He's Bossy: Bruce Springsteen rocks the Xcel Center

By Jon Bernstein

Shrouded in total darkness, Bruce Springsteen starts his concert with a question, but it’s really more of a challenge. “Is anybody alive out there?” Repeating the phrase two or three times in front of 19,000 screaming fans, Springsteen dares his fans to match his own intensity for the rest of the night. Max Weinberg’s pounding drums appear out of nowhere, and suddenly eight dark figures are illuminated as they explode into a rock and roll band and start the show off with the appropriately themed opener “Night.”This past Sunday, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band made their second appearance in the Twin Cities supporting their latest album, “Magic,” in just four months. The first show, in November, was a standout effort by everyone involved, including the exuberant St. Paul crowd who were treated to rarities such as “Incident on 57th St.” and the classic “Thunder Road.” Fans were given a final surprise with an unexpected announcement of the band’s return in March as they left the arena.

Thus initiated four months of anticipation in the Twin Cities for the band’s return (St. Paul is one of just two cities that’s receiving a second show in the spring). Four months is a lot of time for a band to mature and develop over a tour, and Springsteen’s E Street Band concerts are well known for their expansion of setlists and overall duration as the tour progresses. Furthering the expectations were Springsteen’s most recent standout performances on the early stage of the new leg of the tour. Between the tour premiers of classic rarities like “Rosalita” and “Detroit Medley” and the gradual increase in show length in shows directly preceding the stop in St. Paul, the expectations among the more vigilant and up-to-date Springsteen fans were even higher.

For those with this anticipatory mindset, the show last Sunday ultimately fell short of such mammoth expectations. Still very much in the midst of the “Magic Tour,” Sunday’s show had the same core group of songs, including the six or so songs from the new album, plus Springsteen concert staples like “Badlands,” “The Promised Land” and “Born To Run.” Out of the 23 songs played, there were five different numbers this time around, a seemingly small number but altogether understandable. More disappointing was the lack of an increase in song quantity, particularly evident in the encore, which again received the standard five songs, despite a seven-song encore in (of all places) Omaha, Neb. just two nights earlier. Couldn’t Bruce have done a little something special for the deserving St. Paul crowd for round two?

While Sunday’s show wasn’t an exceptional performance from Bruce and the band, it was far from lackluster. Springsteen, backed by what he refers to as “the best little bar band in the world,” was filled with enthusiasm and energy throughout the show and ran through an impressive setlist that included rousing takes on songs like “Prove It All Night” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” as well as long-revered epics “Jungleland” and “Backstreets” (Sunday’s show was the first time both of these “Born To Run” masterpieces were played on the same night since 1985). In addition, the experience the band gained on the tour certainly showed. Reworked versions of new songs from “Magic”-most notably “Long Walk Home,” but also including energetic takes on “Gypsy Biker” and “Last to Die”-showed off Springsteen’s commitment to fine tuning his deep catalog of songs, both new and old. Despite missing two original members of the band: Patti Scialfa at home with the Springsteen kids and Danny Federici recovering from melanoma, the band played an extremely tight show and didn’t miss a note all night.

Still, despite a well above average setlist and an all-around superb showing from the band, some of the magical atmosphere from their November performance seemed to be missing from Sunday’s show. Perhaps the expectations were unfair, and the demand for something more than just another great show from Springsteen and his band was unwarranted. But after “Born To Run” and a show stopping take on “Jungleland” in the encore, signifying the predominantly static final three song run and thus no more real potential for surprises, there was a slight feeling of letdown at the Xcel.

Leaving the arena just a tad disappointed, I began to think back to my fondest memory of the November show. During “Thunder Road,” as is customary, Springsteen stood back from the mic halfway through, leaving what is probably the song’s – and perhaps Springsteen’s – most pivotal line to the crowd. “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” 19,000 fans belted out with all the might left in their already weathered voices. It’s just a simple request, nothing too demanding. Just show a little bit of faith, and Bruce promises an evening full of music that will be nothing like you’ve ever experienced.

Unfortunately, it seemed like much of the crowd, myself certainly included, were thinking more along the lines of Springsteen’s regular closer (and timeless classic) “Badlands.” “Poor man wanna be rich,” Springsteen bemoans to an an arena full of presently-crazed, fist-pumping savages, “rich man wanna be king,” he continues, and finally, “and a king ain’t satisfied until he rules everything.” A certain eagerness and yearning for more than just a typically fantastic performance from Springsteen, a sentiment not wholly dominant but certainly noticeable throughout the Xcel center, took away from an otherwise fantastic performance from a band that’s playing some of the best music of its career.