As I staggered out of Fenway Park and crossed Yawkey Way around 11:15 Wednesday night, all I could think of through the ringing in my ears was Jack Buck’s call of Kirk Gibson’s pinch hit home run in the first game of the 1988 World Series: “I can’t believe what I just saw!”. Now 24 hours later and my body feeling like Gibson’s probably did that night 24 years ago, I’m still thinking of Buck’s iconic call but instead of seeing Gibson rounding the bases, I see Bruce Springsteen roaming center field on stage at Fenway in a two-night performance that might just become every bit as legendary as any that historic park has seen in its hundred-year history.

Night One (Tuesday, August 14):

I’m not sure you can overstate the expectations and excitement as Springsteen and the E Street Band resumed their Wrecking Ball tour in the U.S. after a European leg that featured the longest shows in their storied career, set lists filled with fan favorite rarities, and one now infamous performance with Paul McCartney that was cut short by overzealous curfew enforcement.  When guitarist Nils Lofgren implied that maybe US fans couldn’t handle shows that fan 3.5 hours, the general reaction mirrored a line from the tour’s eponymous title track, “go on and take your best shot, let (us) see what you’ve got.” It didn’t take long for Bruce and the E Street Band to do just that, delivering a tight, focused three and half hour show.

Taking the stage under a still bright sky and the calliope sounds of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”‘ the band launched into long-time favorite “The Promised Land” followed by one of his best “party Bruce” songs, “Out in the Street”.  From there the rest of the set generally relied on Springsteen’s better known, more accessible songs like “Working on the Highway”, “Darlington County” and “Thunder Road” in the main set  and “Rosalita” and “Glory Days” in the encore.

Springsteen joked that he felt pressure to perform for all the first timers in the crowd (an absurd number of whom were in the pit), which might explain the “house party” structure of the set. Even most of the deeper cuts played like “E Street Shuffle”, “Atlantic City”, “Because the Night” (featuring Lofgren’s patented whirling dervish solo) and Johnny 99 (in its Status Quo full-tilt boogie version) weren’t exactly rarities.  Personally, I liked it.  This was only my ninth show, and some of these I either hadn’t heard live before or can’t hear live enough.

The best part of the night for the hard-core fans began with a sign requested tour premier of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom”, resurrected for the Tunnel of Love tour and featuring some Boss guitar shredding. As we caught out breath from that, Springsteen delivered the set list highlight of the night with a jaw dropping version of the River’s “Drive All Night”. I’d seen him do it at the full River LP performance at MSG a few years ago when I knew it was coming, but this version sounded simply beautiful aided as much by the surprise of hearing it as well as the with this tour’s broader band.

Indeed the band sounded much tighter and confident than the times I saw them this spring. The band has been battle tested on its European run and it paid off on songs like “Spirit in the Nighto”, a sloppy mess when premiered in April at MSG,   The Wrecking Ball material continues to sound better on stage with full horn section arrangements.  Jake Clemons on sax has taken on a bigger role in fhe show as his playing and confidence has continued to improve.

Springsteen also showed a nice touch by lighting up Fenway’s Pesky Pole in honor of the recently deceased Red Sox icon Johnny Pesky during “My City of Ruins”, along with the now familiar homage to Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons.  Pesky was also featured on the stage’s video screens during the show closing (and curfew busting) “Twist and Shout”, much as the new standard Clemons montage during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”.

That didn’t mean Springsteen wasn’t above playing to the crowd, covering the Standell’s Sox fan favorite “Dirty Water” as the night’s penultimate song  before closing with a raucous version of “Twist and Shout”.

But as the smoke from the fireworks that accompanied the closing song faded, I was left with a feeling that while this was an incredibly fun show filled with singing and dancing along and a few personal highlights, it was ultimately another in a long line of typically good Springsteen shows that was expertly paced and had a story to tell.  The casual fans could go home knowing they’d seen the man give it his usual all and could talk about what a great show they’d seen.  The devout among us, though, were already looking forward to the next night.

Night Two (Wednesday, August 15):

It’s almost an article of faith among Springsteen fans that if he plays two nights in a city and you can only go once then the second night’s show is the one you should see.  Night one sets tend to be fairly straight-forward with only a few surprises, while night two sets are typically more adventurous.  One of my friends said a bit ruefully after Tuesday night’s show, “that was a typical American set list”  So as we filed back into Fenway Wednesday evening, we wondered if the night two rule would apply, or if we’d again get a show for the more casual fans or those who were there for the novelty of seeing a concert in a ballpark. It didn’t take long to get our answer.

“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” again started as the walk on music, but instead of Springsteen bringing up the rear of the usual band procession, he came out first along with only pianist Roy Bittan and explained that “just me and Roy” would be starting the show like they did back in the Seventies.  With that Springsteen pulled out a harmonica and he and Bittan began to play “Thunder Road” in its 1975 version.  Night two was underway with the crowd in full throat from the “maybe we ain’t that young anymore” line though a Springsteen conducted “na na na na naaaa” coda.

When it was over and he brought up the band to “play the summertime hits”, I winced, thinking we were about to get a repeat of the prior evening.  Instead, we got “Hungry Heart”, “Sherry Darling”, “Summertime Blues” and “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”.   Before the last of those (played only once on the current tour), Springsteen seemed looser and more casual than the night before, joking with the band before the last of the songs if anyone in remembered the bridge and that it was only important that most of the band knew the song.

