What better way to spend a warm spring evening than amidst 20,000 fans waiting to be treated to one of the greatest rock shows on the road right now: Bruce Springsteen's high energy "High Hopes" world tour, which is wowing audiences and winning over new converts and pleasing the older die-hards worldwide. That was the scene last Thursday night as Springsteen made his local stop at the massive MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre at the Fairgrounds.
Grey skies helped keep the day from being a scorcher, and nice breezes kept the massing throng happy and comfortable before Bruce and his current version of the E Street Band would eventually romp on stage. A brief downpour did nothing to sway the enthusiasm of those on the uncovered lawn; most seem to have come prepared, popping open scores of umbrellas they'd thoughtfully brought along with them.
As 7:45 p.m. rolled around, and the band members slowly found their way to their respective spots on the enormous stage, the man of the hour, The Boss himself, slowly strutted to his centrally perched mic stand clad in a bright white shirt. With sleeves rolled up and looking hungry and anxious, it was obvious that Bruce was ready to get to work.
Opening with a somber, acoustic ballad "Joe Hill" (an homage to a Swedish-American labor activist as previously individually recorded by folk artists Pete Seeger and Joan Baez) fittingly on May Day i.e. "International Workers' Day," Bruce quickly launched into a blazing version of The Clash's "Clampdown" while trading verses with the newest neighbor on E Street, Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello.
Muscling his way through some old staples that surely pleased long time fans, Bruce and his current horn-rich backing band brought new life to his legacy material but really shone the brightest during their foray into songs he tackled on his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Seesions: "Jesse James" and "Pay Me My Money Down" were absolute highlights thanks to the variety and sounds and instruments the full band was able to pour into them.
Toying with the audience and plucking elaborately designed signs sporting song requests from their hands, a downright jovial Springsteen made some fans pretty happy as he granted several specific requests and revisited some pretty obscure material.
The wow factor was in full effect as Bruce opted to perform "Brothers Under the Bridge," a gut-wrenching tale of the fate of a Vietnam veteran and a song that, he announced, had never been performed live before.
Wheeling out a red hot version of "From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)" — originally written for and recorded by British rocker Dave Edmunds in the early 1980s — Bruce joked that it was the only song he'd ever written that name checks our home city, Tampa, in its lyrics.
After the untimely deaths and absences of longtime E Streeters saxophonist Clarence Clemons and organist Danny Federici, the gap fellow band member and sidekick Little Steven Van Zandt left behind in his decision to not be part of this round of dates felt severe. Van Zandt's ever-present smile, charisma and camaraderie with Bruce has always been a significant part of the Springsteen live experience. While Morello and longtime axe man Nils Lofgren are individually more than accomplished guitar hotshots, there's something to be said about the connection and the partnership that Bruce and Steven have forged over the years that both always seemed to revel in.
The ability to seamlessly flip-flop from all-out rockers to quieter, more plaintive numbers has always been one of Springsteen's stronger suits. During the encore portion of the night's performance, he followed up 2012's quiet "We Are Alive" with a rousing rendition of another Seeger Sessions standout "O Mary Don't You Weep" without affecting the pacing or the flow of the material.
The energy and sing-along quotient was high as Bruce launched into his signature song "Born to Run" amid a fully illuminated venue, and it didn't end there. Revisiting his commercially fruitful mid-'80s output, Bruce launched into "Dancing In the Dark" and plucked a woman from the audience to briefly dance with him during the song as he famously did in the heavily-rotated MTV video from decades ago.
Ending the highly energetic, nearly three-hour rock extravaganza with only an acoustic guitar in hand and a harmonica strapped around his neck, it was a solo Springsteen that delivered the night's final performance, a near-perfect, emotional reading of 1975's "Thunder Road," which was beautifully accompanied by the sound of thousands of voices emerging from sweaty, worn out, spent crowd.
It was a poignant, heartfelt ending to a night of the type of pure, unadulterated rock 'n roll that only Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band can deliver.
The Ties That Bind
Out in the Street
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Brothers Under the Bridge
From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)
My Love Will Not Let You Down
Pay Me My Money Down
The Ghost of Tom Joad
Light of Day
We Are Alive
O Mary Don't You Weep
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
Thunder Road (acoustic)