It’s a cool, crisp November evening in Nashville, Tenn., and Bruce Springsteen knows where the hell he is.
A few days ago, Springsteen committed what he called “every frontman’s nightmare” by confusing Michigan during an onstage callout with neighbor and rival Ohio. But if Springsteen gets mixed up occasionally as to which city or state he might currently be about to rock mightily, it’s understandable.
Springsteen and his titan E Street Band have been on a seemingly endless global touring run since 2007, through two albums cycles, appearances at both the Super Bowl and presidential inauguration, first-time appearances at major festivals, and a full slate of other milestones. Even for an artist who has largely built his career on epic shows, Springsteen and the E Streeters have managed to find yet another gear at this stage in their legendary career.
Similarly, Springsteen has been unusually prolific in the studio, releasing albums of new material in 2007 (“Magic”) and this year (“Working on a Dream”), while at the same time acknowledging his beloved albums of the past by playing full sets of classic recordings in concert. On this night in Nashville, his 1975 breakthrough album “Born To Run” will get the live treatment, to stunning effect.
In his dressing room at the Sommet Center — four nights before this marathon trek ended in Buffalo, N.Y. — Springsteen seems anything but fatigued, but rather remains enthusiastic about his own future and that of his E Street Band. What the Boss is most concerned about is his pending show, blowing the roof off yet another house as he rolls on in front of this speeding train. And this Bruce will do, repeatedly assuring the ecstatic crowd that he knows he’s in Nashville and is thrilled to be there.
Billboard: The last couple of years for you have been pretty exceptional in terms of productivity, both live and in the studio.
Springsteen: We were talking about it the other day and we said, “I don’t know if we’ve been this busy since 1985, or ever.” It’s just the way things worked out. Some of those things we planned, and some of them just happened. I’ve been prolific with my songwriting, so I’ve been able to just get more music out there, which is something I always wanted to do. I found my 50s to be very, very fruitful. The songs came — I don’t want to say easily, but they came in a continuous flow. I had a lot of things I wanted to write about, so it allowed us to record quite a bit, and then back it up with the touring.
With the end of these shows, we’re coming to the end of a decade-long project that really was a tremendous renewal of the power, the strength and the service that our band hopefully provides. A decade ago, I wasn’t quite sure if I wrote in a style that was suited to the band anymore. I wasn’t quite sure how we functioned as a unit, and to sort of see the whole thing just have so much vitality and power, it’s just one of the sweetest chapters in our entire time together.
The productivity has been remarkable; before “Working on a Dream” (2009) and “Magic” (2007), there were “The Rising” (2002), “Devils & Dust” (2005) and “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” (2006), plus a Greatest Hits album. As a kid, I remember waiting three years for “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978). Why so prolific?
Looking back, I was very interested in shaping what I was about and who what I wanted to be. For every record we released, there was a record I didn’t release. I was very cautious and wanted my records to have very strong identities and be about a very particular thing. The nice thing about where we are now is that the rules are much fewer and further between. I had this huge folk band that I toured and recorded with, and that was a wonderful experience. I toured solo and I loved that, and I have the E Street band at full power. I can do all these things now and really record whatever kind of music comes into my mind. Who you are and what you do is already established, so you don’t have those identity concerns that you had back in the day.
So you were less cautious about it and just turned it loose?
Yeah, and your craft improves. You become better at discerning your good songs from your not-as-good songs. The writing process is shorter because you refine what you leave in and what you leave out to a higher degree. You’re able to do more work in a compressed amount of time without the quality suffering in any way.
But touring is still touring. Since October of 2007 you’ve done 171 headlining shows, with more than 4 million people in attendance. Close to 10 million fans saw you on headlining dates this decade. Why work the road so hard for so long?
I can’t say I experience it as a grind. Of course you’re flying in, you’re flying out and you’re driving, but I really like the people that I do this with. I like being with them on stage and off, I enjoy the time we spend traveling together, and I enjoy the work that we do. And I feel privileged to have the audience I have and to be able to do what we’re doing at the level we’re doing it right now. If you’re a sports figure, you’re prime passes at such a young age. There’s no ceiling here. I believe if you come and see us now you’re seeing the best E Street Band that’s ever played.
We stopped playing in 1988 and didn’t play again until 1998, so if I’m looking at a 20-year-old kid in the audience, they were not born when we stopped playing. There’s a tremendous thrill in coming out and seeing those people who you know would never have been able to experience the band if you hadn’t picked up the sword again. To see those people get involved in all your music, new music and old music, is fascinating. Not that you don’t get tired or fatigued, but there’s always a night, no matter how tired you are, when you’re on stage during the night that you go, “Oh my God, this is just wonderful.”
You also get the chance to turn on a lot of new fans at festivals like Bonnaroo. I think you won over a lot of people this year with “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
[Laughs] It was hot, like 95 degrees, but why not? We played festivals for the very first time on this tour, and that was one of the greatest experiences of all of them. That was an eye-opener. When we played Glastonbury it was the same thing: you come out and there’s like 100,000 kids in their 20s and under. It was fun playing on bills with other bands, and it’s something I’d do again in the future.
It all started when I met some 20-something kids outside a pizza parlor back in the late ’90s and they said, “We’re big fans but we’ve never seen the E Street Band.” It was in Freehold, my hometown. Two guys, big fans, never saw the band. I said, “Wow.” The past two years have been off the Richter scale, but the whole decade has been just a great time for us.
When did you start taking the requests from the audience?
