TAMPA — Anyone who thought Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band might settle gently into aging got an answer Wednesday night when their first song exploded in Amalie Arena: “No Surrender.”
It brought a thunderous crowd to their feet and mostly kept them there for a hard-charging performance that lasted, in classic Springsteen style, for just under three hours, no breaks.
What with the pandemic and Springsteen’s solo show on Broadway, this is the first time he and the E Street Band have toured in six years. They sounded like they’d never stopped.
Yes, Springsteen is 73 and a grandfather. He’s not skidding across the stage on his knees or jumping off pianos anymore. But his voice is strong and sure, his playing formidable, and his ability to electrify a crowd is second to no one’s.
Wednesday’s concert in Tampa was the kickoff of a tour that will continue into July, with shows across the U.S. and Europe. Bruce and the band seemed to be in top shape for it — clad mostly in black and looking trim, they served up a setlist packed with favorites and a few deeper cuts, ranging across his five-decade career.
Some were surprises, like a slinky, jazz-inflected “Kitty’s Back,” from the band’s 1973 second album, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” that gave the five horn players a chance to shine.
Others were much-loved hits, many with sing-along choruses, like “Prove It All Night” and “Badlands.” The audience was mostly old enough to have been fans from the start, and we know all the words.
It was almost an hour in before Springsteen sang two songs from his latest album, “Only the Strong Survive,” a collection of classic R&B covers. He delivered a warm version of the Commodores’ “Nightshift” (complete with a little Jackie Wilson dance step during the second verse) and a shouting take on Ben E. King’s “Don’t Play That Song.”
Then it was back to the hits with “E Street Shuffle.”
Besides the core E Street players — Patti Scialfa, Max Weinberg, Stevie Van Zandt, Roy Bittan, Garry Tallent and Nils Lofgren — the band included four backup singers, violinist Soozie Tyrell, keyboardist Charlie Giordano, percussionist Anthony Almonte and sax player Jake Clemons, a fan favorite and the nephew of one of the band’s most beloved original members, Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011.
Despite the power and energy of the concert, Clarence’s wasn’t the only ghost haunting the stage. Springsteen has been thinking about mortality and aging for a long time — after all, this is the guy who wrote “Glory Days” when he was 35. Wednesday’s set list seemed to look both ways, countering anthems of youthful love and optimism like “She’s the One” and “Promised Land” with elegiac songs like “Last Man Standing” and “The Rising.”
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As they closed in on three hours, the band didn’t bother with the pretense of leaving the stage and coming back for an encore. They just turned the house lights up and roared into that hymn to freedom called “Born to Run” and Springsteen’s most glorious paean to out-of-your-mind young love, “Rosalita,” followed by two more sing-alongs, “Glory Days” (played for laughs with lots of mugging by Springsteen and Van Zandt) and “Dancing in the Dark.” One of the the loudest shouts from the audience all night was “I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face!”
All that led to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the story of the band’s genesis. When Springsteen reached the lines that salute Clarence — “When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band / From the coastline to the city, all the little pretties raise their hands” — the crowd did just that, then sighed and cheered as the big screens overhead flashed images of Clemons and another original E Streeter, keyboardist Danny Federici, who died in 2008.
Then the band left the stage, leaving Springsteen alone in a spotlight to dedicate the last song, the aching “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” to a friend who had died recently.
Are your glory days over if you can still bring an arena full of people to their feet to sing about them with you? Do we love Springsteen’s songs, always dancing with the dark, because they make us feel life more intensely?
He sings about that in “Ghost”:
I can feel the blood shiver in my bones.
I’m alive and I’m out here on my own.
I’m alive and I’m comin’ home.
Correction: Danny Federici died in 2008. This article has been updated to correct a typographical error.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Amalie Arena, Tampa, Feb. 1, 2023
Prove It All Night
Letter To You
Out In The Street
Don’t Play That Song
E Street Shuffle
Last Man Standing
House Of A Thousand Guitars
Because The Night
She’s The One
Born To Run
Dancing In The Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
I’ll See You My Dreams