Springsteen’s High Hopes in Houston

Rarities set-list turns on a pair of Hispanic siblings

Bruce Springsteen’s SXSW showcase at the Moody Theater in 2012 meant the E Street Band never returned to play for 10,000 additional diehards at the Erwin Center, a fact he lamented in citing Texas when asked if the tour would return to the U.S. after an Australian trek this winter. Dallas and Houston got theirs this spring, the latter on Tuesday.

The golden ticket of a trek such as the present, 17-date road show for January’s High Hopes, a disc of outtakes, redoes, and covers, is that it’s not really about promotion. Given 2012’s proper studio long-player Wrecking Ball, a marvel of contemporary ills and dissatisfaction that nonetheless manages to be uplifting, High Hopes arrived as more of a satellite to its predecessor than a major catalog entry on its own terms. Extensive touring, much of it in Europe, gave life to Wrecking Ball, but the material on a loveable fan club souvenir like High Hopes demands less vetting.

Which perhaps accounts for an astounding rarities set-list delivered by Springsteen and 19 others at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion exactly a month after the juggernaut performed free in Dallas during the NCAA March Madness Music Festival on April 6.

“Houston really took us to heart,” humbled the man of the hour before his last song Tuesday, citing the 40th anniversary of the band’s rock & roll pilgrimages to the Bayou City. “There were a few places right at the beginning and this was one of them. [Thanks to] the town that adopted us so long ago.”

The stark, acoustic rendition of “Thunder Road” that followed, just Springsteen, his harmonica, and guitar, has stapled his concerts from the start, but the nearly three-hour siege that preceded it (2:58) played out like shuffle mode on his greater body of work. From cult Born in the U.S.A. leftover “Seeds” as opener and Born to Run dark horse “Night” to a tune from his solo album twofer of the mid-Nineties, “All or Nothing At All” (“We have never played this song... because no one really likes it”), the entire extravaganza took on the title of one of the singer’s better B-sides: “Roulette.”

Album couplets constituted the backbone of the staging. Darkness on the Edge of Town ground out live essential “Badlands” and the raw “Adam Raised a Cain” early on, while Springsteen’s 2006 tribute to the now late Pete Seeger, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, reveled in the afterglow of ESB’s recent stopover at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Cajun-Irish hoedown “Jesse James” and “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.” Wrecking Ball swung hard with its title cut and industrial teeth-clencher “Death to My Hometown, and Born in the U.S.A. singalongs “Downbound Train” and “I’m On Fire” late in the evening constituted close-your-eyes-and-croon moments for the SRO masses.

The turning point for all of it, however, arrived in the sixth slot, Tunnel of Love prize “One Step Up.”

That an act the size, stature, and historical significance of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band takes copious requests at this late stage in its storied run illustrates the true interactivity they enjoy with their global support system. General Admission pits at the stage front fill with fans thrusting song placards in the air. The frontman points to the ones he’ll honor or wants passed up to lean against the mic stand as he performs it. “One Step Up,” a bolt from the blue of 1988 that here featured the singer and his wife/bandmate Patti Scialfa trading harmonies at the center mic, swooned the arena.

Man and Wife: Springsteen and Scialfa (with Roy Bittan on piano) taking in the E Street request line. (Photo by Gary Miller)

At that moment, all bets seemed off.

Case in point – the highwater mark of the night. One large rippling banner struggled to make it up onstage despite Springsteen’s repeated gestures to get it up there. When it finally arrived, he unfolded it and held it up for the audience to read: “I busted my brother out of class to sing ‘No Surrender.’”

Sure enough, rock & roll’s most benevolent people person got the two boys up onstage, a pair of Latino siblings maybe 14 and 16. Not only did they know every word like it was tattooed on the backs of their eyelids, they sang it in unison with Springsteen with such unbridled vigor that their clearly moved benefactor rose up to meet their naked moment of a dream come true. If those five minutes didn’t lodge a lump in your throat the size of Jersey, I dearly hope your buddies called the paramedics for you.

After the boys had either shaken hands with or hugged all E-bandmembers as the song wound down, Springsteen rumpling the younger one’s hair during his hug spoke to that father of three’s larger sense of parenthood. Maybe only Tom Morello’s guitar histrionics on “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and raucous main set closer “Light of Day” carried with them such a fierce emotional thrust. Those kids made the show.

Mostly, that left just Austin’s Joe Ely, who Springsteen loves to welcome for his Texan encores and with whom he and management umbrella mate Alejandro Escovedo made up a three musketeers at the 2012 Austin Music Awards. Ely taking lead on the first two numbers in a 48-minute victory lap touched off a whole other show, one slightly wearied after all that came before, yet rising to the occasion.

Come back to the five and dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Austin’s also been here for you from the beginning.

Set-list, Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, Houston: 5.6.14

1) “Seeds”
2) “High Hopes”
3) “Badlands”
4) “Adam Raised a Cain”
5) “She’s the One”
6) “One Step Up”
7) “Jesse James”
8) “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live”
9) “Wrecking Ball”
10) “Death to My Hometown”
11) “Night”
12) “No Surrender”
13) “Backstreets”
14) “Because the Night”
15) “Downbound Train”
16) “I’m On Fire”
17) “All or Nothing at All”
18) “Shackled and Drawn”
19) “The Ghost of Tom Joad”
20) “The Rising”
21) “Light of Day”


22) “Great Balls of Fire”
23) “Lucille”
24) “Born to Run”
25) “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
26) “Dancing in the Dark”
27) “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
28) “Shout”
29) “Thunder Road”

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Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, Pete Seeger, Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo, Roy Bittan, SXSW 2012, Austin Music Awards 2012

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