Review: Bruce Springsteen, Milwaukee, 3-7-23
Updated: Mar 13
We're only a handful of dates into Springsteen's 2023 tour, and already three shows have been canceled due to an unspecified illness. While I continue to wish the Bruce and the E Street band well, and hope it's nothing serious (Stevie says it isn't!), I've had some more time to reflect on Tuesday's show at the Milwaukee Fiserv Forum. And those two thoughts — the most recent show and illness — are somewhat interwoven in my mind right now. I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one.
I’ve had the privilege of seeing Bruce Springsteen live a lot over the years. Like, a socially unacceptable number of times. I first hopped aboard the Land of Hope and Dreams train during the Reunion tour in '99/'00, and never got off. People always ask why I keep seeing the same show over and over — which floors me — and I have to explain that I've never seen the same show twice. It's always fresh and interesting. One of the joys of being a long-term Springsteen fan is watching him construct a near-perfect narrative with an ever-changing setlist, knowing his repeat customers are many.
I could probably listen to Bruce recite the phone book, but the element of surprise, of a little treat he's thrown in just for me, is part of the allure: Is the song new? What about the arrangement? Maybe it's just new to me? Leading up to Tuesday's adventure — the first time seeing him in SEVEN years (excluding Springsteen on Broadway) — I mostly stayed away from reading early tour set lists. I wanted to go in untainted by expectations.
So let me say first: I loved it. It was a beautiful show, experience and celebration. And after following this band for 24 years, it's almost absurd to complain about the lack of surprises. But I'll do it anyway. While I will never tire of classics like "Backstreets" and "Kitty's Back," there were only two of those treats to my mind: the comically on-the-nose but absolutely delightful "Pay Me My Money Down" from the Seeger Sessions, and the tour premier of Wrecking Ball's "Death to My Hometown," an oddly fun throwback to the angry, politically-minded Bruce I have always adored.
Despite the many familiar tracks, he's indeed crafted a new narrative. He may not be touring an album now (only one track, "Nightshift," from his recent soul covers album Only the Strong Survive made it in), but he’s created a story arc that is at once celebratory, wistfully nostalgic, and seemingly inspired by a healthy fear, or maybe acceptance, of mortality. As Bruce, now in his 70s, has been saying lately, he has more yesterdays than tomorrows, and it's clearly been on his mind. Who can blame him? Peppering the show with several songs whose titles alone say a lot — “Ghosts," "Burnin’ Train," "Last Man Standing" and the titular song from Letter To You, an album he never got to promote — it's hard to ignore the theme. To boot, he chatted little with the audience that night. The lone story was reminiscence of George Theiss, who recruited him to his first band, the Castiles, and of his bandmate's death — making Bruce the aforementioned Last Man Standing. He closed the evening with a poignant but not dour “I’ll See You in my Dreams” — just before the PA blared “Forever Young” during the crowd's exit, bringing it home again.
The message was consistent, if easily forgotten in light of the celebratory mood. He was happy to be back, and we were happy to have him. But that didn’t hide the fact that Bruce and the band were not the same. Like visiting your parents after a time away and finding their presence, physical and otherwise, feeling somehow smaller, quieter. Even as he trots a musical army of 19 onto the stage and continues to play three-hour shows, things are not quite as they were. The days of a spinning, jumping, back-flipping, crowd-surfing Bruce and the E Street band are gone. The changes came slowly, as we saw them tour over and over again through the decades. But a seven-year gap is a good yardstick with which to measure that change.
On the other side of the stage, we’ve changed, too. Of course, we’ve all aged, but it’s more than that. This gap in our shared tradition has occurred during a particularly exacting set of years, when we couldn’t be sure we’d ever be back in those tight arena seats. So many of us took comfort in the familiarity of those seats, the waiting and anticipation, the time with friends who understand it like no one else, those quick smiles or nods to each other that say I noticed that, too to a bad note or low-key band antics.
Changed or not, it felt just right. It didn’t matter if it was the best or worst performance of “Candy’s Room” I’ve ever heard, it felt like a perfect show. A mistake here or there made it even better, a reminder that even those among us who have managed to avoid threats to our human rights or COVID-19 infection have not come out unscathed. The fallout is still omnipresent, for all of us.
But in the days that followed the show, I’ve tried to remember the most important part: He kicked it off with “No Surrender.”