“Are you ready to be entertained?”
It wasn’t so much a question as it was a proclamation coming from Bruce Springsteen – and he was so emphatic that he repeated the rhetorical query three times at the start of his triumphant three-hour-plus mega-show at Philips Arena Thursday night.
It hasn’t been quite two years since Springsteen played Atlanta, but that last appearance was at Lakewood Amphitheatre and, just like Jimmy Buffett doesn’t belong in an arena, Springsteen feels right inside its confines, where the sweat and lights and crowd noise congeal in a musical explosion.
This tour, of course, is to celebrate the anniversary of Springsteen’s seminal 1980 album, “The River,” and the box set, “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection,” that arrived in its honor in December.
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After launching the concert with “Meet Me in the City,” a frisky leftover included in the anniversary set, Springsteen and his treasured E Street Band alternately barreled and tiptoed through the 20 songs on “The River,” in running order, for two hours and 10 minutes.
“ ‘The River’ was a coming of age record. They are songs about a small community in the streets of Asbury Park,” Springsteen said, adding that the cornerstones of the album are work, community and family.
Sauntering the length of the stage during “Sherry Darling,” guitar slung low across his back, Springsteen worked every curve of the arena, making sure not to neglect those behind the open-backed stage.
The E Street Band – Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt on guitars, Roy Bittan on piano, Garry Tallent on bass, Max Weinberg on drums, Patti Scialfa on acoustic guitar and tambourine, Soozie Tyrell on violin and acoustic guitar, Charles Giordano on organ and accordion and Jake Clemons on saxophone – were, as always, pinpoint perfect.
And really, only in Springsteen’s world would a nine-piece band be considered a “pared-down” version.
Weinberg rat-a-tat-tatted on his snare like the world’s best marching band drummer, while Clemons earned a mighty cheer every time he stepped forward for a solo, not into Uncle Clarence’s looming shadow, but into his own spotlight.
There is no doubt that the Springsteen flock is a loyal one, and for most in the sold-out venue, hearing “The River” live in its entirety was its own religion.
But as muscular and poignant and meaningful as those songs are on record – who would argue the emotional tug-of-war in “Independence Day” or the smile-inducing melody that propels “Hungry Heart”? – having to adhere to their running order created some awkward pacing.
The seamless blitz of “Out in the Street,” “Crush on You” and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” ignited the crowd. But even Springsteen would probably admit that “I Wanna Marry You” (during which he endearingly chuckled at himself after badly missing a high note), the evocative title track and “Point Blank” inserts a tad too much introspection into one chunk of a show.
He effortlessly snapped the crowd into a newly adrenalized state on the exuberant “I’m a Rocker” and with the grimy guitar riffs of “Ramrod,” and as much as Springsteen respects his landmark creation, telling the crowd after the haunting closer “Wreck on the Highway” that the album was about time and mortality, he visibly perked up and hollered, “Then all right, let’s go!” when it was time to start the second set of random favorites.
From the purposeful march of “Badlands” – accompanied by much fist-punching the air – to the simply lovely combination of rustic violin and creamy synthesizers of “Lonesome Day” to the frantically escalating “Wrecking Ball” (complete with a hearty cheer from many in the crowd at references to the Meadowlands and the New York Giants) – Springsteen and the band were firmly in the pocket.
At 66, he somehow manages to make everything still look effortless, whether putting his full trust in his devotees to safely pass his body over the crowd or strolling around the arena floor to greet well-wishers.
Springsteen’s growl of a voice sounded robust throughout the show, and he was perfectly content to occasionally cede the spotlight – as he did to the phenomenal Lofgren, who attacked his fretboard and spun like a wind-up toy during his “Because the Night” solo – and share it, most notably with his wife, Scialfa, on the confessional “Brilliant Disguise.”
Few artists utilize the house lights as adroitly as Springsteen (“Elevation” tour-era U2 is a close second), and they were frequently lifted during the concert to create that electrifying atmosphere that comes from a shared live music experience.
Before blasting into his signature singalong, “Born to Run,” Springsteen paused for a moment to recognize the late, great Alex Cooley, the legendary Atlanta concert promoter who died in December and was an integral part of Springsteen’s early career, and dedicated the anthem to him.
By this so-called encore (Springsteen and Co. don’t even bother leaving the stage – because why waste time when you can play another song?), fans were primed to hip-shake and shout through “Dancing in the Dark” and the epic "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).”
Springsteen still had some sweat to shake off, and whenever he looked into the crowd, a smile spread across his face, indicating that he’s truly enjoying this latest run – for however much longer it lasts.