Review 2016-09-07 Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia, PA

Shivers down my spine

Two years ago today I was in Philadelphia, watching the first of Bruce’s two shows at Citizens Bank Park baseball stadium. I posted about it extensively while I was there, and wrote more on the first anniversary of my trip. Now I’m going to bang on about it again, because I still get little shivers down my spine when I think about it. What follows is an edited version of what I wrote last year.
Bruce opened with New York City Serenade that night, a song I’d been hoping to see him play for over half my life. The 12-and-a-half-minute performance of this masterpiece was an extremely special moment for me and would have been worth the price of admission alone, but for the fact that it was only the opening salvo in a one-hour-and-fifty-minute sequence of 12 songs that Bruce recorded in 1972 and 1973. A contender for the greatest consecutive run of songs I’ve seen him play in a single night, effectively a show within a show.

Historically, Bruce had played NYC Serenade regularly up to his ten-show stand at the Bottom Line in 1975, but then ignored it for nearly a quarter of a century. On the Reunion tour, it was played five times. On the Rising tour, only once. After a single appearance in New York in 2009, it turned up again in Rome (2013), Brisbane (2014) and Rome again (2016). It was impossible to predict where it would turn up next, although if you lived in Italy, you probably had a better chance than most. I came frustratingly close on three occasions, missing it once by a week and twice by just one show. So near, but yet so far.
Judging by the statistics, it was likely that the Rome performance was the only time NYC Serenade was going to appear on The River Tour 2016, but then came the opening night of Bruce’s short summer US tour at the Metlife Stadium in New Jersey. On walks a string section and you know the rest. Same thing second night. Chicago made it three times in a row. Then it was back for a third Metlife gig that not only opened with NYC Serenade, but also included eight consecutive songs from Bruce’s first two albums, an unexpected move that would set the template for the remaining gigs. The River tour (bereft of songs from the album it was named after by that point) had become The 1973 Show.

A potential opportunity now presented itself, not only to catch the elusive NYC Serenade, but also a bunch of other songs from the early seventies in the same show. Assuming that Bruce was going to continue playing them that is. He could have decided to play Born In The USA in its entirety for the remaining six shows. With thoughts of what I’d missed in the past at the forefront of my mind, I felt a strong compulsion to cross the Atlantic. The stars were aligning and my destiny was calling. Staying at home was not an option. I had to be there, just in case. By the time Bruce had moved on to his next gig in Washington DC, I’d bought tickets for the Philadelphia shows, booked a flight and reserved a hotel. A few days later, I touched down in Philly, which was basking in a late-summer heatwave, with temperatures in the nineties, humidity off the charts and cold beer that tasted wonderful whatever it cost. The air was still thick with residual heat at 10pm when I took a taxi to the Holiday Inn Stadium, one block from the ballpark on the south side of town, an area comprised of sports arenas and stadiums, acres of car parks, the occasional bar and not much else. Sports venues have been built up and torn down in South Philadelphia for decades. In recent years, the famous Spectrum Arena had fallen victim to the wrecking ball.

Over the next few days, when I wasn’t watching Bruce, I virtually lived in the hotel, because it was too hot to go out. I took full advantage of the bar, restaurant and internet facilities, bought cold drinks and snacks in the shop and spent hours in my room, enjoying the panoramic view of Philly from my window and watching the US Open tennis in air-conditioned luxury.
One morning after breakfast, the waitress brought the bill and I questioned the cost, because it was roughly twice what it should have been. “Sorry honey,” she replied, “I thought you were two people.” She meant to say the bill was destined for the couple at the table next to mine, but it came out all wrong. Other customers might have kicked off about her fattist comments and threatened to sue, but I was cool about it.

My heart skipped a beat when I discovered that Bruce hadn’t opened his next show in Virginia Beach with NYC Serenade, but I had faith that it would reappear in Philly. Nevertheless, I didn’t fully relax until I’d walked down to the stadium on that balmy summer evening, had my ticket scanned, got my camera in, bought some cardboard pizza, found my seat 10 rows behind the pit and seen the string players’ music stands set up at the back of the stage, indicating that my long wait was almost over.

Doing my best to ignore the latecomers who continued to arrive (and make plenty of noise) throughout NYC Serenade, I stared at the stage transfixed, from Roy Bittan’s semi-classical piano introduction and Bruce’s acoustic guitar solo, through the song’s loud and quiet sections and shifting tempos to the powerful finale, with the string section in full flow. As the story unfolded, we were introduced to Billy and Diamond Jackie, the fish lady and the corner boys, the vibes man and the singing junkman, all dressed up in satin. It was 8pm in Philly but it felt like midnight in Manhattan, and it was no time to get cute. Stunning. It was much the same the second night, but due to my seat being over to the far right, I couldn’t see the string players at all.

That night’s sublime song sequence continued with Does This Bus Stop, Saint In The City (preceded by an explanation of how it was the first song he played for John Hammond at his audition), Growin’ Up (with a story about saving the money to buy his first guitar by tarring roofs and cutting lawns), Spirit In The Night (in the call-and-response gospel arrangement that I’m not a big fan of), Lost In The Flood, Kitty’s Back (which ran for 16 minutes with solos by Charlie, Nils, Jake, Roy and Bruce), E Street Shuffle, Incident On 57th Street and Rosalita, the latter two songs running one into the other as they do on record.

