You knew the song was coming. The same with that first line, arguably the best-known first line in his vast songbook.
And then Bruce Springsteen had some fun with the full house at the newly renovated CFG Bank Arena in Baltimore on Friday night as he feigned a senior moment.
“OK, what did I want sing? Oh, um, oh yeah – ‘I’ve got a wife and kid in…'”
He pointed the microphone at the audience, which roared, “Baltimore, Jack!”
The 73-year-old rocker smiled in satisfaction. “1-2-3…”
Fans then enthusiastically sang the first verse on their own and joined him in a call and response on the rest of The Boss’ 1980 hit single, “Hungry Heart,” cementing the relationship between singer, band and city.
Friday night was the grand reopening of Baltimore’s arena, and what better way to kick off the new era than with Springsteen and his E Street Band, who first performed there on June 2, 1973.
Fifty years ago, the Watergate summer — can you believe it? I’m not sure Bruce, who’s played the venue a few times since then, can either.
The 61-year-old arena, which has a Googie architectural style that drew on the Space Age and the car culture of the era, was a hot spot in the 1960s, playing host to Frank Sinatra and the Beatles, as well as the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets.
My dad took me to see the Bullets and the great Earl “The Pearl” Monroe play there in the early ‘70s. Over time, the arena lost its luster, with frequent calls to replace it.
Instead, as The Banner’s John-John Williams reported, the city struck a deal with the Oak View Group to renovate it at a cost of $250 million in exchange for an initial 30-year lease. The new operators focused on the interior of the building while also adding some 2,000 seats to boost its capacity to 14,000, still smaller than most big-city arenas.
When I arrived for Friday night’s show, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It did seem like an older venue inside, with narrower hallways and restrooms only on certain floors. And yet it was a far more intimate place to watch a concert than Washington’s 20,000-plus-seat Capital One Arena, where I’d also seen Springsteen perform on March 27. This made for a better show, one in which the audience was on its feet for the entire 2-hour-and-40-minute set. It also provided an energy that Springsteen and the 18-member band (including guitarists Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, drummer Max Weinberg, bassist Garry Tallent, piano player Roy Bittan and saxophonist Jake Clemons) clearly fed off.
The crowd was a nice mix of Springsteen devotees, from those who live in the Baltimore-D.C. area (my sister and her husband drove up from northern Virginia with two of their kids, age 16 and 21) to the New Yorkers who came down for the Orioles’ home opener against the Yankees and stayed for the show.
The set lists in Washington and Baltimore were similar, with a mix of highlights from Springsteen’s career. Of the six songs he started with at both shows, four were hard-driving fan favorites – “No Surrender,” “Prove It All Night,” “The Promised Land” and “Out in the Street – and two were from his introspective 2020 album, “Letter to You” – the title track and “Ghosts.”
I was delighted that Springsteen dropped in “Lucky Town” from his underrated “happy” album of the same name, a song that The Daily Beast’s Andrew Kirell described as “about the power of tearing down loose ends to rebuild your life.” Among the lines, “When it comes to luck, you make your own/Tonight I got dirt on my hands but I’m building me a new home.”
I had never seen Springsteen perform the jazzy, roaring “Kitty’s Back” live before the D.C. show, so I read up on it before the Baltimore show. I was relieved when a writer named Ken wrote on estreetshuffle.com not to focus too much on the lyrics, which he described as “just clever feline imagery and wordplay.”
“The lyrics are incidental,” the article says. “I’m not even sure why Bruce wrote them — this isn’t a song you sing, it’s a song you play. It’s a song you feel, and a song you experience.”
So by the time this 10-minute-plus song rolled around, I just embraced the musicianship of the E Street Band, including a horn section that, to quote Sinatra when referring to the Count Basie band, took the building and moved it “three feet this way.”
Springsteen focused more on his vocals on a recent cover album of R&B classics, and his live version of the Commodores’ “Nightshift” is nice — and clearly meaningful to him. I’d love to see him pencil in another song from the album, the sorrowful soul ballad “I Forgot to be Your Lover,” which he memorably recorded with the great Sam Moore.
After “Hungry Heart,” the band launched into a protest song that seemed fitting for an old port city, “Pay Me My Money Down,” a rousing, horn-fueled number from his 2006 “Seeger Sessions” album.
The songs on the last third of the program are largely familiar to longtime fans, but a delight to hear, from the passion of “Backstreets” to the 9/11 meditation “The Rising,” the nostalgic “Glory Days” and the heart-pounding E Street Band origin story “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” with its tribute to the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons (Jake’s uncle).
At both the D.C. and Baltimore shows, I had to laugh during “Wrecking Ball” when the fans of these football cities booed the shout-out to the NFL’s Giants in the lyrics.
That song, told from the standpoint of a football stadium facing demolition but also a reminder that “all our little victories and glories” get turned into parking lots, too, is nevertheless defiant: “Bring on your wrecking ball,” it declares.
The songs on “Letter to You,” four of which Springsteen wove into this show, seem more about acceptance.
Springsteen introduced “Last Man Standing” by talking about the 2018 death of George Theiss, a member of his original band, The Castiles, making Springsteen the last surviving member of the group. He said it made him feel like he was standing on the tracks with an oncoming train bearing down on him, providing a “clarity of thought and purpose.” The realization that he was closer to the end than the beginning also served as a reminder to live each day fully, he said. He underscored that theme of making peace with death in his closing number, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” with its spiritual line, “Death is not the end.”
The singer spoke a lot about loss during his “Springsteen on Broadway” show, including of going by the house where he grew up and being stunned to find a familiar tree out front gone. There, he talked with the spirits of loved ones who’d passed. Don’t many of us at a certain age think more often about the people who are not here anymore – the parents, grandparents, siblings, other family members and friends?
As much as a Springsteen affair can be a joyous sing-along in many ways, with the fit singer bounding around stage with the energy of someone half his age, the band playing hard, and loyal fans joining in, The Boss reminds us more often now that death is as much a part of the journey as being “born to run,” reconciling with your past and finding love and having a family.
“Maybe we ain’t that young anymore,” from “Thunder Road,” seems even more poignant.
As I watched Springsteen on Friday night — belting out 26 songs while frequently pointing at the audience, directing the band, dancing on the catwalk, crouching down to touch fans — I also couldn’t help but think that he was putting an exclamation point on his career.
He’s not one to call it a farewell tour, but it might be, at least for a tour on this scale.
As he finished up, I also wondered if the legendary singer was thinking about that 23-year-old kid who first took the stage in Baltimore in 1973, and all the years and miles in between. In case this is the last worldwide tour, he seemed to be trying to leave us with a memory that would last, his own “letter to you.” He and the band succeeded. And in the process, they reminded us that the old arena didn’t get turned into a parking lot — it’s a nice setting to enjoy live music again.