Those counting say Bruce Springsteen’s concert in Rome was his 3520th. Not bad for the spry 73-year-old guitarist born in Freehold, New Jersey: added together, that makes for almost 10 full years on and off the stage across five continents.
Bruce Springsteen’s latest world tour stopped over in Rome, in the muddy Circus Maximus (a special mention goes out to the opening acts, White Buffalo and Sam Fender), and opened up a special time and space that left all controversy behind (on him not putting out words of solidarity for the floods) and dismantled criticism and doubts (with the excellent organization in conditions bordering on unmanageable).
With its simple and absolute otherness from the drenched reality of us humans, art is art, full stop.
It was a rock-solid performance, with no frills or special effects, a barebones stage with a few lights and lots of big screens: just Bruce, the E Street Band and an excellent group of supporting musicians on horns, percussion and choirs.
Some think Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen still has something to prove. But there’s no doubt that he has achieved some milestones in this life: he played for the desaparecidos in Argentina and against Apartheid at the edge of South Africa with Amnesty; he won a Medal of Freedom; he was just awarded the National Medal of Arts by Joe Biden; he is honored in his home state with an official Springsteen Day on Sept. 23; he won an Academy Award for Streets of Philadelphia (and supported LGBTQ rights years before this acronym existed), two Golden Globes, dozens of Grammys, Tony Awards, Emmys; he has 20 albums released, numerous gold and platinum records; he played the Super Bowl; his band has kept playing together since their high school years; he has an Olympic silver medalist daughter, a wife who is a partner in life and music – and all, he swears, without doing drugs and while suffering from devastating chronic depression, as he revealed a few years ago in his extraordinary autobiography.
“The Boss” has achieved everything an artist could wish for, starting with the unconditional love of his fans of all ages – all through his artistry and integrity, which he has scrupulously maintained for more than half a century.
Three songs were subtitled in Italian on the giant screens, with love messages for fans (Letter to You, written during Covid in 2020, Last Man Standing and the final acoustic I’ll See You In my Dreams, on which we’ll have more to say later). There was no banter with the audience (just a “Hello Rome” and a “Thank you Rome”), but there were harmonicas and picks given to girls and children in the front row.
Certainly, the sexual tension with the audience is absent nowadays, as well as the vaguely homoerotic tension between the concert band members, which both used to be there earlier in the band’s history. In his senior years, the liberation and redemption that Springsteen sings about in every song is asexual, no longer physical but poetic.
Springsteen is truly the last master of rock ‘n roll, the Last Man Standing (the title of one of his moving songs, which he plays with voice and guitar in honor of his first band from 1965, the Castiles).
While we didn’t see any of them, people are saying that among the 60,000 Roman fans (and hundreds of American tourists, who stood and listened, motionless as the cypress trees) were Sting, Nick Cave, Thomas from Maneskin, Chris Rock, Isla Fisher, Edoardo Leo, Luca Marinelli, Giuseppe Battiston, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Woody Harrelson, and who knows who else.
The concert setlist, unlike in the past, changed very little between tour dates, and was basically identical to the Paris and Dublin shows (except for a magnificent Darkness right at sunset). Among the 28 songs, the hits were plentiful, but with some retouches by the hand of the master: Because the Night is now lowered in pitch but retains its anthemic quality as an hymn to love; the chorus of Born in the USA has been toned down and deflated of all nationalist rhetoric, while the explosive Backstreets ends in a whispered “to the end.”
There is no desire to overdo it on this very tightly put together tour, which unwinds slowly like a serpent, as long as an entire career.
As for Bruce, he is a performer worthy of every hall of fame, among such luminaries of American music as Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan (“Bob Dylan freed your mind the way that Elvis freed your body,” Springsteen once said) but also Sinatra and Marvin Gaye. He is a human jukebox who absorbed and reinterpreted much of the breadth of American music, not only white but also Black.
And his E Street Band is like a flying carpet that can take you anywhere, and Bruce gives them space to do so.
During E Street Shuffle, for example, the dueling solos between Max Weinberg on drums and Anthony Almonte on percussion sounds like a fight between a T-Rex and a velociraptor. In the end, we got three hours of music without a break, not even to drink a drop of water. Bruce tied it all together with powerful vocals, many guitar solos and plenty of harmonica.
Springsteen fans judge concerts like vintages of fine wine: 1973, 1985, etc. So, what kind of concert is this one, from 2023? Where can we place it in our “cellar”?
At least two things made it unique.
The first – the joyful part – was the unmatched, superlative and probably unrepeatable level of the live performance. We swear we saw with our own eyes the Boss’s face relax and actually look younger by the third hour of the concert. A proof of the alchemy of rock music.
The second, and more intimate, is the dark thread that runs underneath and sets the tone for the concert: the theme of the relationship with death, with friends, and with what remains as time passes.
There were no bombastic statements or fancy words in his tribute to the “Brothers and sisters on the other side” (a line from Ghosts): “Death is – it’s like you’re standing on the railroad tracks with the white warm light of an oncoming train bearing down upon you, it brings a certain clarity of thought that you may not have previously experienced. Death’s final and lasting gift to the living is an expanded vision of this life itself,” Springsteen said softly, in a short spoken word piece prepared in advance.
In the encores, there was a tribute to the band members who have died (Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici), a kiss blown to the sky by Jake Clemons before the sax solo in Thunder Road, and a farewell to the fans in the last, poignant, acoustic song.
It found Bruce alone, on the dark stage, with his harmonica and guitar, lit by one spotlight under the Palatine Hill and a crescent moon.
He sang: “I’ll see you in my dreams / when all our summers have come to an end / we’ll meet and live and laugh again / because death is not the end” (to get an idea, here’s the video of his performance during the live show in Barcelona).
The sadness of the farewell is transmuted into an appreciation of all that was good in the time spent together. Because the ultimate truth, which remains with you as you go home, is that Springsteen’s concerts will never fade away.
Note: Regarding the excellent organization, some fans have told us there were serious sync problems between video and music in the farthest half of the very long Circus Maximus. We didn’t experience that from where we were standing, but several people told us about them so we’ll report it here for the sake of completeness.