Music

Inside Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s Return to the Stage: The 5 Best Moments From Phoenix

Bruce is back. 

If there was any doubt that Bruce Springsteen hadn’t fully recovered from the peptic ulcer disease that caused him to postpone 29 dates on his world tour with the E Street Band last fall, he dispensed of that notion within minutes of taking the stage Tuesday (March 19) at Phoenix’s Footprint Center for the first time in six months.

The Boss was in top form from show opener “Lonesome Day” and fully had his sea legs back by third song, “No Surrender,” when he gave his first trademark shout out, “C’mon, Steve!” beckoning for his brother-in-music for over half a century, Steven Van Zandt, to join him on the mic.  

For more than 50 years, Springsteen’s live shows have been about two things above and beyond the superb musical performance: Feeling alive and trusting in the communion between the Boss and his fans. 

For longtime fans such as myself (I’ve seen more than 50 shows over more than 30 years), a Springsteen concert is one of the places where we feel most vibrant. There’s the unbridled joy of hearing the music that has given meaning and voice to our life experiences in the company of likeminded souls. For many of us, Springsteen has been the best traveling companion through life imaginable. Part of that also comes from the trusting communion at any show: there’s the implicit understanding that Springsteen is going to take care of us and entertain us during that concert the best way he can—by pouring everything he has into the performance— and, in return, we’re going to send that energy back to the stage by being as present as we can be. 

That’s why when he postponed nearly 30 shows after his Sept. 3 dates at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. because of his illness, fans feared that this could be the end. Even though he has long prided himself on being in superhuman physical condition (and proved he still is in Phoenix by ripping his shirt open to show his toned chest), at 74, it’s clear that the road will end eventually for Springsteen. But as Tuesday night showed, he’s returned at the top of his game and the end feels far into the future if he wants it to be (though for longtime fans, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that on this tour Springsteen does not end the shows with his former trademark line, “We’ll be seein’ you.”)

When this world tour started in February 2023, Springsteen was working a theme built around “Last Man Standing,” an emotional song featured on his underrated 2020 album, Letter to You. Like on the earlier shows on the tour, Springsteen addressed the Phoenix audience (in this case, for the first time all night more than an hour in), giving a beautiful speech about playing in his first band, The Castiles, when he was 15 in the mid-‘60s, and how more than 50 years later, he stood by the bedside of his friend and bandmate George Theiss, as he lay dying, leaving Springsteen the last member of the band alive. It’s a reflection on mortality, but also on resilience and joy. Though he’s never spoken of death and the gift it brings the living from stage so eloquently before, it’s understood by fans. For example, after my mother died, I consoled myself by going to as many shows as I could on the consecutive Magic and Working on a Dream tours because standing in the pit of a Springsteen show was where I felt most alive. 

Unlike the setlists from earlier shows that seemed slightly more reflective and wide-ranging, Tuesday’s show was a high-octane freight train of a rock show. The message is that life is to be savored and, more than anything, celebrated and met head on at full-speed. Springsteen and the band barreled through 29 songs, most of them full-on rockers, in 2 hours and 45 minutes. The show felt nothing if not efficient. There was no fat. The only break between songs was the few seconds it took for Springsteen to change guitars and, other than a few asides, he only addressed the audience for the speech before “Last Man Standing” and after “Backstreets.” He never brought up his illness until right before the closing song when he apologized to anyone inconvenienced by the Phoenix date shifting from Nov. 30 to March 19, adding, “I had a mother**ker of a bellyache.”

Below are five of the highlights from the Phoenix show, which had former N.J. governor Chris Christie and rocker Alice Cooper in attendance, in an evening filled with nothing but stellar moments.

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