Springsteen wins big at Gillette Stadium

Peter Chianca

As the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show let out into foggy Foxboro on Saturday night (sorry, Sunday morning), there's one thought I couldn’t get out of my head: How Does He Do It?

Not to dwell on the passing of the years, but I challenge anyone to sit (by which I mean stand) through a Springsteen show and not wonder how, 35 years into his career, he can continue to "bring the power night after night after night after night," as the man likes to say about his band in his on-stage riffs. And Saturday night, Bruce and the band brought the power as well as they ever have, tearing the (non-existent) roof off of Gillette Stadium.

What was most interesting for those who've followed the tour is the difference between this leg and the Garden shows in November. The show I saw back then was laser-focused -- Springsteen was a man with a mission, and the band crackled with intensity and message. Saturday night's show -- delayed until 9:20 p.m. by thunderstorms -- was looser, bouncier and just a little more fun. It felt like a victory lap.

Springsteen's recent propensity for taking requests -- when he collects signs from the audience and springs them on the band on the spot -- certainly added to that feel. He was clearly tickled by the first one, the Righteous Brothers-by-way-of-Mitch Ryder nugget "Little Latin Lupe Lu,” not tackled by the E Street Band since 1977. A rocked-up version of "Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" off of “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” and a solid "Hungry Heart" rounded out the requests, until "I'm Goin' Down" made an appearance in the encores.

For another band this might seem like a stunt, but for these guys it just highlighted the fact that they're at the top of their game, and loving the opportunity to show their chops. (It goes without saying that the band rocked, but I'll say it anyway. Clarence’s asides on show opener “Summertime Blues” were almost as priceless as his sax contributions, and for my money I’d call Nils Lofgren the standout, with spectacular guitar work on “Youngstown” and “Tunnel of Love.”)

Rainy night staple "Who'll Stop the Rain," coupled with a searing "Youngstown," made for an intense mid-show coda (probably the only few minutes when anybody took their seats, mostly to catch their breaths -- baby, we ain't that young anymore). But it was the classics that made the night -- a joyous "10th Avenue Freeze Out"; a jazzy "Spirit in the Night" that somehow managed to sound intimate among a crowd of 50,000, with Bruce collapsing on the stage for the last verse; a stellar, rejuvenated "Promised Land."

Springsteen’s latest album, Magic, took a back seat Saturday -- even Springsteen's short speech on the problems America is facing, a centerpiece of the fall shows, sounded kind of rote -- although "Radio Nowhere," "Living in the Future" and "Long Walk Home" all fit into the mix like old friends.

The show brought with it the baggage you expect from a stadium show -- I'm sure it was the concert of a lifetime for the lucky bunch near the stage, but otherwise you can't help but feel at least a vague detachment from the proceedings. (It's hard to make a hockey arena seem like a cozy venue by comparison, but Gillette certainly does.) The unfortunate result is that certain songs that were highlights back in November -- like "Jungleland" and "Tunnel of Love" -- last night were more just a part of an exceptionally entertaining whole, rather than being transcendent.

But that's nitpicking. I still say we’re still lucky to have the opportunity to experience a performer with the ability to bring this much energy and presence to such moving material for so long -- and to do it in a way that's so true to the nature and spirit of real rock 'n' roll.

The fact that Springsteen is such a rare breed wasn't lost on this crowd, and, it seemed, not on the man and his band. The requests, the jubilant takes on classic favorites (particularly in lieu of new material), the sense of joy and gratitude emanating from the stage -- it gave the whole evening a "thanks for the memories" vibe ... Almost as if someone, somewhere, at some level, knew they might not be back, at least not in the same form.

I hope that's not the case. But whatever happens further on up the road, for right now, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are bringing the power -- and the memories. We can thank them for both.

Peter Chianca's blog, Blogness on the Edge of Town, cover Springsteen and other rock 'n' roll topics.