Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Deliver Intense Retro Marathon in Anaheim

Robert Mora
Bruce Springsteen at the Honda Center in Anaheim
In a word: epic.

Social Distortion's Mike Ness and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello join the Boss for a politics-free, 3 1/2-hour throwback revival that leaves 'em wanting even more at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

"Epic" is one of those superlatives whose meaning has been watered down in our culture to the point of near-uselessness: like "awesome," "hilarious" or "superstar." But to blazes with hyperbole: Tuesday night’s concert by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was epic, arguably their best local show since the mid-’80s glory days.

Forget the notion of a band cruising on a tour’s second leg, this sold-out Honda Center gig was longer, more energetic, more fun, more … everything than Springsteen’s L.A. show in April. And that one was very good. No, this 28-song, 3½-hour intermissionless marathon brought old fans back to the times of a quarter-century and more ago when singer, band and crowd bonded in ways rarely experienced in rock history. Sheer symbiosis.

“Something for everybody” -- another overused phrase that abuts cliche, except when it’s entirely merited. Consider: The oldest-school fans got songs from the first two albums, the die-hards got deep cuts, the pop fans got “Hungry Heart” and “Dancing in the Dark,” the kiddies got “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” the folkies got tunes recalling or inspired by Seeger and Guthrie, the scholarly got Steinbeck, the soulsters got “Raise Your Hand,” and the catnip encore of megahits -- including “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” -- was for, well, everyone. Springsteen even regaled the crowd in a funny story, a tactic rarely deployed in recent years.

There were all manner of tricks of the arena trade: call-and-response, name-checking the tour stop, bringing fans onstage, cruising through the crowd, slapping hands, huge sing-alongs. Yes, Springsteen still engages an audience as well as anyone. At 63, he is as fit and more fiery on the boards than folks half his age, even leaping atop the piano and doing a yoga-like back-bend that must have made some in the well-seasoned crowd feel it in their knees.

The wildly entertaining throwback show ultimately was about two things: passion and branding for the next career phase. Emphasizing the former is important, but pointing out the latter is not a jab. Rather, it’s noteworthy because it is apparent that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are back in it for the long haul. And they want the audience to know it.

Who knows how many in the crowd were seeing him and the band for the first time, but anyone who was had to come away impressed. That’s how careers are sustained. Springsteen was careful to court the young’uns -- a relative term, of course, but one that could more broadly include folks from 5 to 40 on the fringe of fandom.

For example, he brought a young girl onstage to dance and sing a couple choruses of “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day.” She now likely is a lifelong fan; Springsteen even went out of his way to make sure the kid got a guitar pick as a memento. And bringing SoCal honchos Mike Ness and Tom Morello onstage -- the latter for a half-dozen songs -- might help bridge a couple of potential generational gaps. 

He also played up the Orange County angle. “Anaheim!” Springsteen shouted as he introduced O.C. OG Ness before a run-through of “Bad Luck,” from Fullerton’s own Social Distortion. They rather slogged though the song, but point made: Bruce played with Mike Ness in Orange County. He’s cool!

Later, Springsteen said: “I’m so glad to be here tonight in Anaheim. I’m going to Disneyland!” With that he launched into a yarn about how he and bandmate Steven Van Zandt went to the Happiest Place on Earth at the “height of our mega-stardom.” Inside Disneyland, an official told them, “You can’t stay in the park dressed like that!” Said Springsteen: “It was 1985; I had my bandanna on. So we left and said, ‘We’re going to Knott’s Berry Farm!’ " After a pause for knowing cheers, he added, “They wouldn’t even let us in there.”

Classic Bruce.

So maybe “rebranding for the future” is a more descriptive term. Although implied by some song choices, politics was never mentioned at this show Behind the Orange Curtain, where his fellow Democrats don’t exactly rule. After being all but joined at President Obama’s hip during the last days of the bitterly contested presidential campaign, Springsteen knew it was time to take the focus off his politics and put it squarely back where it belongs: onstage.

The old “revival” description of Springsteen’s shows was in full force. (After a particularly fiesty number, Springsteen leaned the mike down to a coached fan who asked the singer, “Did you feel the spirit?”) And there were many musical highlights. Among them: “Reason to Believe” was transformed into an ancient blues, fueled by a ZZ Top-like growling guitar riff; “Darlington County” drew a huge shout-along for its repeated “sha-la-las”; and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” unleashed Morello’s inner Rage with an enormous solo.

The gig again spotlighted several songs from this year’s Wrecking Ball album, though not as many as in April (among the jettisoned were “Rocky Ground,” thankfully, and “Jack of All Trades,” regrettably). But this time it wasn’t the focus. No, that would be The Catalog. The show touched 11 of Springsteen’s 17 studio albums.

Perhaps the most telling inclusion on the set list this go-round was “Jungleland,” which features the most iconic solo by Springsteen’s late longtime saxman Clarence Clemons. The band, still getting its footing after being bulked up, likely didn't feel ready to play the fan favorite early in the tour eight months ago. But Clemons’ nephew Jake Clemons is a full-on E Streeter now, and he wailed through the song, not copying the solo but adding and subtracting just enough to make it his own. And of course, he got the disproportionate cheer that always greeted his uncle’s spotlight time.

There was audible shushing amidst the crowd during “Jungleland’s” super-quiet climax, which was shattered by Springsteen’s most full-throated, primal vocal of the night: that singular and extended yell/roar that brings the song to its close. He absolutely killed it. Again, epic.

Springsteen opened and closed the show with the same phrase: “Are you ready to be transformed?” It's easy to imagine the exhausted crowd replying: "Yes and yes. Again and again." See you next time, Bruce.

Set list:
Land of Hope and Dreams
Adam Raised a Cain
Streets of Fire
Hungry Heart
We Take Care of Our Own
Wrecking Ball
Death to My Hometown  
My City of Ruins
Spirit in the Night
The E Street Shuffle
Long Time Comin’
Reason to Believe
This Depression  
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Bad Luck
Because the Night
Darlington County
Shackled and Drawn
Waitin' on a Sunny Day
Raise Your Hand
The Ghost of Tom Joad  
Thunder Road

Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out