Waiting to see Bruce Springsteen at Mohegan Sun Arena, it was hard not to get a slightly sad feeling for the Boss, as the said arena only holds 10,000. OK, that's not that small of a venue, I mean, YOU try selling that many seats! I know I couldn't. But seeing ads for some of the free concerts coming up, a lot of them were acts whose heydays were long behind them. And though Springsteen may truthfully fit into that category - he often jokes during live performances that he doesn't see himself on the charts for more than one week after each album comes out - you couldn't help but feel badly that the 64-year-old rock 'n' roll veteran - who has sold out stadiums seven times this size- was wrapping up his tour at a casino.
But as soon as the band took the stage, it was clear that this sympathy was unwarranted. This was not an artist earning a "more selective appeal," as Spinal Tap's manager might say, this was an intimate engagement with a living legend who is still in his prime. Also, Mohegan Sun Arena is a pretty cool venue.
The set was highly energetic, but for the most part, the song selection was dark and comprised of many deep cuts.
One of the lighter surprises came when Springsteen went into the audience to collect the requests that fans put on poster boards, and a little girl had written one for "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." The Boss looked at it, looked at the girl and shrugged as if to say, "who cares if it's May," and they burst into the song as the light men drenched the arena in festive red and green glow.
Other fan requests included songs that wound up on the outtakes box set, "Tracks," including one song the band had never once performed live, called "7 Angels." After pulling it off with aplomb, Springsteen joked, "That didn't sound too bad. Maybe we should play it more."
The next request threw him a little. As he conferred with the E Street Band members, it became clear that if there is a teleprompter at their feet, whoever runs it does not input the chords. Before they jumped into a stellar version of the "Tracks" song, "Don't Look Back," Springsteen said, "we're missing just one chord and we'll be right with you."
This sort of spontaneity gives life to E Street shows, and this show included a lot of that energy. Early in the set they even covered Van Halen's "Jump." Why?! Such an odd choice, given that 30 years ago that song would have been competing for airplay with "Dancing in the Dark."
Elsewhere there definitely was a tangible lyrical darkness in the song selection, though if you weren't already familiar with the songs, you might not know it. "Johnny 99," a song about a man who shoots a another man during an armed robbery, was given a New Orleans celebratory treatment, a holdover of his tour with the Seeger Sessions Band. The horns during "Adam Raised a Cane" gave a demonic feel to a song already rife with Old Testament justice. Other lyrically dark songs included "Darkness on the Edge of Town," obviously, "Murder Incorporated," "Cadillac Ranch" (that song is about riding in a hearse, right?) and "Youngstown," which felt especially poignant on Sunday night.
Tom Morello's solo on "The Ghost of Tom Joad" was inspired and surprisingly not too avant garde for the Springsteen die-hards. Morello's acceptance into the band has been swift, but there were a few times where he was a bit of a distraction, mostly because his playing is not as traditional as the other E Streeters. It was also good to see Little Steven back onstage with the E Street Band, which reached a grand total of 18 at some points in the set. But Morello's inclusion — however unconventional — is a good thing, as it proves once again Springsteen's insistence on continuing to challenge himself as he gets nearer and nearer to traditional retirement age.
About that, will he ever retire? It's hard to say. He doesn't need to do what he does, and he does always challenge himself and his audience (see aforementioned Van Halen cover).
It's interesting to note that while Springsteen's latest album is titled "High Hopes," the songs he chose on Sunday didn't overwhelmingly reflect high hopes, nor were many even from "High Hopes."
But there was an odd finality of this tour finale, as he played the harmonium along with his backup singers and ended with the "High Hopes" song "Dream Baby Dream," a cover by the band Suicide. The song's repetitive incantation had a feeling of facing the darkness and finding hope in the absence of light, something which would be more difficult to do in a world where Bruce Springsteen isn't touring.