Waitin' On A Sunny Day" annoyed me and ignited a mushroom cloud of frustration within me. "The Promised Land" broke my heart. I love that song. It's one of Bruce's best and the most important in his deep, versatile, classic catalog. The two times I heard it played last year it was incredible. On Sunday, it was flat and lifeless. Clarence Clemons struggled with the sax solo and the energy just wasn't there. I don't want to see "The Promised Land" benched, but it's been played nearly every night for three tours in three years. It's a great song, but maybe it needs a rest to regain it's vitality.
Next was "The Wrestler," which is sort of on the new album. The song was written for the Mickey Rourke film of the same title and included as a bonus track on Working On A Dream. This song doesn't work in this environment. When it was over, you could hear a pin drop in the arena. There wasn't even much in the way of polite applause. I'm not saying it's a bad song, although even Steven Van Zant headed for the beer line during it. Okay, I don't know where he was but I know where he wasn't: on-stage, performing. "The Wrestler" will do better when Bruce resumes his solo acoustic touring. It just sucked the life out of Phillips Arena, and at this point I was getting restless. Three covers, a turd, a disappointing performance of an all-time favorite, and a stillborn. The enthusiasm of the first 10 songs seemed a lifetime ago.
There's a reason you don't leave an E Street Band show early. Well, there are a lot of reasons you don't. Song 16 of this set list is one of them. Bruce called for a sign he'd seen towards the back of "The Pit" and began telling a story about running into a couple teenagers back in 1997 who told him how much they loved the E Street Band but had never seen them. Springsteen said that helped plant the seed of what has taken place for the past 10 years: three albums and four tours because as he said, "They haven't seen my band." The sign Bruce called for said "Teenagers deserve Jungleland."
Bruce agreed. I hate teenagers, but I was thankful for them last night. Bruce can dedicate it to whoever he wants. I can enjoy it either way. Clarence "Big Man" Clemons didn't have his best night on Sunday, but on the one song he absolutely had to nail, he rose to the occasion as only the Big Man can. If the first 10 song set didn't tear a hole in the roof of Phillips Arena, Clemons did on a moving, powerful, stunning "Jungleland."
Springsteen dedicated "Kingdom of Days" to his wife, Patti, still healing from a horse riding accident. "Lonesome Day" and "The Rising" were next, the latter of which wasn't quite as crisp as in past performances. These three songs have the disadvantage of not being "Jungleland." They are also pretty predictable as the same four songs have been closing the main set for most of this tour.
"Born to Run" was great as a main set closer, taking on the role that "Badlands" had for most of the Magic tour. "Born to Run" has been played to death but it's always a pleasure to hear and Sunday's performance was quite strong.
The encore was predictable, but not without its charms. "Tenth Avenue Freezeout" and "Land of Hopes and Dreams" were both excellent. "American Land" is beginning to show some wear, having been a part of nearly every encore for three years now.
The stunner was "Detroit Medley" as the final salvo of the night, making its tour debut. I thought we were about to get "Glory Days" and would have been very happy to hear it, but "Detroit" was a nice treat. Yes, it's a fifth cover out of 25 songs but it's something unique to the E Street Band and part of their heritage. It's rarely played and a hell of a lot of fun.
So where does that leave us? With some fantastic moments and a reminder why Springsteen and the E Street Band still matter. The down moments in this show suck just a little bit more because of that and because they're self-inflicted and avoidable.
Local bands can do shows that are 20 percent covers. Bands fronted by one of the greatest songwriters in rock history shouldn't, particularly when said band is doing their third US tour in three years and so many songs haven't been played or haven't been played often.
The pacing of the show still feels like it needs some help, even if I set aside my bias towards covers and "Sunny Day." There doesn't seem to be a dominant theme for the show. There's a recession suite followed by good times covers. The encore kicks off with another recession-theme song to remind us the economy is in the toilet, only to be followed with more energetic good time rock and roll.
Maybe he's trying to summarize the headlines on CNN and then lift us out of it. It's ambitious, but it doesn't translate the way the show is structured. Maybe he's just playing 24-27 songs a night. That's fine, but the lack of flow makes for some awkward pauses. It was money well spent and more than enough to make me eager to hear it all again Saturday night in Greensboro, even though I know in my heart it could still be so much more.
- Darkness on the Edge of Town
- Outlaw Pete
- She's the One
- Working on a Dream
- Radio Nowhere (w/ Jay Weinberg)
- Seeds (w/ Jay Weinberg)
- Johnny 99 (w/ Jay Weinberg)
- The Ghost of Tom Joad (w/ Jay Weinberg)
- Raise Your Hand
- 96 Tears
- Waitin' on a Sunny Day
- The Promised Land
- The Wrestler
- Kingdom of Days
- Lonesome Day
- The Rising
- Born to Run
- Hard Times
- Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
- Land of Hope and Dreams (w/ Jay Weinberg)
- American Land (w/ Jay Weinberg)
- Detroit Medley