Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
PNC Arena, Raleigh
Thursday, April 24, 2013

Roughly two hours into another grueling, sweat-drenched show, Bruce Springsteen looked puzzled. “Where’s my little girl?” he said into the microphone. A gaggle of Polo-clad college boys near center stage pointed to a slender, pretty brunette; she shared Springsteen’s generous Roman nose. Moments later, Springsteen pulled his daughter, Jessica, on stage for an awkward prance as “Dancing in the Dark” wound to its gleeful conclusion. It was an honest, sweet moment at PNC Arena Thursday night—something often lost in the populist pull of arena shows—but Springsteen has rarely seemed anything more than honest.

Springsteen said Jessica will soon graduate from Duke University. It’s been a decade of serious-minded, political grousing for the Boss, but it was a happy day for Springsteen. It showed during Thursday’s three-hour, hit-laden set.

Springsteen mixed old and new songs, occasionally dipping deep into his songbook for surprises, including the 1987 sleeper, “Brilliant Disguise.” Others, such as 1982’s spare “Atlantic City,” got a big-band makeover, complete with an audience singalong. And, ah, those opening piano chords of “Thunder Road”: It’s the simple things that please, and Springsteen has always been a crowd pleaser.

Two members of his ever-morphing E Street Band have died since 2008, while his typical on-stage foil, guitarist Steven Van Zandt, is busy with his acting career. But Springsteen has filled the gaps with capable performers, particularly Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello. There’s a queer perversity to watching Morello dance to gigantic Springsteen hits such as “Glory Days.” It works, and that’s a testament to Springsteen’s enduring credibility. No matter how blustery or preachy he may be, Springsteen is more informed by folk’s anti-establishment bent than his biggest admirers or detractors would care to admit.

Thursday’s electric duet with Morello on 1995’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” was proof. “Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free, look in their eyes mom, you’ll see me,” Morello bellows at the song’s climax. It’s a stirring reminder that the richer Springsteen gets, the more he seems inclined to bemoan the crumbling stature of America’s working class.

At times, The Boss seemed more athlete than performer. Deep into his encore, he bobbed on his feet like a boxer, eager for the next cut. His voice, limited in its range, still provides a visceral thrill, particularly on the raspiest peaks of 1975’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out.” And his E Street Band—padded now with a horn section and gospel singers—is more of an armada than a rock group. At their mid-1970s peak, they were a limber, menacing outfit, couching gutter-rat paeans in snarling guitars and hovering saxophone. These days, they’re a lumbering, rabble-rousing giant swollen with drink.

Nevermind the coronations, the gold records, the Super Bowl halftime shows and the millions of dollars: Last night in Raleigh, Springsteen sounded no less desperate singing the chorus of “Born to Run” than he did in 1975.