Three Seasons & A Setlist
1973’s “New York City Serenade“—complete with an eight piece string section—opened both setlists, as it did every US show this summer. It’s a lovely, impressionistic and cinematic ode to the beautiful and dangerous mysteries of life on the streets of the big city. Forty-three years later, it worked wonderfully as an overture for a long (4 hours and 2 minutes) late summer’s night of music.
Springsteen had planned to then shift immediately into a five-pack of songs from his hardest rock album, the punk-influenced Darkness On The Edge Of Town. Instead, after a blistering, hard-edged version of “Prove It All Night” (the kind of love song from lover-to-beloved he often “repurposes” to express a promise from singer-to-audience), Springsteen played six(!) songs in a row from his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, followed by three more from his second album, The Wild,The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. That’s 10 of the first 11 songs coming from the first two years of his recording career.
I suspect one reason for the change was the “season” of Springsteen’s own life. He’s 67 years old; it was the last show of the tour; and he was about to release his autobiography, Born To Run, a book he’s been writing off and on for the past seven years.
Although Springsteen shows few signs of slowing down, there’s a sense of ending with the publication of any memoir. So why not take some time to look back to the young man you were when this all began? The slightest hint of a New England autumn was in the air. Immersing himself and his audience in the dream-like romanticism and exhilarating energy of the music of his early 20s may have been a way to reach back to another season—the springtime of his adulthood and his musical career.
September weather in New England is unpredictable—everything from an early frost to scorching heatwaves to torrential downpours is possible. The 50,000 (or so) at Gillette Stadium that night had lucked out. A clear, sunny day had turned to a warm, comfortable evening. Post-Labor Day summer weather in Massachusetts always feels like a welcome surprise, an unexpected gift made all the more precious by the knowledge that winter is not far off.
Perhaps Springsteen sensed something of that mood in the crowd, because in addition to the rarely played songs of his youth, the setlist was filled with summertime specials: covers of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom“, and Mitch Ryder’s “Detroit Medley“; sing-a-long rockers like “Hungry Heart” and “Out In The Street” (the only two songs from The River…on a tour that started with the band playing that entire 20 song double album each night); and the lovely, heartfelt closer, “Bobby Jean“…none of which were on the original setlist.
The third “season” captured—to my ears at least—by Springsteen’s setlist in Foxborough was the nation’s political “season”. Springsteen’s been engaged to a greater or lesser degree with American presidential elections since Ronald Reagan tried to hijack “Born In The USA” back in 1984, so it’s not surprising that there’d be a political edge to the concert. What was surprising is how different—and how much more expansive—it was from the setlist he’d written that afternoon.
In that original setlist the only explicitly political sequence came 2/3 of the way through the main set with the pairing of “American Skin (41 Shots)” with “No Surrender”. The first, written in the wake of the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo by four NYC police officers, remains hauntingly, appallingly relevant in the age of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile and Terence Crutcher. “No Surrender” immediately takes the edge off; it’s mostly filled with nostalgia for youthful dreams (“believing we could cut someplace of our own/ with these drums and these guitars”).
And, like a bitter pill squeezed into a big spoonful of your favorite ice cream flavor, those two songs were to be surrounded by a pillowy expanse of escapist rockers—“Rosalita“, “Light Of Day“, “Darlington County“, “Working On The Highway“, “Ramrod“.
Instead Springsteen bumped up “No Surrender”, making it the first song after the 1972-73 festival that filled the first third of the show. In that context, its memories of childhood (“and hear your sister’s voice calling us home/across the open yards“) fit perfectly. And in retrospect, its last verse sounds like the subtle opening of a new theme for the evening:
I want to sleep beneath
Peaceful skies in my lover’s bed,
With a wide open country in my eyes
And these romantic dreams in my head.
Once we made a promise we swore we’d always remember:
No retreat, baby, no surrender.
Because from that verse forward, and throughout the substantial middle third of the concert—up to and including the start of the encore—was a running commentary on and reaction to the current state of American public life.
“American Skin (41 Shots)” was followed by the anthemic “The Promised Land” (“Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man/And I believe in a promised land” ). “The Rising“, title track to Springsteen’s sprawling, determinedly uplifting, post-9/11 album, was paired with “Badlands” (“We’ll keep pushing til it’s understood/And these badlands start treating us good“). Two songs from Magic (Springsteen’s hardest rocking response to the Bush/Cheney administration) were audibles—added to the setlist. “Radio Nowhere” is a blistering attack on corporate control of music, and a desperate cry for connection and community in the face of darkness. And “Long Walk Home“—delivered slowly, deliberately, with a warm, generous and sober-minded introduction, accompanied only by acoustic guitar—opened the encore, measuring the distance between the American dream and the American reality, and summoning his audience to the hard, slow, necessary work of finding our way home as a people.
As young musicians in bars, coffee houses, dance halls and high school gymnasiums the world over know (or quickly discover), creating a setlist is its own minor art form. Capturing an audience’s attention, setting the tone and terms for the night’s engagement, riding up and down the waves of emotion and energy as they crescendo and dissipate, bringing it all to a satisfying conclusion—none of that happens accidentally.
There aren’t many performers who even attempt to write a setlist that weaves together the season of their own life with the season, the moment, of their audience’s life, and then connects both strands to the season of their nation’s political life. Last month in Foxborough, Springsteen did just that…and did it as an improv.