That would have been more than enough for me to remember this gig as an all-time classic, but “just for Philly,” Bruce then added The Fever and Thundercrack, putting a cherry on the icing on the Philly cheesesteak and effectively bringing the “first set” to a close. The show continued for over two hours after that, but it was impossible to follow the opening half. If Bruce had left the stage at that point and cancelled the second night altogether, I would still have gone home deliriously happy.

Hearing Bruce play The Fever for the first time was also a thrill. He’d played it in clubs and theatres in New Jersey during private and public benefit concerts, Asbury Jukes gigs and Christmas shows (usually with Southside Johnny on lead vocals), but he’d rarely played it in his own concerts. After the Darkness tour, it was only played five times in the next 38 years, three of them in Philadelphia. If it was going to turn up anywhere in the summer of 2016, it was going to be in the city of brotherly love.

The second night also opened with NYC Serenade and although Bruce included less of the early material, he did play Fourth Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) and (maintaining the “early years” theme) brought out original E Street Band drummer Vini Lopez to play tambourine and sing backing vocals on Saint In The City and Spirit In The Night. The reason he wasn’t allowed near the drum kit on this occasion (having replaced Max on a couple of guest appearances in the past) remains a mystery. Instead, he wandered about the stage looking more like a lost puppy than a mad dog, but it was great to see him.
It was appropriate that Philadelphia was experiencing unseasonably high temperatures when Bruce played his two shows there. Many of the songs on his first two albums celebrate the summer months and conjure up images of oppressive heat, either in New York City (with its rumbling subways, blaring horns and potential dangers) or down on the shore (with its sun-bleached boardwalks, cotton candy and potential romantic liaisons). The diverse characters that inhabit them live their lives in an eternal summer, hanging out at Greasy Lake in Spirit In The Night, sitting on the fire escape in Incident On 57th Street, or making out under the boardwalk and sleeping on the beach all night in Fourth Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).

Heat also emanates from the lyrics with references to “the steam in the street” in Saint In The City, “sweet summer nights” in E Street Shuffle, a “victim of the heatwave” in Wild Billy’s Circus Story and best of all, “tin cans exploding in the ninety-degree heat” in Kitty’s Back. Let’s face it, the protagonist in Sandy isn’t sneaking under the boardwalk with the boss’s daughter to escape the rain, is he? These songs are the stories of kids in their teens and early twenties (Bruce was only around 24 himself when he wrote them) enjoying the summers of their youth in a heat haze before the responsibilities of life set in. You could draw analogies with Bruce’s career by viewing the material he recorded in 1972 and 1973 as a reflection of his own comparatively carefree years, before the Mike Appel lawsuit brought a loss of innocence, romance gave way to realism and he adopted a more focused writing style. But I digress.

It’s not necessary to be strolling down the boardwalk in Asbury Park on a sun-baked midsummer day to understand the inspiration behind the songs or appreciate their lyrical imagery, but there’s no doubt that the hot weather in Philadelphia added an extra dimension to that material on those two magical nights and the show-closing firework display (“hailin’ over Little Eden tonight”) made it feel like July 4 in September.

As we slowly trudged out of the ballpark in the cooler evening air, images of Bruce’s forthcoming Born To Run autobiography were displayed on the giant screens, heralding the imminent beginning of The Book Tour. Little did I know that just five weeks later, I’d be shaking Bruce’s hand at Waterstones bookshop in London, but that’s definitely another story, which I may share next month.

Once the tour was over and the dust had settled, the statistics revealed that the September 7 Philadelphia show included the highest number of songs from Bruce’s first two album sessions on that 10-show run and probably in any gig since the first half of the seventies. At four hours and four minutes, it turned out to be Bruce’s longest performance in North America and his second longest ever, beaten only by Helsinki 2012. Having been played only nine times in 40 years, NYC Serenade ended up being played 10 times in two months. It goes to show you never can tell.

As I headed for the airport and a night flight that took me over the shimmering lights of the New Jersey coastal towns and out into the Atlantic, I began to wonder if I’d ever see anything like that again. Although it was an impulsive and expensive trip, I have no regrets, except perhaps that these shows didn’t take place indoors and that I wasn’t joined by all my Springsteen friends. It wasn’t the same without you guys, but I had to make that journey regardless.

A big hello to Kim, who accompanied me to the first show and took me on a walking tour of the city (which included visits to the famous Dirty Frank’s dive bar and the Franklin Fountain ice cream parlour), to Welsh Paul (who I met before the show), to Debbie (who came over to say hello as we were leaving), to Deborah (who spent time in the first aid enclosure) and to Peter and the PHL, who I missed completely.
I’m including a bunch of photos that I took on September 7 (including some from the screens that I’ve not posted before) and several of the ballpark area and central Philly, to add a bit of atmosphere.
Until next week, when I’ll be posting the third part of my 1981 story, Saunders over and out.

Review by Mike Saunders on Facebook
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