PHILADELPHIA — Bruce Springsteen’s March 16 concert with the E Street Band at the Wells Fargo Center was the 15th of their current tour. But it felt like another opening night. The last three concerts of the tour were postponed because of an undisclosed illness: Fans anxiously awaited news about whether this concert was going to take place as scheduled. And it was also the first concert of the tour anywhere near New Jersey.
“Philllllyyyyy!” Springsteen said a moment after he took the stage, elongating the word as if relishing it. “My people!”
Springsteen did not say anything about the illness. But despite some brief and very minor issues — some strain to the vocals at the start of “Candy’s Room,” a bit of lagging energy in “Kitty’s Back” — everyone in the band, Springsteen included, seemed at full strength. I couldn’t help but look for signs that someone was still under the weather, but it didn’t seem that way at all.
As fans know, Springsteen has not been varying his setlists much on this tour (though Philadelphia did get, for only the second time on the tour, Springsteen’s soaring cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped”). I suspect part of that has to do with the Broadway concerts he presented in 2017-18 and 2021: He got into the habit of doing the same setlist night after night, and discovered he liked it.
The show seems constructed … I don’t want to say it “tells a story,” since that’s overstating it. But it definitely makes a statement. Springsteen seems to have built it — even more so than a typical classic-rock artist of his prominence and longevity will do — as a testament to his own, and his band’s, vitality.
The 25-song, two-hours-and-38-minutes show started with the opening song/statement, “No Surrender.” (This tour doesn’t really have a name, but they might as well just call it the No Retreat, No Surrender Tour: That’s really what it’s about). Then came “Ghosts,” a relatively recent song, from Springsteen’s 2020 album Letter to You. Death, and former bandmates who are no longer with us, are on Springsteen’s mind. “I make my vows to those who’ve come before/I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide/Meet you, brother and sister, on the other side,” he sang.
He sang about mortality again in “Nightshift,” the 1985 Commodores hit honoring Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who had both recently died at that time. (“Nightshift” was the only song in the show from his 2022 collection of soul covers, Only the Strong Survive). And “Last Man Standing” was preceded by a talk about his first band, The Castiles, and how, with the 2018 death of George Theiss, Springsteen became the only member of that group still alive.
He was a teenager in the Castiles days. “At 15, everything is tomorrow, tomorrow, and hello and hello,” he said. “And later on, there’s a lot more goodbyes. But it makes you realize how important living every moment of your life is.”
In “Backstreets,” he dwelled on the phrase, “until the end,” repeating it numerous times. “Wrecking Ball,” a defiant song about persevering even when all the chips are down, was followed immediately by “The Rising.”
Throughout the show, the rhythm section — drummer Max Weinberg and bassist Garry Tallent — sounded as sharp as it ever has been. And the addition of four backing vocalists, four horn players and a percussionist on this tour has made for a big, buoyant sound.
Weinberg and the percussionist, Anthony Almonte, got to trade some solos, and play together without the rest of the band, during an interlude toward the end of “The E Street Shuffle”; guitarist Nils Lofgren got his big solo showcase moment during “Because the Night,” and played with his usual explosiveness.
Frequent saxophone solos by the late Clarence Clemons’ capable replacement in the band, his nephew Jake Clemons, evoked, without a word being spoken, the show’s theme of death and renewal.
The encores felt mostly like a joyous victory lap, peaking with a “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” that saw Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and other band members clowning around like silly kids.
Before “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out,” Springsteen unbuttoned his shirt to show his bare chest — a symbolic act of virility that has become a regular occurrence on this tour — and he sang much of the song while walking around the arena floor. Video footage of Clarence Clemons and the late Danny Federici was shown on the arena’s screens.
Springsteen closed with a tender solo acoustic version of “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” another Letter to You song, but one which extended the show’s main themes: Again, he mourned those who have departed, but this time, added the sweet thought of an afterlife reunion: “I’ll see you in my dreams/When all the summers have come to an end/I’ll see you in my dreams/We’ll meet and live and love again.”
“Thank you Philly; The E Street Band loves you,” Springsteen said at the end of this remarkable show. And after the house lights came on — this couldn’t have been an accident — Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” was the first song to be heard on the arena’s sound system.
Springsteen and the E Street Band will perform next at the Bryce Jordan Arena in State College, Pa., March 18. Upcoming New Jersey area shows include Madison Square Garden in Manhattan, April 1; the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, April 3; the UBS Arena at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., April 9 and 11; the Prudential Center in Newark, April 14; and MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, Aug. 30 and Sept. 1 and 3.
Here is the show’s setlist and, below it, a video of the first four songs of the encore:
“Prove It All Night”
“Letter to You”
“The Promised Land”
“The E Street Shuffle”
“Last Man Standing”
“Because the Night”
“She’s the One”
“Born to Run”
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
“Dancing in the Dark”
“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”
“I’ll See You in My Dreams”
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