- The Washington Times - Monday, September 15, 2003

On any given night during a Bruce Springsteen tour, there’s a good chance the E Street Band is the greatest in the world.

Guaranteed is that his fans are the greatest: the most loyal, animated and enthusiastic repeat patrons of any boomer-dominated rock audience.

They know they’re treated like fraternal gold by their sweaty hardworking hero; like they’re a sacred reunion of New Jersey diaspora — and the hottest dance party in town.

They know, too, there’s a chance that if they request, through yells or placards, a rarely-played song such as, say, “Pink Cadillac,” Mr. Springsteen might dust it off, which he did Saturday night at the inhumanly big FedEx Field — even though he had forgotten its opening riff.

Luckily, Bethesda’s own Nils Lofgren, a 20-year E Street veteran, was there to pluck it out.

“Pink Cadillac” was about the only rarity unearthed Saturday, in a set list not much different than the one Mr. Springsteen played in August 2002 at the MCI Center, on the first leg of this year-plus-long trek around the world.

Heavy on “The Rising” — he played fully 10 of that album’s 15 tracks — Saturday’s play-list included songs like “The Fuse,” an unusual recent tune Mr. Springsteen seemed to have retired for this year’s stadium jaunt, but one that the E Street Band has performed in the past at illustrious baseball venues such as Boston’s Fenway Park.

But in a show that lasted nearly three hours — with brief breathers for a pair of long encore sets — Mr. Springsteen could afford to focus on new material and still fit in plenty of fan favorites, like “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” “Dancing in the Dark” and the brilliant epic “Jungleland,” a beloved album track off “Born to Run.”

Mr. Springsteen regularly favors dark clothes on stage, but it was a virtual lock that he would come out clad in black Saturday night, on the heels of country legend Johnny Cash’s passing early Friday morning.

He didn’t mention the “Man in Black” by name, but astute fans noticed that the unfamiliar acoustic number with which Mr. Springsteen opened the show was one of Mr. Cash’s earliest hits, “I Walk the Line.”

The ode to Mr. Cash was one of several somber notes struck Saturday night; they arrived one after the other: “Empty Sky,” “You’re Missing.”

Saturday’s show was a stark reminder of the disturbing imagery of “The Rising” — of blood-streaked skies, shattered families, “smoky graves,” suicide bombers and “Virginia hills gone brown.”

Perhaps it was a self-reminder for Mr. Springsteen, too, as recent set lists had begun shedding “The Rising.” Seldom-aired songs like “Kitty’s Back” and “Spirit In The Night” popped up this summer, most frequently during Mr. Springsteen’s record-setting, $36 million-grossing 10 nights at North Jersey’s Giants Stadium; a veritable residency.

Mr. Springsteen seemed to have taken the opportunity of a performance in the nation’s hyper-newsy capital, two days after the second anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, to say, “Hey, we’re havin’ fun tonight, but … never forget.”

Balancing the solemnity were songs such as “Seven Nights to Rock,” a cover of a mid-‘50s song by Moon Mullican, an old East Texas hillbilly rock pianist.

Yet it wouldn’t have been a Bruce Springsteen show without the singer’s feverish stage energy — the buddy-buddy mugging with saxophonist Clarence Clemons and guitarist pal Stevie Van Zandt, the playful flirting with wife Patti Scialfa, who sings backup, strums inaudibly on acoustic guitar and shakes a tambourine or two.

As he always does, Mr. Springsteen, 54, made a few unsmiling public-service announcements, plugging the Capital Area Food Bank and calling for the Bush administration to be called to account for its statements in the run-up to the Iraq war.

After his dip into blue-state carping, Mr. Springsteen quickly got out of the pool and launched into “Born in the U.S.A.” The E Street Band’s bassist Garry Tallent strapped on a big, semi-hollow-body bass for the 1984 classic, producing a bottom end that must’ve thumped every thorax in Greater Landover.

Even the hardiest red-state Republican would have to forgive Mr. Springsteen his politics after that kind of thunder.

Bruce Springsteen reunited the E Street Band in 1999 and has been touring relentlessly ever since. This current jaunt will wrap up next month, but the singer shows every sign of being an ongoing concern.

A good thing, because Mr. Springsteen and his bandmates are utterly on top of their game.

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