Bruce Springsteen’s Consol Concert is a Tour de Force

When the Boss comes to town, you can feel the energy building up long before show time. Such was the case at Consol Energy Center on Tuesday night.

As the light techs climbed their rope ladders and ascended high into the rigging above the stage, and as people filed to their seats, it grew evident that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band would soon appear. At about 8:15 the first shouts of “BRUUUCE!” were heard as Springsteen and band took the darkened stage. Bruce replied to the crowd’s cheers with “Hello Pittsburgh” and then launched into the opener, a cover of the Clash’s “Clampdown.”

As the band members roared through this British punk anthem from the ’70s they generated an amazing wall of sound—one that continued through many songs of the night. I can’t remember seeing that many musicians on a rock-concert stage, other than at an awards show or special event. Along with the core members of the E Street Band there were a five-person horn section and three backup singers, with each phalanx spanning the rear of both sides of the stage. In addition to Patty Scialfo, Springsteen’s wife (who later in the show he would refer to as the “cream of the E Street Band”) on acoustic guitar and vocals, the touring ensemble included another dynamite woman: Soozie Tyrell, playing acoustic guitar and violin.

Better yet, they all had a perfect setting. The stage was large and functional, with no backdrops or obstructions to the rear or side. There was plenty of room up front for Springsteen and the other guitarists to prowl. Piano and keyboards/organ were to the right and left respectively while Max Weinberg’s drum kit sat squarely center-stage. The loudness level seemed just right and the mix allowed for an appreciation of each musical element.

Old Favorites + New Twists

Although “Clampdown” may have been unfamiliar to some Springsteen fans (including me), the next song up, “Badlands,” was easily recognizable and the crowd erupted. Great guitar interplay, Weinberg’s powerful drumming, and a soulful sax run by Jake Clemons (nephew of the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons) propelled the song to a higher level. The crowd joined in on the chorus: “Oh, Oh, Oh.”

During the song “Stand On It,” Springsteen proudly stated the E Street Band was newly inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The crowd cheered its approval. The background singers shined through in Springsteen’s latest song, “High Hopes.” The album of the same name, released in January, is Springsteen’s eleventh #1 album in the U.S. Only The Beatles and Jay-Z have had more.

Springsteen sported a khaki, almost military-looking shirt with small red shoulder patches. Maybe the outfit was chosen because, like a general, he’s the leader of an elite unit. It could also be a tribute to fallen friends from his hometown whose names are on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., as he mentioned during the lead-in to his song “The Wall.”

The audiences at his concerts are a nice mix of young and old, the power elite and folks from the street. Most mix easily, joined by the common love of Bruce Springsteen and his music. Many people hold up signs with song requests, and Springsteen chooses one or two for performing. Tonight’s choice was “I Wanna Be With You,” which the band played magnificently.

Maybe another tradition was born here in Pittsburgh: that of  balloon figures of Springsteen playing his guitar. Someone had made a three-foot-high twisted-balloon likeness of him, which he was so enthralled with that he took it and played around with it for five minutes. He said “When I was thinking about our show in Pittsburgh, balloons never entered my mind. We have a balloon master here.” This all happened as a backdrop to the performance of “Hungry Heart” from the album The River, replete with an audience sing-along.

Musical Journey from Youngstown to Tenth Avenue

Springsteen demonstrated nice vocal range on “Back in Your Arms” when he dropped to his knees and sang about how sometimes you just have to beg for what you want. Another spotlight moment was his singing and playing a piano solo for the song “The Promise.” Springsteen then traded his Telecaster for a harmonica on a rousing romp through “Promised Land.”

“Youngstown” is about living and making steel in the Ohio town an hour northwest of Pittsburgh and is often played on Pittsburgh tour stops. Springsteen and band performed the song like a rock dirge, very simply, with just a core group of musicians on stage. Nils Lofgren and Springsteen played lead guitar riffs with scorching heat, just like what a blast furnace would generate.

A nice back-to-back song combo was “Lonesome Day” and “Meet Me at Mary’s Place,” both from  2002’s The Rising.

The performance of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was a highlight of the evening. During the hard luck song Weinberg’s drum kit was lit with an eerie shade of green. Springsteen and Tom Morello, the former Rage Against the Machine guitarist who’s filling in while Stevie Van Zandt is filming a TV series in Norway, shared vocals and virtuoso guitar licks that would match any other guitar slingers of the day. On the face of Morello’s Stratocaster were the words “Arm the Homeless.” At one point in the song Morello quit picking and strumming the strings and started playing them with his whole hand, which was something akin to an MC “scratching” records.

“Born in the USA” is not often played, but was performed to full effect tonight, including an impressive drum solo by Weinberg with corresponding quick-paced lighting effects. During the song, Garry Tallent’s bass guitar part of the mix was turned up and created a vibrating floor effect in the Consol. Great piano from Roy Bittan and keyboard/organ by Charles Giordano shone throughout the night.

Pittsburgh rocker Joe Grushecky and son Johnny Grushecky played with Springsteen on several of his encore numbers including “Light of Day.” Top fan favorites in the encore set were “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark” (Springsteen even invited a group of people to the stage to dance for the song), and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” When the sax run started in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” a tribute to “the big man” Clarence Clemons played on the overhead video screens. The first encore concluded with a stirring rendition of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Springsteen came back out for a second encore in which he played “Dream Baby Dream” on a pump organ to end the three-hour show.

A Bruce Springsteen concert is like a fun family party where you don’t always know what’s on the menu, but you know it will be good.

Rick Handler is the executive producer of Entertainment Central and a fan of great music.