Bruce Springsteen believes in rock ’n’ roll. That’s it, that’s the basic, fundamental explanation for the fire that he brings to the stage and that the stage brings to him. In the same way that a true believer approaches religion with a righteous fervor, Springsteen comes across as a man possessed by the spirit, whether it’s in the younger, hungry days well catalogued on record and on film, or onstage Monday night at TD Garden. He was there to experience and spread the word, because he knows that the music redeemed him at a point when he might not have known redemption was even possible. He once was lost and now he’s found.
And so Springsteen puts everything he has into his performance, and if the 73-year-old grandfather doesn’t have quite as much in the tank as his 29-year-old self was able to access — the two hours and 50 minutes he was on stage Monday fell far short of the show lengths he used to pull regularly — his eagerness to squeeze out every last drop of what he had available went a long way toward disguising that fact. He and the E Street Band (which swelled to 18 members onstage at some points) played “Prove It All Night” just three songs in, and they lived up to that promise.
Bruce Springsteen just broke out a cover of “Dirty Water” with the E Street Band at TD Garden.@BostonDotCom pic.twitter.com/hT0M3UKTMS— Christopher Gavin (@chris_m_gavin) March 21, 2023
Blowing out of the gate with “No Surrender” gave Springsteen and his band a tone of unified defiance right from the start, a theme that remained throughout the show. It came out directly in “Badlands” and in the updated Woody Guthrie of “Wrecking Ball.” Even a straightforward heat-of-passion song like “Because the Night,” with its haywire Nils Lofgren guitar solo, and the Spanish Harlem street party of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” were dares to try to stop the lovers in question from claiming grace where they could.
Springsteen’s songs were muscular and sinewy whether they were classics like “The Promised Land” and “Backstreets” (where Roy Bittan’s majestic piano intro was the sonic equivalent of light flooding a dusty room) or recent numbers like “Ghosts” that still resulted in an audience sing-along of its wordless outro. Max Weinberg’s drums were miked especially hot, giving the material a backbone that hit particularly hard throughout.
That and Springsteen’s fervor would probably have been enough to sustain nearly three hours on their own, but the E Street Band added a nuance and variety that kept things from getting stale. One four-song stretch saw the swinging, jazzy street poetry of “Kitty’s Back,” a sultry and lovely take on the Commodores’ “Nightshift” (a poignant cover for a band that’s lost a couple of members over the years), the ticking-clock guitar and soft keys that made Jimmy Cliff’s soft, funereal “Trapped” an insinuator instead of a driver, and the drunken-elephant horn section that propped up the wordy gutter-funk of “The E Street Shuffle.”
If Springsteen singing “Glory Days” nearly 40 years later hit irony levels akin to the Who performing “My Generation” all the way into the last decade, the Boss still managed to pull it off. It’s honestly one of the most remarkable tricks in all of rock music, in that one of the most wildly successful performers of all time — one who just made half a billion dollars selling his entire catalog back to his label and who came under fire for the pricing scheme for tickets to this very tour — can still sell the beautiful-loser songs on which he built his reputation with an honesty that feels sincere.
That’s a testament to the empathy suffused through his writing from the very start, which remains even when the man himself is decades removed from the experience, whether lived or imagined. “I’ll See You in My Dreams” he sang alone with a guitar and a harmonica after the band had left the stage, just a song of togetherness even when there’s distance, sung by someone who put all his faith in music years ago and still believes because he still sees its power.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE E STREET BAND
At TD Garden, Monday
Marc Hirsh can be reached at email@example.com on Twitter @spacecitymarc.