Bruce Springsteen turns 60 on Sept. 23, which means Jersey's blue-collar bard probably only has, oh, another 60 years of touring left in him. Immortals are stubborn like that. There's just no quitting with those people.
But as the Boss took the stage at Ford Amphitheatre on Saturday, the three-hour show's most poignant plot line involved the players behind him, who of late have proved all-too-painfully human. If Springsteen is a superman, the venerable E Street Band is the collective cape that helps that dude fly higher, faster. But for how much longer?
Last year, E Street lost resident organ maestro Danny Federici, a victim of melanoma; the first show without him was an emotional haymaker in Tampa. The "Big Man" Clarence Clemons, 67, is racking up more surgeries these days than tasty sax solos. And there are now whispers that drummer Max Weinberg, 58, could bid adieu in a few months.
Seeing as how Springsteen & Co. have set up shop on our shores a bunch lately — including that 12-minute stomp at the Super Bowl — this one felt like a loose, chummy tumble in our ongoing affair. But it was also a fitting time to appreciate, possibly for the last time, the greatest backing band in pop history. (Commence debate over your Fruit Loops.)
Flanked by trusty guitarmen "Little Steven" Van Zandt and just-plain-little (but wicked!) Nils Lofgren, Springsteen opened with the raucous Badlands, which featured a plump clean solo by Clemons. The crowd of 15,500 roared … and roared … and roared. Next up, Out in the Street then the new My Lucky Day. The sound was a bit muddy, and Bruce's voice froggy at first — but no worries. It would just keep getting better.
The "Working on a Dream" tour has been going since April, but Bruce worked his crack staff like a football coach in the heat of camp. He ran here, hollered there, stringing together Spirit in the Night and Outlaw Pete. Weinberg looked tired but sounded triumphant, adding classic rumble to She's the One. Violinist Soozie Tyrell, taking Patti Scialfa's spot on the stage (have at it, gossip hounds) added lovely work to Waitin' on a Sunny Day.
A casual Bruce fan might have grown a little restless during the set's midsection (although they eventually got their Born to Run, their Hungry Heart, their Thunder Road). But, oh my, all those diehard Backstreeters must have left tizzied and spent. Seeds! Johnny 99! Point Blank!
Springsteen likes to pull homemade requests out of the crowd, and Saturday was a veritable barrage of stump-the-band: All or Nothing at All ("a lost masterpiece!" Bruce joked), Growing Up, and Jole Blon ("hasn't been played since 1981!" Bruce promised the collectors). One poster had a picture of his old car and fat bold letters: RACING IN THE STREET. Wistful and poignant, it was the song of the night.
And through it all, Bruce's band just couldn't be stumped, couldn't be brought to its knees. Why? Because it's the flippin' E Street Band, that's why. They do what their Boss tells them. And heck, maybe if he keeps barking orders, the gang will have no choice but to stick around a little bit longer.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.