People would always bring a sign with requests and we’d say, “Let’s do that one, let’s do that one.” But then somewhere along the way — I believe it was at the very end of the “Magic” tour — we just started to do more of it, and people started to bring more signs. Then we started to take unusual requests and do songs that we’d never played before, just depending on the common memory that the band would have from everyone’s individual playing experience as teenagers. We ended up with a system where we can jump on a lot pretty quick.
How many songs are in your arsenal?
Since the “Magic” tour, I think we’ve done upwards of 150-160 songs — maybe more, because we do a lot of things just once.
I was told that you played 43 different songs at the Spectrum in Philadelphia over the four nights.
Yeah, we did a different show every night; a third to a half of it was different. If you see us two or three nights in a row, you may hear 35-50 different songs. We follow the end and beginning of the setlist, and then there’s a little section in there where it just slips and slides, depending on what’s going on with the audience and what I think the band can pull off. It allows the fans to have input into the show in a way that just pumps the blood into everything and enlivens the evening. We’ve done stuff by the Ramones, the Clash, Tommy James: all kinds of music that we enjoyed over the course of my generation.
From your early days with Steel Mill and going forward, was it always a focus to make the live shows special?
Yeah, because you have to understand that you lived and died by your ability to perform. You had no records. To draw 1,000-2,000 people with no album, which is what we did in the late ’60s, you had to have a thrilling live show. Back then it was a four piece band — me, Danny [Federici], Mad Dog [Lopez], Steve [Van Zandt] — and we had to be able to grab people instantaneously with music they hadn’t heard. That’s what led us into “Rosalita,” “Kitty’s Back,” “Thundercrack.” Those kinds of songs were actually the final products of long, almost prog-rock things that I did coming out of Steel Mill, where there were time changes and arrangement changes. They were sort of me bringing what I did with Steel Mill into the soul and R&B influences of my early recordings. If you heard “Rosalita” or “Kitty’s Back” live and had never heard the record, they still worked. You had to have live performance to survive.
When and why did you decide to perform full album sets?
We had done so many shows and were going to come back around one more time, so we were like, “OK, what can we do that we haven’t done? Let’s try to play some of the albums.” There were some people who were starting to do it, it sounded like a good idea, and my audience fundamentally experienced all my music in album form. People took “Born To Run” home and played it start to finish 100 times; they didn’t slip on a cut in the middle. And we made albums — we took a long time, and we built them to last. The idea is, “There’s no stinkers on this thing,” and we spent months or years or whatever it took to try to make sure that was so.
So the albums play real well, and I think when you hear them you go, “Wow, I can’t believe all those songs were on one record,” whether it’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town” or “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.” Those records are packed with songs that have lasted 30-35 years. It simply was a way to revitalize the show and do something appealing and fun for the fans, but it ended up being a much bigger emotional experience than I thought it would be.
It must have been a marathon to tackle your 1980 double album, “The River.”
That was a trip. It’s basically a rock band record, but it went on for 20 songs. I sequenced it to feel like a live show, so you have four fast songs and a couple of ballads. It played real well when we went to play it. We learned “Cadillac Ranch” and “I’m a Rocker,” which I remember always worked well on the record, and bang, they just whiplashed us on stage. So we were kind of having a first-time experience the same way the audience was.
Any thoughts on what you might do with some of these shows, like release a DVD or album set?
We didn’t have any plans. They’ve been filmed, but I don’t know if they’ve been filmed to put out. It’s about going in and listening to what we have. But it’s something that we really just started to make the tour exciting at this point.
This tour has felt really celebratory. Does it feel like this might be the last run for the E Street Band?
No. We don’t even really think of it. We’re playing to an audience now that will outlive us. But at the same time the band is very, very powerful right now. And part of the reason it’s powerful is that it’s carrying a lot of very strong cumulative history. You come and you see 35 years of a speeding train going down the track, and you’re gonna get to be on the front end of it. We look forward to many, many more years of touring and playing and enjoying it.
It has to be very instinctive after all these years.
There’s no two shows that are alike, which is what people are paying for. They’re paying for us to be present in full, right at this moment. We always go out there with that in mind, and I think having that massive weight behind us pushes the band to another level. And whether you’re, 15, 19, 24 or 60, you come and you say, “There’s Clarence Clemons,” and I get to stand next to him like I did 35 years ago. For us and for the audience, that continuity is a powerful thing. It threads your life together, and that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to make music that threaded through your life as well as ours, and you spend some common experience with us.
Some bands crumble under that sort of weight.
Some of it is just DNA, your personality and how you were built. This was just something that we were built to do. Every band’s had ups and downs — maybe we haven’t had as many as some other bands, but we’ve had our share. We spent a decade apart, and so all of those things are a part of our experience, too. But I think, particularly when we got back together in the late ’90s, that everyone realized, “This has been a special part of my life and I want it to continue to be so.” And all of the incidental baggage completely sort of got left behind. There’s not many other groups you could look at and see the same situation.
What haven’t you done that you’d still like to do?
Well, I’m about to do it in about an hour from now. I’m looking forward to that. It’s all in the doing right now. What I want to do is what I’m doing, except I want to do it a little better tonight than I did last night. I want to write some better songs to mine and my audience’s life today. We’ve made records over the past 10 years that have found as integral a place in my fans’ lives as any the records from my past days. They talk about who you are, who I am, where we are, where we live, and what we’re about. I’m just looking forward to going out there in an hour and looking into those faces like I’ve done over the past 35 years.