Bruce Springsteen might be tired of talking. Between two runs of his narrative-heavy Springsteen on Broadway residency and eight episodes of his Renegades: Born in the USA podcast co-hosted with former president Barack Obama, Springsteen had been doing a lot of gabbing in the six years since he last hit the road with longtime backing outfit The E Street Band. But if Wednesday night’s (Feb. 1) opener to the group’s 2023 Tour is any indication, story time is over: The Boss is back, and he just wants to play.
In fact, for the great majority of the show at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, the only thing Springsteen had to say — outside of the occasional “TAMPA!” holler or stage direction for his 19-piece band — was “one, two, three, four!” as he introduced their next ripper. No mention was made of the relatively long layoff since their last global trek, nor of any of the real-world circumstances that might’ve accounted for a couple of those dormant years, nor even of the fact that this was their first show back; if you’d wandered in from across the street, you’d likely assume they had already been on the road for months already.
But in many ways, that’s just Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. They may be rock history’s most successful bar band, but they still have that working man’s approach to the gig — and priority one of Wednesday’s show was demonstrating that they were back in business, and picking right up where they left off. The group was cooking from the opener, Born in the U.S.A. fist-pumping fan-favorite “No Surrender,” and the energy stayed at that level close to throughout the 28-song set. No time for putting on airs; there was six years’ worth of rocking to catch up on.
The setlist also reflected this ethos, with the spirit of the selections being far more side two of The River than side four. (Only one song actually from The River, the boisterous rave-up “Out in the Street,” made the cut; presumably Springsteen figured we got our fill of that double LP the last time out.) Renditions of longtime live staples like “Prove It All Night,” “She’s the One” and “Johnny 99” were positively scorching — and though the show’s setlist was relatively light on major curveballs, longtime fans in attendance were no doubt please to hear the extended shine given to jammier early cuts “The E Street Shuffle” and “Kitty’s Back,” Springsteen even conducting the brass section in individual solos on the latter.
And the man himself remains a physical marvel. His voice is obviously still mighty, but you might’ve wondered if age and time off would result in Springsteen, now 73, appearing visibly diminished. But he still shows a wiry, near-pugilistic scrappiness onstage — perhaps a little stiffer in movement, but no less authoritative and striking for it. Among his classic rock peers, perhaps only Stevie Nicks can compare in terms of the amount electricity they can summon to this day simply by lifting their arms. (Bruce’s years might show most in his sense of humor, including on-stage banter with sideman Stevie Van Zandt during the ending of “Glory Days” about it being “time for us to go home… it’s way past my normal bedtime.”)
The show also aimed to demonstrate that Springsteen still has it as a songwriter, with a whopping six tracks pulled from his 2020 LP Letter to You. (Last year’s Only the Strong Survive cover set got a quick two-song mini-set, while 2019’s dustier group of originals Western Stars was not represented at all.) The new songs meshed surprisingly well with the old — particularly the anthemic “Ghosts,” which already sounds like it should’ve been a live fixture for decades — with the repetitive “House of a Thousand Guitars” the lone selection where you could feel the energy lag a bit. The evening’s most emotionally charged moment might’ve come with Springsteen’s spellbinding solo acoustic performance of Letter ballad “Last Man Standing,” preceded by his lone preamble of the evening — which explained the song as being inspired by the death of an early bandmate, leaving him the lone living member of his first-ever band. “At 15, it’s all tomorrows… at 73, it’s a whole lot of yesterdays,” he summarized, to roaring audience support. “So you gotta make the most of right now.”
It certainly felt like the band made the most of their time in Tampa — particularly once they started blazing through a show-ending run of classics like “Born to Run,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “Dancing in the Dark,” with Springsteen even mimicking his famous dance moves from the latter’s music video. The “Dark” performance also included a rare miscue for the band, as someone came early with the chord changes in the first verse — a foible that came off as more charming than anything, especially with the rest of the group visibly shrugging to themselves and one another, eh whaddya gonna do, it’s opening night, lotta tour still ahead.
The final number was a second Letter to You acoustic rendition, this time of “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which Springsteen also used to close Springsteen on Broadway in 2021. Dedicating the song to Emily Rose Marcus — the recently deceased daughter of rock critic Greil Marcus — Springsteen’s hushed performance was a thoroughly heartbreaking closer. But as he walked offstage at 10:43 ET, seemingly with time still left for an epic encore (“Thunder Road” perhaps?) the crowd continued buzzing expectantly for a couple minutes — until the house lights came on, confirming that The Boss was indeed checking out. He had said all he needed to say for the night.
Prove It All Night
Letter to You
Out in the Street
Don’t Play That Song
The E Street Shuffle
Last Man Standing
House of a Thousand Guitars
Because the Night
She’s the One
Born To Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
I’ll See You in My Dreams