Tracking set lists is a popular pastime of Bruce Springsteen aficionados and the current tour has provided sufficient fodder in that department: In the 18 shows since he started the tour on March 18 in Atlanta, Springsteen has performed 65 different songs, only a dozen of which have made it into the set list every night. When the regulars drop out, such as "Thunder Road" on Thursday night at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, it feels newsworthy in that it made an L.A. show unique.
On the other hand, it provided a good reason to return for night two, the third to last night on the first leg of his U.S. tour. Not that "Thunder Road" was missed -- this was as powerful a show as any Bruce Springsteen has delivered in this city.
What typed up set lists do not convey is how the songs are performed. There may be no greater point to make about the significance of this tour, the first E Street outing without the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici. Springsteen has opted to fill the holes created by their absence with an element no one would have believed was absent, a sweet soulfulness and militaristic percussion. Clemons' brawniness and the wails that evoked moments of isolation and desperation are replaced by a horn section that alters songs moods like lighting, blue on one song, fire-engine red on the next.
Sixteen musicians are now in Springsteen's band, a five-piece horn section that sits out almost as often as it plays and doubles as percussionists, lending a maracas-based wall of sound to "She's the One" and a funeral marching band sound on "Death to My Hometown" and "Easy Money." It opens the bar band opportunities that exist in so many of his songs and he juices them smartly; a tribute to the Temptations ("The Way You Do the Things You Do") and Wilson Pickett ("634-5789") reveals his current soul tastes turning more toward classically tailored love songs rather than the rollicking tales of parties and sex that he covered in his younger days.
Springsteen has elevated the dynamics in so many of his songs, thanks to the presence of a hand drummer, two more backup singers and the horn players. Gone are the rim shots used for exclamation points, the sudden drop-outs of music and a pacing determined solely but the intensity of the songs. Now he's working within songs, using musicians for some sections but not others, and allowing the sounds of instruments to explode on their own rather than en masse. Acoustic numbers are sparingly used, set list a risky journey with few spots for Springsteen to rest his voice.
At the Sports Arena, Springsteen appeared rejuvenated, especially after the "Magic" tour, where the new songs never clicked, feeling half-baked up against classics that had been in the sets for a few years or a few decades. The material from "Wrecking Ball" - eight of its songs were performed Thursday, a standard at most of his shows to date - has a gravitas that approaches "The Rising" and in many cases supersedes "Born in the U.S.A's" songs; more lived in than when recorded, the new material is delivered with a compelling vigor, whether it's a soft song such as "Rocky Ground," performed with the singer and rapper Michelle Moore, or the more urgent "Wrecking Ball," one of the songs that takes full advantage of the scope a 16-piece band can provide.
Springsteen's first of two Los Angeles shows had a lot in common with shows elsewhere on the tour.
The dozen songs that have been performed at all 17 shows prior: "We Take Care of Our Own," "Wrecking Ball," "Death to My Hometown," "My City of Ruins," "The Rising," "We Are Alive," "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," Apollo Medley ("The Way You Do The Things You Do"/"634-5789"), "Rocky Ground," "Dancing in the Dark," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" and "Born to Run."
He offers two tributes to Clemons, one during "My City of Ruin" that also tipped the hat to Federici, and another during the pivotal second verse of "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out." They are largely silent tributes save for the rapturous applause.
The inclusion of "The Ghost of Tom Joad," "Something in the Night" and the Rivieras' "California Sun" took the list of songs performed only once during the tour up to 18. That was a particular treat for longtime Springsteen observers as he rarely uses the first night in L.A. to deliver anything untested.
He included songs that only had a few plays so far: "E Street Shuffle" (sixth time in a set); "Candy's Room" (third) and "She's the One" (seventh). Tom Morello performed magical guitar lines on three songs, "Death to My Hometown," "Jack of All Trades" and "The Ghost of Tom Joad." It was only the fifth show in which "Badlands" was used the opener; "We Take Care of Our Own" has been the opener elsewhere.
A list of songs, however, cannot convey the thrill that covered Springsteen's face when he brought a young girl onstage to sing "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" or the fact that he sang those soul covers in the middle of the general admission section on the floor and then crowd-surfed his way back to the stage or how he stood on Roy Bittan's piano, held his hand to his ear and pleaded the audience for more applause. These were Springsteen antics from the 1970s and and 1980s, stage maneuvers that had largely been dropped as his material turned increasingly serious and weighty.
He tapped another element of that -- the voice of the preacher, detailing where he was going to take an audience for the night. "We came thousands of miles on a long long road to wake you and shake you and take you to a higher place," he shouted while the band played Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready." He spoke about the crowd needing the E Street Band as much as the the band needed the audience, pointing to youngsters standing and how crucial they were to the show's success, probably something they'll never hear again in an arena.
He spoke of the joyous power of rock 'n' roll, that it's the E Street Band's job to deliver "the news with a beat," to tell stories about "things that get lost" and "things that remain with us always." Material from "Wrecking Ball" supplied the news, "The Rising" was there for the reflection and the rest of it was indeed the joyous power of rock and roll. It sounds a bit different on this E Street Band go-'round, but it's refreshing and invigorating in a way that proves Springsteen never stops reaching for that higher place.
Here's the Set List:
We Take Care Of Our Own
The Ties That Bind
Death To My Hometown (with Tom Morello)
My City Of Ruins
The E Street Shuffle
Jack Of All Trades (with Tom Morello)
Something in the Night
She's The One
Waiting On A Sunny Day
The Promised Land
Apollo Medley (The Way You Do The Things You Do/634-5789)
The Ghost of Tom Joad (with Tom Morello)
We Are Alive
Land Of Hope And Dreams
Rocky Ground (with Michelle Moore)
Born To Run
Dancing In The Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out (with Tom Morello)