ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Bruce Springsteen came home to the Asbury Park boardwalk, playing back-to-back nights for local charities — and the singer had a bag full of surprises for the audience, as themes of community and renewal ran high.
Officially billed as "Bruce Springsteen with the Max Weinberg Seven and Friends," the Sunday and Monday night shows assumed the structure and vibe of an old-time revue. Springsteen was the main attraction, but he was equally comfortable singing background vocals while facing off with the Seven's guitarist, Jimmy Vivino, or leading them and members of the E Street Band through a dizzying array of rarities.
An hour before show time on the second night, Springsteen treated early arrivals to an acoustic set of two Hank Williams songs — "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" and "Hey Good Lookin'" — and Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train," with fiddler Soozie Tyrell, Southside Johnny on harmonica, Nils Lofgren on piano, and Garry Tallent on upright bass.
Springsteen set the tone early on Sunday: Seated quietly at the piano as the five-piece horn section and E Streeter Dan Federici led off with a quirky version of "Jingle Bells," Springsteen followed with a lush, rolling version of "For You." The combination of holiday songs and surprise numbers became the rule of the house for both two-and-a-half-hour shows.
After warming up with Chuck Berry's "Run Run Rudolph," the horns took the lead, driving everyone through "Lucky Town." Afterward, Springsteen asked for quiet so the horns could "tune up," a ruse that worked perfectly: The audience hushed before the cacophonous false start of "The E Street Shuffle," which was faithful to its arrangement on Springsteen's second record, complete with the jazzy coda.
Even amid the array of older songs, the audience was stunned by "Kitty's Back," a song that had gone unperformed since the 1978 "Darkness on the Edge of Town" tour. Surprisingly, the Max Weinberg Seven — not the E Street Band — led the way, showing their chops on the complex song by nailing every nuance, twist, turn, and stop — despite only two days of rehearsal. Springsteen sang an airy, relaxed vocal and hit every note, while saxophonist Clarence Clemons entered to the biggest ovation of the night.
From there, it was a roll call, as Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, Southside Johnny, Little Steven, and the E Street Band each took their turn on a song or two of their own. Nils Lofgren stole the show on the second night with a glowing performance of "Shine Silently" as a beaming Springsteen sang in the background. Southside Johnny also reprised a lesser-known song, sounding strong on "All I Needed Was You."
Springsteen returned to the front of the stage for "So Young and in Love," a Born to Run-era rave-up based on the Chiffons' "A Love So Fine." Springsteen's scat-like delivery had body language to match as 1975 strutted again on the Convention Hall stage.
Amid the somewhat predictable ending ("I Don't Want to Go Home," "Rosalita," and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"), Springsteen again sat at the piano. But instead of reaching into the past, he unveiled a brand-new song: "My City of Ruins" — a soulful meeting of "Streets of Philadelphia" and Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" — paints a grim picture of Asbury Park, with images of abandoned churches, boarded storefronts, and people brought to their knees. "Now tell me," Springsteen sang. "How do I begin again?" And then he pleaded, "Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!"
The song seemed like Springsteen's attempt to summon a miracle for the struggling seaside town he once called "Little Eden." Before launching into the song, he spoke lovingly of his ties with musicians that go back more than a quarter century, saying he feels "blessed to have around me relationships that have been sustained." And Springsteen recognized those who are working to improve Asbury Park: its shop keepers, gallery owners, and social workers. For two nights, at least, it was past as prologue.