Back in February, when Bruce Springsteen brought the River Tour to the Wells Fargo Center to perform that 1980 double LP from start to finish, it afforded the Jersey rocker the opportunity to reframe songs that were originally written about confronting the harsh realities of adulthood with the perspective and wisdom that comes with the passing of three and a half decades.
The concert trek that brought Springsteen and his E Street Band back to Philadelphia for the first of two shows at Citizens Bank Park - a second show is scheduled for Friday - is still nominally known as the River Tour. But it's actually a different enterprise that nonetheless shares a core principal. The Boss is spending the last days of his summer looking back, but on these open-air, impossibly generous, celebratory stadium shows, he's going all the way back to the very beginning, building a four-hour set list that retells his origin story before moving through his prodigious career.
Philadelphia's Springsteen fans love to claim bragging rights. Going back to the 1970s days when the scruffy, then-verbose wordsmith played the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, the not-without-merit claim is that we fell for the hardworking Jersey guy first, and that the appreciative superstar still saves his best shows for his visits across the Delaware.
The first two hours of Wednesday night's show especially seemed designed to give those crusty old Springsteen heads who first saw him way back when the show of their dreams. And the spirited reexamination of his beginnings - including a delightfully soulful "Spirit In The Night," with surprising upper vocal range - was a natural move from a storyteller in song who's about to publish his first memoir, inevitably entitled Born To Run and due out Sept. 27th.
He opened with "New York City Serenade," with the core band joined on stage by a string section, a performance heard but not seen by this critic, who was stranded in line outside the venue with hundreds, if not thousands, of other fans waiting in an inexcusably slow security line worthy of an airport TSA queue on Thanksgiving weekend. (C'mon guys, you had practice with Paul McCartney and Billy Joel this summer. Get people in the building!)
But I digress. From there, Springsteen went into "Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street" from his Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. debut and the continued with a series of songs from that album and his other 1973 effort, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. On "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City," he told a tale about auditioning for legendary Columbia records A&R man John Hammond, and "Growin' Up" came with an origin story about awkward adolescent years in Freehold, N.J. ("I was a freak. I didn't fit in the box") and how his first guitar showed him a way out.
"Incident on 57th Street" and "Kitty's Back" were extended guitar showcases - the former for Springsteen himself, the looser, jazzier latter for both him and ace sideman Nils Lofgren (in his high-topped Cat in the Hat chapeau). "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" usually a showstopping encore, came out early to much delirium and mirthful mugging by Springsteen and his rubber-faced consigliere and guitarist Steven Van Zandt. And there were two just-for-Philly throwbacks: The moody, minor-key "Fever," a non-album-cut radio hit locally in the mid-'70s which was delivered with subtle, smoldering vocal coda, and the goofy crowd pleasing "Thundercrack," always a popular 215 request for reasons that are hard to fathom.
But it wasn't all fun and games. When he finally got past his first two albums, Springsteen turned to the tighter, tougher middle period songs that convey the intense pressure of a world closing in, and the need to break free: "Night," "The Ties That Bind" (actually from The River!) and "No Surrender."
And he didn't shy away from class politics, either.
Back-to-back songs from 2012's Wrecking Ball - "Death To My Hometown" and "Jack Of All Trades" - detailed the economic and spiritual costs of economic collapse, the latter with that string section back on stage giving the songs a new elegiac power. And that flowed seamlessly into "American Skin (41 Shots)," Springsteen's moving, cautionary song about the 1999 police killing of Amadou Diallo during an era that predated the nation's current rash of racial violence captured on smartphone video.
The show found room for loosey-goosey goofiness - "Darlington County," while wearing a Kenny Chesney-style cowboy hat. A playful "Hungry Heart" and majestic "Jungleland" with the late Clarence Clemons' nephew Jake ably blowing his horn. Not to mention an epic guitar workout with Van Zandt and Lofgren on "Because The Night."
And along with a first encore of the ghostly "Streets of Philadelphia," there was time for the 67-year-old, tireless rocker's existential battle cries from 1978's Darkness On The Edge Of Town that remain at the core of his gritty vision: The clinched fist belief of "Promised Land," and the stubborn insistence that "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive" in "Badlands."
Or, as one of his Greetings From Asbury Park characters put it hours ago back at the beginning of the show on "Does This Bus Stop": "The Daily News asks her for the dope / She says, 'Man the dope's that there's still hope.' "