From there the band went into Wrecking Ball material, but even then the tour’s normal song sequence was broken up by the River’s “Two Hearts”.  After that string, Springsteen went into the crowd and started collecting sign requests. First up, a cover of Eddie Floyd’s soul classic, “Knock on Wood”, a song Springsteen said they’d never played (in fact they had in 1976 in Memphis with Floyd himself. Bruce probably forgot since later that same night he hopped the fence at Graceland).  After being challenged that “any self-respecting horn section” should be able to play it, the horns delivered, especially Ed Manion on sax (who tonight finally got more solos).

Springsteen continued to time travel through the early Seventies with “Does This Bus Stop at 82d Street” (featuring a strong back and forth solos with drummer Max Weinberg and percussionist Curtis King) followed by “Thundercrack”, a show closer from the band’s very early days.  After that, Bruce went back to the pile of collected signs, and this show crossed over into a whole other plane.

When he was first collecting signs, I’d seen two that caught my interest, the first was “Frankie”, an oft-requested, seldom-played outtake that dates back to the mid 70’s.  It was rapturous.  In the middle of the song Springsteen recalled summer nights sitting in the yard watching fireflies and asked the crowd to light up the stadium. Sure enough the flickering lighters and cell phones recreated the scene and mood.

The Seventies theme rolled on with a sledgehammer vengeance. In his fabled 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town Tour, Springsteen and Bittan would play an extended intro to “Prove It All Night”.  Until a few times on this tour, it hasn’t been played like that since. That second sign that caught my eye was next up “”78 Intro Prove It”.  it was a monster, Springsteen tearing into the intro and later trading solos with an equally blistering Steve Van Zandt.

The night’s surprises were far from over.  Four songs later during as strong a performance of “Backstreets” as I’ve heard, Springsteen dropped in a few lines of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”.  At that point I tweeted that I didn’t know myself anymore.

The encores began with a beautiful solo acoustic version of “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (it had in fact started raining earlier) which segued perfectly into “Rocky Ground”.  The seventies continued with the “Detroit Medley” cover and another sign requested tour premier of Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter of Three”.  Just to send Boston into the stratosphere, the show closed with the Dropkick Murphys’ Ken Casey on stage to share vocals on “American Land”.  Curfew was well blown through, but nobody in Boston was going to pull a London.

When fireworks went off after the band left the stage, they seemed like an afterthought. It was easily the best U.S. show to date, and the kind dedicated Springsteen fans long for every night.  What it lacked in terms of cohesion and, at times, pacing relative to Tuesday night,  it more than made up for with the sheer breadth and depth of material, all of which the band knocked out with ease. I told my friends going to Saturday night’s show in Foxboro good luck topping that.  Shows like that don’t happen

If night one was a polished, professional but ultimately satisfying set for the casual fan night two was for the rest of us, a sprawling affair evocative of Springsteen’s early career and tours.  My wife’s in the former category (and she’s probably more of an indulgent of her husband type of fan) and she understandably reacted more positively to Tuesday, but couldn’t really understand my joyous state of disbelief on Wednesday.  I’m still not sure I believe what I just saw this week, but I know it reaffirmed everything I love about pop music.

Loose Ends:
Night One featured 29 songs and was an even 3.5 hours long.  Night Two had 30 songs, with only 10 carried over from the night before (and one of those, “Thunder Road”, had such a different arrangement that it hardly counts).  The show ran 3 hours, 27 minutes.  For complete set list info, check out the fine Springsteen blog, Blogness on the Edge of Town.

Springsteen’s occasionally played “Kitty’s Back” on this tour and I’m dying to hear the full horn section version. So far, though, I’m 0 for 4 so far on this tour but have gotten “Thundercrack” 3 times (and 4 times overall.  Every time he plays it, my dreams of “Kitty” go right down the drain.  I know, poor me, so if it’s one your faves, you have great odds of hearing it if I’m there

On Tuesday night on my twitter feed (@IrishJava) I cracked  that Bruce was pandering to the Boston crowd again by playing “Dirty Water”.  At the time, I didn’t realize that a story broke that afternoon detailing a Sox clubhouse.  As a Yankees’ fan, I’m not ordinarily too concerned with the feelings of Sox fans,  I’ll give Sox them a brief moment of happiness in this disastrous season.  They don’t deserve the mess their front office has created.

The emphasis on the seventies material Wednesday meant Steve Van Zandt had a bigger role in the show, whether on “Prove It” or sharing vocals on “Two Hearts”.  Too often for my tastes Van Zandt seems to be reduced to the role of mugging sidekick as he was Tuesday.  Ditto for Ed Manion, as the R&B tracks gave the former Asbury Juke sax player an opportunity for multiple solinclude read of his usual sole turn on “Waiting on a Sunny Day” I’ve seen Manion absolutely kill it on “The Fever” with the Jukes.  If Springsteen breaks it out (Jersey, maybe?), stand back folks.

Speaking of “Waiting On a Sunny Day”, the song’s become an unfortunate set list staple since appearing on The Rising Tour. Those that follow me on twitter know I use the song as a chance to, um, relieve and reload.  I know I’m not alone in my dislike of its nightly presence, and pulling a usually well-coached kid on stage to sing a chorus has become rote shtick.  That said, it’s time to forget about it ever not appearing nightly.  As my friend (and friend of Popblerd!) Dave Lifton tweeted Wednesday night, if “Sunny Day” didn’t come out of the set list that night, it’s never coming out.

Finally, and I’ll write much more about this down the road, a big part of my enjoyment of these shows was getting to see and experience these shows with many of the fellow Springsteen fanatics i follow and interact with on twitter, some of whom I got to meet for the first time.  It was a total kick hanging out before and after the shows with everyone, particularly after Wednesday night.  I don’t want to name check anyone for fear of forgetting someone, but you know who you are. See you all further on up the road.

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