GUEST POST: Just how good is Springsteen's 'static setlist'?
Editor's note: While we patiently wait out this unexpected tour hiatus and wish Bruce Springsteen a full and speedy recovery, it seems like a good time to consider the apparent consternation some fans have raised over Springsteen's so-called "static setlist" during the current tour. Joining us is Friend of Blogness Scott Shuster to offer his take. Thanks Scott! — Pete
By Scott Shuster
The so-called static setlist of Bruce Springsteen’s present tour has dominated discussions between fans and media. Some believe that the tour has suffered greatly due to the Boss playing essentially the same setlist night after night. Others have argued that the shows have been great no matter what, and that many fans exaggerate how much he has changed the setlist in the past.
The answer to this question is by nature subjective to each individual observer. While we don’t know why Bruce has chosen the path that he has, we do know, courtesy of Little Steven’s Twitter account and from listening to Bruce’s own words during the show, that Bruce has decided to make aging and mortality a central theme of the tour.
So how much have the shows really been diminished, and how could they be better — if at all? We can try to answer this question by acknowledging the following factors when examining the standard setlist.
First, Bruce has a theme, as mentioned above. Second, Bruce has said on many occasions that he recognizes that there is always a fan out there who is seeing him for the first and potentially last time, and he wants to play to that person. Finally, we can examine the merits of the particular songs, which obviously is a significant factor in how good a show is or isn’t.
So without further ado, let’s look at the songs, rate their inclusion on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the song must go and 10 being the song must stay in the setlist no matter what. And where applicable, we will be so bold and presumptuous as to suggest a substitution or two.
No Surrender: “Now young faces grow sad and old and hearts of fire run cold; we swore blood brothers against the wind, now I’m ready to grow young again.” Obviously these lyrics are central to Bruce’s theme and “No Surrender,” while arguably one of Bruce’s rare songs that is better on the record than live, though that is a topic for another day, is a great song. 8
Ghosts: Again fits the theme and it is hard to argue against including any song (excepting “Rainmaker”) from the woefully underrepresented Letter to You record. “Ghosts” does seem like it is a hard song for Bruce to sing. 8
Prove It All Night: A classic tune that he and the band slays. Not much more analysis needed other than that if we are feeling greedy, he could do the ’78 version. 10
Letter to You: Reflective and poignant, this title track from the (relatively) new record must be included. For some reason he ends it abruptly, unlike on the album version 10
The Promised Land: One of his best songs that fits all the criteria. 10
Out in the Street: Out in the Street is a formidable, fun song. But it isn’t essential to the theme, and is very good but replaceable. 7
Suggested replacements: Racing in the Street, Tougher Than the Rest
Kitty’s Back: An already amazing song is made even greater by the amazing horns collection Springsteen assembled for this tour. Nobody should miss this spectacle. 10
Nightshift: It obviously is important to Bruce, as is Only the Strong Survive. He loves the way his voice sounds on this song and they perform it well. It is right down Broadway as far as the theme goes. But few if any fans are there to see him sing this. 5
Suggested Replacement: Something in the Night
Mary’s Place: It fits the theme as it revolves around a wake, but I think Bruce literally has over 200 songs that would be a better choice than this one. 1
Suggested Replacements: Downbound Train, Brilliant Disguise
Last Man Standing: This scintillating acoustic masterpiece and the transition into “Backstreets” is the absolute highlight of the show and one of the greatest things Bruce has ever done. 10
Backstreets: When you hear Roy play those first beautiful notes the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you feel it in your soul. We are all lucky to have witnessed this. 10
Because the Night: Twenty-five year old me would be shocked I am writing this, but this song does not need to appear every night. If Bruce wants to give Nils a showcase, there are others that can be mixed in. Plus, Bruce always insists this songs belongs to Patti Smith. 6
Suggested Replacement: Youngstown
She’s the One: In a stretch where Bruce plays the same seven songs in a row, this is the most replaceable one. It is solid but not one of his best. Doesn’t fit the theme. The harmonica is great, but overall this song not essential for the first timer. 4
Suggested Replacement: Atlantic City, Darkness on the Edge of Town
Wrecking Ball: This is the second most replaceable song of the closing seven. It obviously fits the theme and it probably deserves more credit than many fans give it. It works beautifully with the horns. But it shouldn’t be written in the setlist in stone. 5
Suggested Replacements: Long Walk Home, None but the Brave
The Rising: It occurred to me at the last night of the Jersey stand, while watching thousands of fans frantically pull out their phones to record this song, that the Bruce snobs who think his only important material is pre-Born in the USA have no idea how important this song is to Bruce and so many of his fans. 10
Badlands: Checks all the boxes and no fan should go to a show and leave without experiencing “Badlands.” The European fans won’t let it end. 10
Thunder Road: Perhaps Bruce’s best song and the way he incorporates the horns in the crescendo is breathtaking. 10
Born to Run: The lights up explosion of this anthem provides a meaningful, memorable moment for the first timer and even the jaded old timer. 10
Rosalita: Off topic here, but it is interesting how much more often he plays this in the United States as opposed to Europe. It turns the concert into a party, and who doesn’t like a good party? 8
Glory Days: A lot of fans love this song but there are better ones for this spot, particularly “Bobby Jean,” which Bruce has in fact used as a “Glory Days” substitute on this tour. 4
Suggested Replacements: Bobby Jean, Ramrod
Dancing in the Dark: This song has never been taken as seriously as it should, because fans of a certain age think of MTV and Courtney Cox when it comes on. But Bruce takes it very seriously, as evidenced by its placement in the Broadway show. The sax is great (and as an aside Jake Clemons’ improvement since he first appeared on E Street is remarkable and crucial). But is “Dancing” essential? No. 6
Suggested Replacement: Land of Hope and Dreams
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out: The video tributes to Clarence and Danny never lose their power or fail to emote emotion. 10
I’ll See you in My Dreams: Perfect ending to a wonderful night that we are all lucky to still experience. 10
So is there room for improvement in the setlist? Should Bruce be a little less rigid and make some changes? I think it is fair to answer these questions in the affirmative. But that doesn’t mean that this tour, without any changes, is not worth seeing multiple times.
Bruce’s show is filled with classics and gems. Imagine sitting in your house during COVID and thinking that in the future you’d be debating whether it was worth your time to go see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, knowing they would be playing a nearly three-hour show that included the likes of “Thunder Road,” “Rosalita,” “Backstreets,” “Prove it All Night” and “The Promised Land,” among many others?
The show is great and, health permitting, Bruce and the E Street Band have and will continue to deliver. Springsteen fans still leave every concert venue emotionally and physically exhausted and walking on air, just like they always have.
Scott Shuster has been a Springsteen junkie since high school when he first heard the opening bars of "Born in the USA." He is approaching 100 live shows attended. When not listening to Bruce, Scott is a real estate developer, lawyer and part owner of Boston EVC, Greater Boston’s only company dedicated to the installation and provision of electric vehicle chargers.