It’s 2023 and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Are as Powerful as EverPhotos by Garrett Martin Music Features
Bruce Springsteen is in his mid 70s and is currently capable of greater physical feats than any I have ever been able to accomplish. He’s got 30 years on me and yet I’m positive I was more tired out by standing through his amazing three-hour show than he was performing it. What he and the E Street Band do at their age, in the year 2023, is unfathomable. Their recent show at State Farm Arena in Atlanta was just as great as the last show I saw them play 23 years ago. It was just as long, just as energetic, just as triumphant, and despite the loss of a couple of iconic E Street members in the decades since, probably even better in pure musical terms. It’s inexplicable, and we are all better off for it—or at least the people who can afford to get tickets.
Bruce and the band pull out all the expected cheeseball arena rock moves, and it’s all completely awesome. Do you want to see elder statesmen of rock leaning back to back while shredding on their guitars? See this show. Do you want to see a five-piece horn section march in unison to the front of the stage and flank their lead singer like a brass phalanx? Get to that arena. Do you want to see Bruce Springsteen do little toot toots with his right arm, yanking it down like he’s trying to get a trucker to blow his horn, while marching in place? Of course you do. Do you want to see 18 people on stage for almost three hours, blasting through 50 years of iconic hits, each getting their own little spotlight moment at the front of the stage (except for sunglasses-sporting bassplayer Garry Tallent, who’s too fucking cool for that jive)? You know what to do.
Bruce Springsteen is a 73-year-old man who gets paid obscene amounts of money to act like a total cornball with his lifelong buddies, and if that isn’t the best life possible I don’t know what could be. I’ve been told that Bruce himself has said something almost exactly like that, and that points out a huge part of the appeal of his shows: despite being one of the biggest bands in the world for 40 years, despite accomplishing everything any band could ever hope to accomplish, despite making millions upon millions of dollars, they’ve never taken any of it for granted. They still work harder than pretty much every other band while making it look like the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives. (Again, except Tallent. He’s all business, and business is good.) They still give the fans the kind of marathon, hours-long shows they’ve always been known for, even though they could easily get away with sets half as long at this point. They give it their all not because they have to, but because they want to—because they still enjoy giving it their all. And I don’t think there was a single person in that basketball arena last week who didn’t appreciate it.
This is what an E Street Band show is like in 2023. At the start of the show the core members come out one by one through a stairwell at the back of the stage, and that alone lasts as long as some punk sets I’ve seen. Like every show so far this tour, the Atlanta show opened with “No Surrender” from Born in the U.S.A., kicking it all off with a triumphant rocker from what’s still his best-selling album. They quickly jumped forward 35 years while looking back several decades by playing 2020’s “Ghosts,” which was a highlight of the night, and which began the show’s recurring motif of Bruce thinking back on the friends and bandmates he’s lost over the years. Whatever you might think about his more recent albums, the best of those songs land with all the power and majesty of the classics once the band puts ‘em through the paces, and “Ghosts” is a rousing start to the show.
From there the band cycles through classics from almost every major Springsteen album. Expect to hear “Candy’s Room,” “The Promised Land,” “Prove It All Night,” and “The E Street Shuffle”—all in just the first hour or so. A lengthy cover of “Nightshift” by the Commodores glides effortlessly into the Ben E. King song “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied),” both of which appear on Springsteen’s 2022 covers album Only the Strong Survive; none of the E Street Band play on that album, and after seeing them crush these songs live it makes me wonder how that record would’ve sounded with them backing up the Boss. “Backstreets” remains a high water mark for American music, and is still somehow even better live than on record. They plow through the decades at the end of the set, moving from “She’s the One” to “Wrecking Ball” to “The Rising” to show-closer “Badlands,” still as righteous an anthem as you’ll ever hear.
At this point the band’s about two hours in, and nobody could blame them for wrapping it up and heading home. Again: they aren’t young these days. When my grandmother was their age I’m pretty sure she went to bed at 6 p.m. every single night. But after a barely there gap of 60 seconds or so, they’re right back into the encore without ever leaving the stage. Most shows on this tour they’ve played “Thunder Road” somewhere around here, either at the end of the main set or at the start of the encore. If somebody made a law forcing Bruce and the band to play their three best songs at every concert they ever played, “Thunder Road” would be one of the three; I feel terrible for everybody who was at the tour-opening Tampa show, not just because they live in Tampa, but because the band somehow didn’t play this song. The rest of the encore reliably includes “Born to Run,” “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”—every song a banger—before ending with the twofer of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
Those last two songs express the two ends of the Springsteen spectrum. “Tenth Avenue” is a good-time rocker about friendship and the nature of being in a band (among other things). It was recorded when Springsteen was 25, an ascendant young man unaffected by the weight of an additional 50 years of life and loss. During “Tenth Avenue” Bruce leaves the stage and walks down to a thin walkway between the general admission section and the floor seats, where he spends the rest of the song shimmying and posing for photos while singing. It’s all about rock music as an affirmation of life and an ironclad form of friendship, the kind of things you want to sing about when you’re young and invincible. When it’s over, the rest of the band exits after Springsteen returns to the main stage and plays one last song alone. Released in 2020, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is a somber (but not maudlin) address to everybody Springsteen has lost over the years—friends, family, bandmates, industry connections, and others who have meant something to Springsteen and his career. It might sound like a depressing way to end the show, but it’s a crucial dose of truth preparing us for the return to the real world once we step outside that arena.
Springsteen has combined melancholy and majesty for much of his career, but early story songs like “The River” and the Nebraska record weren’t necessarily grounded in lived experience. “I’ll See You in My Dreams” is unmistakably personal, and it follows other songs from earlier in the set that strike the same tone. One of them, “Last Man Standing,” is a sad but sure-eyed ode to one of Springsteen’s earliest bandmates, a high school friend who passed away in 2018, leaving Bruce as the last survivor from their garage band. As enriching and rejuvenating as this show is, there’s still an aching sense of loss at its core, a recognition of how improbable it is that Springsteen and his band are still out here doing this in their 70s, and a reminder that we need to make the most of our time here while we can. For Bruce and his band and so many others, that means grabbing a guitar and bashing out jams with his buddies; it probably means something else entirely for you, but the lesson still resonates. We’re all here for a relatively short period of time, no matter how many decades we collect, so let’s make the most of it while we can. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band certainly are.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.