Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band returned to Milwaukee Tuesday night for the first time since March 2016, when they performed at the Bradley Center as part of a tour revisiting "The River," playing to a packed house at the Fiserv Forum.
This gig – Springsteen's 19th in the area (counting Alpine Valley gigs) – was part of a 31-date U.S. tour that reunited The Boss with his E Street Band for the first time since February 2017.
Like the 2016 performance, Tuesday’s concert – which was the fastest sell-out in the roughly five-year history of the venue – also raised funds for Hunger Task Force. Last time, Milwaukee fans donated $18,036.
These days, The E Street Band includes keyboardists Roy Bittan and Charlie Giordano, bassist Garry Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg, guitarists/vocalists Patti Scialfa, Nils Lofgren and Stevie Van Zandt, saxophonist Jake Clemons and violinist/guitarist/vocalist Soozie Tyrell.
Joining them on this tour are a quartet of horns, a quartet of backing singers and a percussionist.
Illness, including COVID, has hit the tour, causing Van Zandt, Scialfa and Tyrell to miss shows and, indeed, Springsteen's wife Scialfa was absent at the Milwaukee gig.
But it was almost a little hard to tell with so many people on stage. There were 18 in all, and they all contributed and many got nice little features in the roughly two-hour and 45-minute set.
The band had a lot of ground to cover, considering it's now 50 years since The Boss released his debut LP. Though he didn't play anything from that record – "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J." – Tuesday night, he did hit decades of highlights, with a little extra focus on 1975's breakout "Born to Run" and its followup, "Darkness on the Edge of Town."
Interestingly, Springsteen played just one song – The Commodores' "Nightshift" – from his latest record, a 15-song covers album called "Only the Strong Survive," released in November.
Springsteen and company set the stage by opening with the strident "No Surrender," a fan favorite from 1984's "Born in the USA" smash. He also dug into his back pocket to pull out beloved deep cuts like "Kitty's Back" and "The E Street Shuffle."
Backing singer Curtis King's soulful tenor was featured on "Nightshift," Lofgren got the spotlight with a fiery solo in a sizzling rendition of "Because the Night" and the horn section starred in "Pay Me My Money Down."
"Death to My Hometown" made its tour debut and featured Clemons playing a bass drum by hand as the percussionist donned a Colonial-era drum for a version that had an Irish flavor.
Clemons, incidentally, has followed his late uncle Clarence in becoming a highlight for fans. The crowd roared anytime he played a solo and especially when he interacted with Springsteen as Clarence so often did.
As always, the fans were there to commune at the E Street altar and it was love on a two-way street, with impromptu singalongs and the experienced crowd not only knowledgeable about the traditional participatory moments but also eager to do their part.
Although Springsteen interacted often with the audience during songs – we got a number of "Are You Loose" references to the 1975 bomb scare show at the Uptown Theater, as tradition demands – the storytelling Boss was largely absent, introducing only one song with an explanation: the tale of his joining his first band, The Castilles in 1965.
That came before "Last Man Standing," written upon the death of the last surviving Castilles member (other than Springsteen). George Theiss, Bruce's sister's boyfriend, hearing that the 15-year-old Springsteen had picked up the guitar, offered him an audition and a career was born.
For those of us who grew up with him and are now "of a certain age," Springsteen speaks to us of the arc of life in a way few other musicians can.
But it wasn't only old folks at the show. I saw a lot of teens and even younger kids enjoying the music with parents and I wondered what they made of moments like this one and the evening's closer, a solo version of "I'll See You in My Dreams," which speaks of death and memory.
If Springsteen's voice sounded a little frail on a few occasions, more gravelly than normal on a couple others (most notably "Candy's Room") and his guitar solos a bit less nimble, it hardly seemed to matter to anyone in the room. At 73, he's still the hardest working man in rock and roll and the E Street Band is no less industrious.
Bruce looks like he's still having a great time and it still brings joy to see him and his life-long pal Van Zandt break into the kind of little two-second dance routine that conjures an Isleys-style moment.
Beloved and still sparking, Springsteen has got plenty of fire left in him. I'm confident that as long as The Boss keeps coming to town, the fans will keep showing up, too.
(As a side note, earlier in the day, The Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music named the first honorees for its debut American Music Honors event, slated for April 15, at New Jersey’s Monmouth University, where the archives is located. They are The E Street Band's Van Zandt, Sam Moore of Sam & Dave, Darlene Love and Steve Earle.)
Prove It All Night
Letter to You
The Promised Land
Pay Me My Money Down
Death to My Hometown
The E Street Shuffle
Last Man Standing
Because the Night
She's the One
Land of Hope and Dreams
Born to Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
I'll See You in My Dreams
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.