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Notes from Chicago: Bruce Springsteen's 'Born to Run' concert

September 22, 2009 |  6:19 am
Los Angeles Times blog czar Tony Pierce was in Chicago this past week to meet with the mother ship. While spending time with our Tribune brothers and sisters, Pierce also took in Bruce Springsteen's visit to the Windy City. Pop & Hiss told him to have a Goose Island and enjoy the show, but he threatened to come back to Los Angeles with a blog post. We weren't surprised when it arrived, but Pierce's rant about what constitutes an encore caught us off guard. Here are his thoughts from Springsteen's concert:  

Most Bruce Springsteen shows are special in one way or another, but Sunday night he and his E Street Band rocked the United Center in Chicago with the energy of twentysomethings.

The spirited show, which many in attendance now consider their favorite Springsteen concert (thanks to an informal exit-polling strategy), was based on a bit of the novelty but rooted in the overwhelming power of the veteran group. The concert was said to be just the second time the band has performed its classic 1975 album, "Born to Run," in its entirety. The first performance of the full collection of songs was for a 2008 benefit gig at the quaint Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J.

The soon-to-be 60-year-old singer explained to the sold-out arena that "Born to Run" was the make-or-break record for him and the band. Columbia Records, he said, was unhappy with the sales of his first two records, "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J."  and "The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle," both released in 1973. 

After the explanation, he placed a harmonica to his mouth and the man who decades ago was hailed as the next Bob Dylan led his band through "Thunder Road" followed by the rest of the tracks of what many consider one of the finest rock albums of all time.

Quick takes of the stellar show after the jump.

1. Springsteen spent nearly three hours leading his band through 28 songs at the "house that Michael Jordan built," and although it was probably overlooked in hindsight due to the novelty of the night, the third song, "Johnny 99," provided a sort-of foreshadowing for the show. Although the dark tune from the moody and intense "Nebraska" album was originally recorded with just acoustic guitar and harmonica, this night's live version was upbeat and rollicking and included the entire 10-piece band. Quite a send-up for an otherwise sad tale about a man hitting rock bottom, ultimately leading to a crime. But instead of wallowing in the pain of the tune, Springsteen's take was strangely celebratory, setting the tone for the night -- that he was there to party no matter what words he was belting out. 

2. The "Born to Run" numbers seemed awkwardly placed in the middle of the main set. Sorry. Although the audience ate up the series of familiar hits at the beginning of the show (from "No Surrender" through "Hungry Heart"), having the "Born to Run" tracks as songs 8 through 15 of the concert -- with very little context -- gave the show the weird flavor of gimmickry. Additionally, Springsteen immediately followed the suite up with the decidedly inconsequential "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," which pales in comparison to the dynamic and cinematic one-two punch of  "Meeting Across the River" and "Jungleland," the songs that complete "Born to Run." Wouldn't a better pick have been "Tunnel of Love," "Brilliant Disguise" or "I'm on Fire," which all would have better complimented the complexities of the classic album compared to the light and frothy "Sunny Day"?

3. Although several critics (and the official Springsteen website) considered the songs after "Badlands" the encore, is it really an encore if the band never leaves the stage? Yes, the cover of "Hard Times Come Again No More," as well as the requests of "Da Do Run Run" and "Rockin' Robin" were a pure delight for the audience -- and a definite change in direction of the show -- but does simply raising the house lights mean that it's an encore? One of the more fascinating and unique aspects of the night's show was that it felt like a runaway train. No stops, no "raps," no stories about growing up -- it was just one great tune after another, with very little need to acknowledge the new record or traditional concert structures. It was cool because there were no encores delivered by a band that historically indulges in several. Which isn't to say the crowd needed any more rock; most of us were more than satisfied by the high energy set of all killer and no filler.

4. Speaking of the audience, it was cute to see several attendees dressed in red headbands, sleeveless T-shirts and boots wrapped in bandannas reminiscent of "Born in the USA" Springsteen, even though most of them were there to hear "Born to Run."

5. Springsteen should be congratulated for continuing to do something that few stars at his level do: regularly providing eye contact to those seated -- although "standing" is the more accurate word -- behind the sparse stage. Whenever he could, Springsteen would point to those in the sections behind Max Weinberg's drum set. Those fans paid top dollar for their seats too, and the Boss made damn sure that they felt included in the special night.

6. A testament to Springsteen's ever-growing catalog of concert-ready material came with the finale. How many artists can provide more than enough entertainment via 27 songs and still have "Rosalita" in their back pocket to send the crowd home complete and spent? Bravo, Boss.

Bruce Springsteen set list Sunday at United Center provided by Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, who posted a video and written review of the show:

1 Seeds
2 No Surrender
3 Johnny 99
4 Cover Me
5 Outlaw Pete
6 Hungry Heart
7 Working on a Dream
8 Thunder Road
9 Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
10 Night
11 Backstreets
12 Born to Run
13 She's the One
14 Meeting Across the River
15 Jungleland
16 Waitin' on a Sunny Day
17 Promised Land
18 Radio Nowhere
19 Lonesome Day
20 The Rising
21 Badlands
22 Hard Times Come Again No More (Stephen Foster)
23 Da Do Run Run (Crystals hit)
24 Rockin' Robin (Bobby Day hit)
25 I'm Going Down
26 American Land
27 Dancing in the Dark
28 Rosalita

-- Tony Pierce

Photo credits: Scott Strazzante / Chicago Tribune