During the triumphant return of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band to Madison Square Garden in New York City on Saturday (April 1), one lyric captured the powerful core of Springsteen’s first tour in more than six years.
Deep into the show, with the sold-out crowd at The Garden singing along, and the E Street Band roaring behind him, The Boss shouted out a line from “Badlands,” that had more meaning than ever on this night: “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive!”
From the opening chords to the final encore of this 27-song, three-hour performance, Springsteen, 73, reflected on aging, death, friendship and passion with the insight and joy that only a great rock’n’roll show can offer.
As the evening began, the expanded E Street Band — pianist Roy Bittan, guitarists Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt, bassist Garry Talent, drummer Max Weinberg, keyboardist Charlie Giordano, saxophonist Jake Clemons, guitarist/violinist Soozie Tyrell, and percussionist Anthony Almonte — climbed the stairs to the stage (Patti Scialfa was absent), followed by Springsteen. He held up his right hand and waved it in small circles, egging on the rising roars of the crowd before shouting a greeting: “New York City!”
Here are the 12 best moments Springsteen’s MSG show on April 1.
“I’m Ready to Grow Young Again”
Seven years after Springsteen & the E Street Band last played Madison Square Garden on March 28, 2016; six years after the close of their most recent tour in February 2017; five years after the debut of Springsteen on Broadway in October 2018; and three years after the pandemic lockdown of March 2020, fans cheered the news that Springsteen would return to the road for this tour which opened Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla.
After the pandemic years and so much sadness and loss, what song would Springteen select to open his shows? The choice was inspired. “No Surrender” introduced The Garden concert as it has almost every one of the preceding 21 shows on the tour to date. (“Night” preceded it in Houston). With Van Zandt joining him at the mic, Springsteen offered the song from his Born in the U.S.A. album with its images of youth, rebellion, and rage against the dying of the light. “Cause we made a promise we swore we’d always remember/ no retreat, baby, no surrender.”
“Your Spirit Filled With Light”
Across the generations, Springsteen’s Irish blood still burns in his veins. (His great-great-great-grandparents came from County Kildare). And the Irish have an often-raucous tradition of celebrating the dead in stories and songs. As Springsteen sang “Ghosts” from Letter To You — ”it’s your ghost moving through the night/ your spirit filled with light” — and later the title track of that album, he was backed by bandmates all distinctively dressed — and every single one of them garbed in black. It became apparent that this show was one hell of an Irish wake.
“A Kiss to Seal Our Fate Tonight”
Springsteen’s shows draw from five decades of songwriting and recording. But some of his most intense songs in concert come from Darkness on the Edge of Town, the album he had just released when the E Street Band headlined The Garden for the first time in August 1978. On Saturday night, four songs from that album — not only “Badlands” but also the scorching “Prove It All Night,” the ferocious “Promised Land” and impassioned “Candy’s Room” — all singed the set list.
“Here She Comes, Here She Comes”
If Springsteen had to suffer the “new Dylan” comparisons with the release of his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, in January 1973, by the time he returned with The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle in November of that year, it was clear his musical imagination was incomparable. Saturday’s performances of “Kitty’s Back,” from the latter album, was the first song of the night to feature the four-man horn section — Barry Danielian, Eddie Manion, Ozzie Melendez, Curt Ramm — along with saxophonist Jake Clemons. It was a sprawling, jazzy jam that recalled the breadth of Springsteen’s musical ambition from the start.
“I Know You’re Not Alone”
Springsteen surprised fans last November with the release of Only The Strong Survive, a collection of cover versions of classic soul and R&B songs. From that set, his choice of “Nightshift” — a tribute to the late, great Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, which the Commodores brought to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985 — fit perfectly with the tenor of the night. And Springsteen’s duet with Curtis King Jr., joined by backing vocalists Lisa Lowell, Michelle Moore and Ada Dyer, was the most soulful performance of the show. Staring upward, straight into the spotlight, Springsteen sang: “You found another home/ I know you’re not alone/ on the nightshift.”
“So Many More Goodbyes”
Throughout the night, in comparison to other tours, Springsteen said little between songs. But to introduce “Last Man Standing,” he spoke of joining his first rock’n’roll band, The Castilles, on a summer afternoon, at age 15, at the invitation of a high school friend, George Theiss. “The greatest adventure of my young life. This was in 1965, ’66 and ’67. We lasted for three years! Teenagers! It was the all-time School of Rock! An explosive time in American history — and an amazing time to be in a rock group.
