Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s show at the Wells Fargo Center on Friday was the final date on the Roll Me Away tour, which has been billed as the band’s last.
The 74-year-old Detroit rocker has been at it for more than half a century: “East Side Story,” his first single as Bob Seger & the Last Heard, came out on the Philadelphia record label Cameo Parkway in 1966.
In his 2 hours and 15 minutes on stage in South Philadelphia fronting a swaggering 15-piece band — including five horn players and three backup singers — Seger didn’t reach back quite that far.
The oldest song from his capacious catalog of Rust Belt rockers and stately ballads was “Ramblin’ Gamblin‘ Man,” dating to 1969, when Seger was making his name in the fevered Michigan R&B-schooled rock-and-roll tradition that also produced Iggy Pop and the MC5.
But his 24-song set was framed as a long look back. He opened with “Simplicity” from his 2006 album, Face the Promise, but that turned out to be the most recent song performed. Two albums recorded this decade were ignored.
It was an evening of greatest hits, sprinkled with deep cuts, like Rodney Crowell’s cowboy song “Shame on the Moon” from 1982‘s The Distance, and “Sunspot Baby,” with a buzz-saw guitar riff from 1977’s Night Moves.
And Seger, a ubiquitous presence in the 1970s whose robust voice remains strong, has plenty of hits. Songs of dogged persistence like “Against the Wind,” untempered passion as in “The Fire Down Below,” and world-weary romance in “We’ve Got Tonight.”
The last was one of several that a fully engaged Seger performed at a piano — including a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” dedicated to Seger’s late friend Glenn Frey of the Eagles, and featuring an in memoriam video montage paying tribute to Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Dr. John, and others. (Prince got the largest ovation.)
Seger dedicated “Tonight” to his mother, who died in 1989, saying that it was her favorite song of his, though he joked that might have been because of the Kenny Rogers-Sheena Easton hit version that accentuated the song’s saccharine tendencies.
That quip was doubly amusing because Seger — an earnest, hardworking, and unpretentious presence on stage, who appeared dressed more for soundcheck than a performance — looks kind of like Kenny Rogers these days. With white hair and beard, he joins a list with Patti Smith, Nick Lowe, and other-senior citizen singers not trying to mask their age.
Nostalgia was inevitable. Fervent fans largely in Seger’s age cohort stood for the great majority of the concert and had phones at the ready to record trademark moments like saxophonist Alto Reed’s solo on the road song “Turn the Page.”
But truth be told, Seger has always written songs that look back wistfully, measuring the toll that time has taken. He was 33 when extolling the virtues of “Old Time Rock and Roll,” arguing that “today’s music ain’t got the same soul” back in 1978. (Five years later, Tom Cruise further immortalized the song in his tighty whities in Risky Business.)
On Friday, the tour down memory lane included “Like a Rock,” a song that wore out its welcome selling Chevrolet trucks but that Seger explained he wrote in his 30s, looking back on the invulnerability he felt running track in high school. Similarly, he talked about “Main Street” as a memory of being a teenager, not yet old enough to get into bars to hear bands play the music he loved.
Seger began his final encore with “The Famous Final Scene,” from 1978′s Stranger in Town. "It seemed appropriate,” he said. And before closing with “Rock and Roll Never Forgets” — one last comforting celebration of the enduring power of the music made by his heroes (“All of Chuck’s children are out there, playing his licks”) — he came close to addressing the question of whether this was indeed his last show ever.
“This is kind of strange,” he said. “I didn’t want to think about this. I love my band. I love my crew. I’m the luckiest man in the world.” Doesn’t sound like a guy who’s truly ready to give up what he loves doing for good, does it?