Bruce Springsteen may be an American cultural institution, but as far as the average tie-dye aficionado is concerned, he probably ranks somewhere between Justin Timberlake and drug-abstention as far as relevance goes.
That's why his decision to play Bonnaroo was so interesting. Would fans outside his normal constituency sing along with the fervor the Boss is used to? Playing before a crowd that wasn't there solely to see him, would he stick to his biggest hits? Might he and the E Street Band, gulp, jam?
Yes, no, and no. Apart from the size (80,000 is a big crowd even for a superstar like Springsteen), Saturday night's three-hour plus headlining set was cut from the same sturdy denim as the other shows on his current tour, heavily weighted towards hits and fan-favorites, both delivered free of instrumental noodling.
Opening with the rousing one-two combination of the anthemic "Badlands" and "No Surrender," Springsteen and his current expanded version of the E Street Band (I counted twelve musicians on stage) proceeded to power through shop-tested classics and a smattering of songs from this year's Workin' on a Dream. Taken from the aforementioned album, the taut multi-part epic fairytale "Outlaw Pete" was a standout, as Springsteen even donned a black cowboy hat for the stampeding final verse.
This being a Springsteen show, there was some schlock. During the otherwise soulful "Workin' on a Dream," New Jersey's finest delivered a hokey sermon about how, on this night, we all had the tools to build a "house of love." I wasn't there to work, dawg.
There was also a slightly frustrating amount of posing and mugging: See Bruce on the piano, see Bruce wade into the crowd, see Bruce stand at the lip of the stage and hold his guitar aloft, see Bruce implore us, for the hundredteenth time, to "make some noise." In small doses, it would be fine, but the constant showmanship turns what should be a taut workout, like the band's cover of "Raise Your Hand," into something more ponderous. It's cool to just play the song, guys.
A more effective piece of razzledazzle happened mid-set, when a sweat-soaked Springsteen collected signs from the crowd that had song requests written for them. In a nod to Bonnaroo's improvisational spirit, Springsteen acquiesced to someone's plea for "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" -- but not before saying "It's too fucking hot for Santa!" Judging by its ear-splitting reaction, the audience disagreed.
And judging by the equally enthusiastic reception to undeniably uplifting songs like "Born to Run," "Thunder Road," "The Promised Land," and deep cuts like "Youngstown" from The Ghost of Tom Joad, which featured an amazing Nils Lofgren guitar solo, and the jubilant picaresque "Growin' Up," the veteran Springsteen learned something new: He has a home in Tennessee.
2. No Surrender
3. My Lucky Day
4. Outlaw Pete
5. Out In The Street
6. Working On A Dream
8. Johnny 99
10. Raise Your Hand
11. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (sign request)
12. Growin' Up (sign request)
13. Thunder Road (sign request)
14. Waitin' On A Sunny Day
15. The Promised Land
16. The River
17. Kingdom of Days
18. Radio Nowhere (w/Jay Weinberg on drums)
19. Lonesome Day
20. The Rising
21. Born To Run
22 Hard Times
23. 10th Ave Freeze Out
24. Land Of Hope & Dreams
25. American Land
27. Glory Days
28. Dancing In The Dark