“But if you cut forward 50 years from that summer afternoon, to another summer day, I found myself standing at the side of George’s deathbed,” he said. “He fought lung cancer for the last years of his life and he only had a few days left to live. And I realized that his passing would leave me as the last surviving member of that first small group of guys that put that little band together.
“The dead’s great and final gift to the living is expanded vision,” Springsteen said. “At 15, everything is tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and hello and hello. And later on, through so many more goodbyes… Now, it just makes you realize how important living every moment is. So be good to yourselves and be good to those you love and be good to this world around you.”
“We Swore Forever Friends”
Springsteen’s set choices draw connections for his fans across the years. From “Last Man Standing,” he led the band into “Backstreets.” Roy Bittan’s cascading piano was followed by Max Weinberg’s drums rolling in like heavy surf. It was a majestic performance, made all the more poignant as Springsteen riffed on the lyric “we swore forever friends, on the backstreets until the end” by repeating the line, “to the end, to the end, to the end.” He told of “saving the box of 45s” of his beloved friend, of the photos “of the two of us sitting on your porch.” And “everything else,” he intoned, “I’ll carry right here,” clutching his fist to his heart.
“Come On Up For the Rising”
In New York City, no performance by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would feel complete without “The Rising,” Springsteen’s tribute to the firefighters who climbed the stairs of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, carrying “a 60-pound stone” and “a half-mile line” — until the towers collapsed upon them. Starkly lit, half in shadow and half in bright light, Springsteen sang, accompanied by Lofgren’s slide guitar, while spotlights shining from the floor evoked the Tribute In Light that continues to shine from the site of the towers every September. Springsteen’s juxtaposition of songs again was key — as “The Rising” gave way to the life-affirming blast of “Badlands” to conclude the pre-encore segment of the show.
“Beneath the City Two Hearts Beat”
“Something special for New York City,” said Springsteen, as the show’s extended encore began with the epic “Jungleland,” the nine-minute-plus song that closed the Born to Run album in 1975, with its tale of the Magic Rat, the barefoot girl and “soul engines running through a night so tender.” Although he has masterfully performed it many times before, when Jake Clemons soared through the extended saxophone solo of “Jungleland,” originated by his late uncle, E Street Band founding member Clarence Clemons, Springsteen gave Jake a shout-out.
“Living in a Dump Like This”
The encore continued with “Thunder Road” then — house lights, ignition! — the anthemic “Born to Run,” followed by the wild romp of “Rosalita,” during which Springsteen and Van Zandt mugged like two of the Three Stooges. The pure goofiness of Springsteen onstage should never be understated. “Glory Days” led into “Dancing in the Dark” and a moment where Springsteen pulled open his shirt to reveal a still-muscular bare chest, declaring “I don’t want to go home! I just don’t want to go home!”
“Scooter and the Big Man”
Ramps allowed Springsteen to strut midway out into the arena floor for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” where he declared to the crowd, “This is the important part!” As he sang of that long ago night when “Scooter and the Big Man” promised to “bust this city in half,” Springsteen pointed up to the video screens. Images of the departed members of the E Street Band, Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, crossed the scenes, joined by an impossibly young Bruce Springsteen.
“When All the Summers Have Come to an End”
The show closed in on the three-hour mark as Springsteen came out alone, carrying his acoustic guitar. As he has done for years, in one of the most modest, effective and enduring steps of activism by a touring artist, Springsteen drew the crowd’s attention to the volunteers collecting donations from a local food pantry, “our friends from the Saint Francis Food Pantries and Shelters,” based around the corner from The Garden. “They provide food, clothing and shelter for New York City neighborhoods in need,” he said.
Then he began to sing. And for many in the audience, memories flowed with tears, thinking of loved ones lost to age, illness or the pandemic; of friends who shared books and films and music — and other Bruce Springsteen concerts in years gone by. Springsteen sang: “We’ll meet and live and love again/ I’ll see you in my dreams/ Yeah, up around the river bend/ For death is not the end/ And I’ll see you in my dreams.”
Here’s the setlist for Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at MSG on April 1:
“Prove It All Night”
.“Letter To You”
“Out In The Streets”
“E Street Shuffle”
“Last Man Standing”
“Because The Night”
“She’s The One”
“Born To Run”
“Dancing In The Dark”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
“I’ll See You In My Dreams”