Having not seen a Springsteen show since the end of the last E Street Band tour nearly a year ago, I figured I'd make it through a year without a show for the first time in this century. But then Joe Grushecky announced a pair of shows in Pittsburgh with his "special guest" to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the American Babylon album, and... I decided I needed a fix.
Springsteen and Grushecky have played several shows together before. In October, 1995, they played a mini-tour of 6 shows; we saw the last one in Chicago. At that show, Bruce made his appearance 3 songs in to the set, and as I wrote at the time, "After the first verse [of Bruce's first song], it's clear that this is now Bruce's band. " In 2004, Bruce joined Joe for a charity concert labeled "Flood Aid" at Heinz in Pittsburgh. That time, it was more of a Grushecky show, but I noted two things: 1) "No security whatsoever"; 2) "As Bruce took the stage... the orchestra section lit up as a sea of viewfienders illuminated." This gave me a pretty good set of expectations for last night's show.
First thing about the show: It was at Soldiers and Sailors Hall, a really beautiful auditorium in the University area of Pittsburgh. There are many military mementos around the hall, and above the stage is the opening of Lincoln's Gettysburg address. The hall is immaculate, and was well worth roaming. I found a wine bar area in a room at the front of the building, and drank in sight of models of the USS Pittsburgh, while managing to avoid Joe Grushecky's son lead the opening act, The I-Drive. Judging by the traffic in the bar room, I was hardly alone in that respect.
Bruce went on, solo acoustic, at about 8:45. Cellphones, video camera and point-and-shoots lit up across the building. He started off with a tasteful rendition of "Your Own Worst Enemy." The rest of the acoustic mini-set featured 3 Born in the USA era songs -- Bobby Jean, I'm On Fire, and This Hard Land, and I confess that, while I needed a fix, that didn't necessarily mean a need to hear Bobby Jean.
Then it was time for the Rock and Roll show. Joe and the Houserockers opened with American Babylon and then a number I didn't recognize: "East Carson Street," apparently much of the audience didn't recognize it either, as it was the only time all night the crowd sat down. Then Bruce was back. "Another Thin Line" sounded better than when Bruce and the E Street Band debuted it back at the end of the reunion tour. Then on to Atlantic City. Lori and I had aisle seats, toward the read portion of the floor. Security appeared to be non-existent, no one was even checking tickets of people entering the floor area. So I turned to Lori and said, "let's take a stroll and see what happens." What happened was, we were 4 feet away from the stage by the time we finished our stroll, with a few other attendees who had similarly decided to take strolls.
And here I have to say, when you're in a theater atmosphere, and the hall is warm, and it's sweaty down front, and Bruce Springsteen is right there wailing on the full rock version of "Johnny 99," and you're close enough to notice the beads of sweat forming on his chest... well, when that happens, life is good. Unfortunately for me, sometime during "Adam Raised a Cain," one of the security guards finally figured out that neither I nor several dozen other people down there had seats corresponding to where we were standing, and, well, while life is good from further back on the floor, it's just not the same. Lori managed to fake him out for another half hour. Much of the rest of the night became a game of cat-and-mouse with the security guard, whom I dub Mr. Mustache, aka the aisle Nazi ("you're in my aisle, no show for you!!")
The show itself was a blur. The Bruce selections, after the acoustic opener, were entirely Darkness through Born in the USA era songs. The performance of "Save My Love" was sweet, though Bruce's voice was noticeably ragged, and he badly missed the final high note. They also went through several of the Springsteen/Grushecky collaborations over the year, as well as a smattering of Grushecky's most popular songs. Bruce clearly gets a kick out of harmonizing on "Pumping Iron," and it showed. The two surprises of the night were "Pink Cadillac" and "Burning Love," both of which featured lots of mugging for the audience. "Burning Love" was a rather gentle rendition, more smoldering than on fire.
As the show went on, Mr. Mustache started becoming more aggressive, to the point where he was finally a distraction. The low point for this came during the evening's final song, with Bruce doing a quiet solo rendition of "Thunder Road," and a third of the house within 30 feet of the stage (or so it seemed, let's just say the Mustache was badly outnumbered), and there's Mr. Mustache, loudly trying to lecture people to put their cameras away and to get out of his aisle and back to their seats.
In general, Bruce was in fine form, especially with the guitar. Many, many solos, many extended solos. The voice was ragged, but then, this was Bruce's 3rd show in as many days, so that wasn't too surprising. For "Twist and Shout," the entire Grushecky family came up on stage. That one started as a "La Bamba" riff, nice and slow, bit of burn. After several minutes of that, with the song seemingly about to end, Bruce just took over and made it right.