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A Phoenix Rising - Springsteen & the E Street Band overcome yet again, in their tour of trials

Updated: Mar 28

March 22, 2024

How appropriate it was, this past Tuesday night, to witness the onstage return of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in a city named after the bird who rises from the ashes of the past. Of course, we already know that together onstage Bruce and the band become those heart-stoppin', pants-droppin', earth-shockin', hard-rockin', booty-shakin', earthquakin', love-makin', Viagra-takin', history-makin' legends we love, but even such legends have their limitations. And their resumed 2023-2024 tour certainly has tested those limitations like no previous tour of theirs has ever done.

This tour, which remains centered around Letter To You, Springsteen's latest album with the E Street Band released back in the autumn of 2020, didn't even begin until early February of 2023, almost three years later than originally planned, due to the unforeseen COVID-19 pandemic. (The recording of Letter To You was completed quickly in November 2019, with an eye toward an album release and international tour that - if not for COVID-19 - probably would have launched no later than mid-year in 2020.) Then, just over a month after the long-delayed tour finally got rolling, a later phase of that same pandemic still dogged it, as various band members' illnesses forced several March 2023 dates to be rescheduled. By August of 2023, Bruce himself was privately struggling with peptic ulcer disease, which caused the one-year postponement of two August shows in Philadelphia, followed by the postponement of almost all scheduled September 2023 shows, and eventually the postponement of all of 2023's remaining scheduled concerts.

So a tour that started off having been delayed for almost three years later then got delayed again for an extra half-year. More important, of course, was the concern over the health issues that caused those delays and postponements, especially with the ages of the band's leader and most of its key members.

Fortunately, by this past Tuesday night, as proven onstage and later confirmed by Springsteen in yesterday's brief E Street Radio interview-by-phone, "I felt great and the whole band felt great... Knock on wood...everybody's been very healthy since then." Amen and hallelujah; they're back!

It also was rather surprising to hear Springsteen reply in yesterday's E Street Radio interview, when asked by interviewer Jim Rotolo if he considered this a continuation of the 2023 tour or "a new tour," that he thinks "we're approaching it like it's a new tour." He quickly clarified, however, by adding, "There will be some things from last year that we'll hold over... some of my basic themes of mortality and life, and those things... I'm gonna keep set, but I think I'm gonna move around the other parts of the set a lot more, so there will be a much wider song-selection going on."

One set-piece that he confirmed will remain intact, and indeed was a highlight of the show once again on Tuesday night, is the emotional one-two punch of the solo-acoustic-with-trumpet "Last Man Standing" (preceded by his introductory parable centered around the loss of former bandmate George Theiss) followed directly by the devastating full-band "I'm gonna carry it right here" performance of "Backstreets." Confirming yet again that nobody thinks more purposefully, instinctively, and deeply about his setlist and show than himself, Springsteen added, "Some of that second half of the set is built so solid that a lot of it will stay... The opening, I'm not sure what's gonna happen up top, but it'll shift around and I'm waiting to see myself just where the show's gonna take me."

As a masterful live performer with such a large catalog of great material from which to choose, it's not surprising that Springsteen seems to be making the wisest moves he can make about his current concerts and their setlists. For the reasons stated above, Letter To You remains the newest album by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, and it's a very good one at that, with a clear, powerful main theme of embracing life while facing old age and death. It's obviously the foundation for the main artistic statement that Bruce wants to make with his current shows. So, based on what was played on Tuesday night, apparently he'll continue to include at least four key songs from that album (the title track, "Ghosts," "Last Man Standing," and "I'll See You In My Dreams") along with his version of "Nightshift," the one track from Springsteen's most recent non-E-Street-Band album - the soul-covers collection Only The Strong Survive - Covers, Vol. 1 - that fits perfectly with the main themes of Letter To You.

He also did begin to "shift around" a bit as promised, opening the evening with a heart-pounding performance of The Rising's "Lonesome Day," which continues a change he started implementing on only the last four concerts performed in 2023. It's yet another song that fits perfectly with the Letter To You material and themes. The River's "Two Hearts," which had its tour debut in the last 2023 show, returned with gusto on Tuesday, as did the fine full-band version of "Don't Play That Song," another Only The Strong Survive highlight based on the classic Aretha Franklin arrangement, after an absence from the setlist of more than a year. "Don't Play That Song" provides yet one more great spotlight moment for the expanded band of this tour, giving both the E Street Choir and the E Street Horns an extra, well-deserved chance to shine. Apparently on the printed setlist it was a down-to-the-wire toss-up between whether "The E Street Shuffle" or "Don't Play That Song" would be played in that slot on Tuesday night, and "Don't Play That Song" won out in the end.

