During each of the four shows in Bruce Springsteen's final stand at the Spectrum, which came to a close last night, the Boss put on his preacher's hat to make a statement of purpose while singing the title cut to his 2009 album Working on a Dream.
On Monday, his most loquacious night at the venue that he first played in 1973, the Boss began his schtick by praising "the wonderful Philadelphia Spectrum, one of the last of the old-time rock houses. Damn straight!"
Then he got specific about his ties to Philadelphia, the first major market in which he and his E Street Band broke through. He recalled his days as a regular playing the Main Point in Bryn Mawr in the early '70s, and paid tribute to the late deejay Ed Sciaky and the current WXPN host David Dye.
Those specifics were heartening to his ardent, aging fan base, as were such rarities as the rollicking "Seaside Bar Song," which opened the stand Oct. 13, and "The Price You Pay," which started off the set last night before a pumped-up-for-the-grand-finale crowd that included Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre, the target of a preshow "Beat L.A." chant.
But the crucial part of the Springsteen speech wasn't about the City of Brotherly Love. It was about the "solemn vow" that Springsteen - still a marvel, in terms of the sheer physicality of his performance, at age 60 - gave "to bring the heart of rock and soul to you, night after night, and year after year."
That was what was really special about having Springsteen hunker down in South Philadelphia, on a run that included performances of the landmark albums Born to Run (twice), Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Born in the U.S.A. In a game of can-you-top-this, Pearl Jam, which brings the curtain down on the Spectrum for good with four shows ending Oct. 31, will have its work cut out for it.
This was a chance to see Springsteen and his mighty E Street Band repeatedly make good on that pledge, "a promise we swore we'd always remember," as he put it in "No Surrender." And they did it with in-the-moment performances that remain staggering decades after they first hit the road together.
Part of the pleasure was seeing a highly adaptable road-tested unit like the E Street Band go to work every night, and zeroing in on its individual parts: the way Max Weinberg drives the band with battering-ram precision on "She's the One," or the roiling guitar solo that whirling dervish Nils Lofgren cut loose on "Because the Night" on opening night.
Since Springsteen has turned a segment of the show into a stump-the-band request showcase, there's also the kick of watching seasoned musicians think on their feet. Given the correct musical key and a guitar lick - often coming from the encyclopedic garage-rock brain under Steve Van Zandt's bandanna - could the band do justice to "Little Bit O'Soul," "All Shook Up," or even its own, rarely played "I Wanna Marry You"? Usually the results were ragged, but right.
In addition to the clock ticking on the Spectrum itself, these shows had an added sense of urgency because fans wonder when, if ever, the E Street Band will be back. Clarence "Big Man" Clemons is 67, and uses a hydraulic lift to get on and off the stage.
At the end of each album performance during the run, Springsteen linked arms with the original players on the LPs and said, "These are the men who made the music, and Phantom Dan Federici," a nod to the E Street keyboard player who died last year.
And besides all that, the extra buzz for Springsteen's 33d through 36th performances at the Spectrum came from the entire-album concept, which traced a crucial arc in the Boss' career. The heroic 1975 Born to Run "put all the cards on the table," as he said. And Darkness, which came out three years later, introduced the adult, existential Springsteen who felt that world of endless possibility closing in on him.
Born in the U.S.A., which closed out the run last night, was the culmination of Springsteen's ambition to speak in a rousing American voice while examining the societal forces that thwarted the stubborn dreamers who live in his songs.
"Born down in a dead man's town," he sang in a raw-throated voice last night, without, thankfully, his mid-'80s bandanna. "The first kick I took was when I hit the ground."
That album, which turned Springsteen into a megastar and threatened to swallow up his New Jersey working-stiff identity, was a conscious bookend to Born to Run that was far more despairing in its outlook. But with its big drum sound and '80s rock sheen, it became so popular that Springsteen's vision was lost in the pop marketplace.
So his challenge last night was to reclaim the album that, of the three he was playing in their entirety, his hard-core fans were the least excited to hear.
That task began with a dedication of the title song to a Vietnam veteran friend of the Boss', and the arena-quaking rumble of Garry Tallent's bass, followed by Weinberg's snap-to-attention snare-drum shot. And it served as a reminder that despite the massive success of the song - famously misinterpreted as a flag-waving anthem, by Ronald Reagan among others - it was one of Springsteen's grimmest, most desperate tales of social and personal alienation.
"Forty years burning down the road," Springsteen screamed last night. "Nowhere to run, nowhere to go."
Not that Born in the U.S.A. is an unrelenting downer. By the time Springsteen had hit the road to "Darlington County" - the one in which the narrator uses "Our pa's each own one of the World Trade Centers" as a pickup line - he was giving Lofgren noogies and donning funny hats lent by audience members.
In that song, as with the spring-loaded "Workin' On The Highway," free-spirited characters come to a bad end. But as is typical of the album as a whole, dead-end tales were given life-affirming power by the sheer spirit-raising force of their delivery.
Springsteen let in a little light with the hortatory "No Surrender," delivered with much more clarity than on its two previous appearances this run. Couple that with the pile-driving "I'm Goin' Down," a toughened, tightened-up "Glory Days," and a "Dancing in the Dark" in which he brought his mother on stage to dance in the Courteney Cox role, and Springsteen had seized back Born in the U.S.A., and his last-night-at-the-Spectrum rock-and-roll catharsis was on.