Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band thrilled the crowd Saturday night during a headlining set of heartland-inspired anthems at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee.
The big question going into Saturday night – at least in my mind - was why would The Boss want to play Bonnaroo?
He has a legion of fans who’ll fill any arena in the country, so why play a festival crowd instead of one that knows all the words to "Rosalita?" After seeing the band play a 28-song set just shy of three hours - I think it has to do with passion.
Bruce in particular seemed to relish the challenge of playing a different kind of venue – just the band’s second-ever festival performance.
Here’s a man, nearing age 60, who believes so deeply in the power of rock and roll to inspire, and seemed determined to will that belief on Bonnaroo, telling the audience “we need to build a house together.”
Drenched in sweat, Bruce wowed the audience with a relentless enthusiasm and showmanship - throwing his guitar to his roadie, climbing onto the piano, and taking requests from hand-written signs from the crowd – including “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Bruce told the crowd “It’s too f-ing hot for Santa!” before launching into the roaring sing-a-long.
The rest of the E Street Band was equal to the task. Max Weinberg’s 18-year-old son, Jay, took over on drums during “Radio Nowhere” and finished the stellar second half of the show. Springsteen’s son, Evan, would later join the band on guitar.
The struggling economy was not far from Bruce’s mind. He spoke to the crowd about seeing “hard times” across the country – and played up that motif during blue-collar songs “Working on A Dream,” “The River,” and “Youngstown” – and played a 155-year-old Stephen Foster song “Hard Times Come Again No More” during the first encore.
The band closed with back-to-back tracks off "Born in the USA" - “Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark” - the later of which Bruce invited a woman wearing a green “I Love New Jersey” T-Shirt on to stage to dance.
Overall, a stunning, emotional performance, and the best I’ve seen at Bonnaroo thus far.
Coming in a close second was Wilco, who like Bruce, drew from their rich catalog of material to mesmerize the crowd - including four songs of their upcoming seventh studio album, "Wilco (The Album)."
Frontman Jeff Tweedy played coy with the audience – telling them “it doesn’t matter if you boo tonight. It will sound like you are yelling Bruuuuce!” And guitarist Nels Cline channeled "Marquee Moon"-era Television to power the band through soaring performances of “Impossible Germany,” “California Stars” and “Spiders (Kidsmoke).”
Other performances Saturday night included Ben Harper, moe, MGMT and Nine Inch Nails – during which Trent Reznor told the audience this would be the group’s final U.S. performance.
Sunday promises another diverse and lineup - including Okkervil River, Merle Haggard, Erykah Badu, Andrew Bird, Snoop Dogg, Neko Case and the second headlining set from Phish to close out the festival.