By MARK GUARINO | For Sun-Times Media
Last Modified: Sep 9, 2012 02:42AM
He ran this way. No that way. He collapsed on the stage for a quick breather and then he was up again, shouting to the rooftop onlookers peering into Wrigley Field from across the street:
“Who’d you pay?”
Bruce Springsteen is in Chicago this weekend, playing two consecutive sold-out nights, the first Friday. Just like the man himself, the three-hour, 30-minute show jerked between manic highs and melancholy lows, with little left in the middle.
This is Springsteen’s first appearance in the area since the release of “Wrecking Ball” (Columbia), his 17th album released last spring. As the title suggests, nuance isn’t in the cards these days as much of Springsteen’s most recent work swings the heavy hammer at populist themes and universal catharsis with such force, you can hear shoulders popping after each verse.
One-quarter of the 28-song setlist was reserved for songs from the new album, which included a Celtic stomp (“Death to My Hometown”), a gospel song (“Shackled and Drawn”) and “We Take Care of Our Own,” which references the federal government failures following Hurricane Katrina.
Unlike his best-known rock anthems, these new songs were tailored for the super-sized E Street Band, now numbering 16 members including a five-person horn section, backup singers, a fiddler and a bongo player. The versatility of this cleverly orchestrated crew – horn players easily splintered into a drum-and-fife corp, for example – became crucial to the winding themes and styles of these songs.
At their expense went the legendary brotherhood that made this band one of the most powerhouse rock outfits of all time. Guitarist Steve Van Zandt remained largely in the background playing a lesser role, as did guitarist Nils Lofgren, who mostly deferred to his boss except when called to action for a rousing solo during “Prove It All Night,” the set opener.
For this tour, Springsteen, 62, interacted primarily with new faces: Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who sat in for about half the show, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder. Morello hasn’t met an effects pedal for his guitar that he hasn’t embraced, a style that made “The Ghost of Tom Joad” a showpiece for him to madly toggle through a wide sonic palate. Besides the finale, Vedder showed up once to help Springsteen turn “Atlantic City” from a sparse folk song into a bluesy duet.
The show also allowed Springsteen to introduce his devoted audience to Jake Clemons, the nephew of Clarence Clemons, his long-time tenor saxophone player and larger-than-life presence in this band who died following a stroke last year. For some songs, the entire horn section performed his signature sax solos in unison, but the younger Clemons also walked out alone to take his own spotlight. On “Spirit in the Night,” from his 1973 debut, Springsteen was with Clemons on the stage’s edge to trade verses. “This is before you were born – way before,” he told his new recruit.
The ultimate Clemons tribute came late into the night, when Springsteen stopped “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” upon mention of The Big Man in the lyrics. From there: a one-minute video montage of Clemons flowed above on video.
No musician on stage could match the partnership Springsteen demanded from the audience – at least those standing close enough to pass him a cowgirl hat to wear (pink, sparkly), get onstage and dance with him or send up their daughter to recite lyrics (Waitin’ On a Sunny Day). That last bit is shrewd showmanship – every city, another parent’s daughter waiting for her “moment.”
Despite the iconic Chicago backdrop of Wrigley ivy, Springsteen also paid unintended tribute to one of the city’s greatest music makers: Curtis Mayfield. His 1965 song “People Get Ready” served as the coda of “Land of Hope and Dreams,” a pairing that shares train imagery to get to heavenly heights.