The Boss Works His Magic for Houston Once Again

Bruce Springsteen and a slightly different E Street Band played The Woodlands May 6.

Live Shots

It's fitting that the rooflike shelter hanging above the seats at the Woodlands Pavilion is shaped in a tent spire. Because no one has ever merged the concepts of rock and roll show and religious tent revival like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Sure, the usual aspects of a Springsteen concert are well-known even to non-fans, taken for granted now and almost a parody: marathon running times, inhuman energy, hits, deep cuts and choice covers. And at the pulpit is the Reverend Bruce himself, shouting and shaking and sweating and testifying like a rural Pentecostal preacher on amphetamines, only holding aloft his guitar instead of some writhing reptile.

It's the Springsteen stereotype, true. But to actually witness (or give witness to) the event brings it to live, shocking reality: This guy is 64 years old and exudes more firecracker energy and explosive rock and roll fervor than most anyone else ever could or did, at any age. And last Tuesday, he did it for three hours straight, no intermission or bathroom break, wearing a T-shirt and olive military jacket that were both shades darker with perspiration by evening's end well past the Pavilion's 11 p.m. curfew.

Last week Bruce Springsteen (top) and the 17-piece E Street Band played more than three hours at their first Houston-area concert in five years.
Photos by Jim Bricker
Last week Bruce Springsteen (top) and the 17-piece E Street Band played more than three hours at their first Houston-area concert in five years.

Springsteen and his 17-piece 2014 backing band were only bereft on this leg of the tour of guitarist/onstage foil Steven Van Zandt, off in Norway filming episodes of his Netflix series Lilyhammer. Nonetheless, the band came raging out of the gate, fully locked and loaded, with "Seeds" — with its reference to a hard-luck workin' man living "on the streets of Houston town" — then "High Hopes," the title track to Springsteen's most recent album, and crowd-pleaser "Badlands."

It was clear early on that a couple of new faces would get plenty of musical and personal attention: cut-and-slash guitarist Tom Morello (ex-Audioslave/Rage Against the Machine) and saxophonist Jake Clemons. Jake's late Uncle Clarence was Springsteen's blood brother for decades before his 2011 death, of course, but the cheers for the younger Clemons were well-earned on his own and not just as tribute to the fallen Big Man. Along with a crack horn section and an energized longtime guitarist Nils Lofgren (in the Van Zandt-foil position), both added a newer vitality to the lineup since the band's previous Houston show in April 2009.

Every Bruce show, of course, is unique in terms of set lists. On recent tours, audience members have brought signs with requests, knowing that Bruce will pick them up and shuffle through them in a little game called "Stump the Band" that brings an edge of rock and roll risk-taking. And while Tuesday's show did not bring any left-field surprises (like, say, Lorde or the Ramones), a couple of audience members found their posterboard dreams coming true.

One held aloft a professionally made sign with a large blow-up photograph of Bruce and wife/guitarist/vocalist Patti Scialfa ­singing close at the mike. It asked, "Can we take a trip back to '88?" — a request for the first "full-band" performance of Tunnel of Love's "One Step Up" since nearly a quarter-­century ago.

"We don't know this one!" Bruce said, but his nearly solo acoustic take showed a practiced flair. And when he called Scialfa, who was singing on the other side of the stage, to his mike, it added an unexpected romantic touch despite the song's hard-bitten lyrics. But the request-sign highlight came when Bruce pulled up a crudely drawn one that said, "I busted my brother out of class to sing 'No Surrender' with 'The Boss'!" And soon, a teenage boy and his older brother — both sporting Bruce shirts and insanely happy — were onstage unashamedly belting out the driving tune on one mike with Bruce.

It will likely be the highlight of their lives, and proved a sheer delight to the crowd, though the brothers did stretch out their moment a bit by hanging out to high-five much of the band after the song as well.

As the show wound to a close, out came Big Guns "Born to Run," "Rosalita," "Dancing in the Dark" and "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out" — the last featuring a video tribute to Clemons and the late organist Danny Federici (his visage almost shoved into the Clarence footage, though) — and even the old party favorite "Shout." Amazingly, Springsteen's energy seemed to grow this late in the game, feeding off the ecstatic crowd that got to paw his famous guitar as he lowered it into the masses, who grasped at it as if it were a religious relic with mystical powers.

A Springsteen show in Houston also brings with it two guarantees: a guest appearance by Joe Ely (check) and a name-checking of Liberty Hall (check), a favored venue from the band's early days. Before closing with a solo reading of "Thunder Road," Springsteen thanked Houston for supporting the band back then. He noted that this year marked the 40th anniversary of their first appearance in the city and told an amusing tale of the group, frightened off by an earlier airplane incident, choosing to take a train here from New York City.

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