On November 13, 2009, I had tickets to see Bruce Springsteen for the first time. I’d been a diehard fan for less than a year, but it felt like a lifetime. Maybe that’s because I grew up hearing Bruce’s tunes on my step dad’s stereo, or because half a dozen Springsteen albums sat on my iPod for half a decade before I finally really listened to them. Whatever the reason, starting in December 2008, I dove deep into the Springsteen catalog. For the remaining five-plus months of my high school career, I listened to little else.
Born to Run was my theme music. “Thunder Road” was the song I performed at one of my last concerts for my high school choir program. “Born to Run” was the song I listened to as I drove to the auditorium on the morning of graduation.
Getting tickets to see Bruce on tour was a big enough dream come true. I’d heard enough about The Boss’s legendary live show to know that he needed to be on any concertgoer’s bucket list. But sometime in September or October, Bruce announced he’d be going back in time for the final leg of the Working on a Dream Tour to play classic albums. Some cities got Born in the U.S.A. Some got Darkness on the Edge of Town. Madison Square Garden got a two-night stand of The River and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.
Detroit got Born to Run.
With my brother by my side, it was going to be the best night of my life.
Piling into the Palace of Auburn Hills with thousands upon thousands of other fans, I remember feeling a giddy excitement I don’t often get from shows anymore. There’s nothing quite like being young and seeing your first-ever arena show. The big crowd, the buzz of the venue, the anticipation of seeing Springsteen take the stage in just a few hours—it was intoxicating.
Once inside, we headed for the floor to take up residence amidst the general admission crowd. (Side note: I’ve since come to the conclusion if you are going to pay for tickets to an arena or stadium show, GA is the only way to go.) We weren’t early due to obligations—me at college, my brother for his job. That meant we weren’t very close, especially since Springsteen does a GA lottery system to determine who gets into the pit in front of the stage. 10 or so rows back from the walkway that encircles the pit, we could see, but not particularly well.
Even if we couldn’t see that well, though, we could hear everything crystal clear, including the forceful “Good evening, Ohio!” that Bruce bellowed out as he took the stage and picked up his guitar. The first time he said it, it didn’t really register. It was probably just a one-off slip-up. I definitely wasn’t going to think about it much when Bruce was diving into “Wrecking Ball,” a terrific song he’d written earlier in the tour for the final run of shows at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.
But then Bruce kept saying “Ohio,” and the fans started to get restless. Our hero, The Boss, didn’t know where the fuck he was. Bruce made it through a solid five songs and 30 minutes of his setlist before Steve Van Zandt, his right-hand man, pulled him aside and kindly let him know that Detroit was in Michigan.
In that 30 minutes, the E Street Band blasted through an incendiary take of the Darkness on the Edge of Town highlight “Prove It All Night,” jammed an electric rendition of “Johnny 99” from the forlorn acoustic LP Nebraska, and ran through “Hungry Heart,” Springsteen’s first Top 10 hit. The latter saw the 60-year-old crowd surf from the stage to the divider behind the pit. My brother and I surged forward to see how close we could get to the living legend. Some of our fellow audience members did not appreciate our disrespect of the unspoken “stay where you started” rule of Springsteen live shows. “Hey, you guys were over there!” some guy shouted at us angrily. “Yep, and now we’re over here!” I gleefully shouted back. (My brother would go on to tell this story in his best man toast at my wedding.)
Photo by Danny Clinch
It wasn’t until after “Working on a Dream,” the lone song in the setlist from Springsteen’s then-most-recent (and not very good) LP, that The Boss acknowledged his location mishap. He described the mistake as “every frontman’s lead fucking nightmare,” and found the silver lining in the fact that “at least at 60, I can plead the onset of early Alzheimer’s.” Then he quickly plowed into his introduction to Born to Run, probably eager to forget his slip-up.
