TAMPA — When you’re pushing your mid-60s and have been cranking out hits for legions of hardcore fans for the better part of five decades, it can be a challenge to keep things fresh for the loyals while blending in enough familiar songs to please casual followers.
Somehow Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band always manage to deftly walk that line, as he did once again Thursday night in his three-plus hour show before a packed crowd at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre.
Springsteen and the band were returning to Tampa for their “High Hopes” tour, and the kickoff to the Big Guava Music Festival was dominated by some of his more obscure tracks, along with a taste from his top-selling album, a variety of covers that brought the appreciative crowd to its feet, and of course, a few of his signature hits.
This go-round felt a little different, though. Against a tropical backdrop that produced a bit of a Jersey shore feel, Springsteen appeared right at home digging deep into his vast catalogue, while displaying such a wide arrary of emotions — somber, joyous, pensive, thankful — that took you inside his soul and left fans wondering which direction he would go next.
Springsteen set the reflective mood right at the start with a “salute to the working man,” Paul Robeson’s somber “Joe Hill” — a tribute to a labor folk hero who was convicted of murder in the early 1900s.
The mood quickly turned with the energetic cover of the Clash’s“Clampdown,” followed by “Badlands,” bringing the crowd to its feet and featuring the first of a few sax solos from Jake Clemons that would have made his uncle, E Street Band fixture Clarence Clemons, proud.
From “Ties That Bind,” “Out In The Street” and “Candy’s Room,” one got the feeling Springsteen was performing from his heart, dishing out his favorites and offering his talented mates — including former “Rage Against The Machine” guitarist Tom Morello — a platform to help him shine. Springsteen was long ago inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the E Street Band recently was inducted as well.
Especially touching was “Brothers Under The Bridge” off 1998’s “Tracks” album. Springsteen introduced the inspirational ballad saying, “I don’t think this is a song the E Street Band has ever played” — indeed it was a first on this tour — and the emotional Vietnam-inspired story of a soldier’s daughter looking for her father brought a hushed to the audience.
Then it was time to turn up the energy, as Springsteen pulled one of the many fans’ signs from the pit and predictably took a request for “From Small Things (One Day Big Things Come),”with the obligatory Tampa reference.
Springsteen teased the throngs with a building energy, from “Wrecking Ball,” “Night” and “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” before launching into a Them cover of “Gloria” that produced a rousing sing-along.
After “No Surrender” and “Bobby Jean” — another request — that energy oddly spilled over into the highlight of the set, The Weavers cover of “Pay Me My Money Down.”
The Southern-inspired jazz tune spawned a mock New Orleans funeral procession, complete with the band — led by Springsteen – filing off the stage, into the crowd, and onto the concourse, where a camera tracked his progress on the large screen.
He even mugged with a drink a fan had bought for him mid-song and brought back on stage (“That’s a first, my friends, that’s a first!”).
The mood returned to brooding with “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” It featured co-vocals from ultra-talented Rage Against The Machine guitarist Tom Morello, filling in for longtime guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who’s off fulfilling TV duties.
The second set built to a climactic finish. Fans of course expected to hear “Born To Run,” which Springsteen orchestrated with his usual perfection, followed by “Dancing In The Dark” (of course he pulled a couple of cooing females on stage), “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and a deafening cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”
All of which was a magnificent tease for how this night would end: Springsteen on stage for a final encore, by himself with a harmonica and acoustic guitar. His a capella rendition of “Thunder Road” concluded with Springsteen walking away, back to crowd, guitar on his shoulder.
The night was vintage Springsteen. With an energy beyond his 64 years, interacting with his band mates and playing up to the appreciative crowd, the Boss once again was in control.