Two songs not setlisted at all got played on Tuesday night, as well: the fun, down-and-dirty singalong tale of woe that is "Darlington County," previously performed only occasionally on this tour, mostly in Europe during the summer of 2023, and the never-fails rave-up cover of "Twist and Shout," making its first U.S.-date appearance on this tour (having been played at only three European shows last summer.) "Twist and Shout" was even a bona-fide sign request, coming from an eighteen-year-old fan attending his first concert. Baby steps, setlist-watchers and sign-makers; baby steps...

But seriously, folks, in some circles there truly has been waaay too much hyper-focusing on what's going on with the setlists. Perhaps it's important for at least some of us to remember that reading any given show's setlist never conveys the complete experience of witnessing the actual concert. That's like believing that reading a song's printed lyrics is the same experience as hearing the song performed by talented musicians, or that reading the script of a play is the same experience as seeing the play performed by a masterful group of actors. (It's also one of the reasons why it's so ridiculous that most U.S. students still have to spend so much more time reading many more of Shakespeare's plays than they get to see the plays actually performed professionally, as they were meant to be experienced.)

But while we're on the subject of scripts, this is hands-down the most tightly-"scripted" E Street Band show that Springsteen has ever done. Clearly he's adapted the approach he developed with his solo Springsteen on Broadway show, as Stevie Van Zandt astutely observed early on. Consistently, there remains very little spontaneous "off-script" speaking to the crowd, as was the case (even more so, of course) with Springsteen on Broadway. Yet simultaneously, and this is one major way where this tour differs significantly from Springsteen on Broadway, overall there is very little speaking to the audience between songs. On this tour, the music itself does almost all of the talkin', and very well at that. Whenever Bruce does speak extensively from the stage on this tour, as happens during the introductory words about deceased former bandmate George Theiss before "Last Man Standing," it's actually more like another song performance in terms of how measured and prepared it is. But to me, that just means that Springsteen's now got a very firm grip on exactly what he wants to communicate to his audience on any given night, in terms of both his spoken and sung words. Despite his long-standing greatness as a live performer, that level of clarity and confidence hasn't always been the case for him, especially in younger years and earlier performances. I, for one, am totally fine with this shift, particularly since I have no problem experiencing a truly great work of art - be it a great song, album, book, film, play, etc. - repeatedly. It doesn't matter as much to me how prepared or repeated it is; all that really matters is if it somehow reaches me emotionally and/or intellectually as an actively attentive and participatory audience member in whatever's happening on that stage, in that moment, on that night. But if you're a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen appearing to be more spontaneous or off-the-cuff onstage, your mileage may vary here, of course.

One result of a show that's more tightly structured is that those rare, off-the-cuff, can't-be-gleaned-from-a-setlist moments can become even more special and treasured. Such was the case on Tuesday night when Jake Clemons' sax solo during "Mary's Place" brought a huge smile to Springsteen's face. Bruce seemed especially pleased with Jake's handling of that solo, indeed turning to also-beaming Stevie Van Zandt and yelling audibly, "Sounds good!" They looked like two proud, excited parents watching one of their kids nail their first violin recital.

Truth be told, while reading the setlist doesn't convey the total concert experience, neither does any report or review of the show, including this one. But I hope that at least I have managed to convey to my readers here just how great it is to see a fully recovered Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band back onstage again, delivering once more such a unique, powerful, fun, inspiring, healing, and renewing experience.

In closing, I can't help but think of what music-writer and Springsteen-biographer Dave Marsh once wrote about the day that Elvis Presley died: "That night, on national television, speaking in a blur and fighting back tears, I said that the worst part for me was that Elvis was supposed to be around for much, much longer, as a sort of national treasure to be shared with my children and grandchildren." How fortunate we all are, even (or rather especially) in these often very dark and scary days, that a certain Elvis-fan-turned-rock-star from the great state of New Jersey, with help from some beloved companions along the way, has followed a very different path to a much better fate, and become an international treasure shared with multiple generations of fans.

Viva Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band!

-All March 19, 2024 Phoenix, AZ concert photos by Shawn Poole

A brief note about our 2024 tour coverage moving forward... Just how extensively "there will be a much wider song-selection going on" will affect greatly how many individual Letters To You concert reports/reviews we will post. Unless one night Bruce and the band decide to play one or more extremely rare or new setlist addition(s) or radically alter the setlist in some other way(s,) if the current show overall remains relatively similar to Springsteen on Broadway in its stability, you probably won't see from us as many extensive accounts of or reactions to each individual show. (This was the approach taken at my old stomping grounds - the late, great - during both runs of Springsteen on Broadway, in which there wasn't a report/review posted for every single show. Of course, Springsteen on Broadway was much more scripted and structured than the current tour is, so we'll see...) That noted, we are always up for considering anyone's writing about any Springsteen concert-event they attend, especially if you somehow have a unique perspective and/or experience to share. Therefore, if you'd like to share any such writing or ideas for our consideration, please feel free to email us at The same goes for any concert photos you'd like to share with us for consideration.

Thanks, everyone, and best wishes to all for many more great shows ahead!


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