“This was probably our most important record. We put out two records and they hadn’t gone anywhere. We were close to being dropped by our record label. This record came along and I guess it started a lifelong conversation that I’ve had with you, and you’ve had with me. This was kind of our big introduction to one another, where I asked a lot of the main questions I think I’ve spent the past 30 or 35 years trying to find my way through. So, tonight, for Michigan…”
And then Bruce launched into the harmonica intro of “Thunder Road.” I can still feel the chills shooting down my spine. It was and is the most memorable moment in the history of my concert-going years. By the time the song wound around to the “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night” line—which Bruce always lets the audience sing by themselves—I was in tears. I can count on one hand the moments of my life where I have felt more joy.
Hearing Born to Run in full was everything I could have hoped for and more. The brassy bombast of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” The freedom rush of “Night.” An extended, wistful version of “Backstreets.” I remember looking around when the house lights went up during “Born to Run” to see thousands of people around me, all singing the same words.
There was the piano-led smolder of “She’s the One” and the foreboding menace of “Meeting Across the River,” forever the most underrated song in the Bruce Springsteen discography. And then we got all 10 glorious minutes of “Jungleland,” including—among other remarkable moments—the fourth-to-last time Clarence Clemons played the song’s legendary saxophone solo. (The last followed a week later in Baltimore.)
Just the five-song intro and the eight-song run-through of Born to Run—plus the hilarious “Hello, Ohio” flub—would have made this show the greatest concert I’d ever been to. For other artists, that would have been enough. Bruce and the E Street Band were pushing the 90-minute mark, after all. But instead, as is his way, The Boss came back to play another 90 minutes and 14 more songs.
We got a cover of “Ramblin’, Gamblin’ Man,” written by Detroit native son Bob Segar. We got Bruce’s “Detroit Medley,” which features snippets of “CC Rider,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Devil with the Blue Dress” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” We got an emotional suite of “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising,” a pair of songs written in response to September 11. And we got a scorching version of “Badlands” as the main set closer.
The encore was stacked, too, including a cover of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times,” a version of “Born in the U.S.A.” so loud Bruce had to fight to be heard over the band, a rollicking performance of the Irish folk-influenced B-side “American Land,” and a celebratory one-two-three closing punch: “Dancing in the Dark,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher.”
What Bruce does that I’ve never seen any other artist do as effectively is whip the audience into an absolute manic frenzy. “Higher and Higher” was an appropriate finale, because the M.O. of an E Street show always seems to be “How can we take this to the next level?” The Born to Run record is so climactic and life-affirming that, for any other artist, having all those songs in the first half of a setlist would be a problem. Where the hell do you go after you’ve already hit your audience with “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run”?
These songs are rightfully saved for the encore in most Springsteen shows. But Bruce is one of the rare performers that can always give you more, and that much was evidenced in Detroit on a November Friday in 2009. Any of the five songs from the encore could have been a fitting closer. Hearing all five in a row brought the crowd to a level of euphoria I had never seen before.
That show is one that’s lived in my bones ever since I walked out of the Palace and got into the car to go back to the hotel. I must have played “Wrecking Ball,” then only available as an iTunes exclusive live recording, 100 times in the next week. On the drive back to my college town the next night, I listened to nothing but Bruce, taking in the full glory of his Live 1975-85 set. Over Thanksgiving break two weeks later, my brother and I couldn’t stop quoting parts of the show or reminiscing about its brilliance. The Ohio flub, while likely a source of embarrassment for Bruce, only made our first Springsteen show that much more memorable.
Bruce remembered it, too. Two-and-a-half years later, when the E Street Band came back to the Palace of Auburn Hills (sans the late Clarence Clemons), some saint of a fan in the front pit brought a sign that read, “Bruce: You Are Here.” It had a drawing of Michigan on it and an arrow pointing to a star labeled “Detroit, MI.” Bruce plucked the sign from the crowd and posed with it—he hadn’t forgotten this time. “Good evening, Detroit!” he’d shouted after taking the stage. “I love you, old Michigan. That’s right, I know where the fuck I am!” He was amused, maybe a little defensive even.
But I always liked that Bruce forgot where he was. It was a hilariously human mistake in the midst of a performance that ranks up there with the most Herculean feats of live music from this century. Knowing The Boss can make mistakes feels comforting, because it means there might be some hope for the rest of us. Knowing he can laugh about them years after the fact makes him even easier to love.