Bruce Springsteen takes the stage like a boxer entering his corner before a fight. He paces on the balls of his feet around a little pool of spotlight, shaking out his shoulders, hunching as if deciding what pattern of punches he should throw.
He leaves alone, still hunched but perhaps with fatigue, after a hypnotic solo encore sung at a pump organ: “Dream, Baby, Dream,” which followed his perennial appeal to help a local food charity. (Second Harvest collected from concertgoers in the lobby.)
In between those moments Saturday night came three hours and 13 minutes of social consciousness, roof-raising rock ‘n’ roll, unexpected rarities, giddy audience involvement, fervent preaching and a long monologue that hushed almost every member of the capacity crowd at Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena. He spoke then of losing friends in Vietnam, before poignantly pairing “The Wall” and “Born in the U.S.A.”
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Springsteen, who’ll turn 65 in September, doesn’t make things easy on old-timers in the audience. He delivers a set without intermission and never leaves the stage himself. He offers only a few moments for weary legs to rest before pulling us out of our seats again, often building a quiet song to a towering climax.
And his 16-piece band never lets up in intensity, even when it lowers the volume. Max Weinberg, his surgical gaze altered by a small smile now and again, hammers the drums like someone half his age. The five horn players lay down a sound reminiscent of the old Muscle Shoals section on Atlantic Records.
Guitarists Nils Lofgren, Tom Morello (who took a solo with his teeth) and Springsteen lead the attack. The set list makes use of a glockenspiel, tuba, violin and accordion. (Yes, accordions rock, as Charlie Giordano’s work on “Death to My Home Town” proved.)
Don’t take the term “set list” too literally, though. Of the 30 numbers on the program, nine came from requests on signs that fans held up: “Brown Eyed Girl,” “Louie Louie” (apparently a tour premiere) and “Mustang Sally” (ditto), with which he honored the 50th anniversary of that vehicle.
The crowd approved of everything, from the opening number – “Iceman,” a song he had never played on tour with the E Street Band – to the giddy, extended cover of “Shout” that preceded his closing solo.
It passed him overhead as he crowdsurfed halfway across the arena floor toward the stage, cheered as he invited “backup singers” and dancers to the stage, roared as he hoisted a little girl on his shoulders after letting her sing a chorus of “Waiting on a Sunny Day.”
The show was one of just 17 on the U.S. leg of the “High Hopes” tour, which reaches Raleigh Thursday. It swung from the full-out party atmosphere of “Cadillac Ranch” to feverish empathy with hard-up folks in “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
Violence simmers beneath the surfaces of many Springsteen songs. The narrator of “Jack of All Trades” says in one verse that “It feels like the world’s gonna change, and we’ll start caring for each other like Jesus said we might” and later contemplates bankers who’ve fed on his misery: “If I had me a gun, I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.” One of Morello’s guitars bears the motto “Arm the homeless.”
You had to wonder Saturday how many people chanting along with the chorus of “Born in the U.S.A.” and thrusting “We’re No. 1”-style fingers in the air realize it’s a catalog of America’s failed dreams, not an anthem to our greatness. This rock ‘n’ roll preacher brings a message of empathy for everyone, but he knows empathy alone won’t bring change.