On the Nightshift: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band Keep Running
At Moody "with the white-hot light of the oncoming train”
By Raoul Hernandez,
1:40PM, Fri. Feb. 17, 2023
“Austin, Texas! It’s my honor tonight to introduce to you a band that needs no introduction. Right? Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band!”
Right. Any site-specific emcee can deliver said convocation, but when the honor falls to George Strait – last cowboy out of the tunnel from below the Moody Center stage with the boss himself – Texans know they’re in for a right wingding. Two hours and 47 minutes, to be precise, through 27 meticulously thought-out and sequenced jewels from the Thrill Hill vaults as delivered to the sold-out, last-in-the-rafters clutch of locals. Real pandemic moment, that, when the godfather got the gang back together for 2020 reminisce Letter to You.
In the before times – 2016 – Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band reunited to revisit The River and whetted worldwide appetites for more glory days. Last night on a frigid University of Texas at Austin campus, beginning at 7:44pm, the 17-piece juggernaut reiterated a promise its bandleader and the core of that same crew first delivered here in 1974 at the Armadillo World Headquarters. Seventh show (only) out of 42 listed on the tour t-shirt and more adding hourly, Thursday landed a lucky No. 7 roll deep in the heart of Texas.
Well I stood stone-like at midnight
Suspended in my masquerade
I combed my hair ’til it was just right
And commanded the night brigade
I was open to pain and crossed by the rain
And I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through a fallout zone
And came out with my soul untouched
I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd
But when they said, "Sit down," I stood up
Ooh, ooh, growin’ up
Last night, the boys in the band did NOT dust off “Growin’ Up” or anything else off Springsteen’s 1973 debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., an album recorded half solo and before the band represented today solidified. Otherwise, they arced a swath of time capsules representing the E Street Band since sophomore LP The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, also from 1973. Nevertheless, they proved they’re growing up nicely.
Springsteen, an ageless 73, understands a key yet controversial touchstone of classic rock: catalogs amass baggage. Playing the hits comes at the expense of mythologizing would-be hall of famers. Invest in your future today or dwell forever in the past.
Subtly weaving in five songs from Letter to You, he still left three of the best nowhere to be seen: sobering album opener “One Minute You’re Here” (“next minute you’re gone”), melody maker “The Power of Prayer,” and would-be stadium anthem “House of a 1,000 Guitars.” From November 2022 sleeper Only the Strong Survive, a bulging soul covers hootenanny, the Boss of bosses only deigned one tune. Fortunately, it proved the B E S T one, “Nightshift,” a 1985 hit by the Commodores post-Lionel Richie and tribute to immutable crooners Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, both of whom died the year before.
Still tingling, hormonal, “Candy’s Room” segued sans pause into a horn-bleared, solo-smeared, 13-minute bounce through the wild, willing, and no longer innocent “Kitty’s Back” like a prelude to next week’s Mardi Gras. That then setting up “Nightshift” suddenly felt like the most delicious supper club set ever. In Springsteen consigliere Steve Van Zandt’s thrilling memoir, 2021’s Unrequited Infatuations, the guitarist makes his case for The River gushing its composer’s finest vocal hour because the double album’s producers – Bruce and Little Stevie – indulged their soul and R&B jones. When Jersey’s most famous son put down his beat-up Telecaster, still throwing some of those Darkness on the Edge of Town tour sparks, and emoted “Nightshift,” he minted a future favorite in the Springsteen canon despite not having penned it.
That moment of adult infatuations – the sensuousness of this country’s Black roots music – arced into the evening’s most affecting public address. Providing the provenance of Letter to You’s “Last Man Standing,” he relived his sister’s boyfriend George Theiss asking him to audition for his band:
“I followed him to a little part of town called, for some reason, Texas. It was there that I embarked on the greatest adventure of my young life: I joined my first real rock & roll band. We lasted for three years! Teenagers! That’s pretty good, 1965, ’66, and ’67, an explosive time in American history and an incredible time to be in a rock band.
“And we named ourselves after a bottle of shampoo: Propecia!
“Oh – no, no. That’s what I use now.
As the man at the mic then motioned, “cut forward 50 years” as Theiss dies of cancer and Springsteen visits his deathbed:
“His passing would leave me as the last living member of my first band. That just gives pause to thinking. It’s like you’re standing on the railroad tracks, with the white-hot light of the oncoming train bearing down on you. It brings a clarity of thought and a clarity of purpose.
“Shortly after that, I wrote this song.
“It’s just about … the job I chose before I ever called it work. It was the passion that we followed as children. And at 15, it was all tomorrows and ‘hellos.’ Later on, there’s a lot more goodbyes. It makes you realize how important it is to live every moment of your life.
“So, I bless you moving forward. This is ‘Last Man Standing.’”
Solo, acoustic, Springsteen and a trumpeter started the tune:
Faded pictures in an old scrapbook
Faded pictures that somebody took
When you were hard and young and proud
Back against the wall, running raw and loud
And the E Streeters did just that – ran raw and loud. Eighty minutes in, the next 85 thundered and bucked, prowled the backstreets and drank in the night, rising and falling and wrecking. The well-heeled Austin of untold generations kept pace, too.
People like us live music capitalists make these pilgrimages for transcendence, and mine occurred at the start of the 45-minute encore segment. Once, as a new parent, I fled the house raw, enraged, clawing out of my skin. As I flew down 51st St., KUTX mixologist Jody Denberg cued up The River bend through the Texas panhandle, “Cadillac Ranch.”
That dusk, a deejay truly saved my bacon.
So when Springsteen – knowing exactly his GPS – cranked the band into said roadhouse cruiser, everything outside those gritty muscle riffs receded and catharsis poured out of me in full-throated gusto and tears. Thanks, Boss. Bless y’all, too.
You and yours keep running that nightshift as long as humanly possible.
Bruce Springsteen’s setlist at Moody Center, Feb. 16, 2023
“Prove It All Night”
“Letter to You”
“The Promised Land”
“Out in the Street”
“If I Was the Priest”
“The E Street Shuffle”
“Last Man Standing”
“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”
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Libby Webster, Dec. 2, 2016
Raoul Hernandez, April 6, 2016
May 26, 2023
May 26, 2023
Bruce Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, George Strait