A very special Valentine’s Day with the E Street Band (and Bruce Springsteen)

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Bruce Springsteen is great, but the E Street Band make him the greatest

The E Street Band are the best rock’n’roll band in the world.

Yes, we go to Bruce Springsteen shows to see The Boss. We go to sing along to the hits and to feel the power of his music – be it anthemic, sullen or somewhere in between.

And there would be no show without Bruce Springsteen. But it’s a much better show because of the engine room that powers his songs.

The E Street Band have performed 83 different songs across the 11 shows of their Australian tour thus far. Those figures will rise again by the time the tour is through this weekend.

Many of these songs the band have probably played many hundreds of times, though many they’re undoubtedly less familiar with.

Flawless doesn’t have to mean soulless, as the band has proven for many years now.

In Brisbane on Valentine’s Day, they aired five songs that hadn’t been a part of the set on this entire tour. Some of them have only been played a handful of times in recent years.

At one stage, we heard the band groan as Bruce grabbed yet another fan request from the crowd – the second in just six songs.

“It’s Valentine’s Day!” The Boss argued.

The band dropped into ‘Back In Your Arms’ from his mammoth 1998 rarities box set Tracks, and Bruce preached to the men in the crowd about the importance of buying flowers and apologising.

He eventually started singing, but not for long.

“The band’s got this all fucked up,” he told the crowd. Guitarist Nils Lofgren wandered over to fellow axe-wielder Steven Van Zandt and showed him the chords. The band were back on track quickly.

For all the incredible moments a Springsteen show delivers, this fallibility is as charming as any of them. It’s a treat to pull back the varnish, because the band are usually so flawless.

But flawless doesn’t have to mean soulless, as the band has proven for many years now. The way they power through anthemic cuts like ‘Rendezvous’ (featuring a particularly great vocal performance from Little Steven), heartland belters like ‘Lucky Town’, the Celtic channelling ‘Wrecking Ball’ and rollicking classic rock of ‘Be True’ is rousing and full of life.

The setlist for the Valentine’s Day spectacular shied away from the better-known classics to begin with. It wasn’t until nine songs in that The River gem ‘Out In The Street’ inspired the first en masse singalong of the night.

It hardly mattered. The quality control in Springsteen’s output is astonishing, so it’s not as if any of the songs are bad, and the E Street Band know how to bring the best out in them.

When they’re on a roll, they’re unstoppable. No one on stage stopped for breath for entire five-song slabs throughout the set, which bodes the question as to whether 65-year-old drummer Max Weinberg is even human.

They swung from the eerie and epic ‘Because The Night’ to the thumping heartland rock of ‘The Rising’ to the all-out crowd favourite ‘Badlands’ with complete grace. They ploughed through the epic ‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’ with gusto, even though most of them have probably spent entire days of their lives playing the song if you put each performance end-to-end.

They play a less glamourous role than their leader, but they make the cogs turn. They are the workers and Springsteen is, well, The Boss…

The only time their non-stop rock’n’roll party seemed misguided was the ambitious transition from the haunting, down-tempo, unadorned ‘Secret Garden’ to the brash bravado of ‘Born To Run’. But that’s an issue with the setlist more than the band.

Springsteen’s audience engagement – high fives, crowd surfing, pulling dancers on stage – is a vital part of bridging the gap between the audience and performer. But it’s as a musician that he can really make the most powerful connection.

That harmonica line that opens 'The River' was a sharp reminder that we were in the presence of the absolute best. His haunting falsetto means that song’s ending was as powerful as its beginning.

But, again, it was given further gravity by the subtle, perfect backing of the eight E Street Band members.

It’s simply staggering to see a band so capably realise the vision of its leader at events of such an immense scale.

“But that’s their job,” you might argue.

Exactly.

Springsteen has always positioned himself as a voice of the everyman. His songs have provided strength and comfort to the disenfranchised, the beaten down and downtrodden. In spite of his enormous wealth, he remains a poet for the working class.

But where Bruce talks the talk, the E Street Band walk the walk. They play a less glamourous role than their leader, but they make the cogs turn. They are the workers and Springsteen is, well, The Boss…

Next time you’re at a Springsteen show, when the Boss is (rightfully) the centre of attention, give some love to the men and women of the E Street Band. The show would be nowhere near as spectacular without them.

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