TAMPA — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band just don't lose fights to Father Time. For four decades, it's always been a mismatch.
From epic concerts that rumbled on with disregard for deadlines to thunderous anthems about thumbing your nose at destiny, the Jersey-born brotherhood is inherently built to push, and punish, the boundaries of the clock.
But last week, Father Time — with his tin ear for the youthful urges of rock 'n' roll — landed a sucker punch, as longtime E Street stalwart Danny Federici, 58, died from melanoma. As well as being the group's organist, keyboardist and accordion player, Federici had been friends with Springsteen for 40 years. Bruce called his pal "the Phantom," quiet, crafty, cunning.
Tuesday at the St. Pete Times Forum, the Boss and his band, who postponed three Florida dates to deal with the loss, staged their first show since Federici's death. (The Tampa night was first scheduled for Monday.)
But if you thought the Blue-Collar Bard would respond with a long, sad see-ya-later — no way. For more than 2-1/2 hours, they rocked and remembered in front of 16,332 fans fully aware of the emotional undercurrent.
With house and stage lights dark, the band took the stage, familiar shadows walking to the well-worn spots they've worked for years.
"This night is a special one," said the somber voice of the Boss. "So we'd like to start with something for Danny."
With that, a video tribute unspooled onscreen as a recorded version of acoustic homage Blood Brothers played. With a spotlight illuminating Danny's longtime workplace, the band then launched into a crescendoing, cathartic Backstreets, with its notable refrain of "You swore we'd live forever."
That's the way the night went, the wistful giving way to the robust. Springsteen referenced his late friend several times, including 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), which was always Federici's time to shine on the accordion. On this night, piano man Roy Bittan took the squeezebox, as a bemused Springsteen noted, "Somebody's watching." That was followed by what Springsteen called "another fairy tale," the jubilant Growin' Up.
For all the emotion, the night's most memorable songs were the rockers, songs in which your pounding fist acted independently: Radio Nowhere and Gypsy Biker, from the 2007 album Magic. Because the Night, with its fiendish guitar solo from Nils Lofgren. The tent-revival fun of She's the One. The defiant blasts of No Surrender and Long Walk Home.
Springsteen, always eager to ruffle the lapels of the powers-that-be, kept the speechifying to a minium. After a quick tsk-tsk to the Bush administration, he threaded a series of songs together about the shaky state of the union: Livin' in the Future, The Promised Land, Waitin' on a Sunny Day.
The set built to a resounding, resilient wallop, especially fan fave Badlands, in which the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, hobbled to the forefront and blew a big, fat sax solo that jolted the joint. That was followed by the chiming joy of Out in the Street.
"This one's for Dan," Springsteen said at the start of the encore, as the band roots-rocked an acoustic cover of gospel hymn I'll Fly Away ("Some bright morning when this life is over, I'll fly away.")
On this tour, Springsteen has been reaching into the crowd each night to grab signs with song requests. Tampa just about blew its top for the night's winner: Rosalita. The rambling, rollicking song, considered by many the queen in the canon, showcased a band still intent on raging into the night.
And, well, they did.
Rosalita eventually morphed into Born to Run. And that turned into Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out. Wow. Just . . . wow. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band just kept playing, as if they had all the time in the world.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.