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Rock of Ages: A Special Report on Chicago 2023 Night 2, written exclusively for Letters To You

photo by Laurel Delaney

August 18, 2023

EDITOR'S NOTE: For Chicago 2023 Night 2, we invited Chicago-based, Grammy-nominated gospel-music scholar Robert Marovich, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Gospel Music (and a longtime Springsteen fan,) to share his impressions of the show. True to his background, Bob zeroed in on the evening's most emotionally charged, uplifting, and inspirational aspects...

Everything about the final night of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s recent two-shows sojourn in Chicago—from the decade-spanning music to poignant reflections from the stage—suggested the Rock & Roll Hall of Famers understood the weight of their legacy and the responsibility that goes with it. But their nearly three-hour concert left no question as to their permanent position in the pantheon of rock stardom.

The tens of thousands who poured into the friendly confines of Wrigley Field for the Friday, August 11 concert epitomized a half-century of Springsteen, from a young girl in a bedazzled dress to a gray-haired woman wearing a T-shirt proudly proclaiming the greatness of grandmothers. People who were twenty-somethings when Springsteen debuted Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. in 1973 mingled with youth whose parents were not yet born in the U.S.A. when Born in the U.S.A. hit store shelves in 1984.

photo by Laurel Delaney

The lights went out and, to hoots of “Broooce” from the fans, Springsteen appeared, clad in a tight-fitting black collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up above his biceps. Brandishing an electric guitar like a weapon, he punched out the machine-gun opening licks to “Night,” from 1975’s Born to Run. Only the saucy aroma of hot dogs dripping in condiments reminded ticketholders that they were in a baseball field, not a theater.

photo by Laurel Delaney

The show was masterfully paced, the music almost unceasing, thanks in particular to Max Weinberg’s incessant drumming, even between songs. Interspersed with fan favorites like “Prove It All Night,” “The Promised Land,” and “Glory Days” were selections from 2020’s Letter to You, including the title track and “Ghosts.” Another new entry was the Commodores’ “Nightshift,” reprised recently by Springsteen on his 2022 album of cover songs, Only the Strong Survive. The combination of amplified violin and brass approximated the sound of highland pipes on “Wrecking Ball,” giving the song a Celtic vibe, while “She’s the One” rocked to the Bo Diddley shave-and-a-haircut beat.

Some of the most exciting moments were when Springsteen duked it out instrumentally with Weinberg and guitarist Stevie Van Zandt. One particularly frenetic jam session captured something of a Pentecostal revival service when Charlie Giordano coaxed the warbling of a Hammond organ out of his keyboard.

If the Friday setlist differed slightly from previous evenings, it wasn’t an issue for fans Rena and Gaston Ceron, who attended the Wednesday and Friday shows. “What stood out to me most weren’t the differences,” Rena commented, “but the passion and genuine feelings displayed by Bruce during both concerts. And the acoustic pieces really came through strong both nights, as if he was talking and playing directly to us.”

photo by Laurel Delaney

photo by Laurel Delaney

Indeed, the most poignant part of the Friday show, and the most reminiscent of Springsteen’s earliest live performances, was the acoustic “Last Man Standing.” Through the deafening wail of a police siren just outside the park, Springsteen reminisced about joining his first rock band, The Castiles, at age fifteen. The 2018 death of founder George Theiss made Springsteen the last living member of The Castiles and provided a chance to reflect on mortality. “Rock of ages, lift me somehow,” he sang, “Somewhere high and hard and loud / Somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd / I’m the last man standing now.” Augmenting the evening’s pervading sense of legacy were vintage images of the band projected on the scrim during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”

Springsteen’s treatment of the band members as stars as well as close friends was another illustration of the significance of legacy. Members of the E Street Band entered the stadium individually, each soaking up the audience applause. Then, exiting at the concert’s conclusion, Springsteen hugged and shook hands with each one like a coach after a major victory.

The final encore, a solo acoustic version of “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” found Springsteen lost in another last-man-standing moment. The Letter to You track-turned-tribute to the late Robbie Robertson of the Band had a special poignancy, as Springsteen, alone on a darkened stage, honored a fellow guitar hero. But if wistful, Springsteen’s singing was also optimistic, as if he had in mind Robert Browning’s famous line, “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.” He and the E Street Band proved it all night.

photo by Laurel Delaney

[For more on Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at Wrigley Field in 2023, check out Promises Fulfilled: A Special Report on Chicago 2023 Night 1, written exclusively for Letters To You.]


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