It was one of those moments that reminds people like me why we go to see Springsteen over and over again. A moment of simple but awesome spontaneity that you won’t find in the typical arena-rock show.
Two-and-a-half hours into a three-hour set that included classics and surprises (Bruce-ologists took special note of “Bishop Danced,” which he hasn’t played live since the 1970s), a still-somehow-not-exhausted Springsteen stood at the front of the stage and took a handmade sign from the crowd with a request.
The song-request-on-a-sign is hardly new for the Boss. On the last tour, it became quite a thing—arguably too much of a thing—with hundreds if not thousands of people bringing them to shows to request rarities or to dare Springsteen to play an obscure cover. He would wade into the crowd and collect scads of these, then playfully leaf through them on stage before settling on the song or songs to play. (The strangest result I’ve seen? Bruce leading the E Street Band in “Hava Nagila” at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.)
On this tour, Bruce isn’t encouraging the signage, but it persists, in smaller numbers. And at the show in Newark last night, someone requested that Springsteen pay tribute to Levon Helm, the founding member, drummer, and frequent lead singer of The Band, who died last month. Springsteen, who loves to acknowledge musical influences during his shows, took the sign and the challenge. He fiddled with his acoustic guitar for a few moments while praising Helm, noting the extraordinary country-rockabilly quality of his voice, as well as just how hard it is to sing when you’re drumming.
The moment was perhaps ever so slightly marred by Bruce puzzlingly mispronouncing Helm’s first name as “Lev-in.” But then Springsteen ambled into his rendition of one of Helm’s signature tunes, “The Weight,” as if he was playing at a campus coffeehouse open-mic night. There just happened to be 18,000 people there with him, mangling the high harmonies a bit, but making sure the Boss knew that if he muffed a lyric, they had his back. As they always seem to.