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Springsteen brings a grand, electric ‘Born to Run’ to the Spectrum

Bruce Springsteen brought his final shows to the Spectrum Tuesday night in a marathon show that was equal parts exhausting and exhilarating, even by his standards.

Bruce Springsteen performs during the first of four final concerts at the
Wachovia Spectrum. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )
Bruce Springsteen performs during the first of four final concerts at the Wachovia Spectrum. ( Steven M. Falk / Staff Photographer )Read more

"Man, I ain't gettin' nowhere," Bruce Springsteen sang in "Dancing In The Dark" Tuesday night, near the end of a marathon South Philadelphia show that was equal parts exhausting and exhilarating, even by his standards. "I'm just living in a dump like this."

Springsteen hasn't been doing too much "sitting around getting older," however. The 60-year-old AARP magazine cover boy remains a perpetual motion marvel, a force of nature who's aged along with his audience but hasn't given up on cramming the concerts he does with his venerable E Street Band - "history makin'" and "Viagra takin,' " according to their Boss - with the full range of rock and roll experience.

On this three-hours-plus night, which began boisterously with the roller-rink organ obscurity "Seaside Bar Song" and ended with the final, delirious release of "Rosalita," Springsteen found himself in the same old dump that he had played 32 times before.

"The Spectrum will live forever!," he bellowed early on, celebrating the grimy old venue that he first performed at in 1973, and where he played his first arena-sized headlining gig anywhere, in October 1976. The album Springsteen was promoting at the time was Born to Run, the breakthrough opus that turned him into a household name to readers of Time and Newsweek. And it was that operatic tour de force that Springsteen chose to perform in its entirety at the first of his final four shows at the Spectrum, which will close its doors for good after a final Pearl Jam show on Halloween.

For decades now, Springsteen's career has been distinguished by the extraordinary bond between the artist and his audience, an assembled mass of stubborn dreamers who see their own lives reflected in the rugged grace of the songs written by the tireless Jersey guy who approaches his job as an American storyteller with a unstinting work ethic.

Last night, Springsteen got the momentum going with a six-song run up to Born to Run that included the brand-new "Wrecking Ball," written to mark the demise of North Jersey's Giants Stadium. But here it was retrofitted with lyrics about the Spectrum, "where Dr. J played the games" and Philadelphia, with "cheese steaks as big as airplanes." There was a hammy "Outlaw Pete" and the sturdy title cut to Working on a Dream, which were the only two nods to the 2009 album that's the nominal reason for his tour. Plus, he did a rousing, singalong "Hungry Heart," in which a crowd-surfing Springsteen entrusted his fans with carrying him overhead from the middle of the Spectrum floor back to the stage.

Then, he got into meat of show with Born to Run, the album with which he forged the covenant with his audience and headed down the road together in hopes of "getting to that place where we really want to go." "This is a record that introduced a lot of us to each other," Springsteen said. "And it holds us a special place in my heart."

It was easy to hear why. Along with a few taut numbers - the jaunty strut "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and a dark, driven "Night," among them - Born to Run is full of epic set pieces that soar with a Wall of Sound majesty and fully embrace a sad-eyed and impressively far-seeing Romanticism that Springsteen could never quite wholly give himself over to again.

By the time of Darkness on the Edge of Town - which he'll do from start to finish tonight and whose cathartic "Badlands" was a highlight on Tuesday - the world was closing in on him. But on Born to Run, the possibilities still feel limitless, even as characters like the brooding lovers in "Backstreets" are beginning to realize that it's not going to be so easy to "walk like the heroes we thought we had to be."

Last night, Born to Run was delivered with the epic sweep it deserved. "Tenth Avenue" had added punch thanks to Clarence Clemons' saxophone being augmented by the trumpet of guest E Streeter Curt Ramm, who also shone brightly on a gorgeous version of the beautiful loser vignette "Meeting Across the River."

That led inevitably into "Jungleland," the grand Born to Run climax in which that giant Exxon sign that "brings this fair city light" illuminates a rock and roll ballet that Springsteen now approaches like a sage storyteller revisting his ambitious early work with the appreciative distance that comes with age.

At the Spectrum, he succeeded in bringing the song down to a human scale - repeating the word "wounded," before "not even dead" in a spoken rather than sung voice - before giving himself over to the grand groan that brings the album to a close. He delivered that final crescendo while bathed in red light, with arms raised like the maestro of a working class symphony "where the poets down here don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be."

How do you follow that? First by letting the light in with "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," and taking a request for The Music Explosion's 1967 hit "Little Bit O'Soul," which came across as winningly ragged, after an onstage tutorial by guitarist Steve Van Zandt got the band up to speed.

That carefree sunburst was quickly clouded over by the smokey bar blues of "The Fever," a Philadelphia cult favorite since it was an unreleased album-rock radio hit in 1974. The song's moody organ (played by Charles Giordano, the replacement for Danny Federici, who died last year) and sorrowful Springsteen guitar led into a six-song, full-force barrage that built to an emphatic and uplifting conclusion.

The more serious-minded songs included a muscular "Because the Night," with a marvelous, roiling Nils Lofgren guitar solo, as well as "Last to Die" and "Long Walk Home" from Magic. The former was a reminder that Springsteen remains a political animal. "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake?" he sang, even as President Obama mulls upping the U.S. troop commitment in Afghanistan. And the latter turned into a vocal showcase for Van Zandt, in his trademark bandanna, who channeled his inner Ben E. King on an extended coda that pointed the way to "The Rising," "Badlands," and the sustaining set-closing vow of "No Surrender." (Speaking of Springsteen helpmates, his wife, Patti Scialfa, who has been present for some shows this year 2009 and absent for others, was neither seen nor mentioned last nighton Tuesday).

Save for the irresistible sentiment of "Bobby Jean" and the "Rosalita" finale, the encore came as a slight letdown. It's tough to top all that has come before when you move triumphal roof-raisers like "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run" to the middle of the set.

That lineup will get reshuffled in Springsteen's final Spectrum run, which includes Darkness tonight10/14, Born to Run again Monday and Born in the U.S.A. the following night. (Some tickets are available for all remaining shows.)

Read his blog, "In the Mix," at