At 73, he is a little more open about his final farewell. His tour brings him to Chicago in August. -Chicago Tribune

At 73, he is a little more open about his final farewell.  His tour brings him to Chicago in August.  -Chicago Tribune
At 73, he is a little more open about his final farewell.  His tour brings him to Chicago in August.  -Chicago Tribune

Milwaukee — Bruce Springsteen stood under dim stage lights and fingered an acoustic guitar and told a long story. If you’ve seen Springsteen and the E Street Band before, you know this moment; he has been doing the same thing for 50 years. He spoke, lost himself in the words, paused, then stopped strumming and just spoke, the audience went completely silent. For decades, these stories were about his father, his guitars, his relationship with authority. At 73, on stage Tuesday night at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, it was about death. “At 15, everything is tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow,” he said with that familiar cautious cadence, more Dust Bowl now than New Jersey. “But later on, there’s a lot more goodbyes.”

It led to “Last Man Standing”, an additional farewell to a song, about realizing he was the last living member of his first band. The death of an old band mate from cancer led to “a clarity of thought and purpose”. Again, you’ve seen this Springsteen. Thoughtful, thoughtful. Later loose and rolling. Much of the nearly three-hour show was the usual rave-up bombast, but something new was here: an uneasy embrace of mortality. He sang about meeting “you brother and sister on the other side.” During “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” the touching finale, he stood alone and coined all those songs about endless Juliets: “I’ll see you in my dreams, when all our summers have come to an end.”

On the dark warhorse “Backstreets” about friendship, beach town listlessness and the big promises of youth, as the band fell back to just Roy Bittan’s piano, Springsteen fixated on a simple set of words, turning the big promises into a kind of life sentence:

“To the end… to the end… to the end…”

If I’m being honest here, I feel unprepared for this Springsteen. I’ve had plenty of notice: Over the past 20 years, in concert, once-slamming anthems have grown deliberately slower. His penchant for striking poses that parody the rock god image is still there – only now they are more statuesque. The old rough intensity remains, the heat, a commitment to endurance and makes you sweaty and tired. Springsteen played 27 songs with such focus that the band never took a regular break to leave the stage before an encore – they pushed straight through.

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But this Springsteen is also the foreground of loss and age.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at the Fiserv Forum on March 7 in Milwaukee.

He doesn’t throw himself across a stage anymore; he doesn’t slide on his knees into the arms of his bandmates. He looks down at his feet as he walks between stage levels. He leans into the crowd and playfully waves to the fans like a grandparent cooing into a pram. Although his appearances have always been minimal on stage effects, he shows a video reel now celebrating dead E Street members Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. Springsteen looks fit and awesome, but he’s done trying to outrun time. He stares at mortality. The old joke was that he was either trying to kill himself with marathon shows or kill the audience. Increasingly, as devoted fans age and the band creeps into their 70s—with no one eager to stop—it’s looking more like a pact.

This latest tour — his first in six years (arriving in Chicago this summer for a pair of shows at Wrigley Field) — has been occupied by E Street Band members in and out of COVID. If you’ve seen cell phone footage from past dates, you’ll have noticed that Springsteen has replaced the old rush with ache. The labor exhaustion of legendary E Street Band concerts may seem replaced with genuine exhaustion. As someone who wonders about taking out the trash, I should be lucky at 73. But it’s startling.

You don’t have to be a Springsteen fan to know what I’m talking about.

Bruce Springsteen performs with guitarist Steven Van Zandt at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.

Among the disturbing images circulating online these days are concert footage of rockers of a certain age—Mötley Crüe, David Lee Roth, Bon Jovi, Roger Daltrey—struggling with their legacies, mumbling their way through songs and barely following along, all while they wear the usual scene. costume, as if he was auditioning for a rock opera “Sunset Boulevard”. Aerosmith reportedly sidelined their longtime drummer for a while when the band complained that he wasn’t keeping time. Phil Collins mostly performs sitting in a chair now for most of his shows. Ozzy Osbourne stopped performing altogether after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

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Sometime in the 1980s — when Springsteen was in his 30s and singing about “Glory Days” — there was a rash of stories in the music press about the apparent crisis of aging bands. Earlier Beatles and Stones and so on still recorded in their (gasp) the 40s. These were rock stars who wanted to die before they got old, and now what? That was the chorus. Youth was still so closely associated with rock’s first decade that there was no contingency plan for survival. (In fact, being a “survivor” of the industry was itself a headline.) The idea that Eric Clapton and Stevie Wonder might not be alive one day felt improbable and was pushed to the back of my mind; at worst, we assumed that new artists would replace old ones. It’s happened a bit (see the Taylor Swift ticket fiasco), but year after year, annual roundups of the top-grossing tours are full of bands north of 60.

At the same time, age means there are fewer of these acts, while attrition has rendered some bands that refuse to quit unrecognizable. The last original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd died this week, but that won’t stop them from playing Tinley Park in August.

Bruce Springsteen performs at the Fiserv Forum on March 7 in Milwaukee.

I asked someone sitting near me, how old is too old to do this?

The consensus was: As long as you don’t hurt yourself, don’t stop. Some wore “Born in the USA” T-shirts, replicas of fake vintage. Some had oxygen tanks. Millennials and Gen X and Boomers, finally in harmony. A Madison woman who didn’t want to be identified — she works on a podcast and told a colleague she was sick so she could skip their meeting and come to this show instead (it was a whole thing) — noticed how much Springsteen looks like Joe Strummer of The Clash now, hair trimmed to the sides, a Teamster face in work shirts. Her point was, in part, that Springsteen, despite his age, is no nostalgic. And yet, maybe he’s still too much of a people pleaser, I pushed back.

Perhaps, she argued, the job is one duty.

Like Batman, I guess. He is needed out there, he just can’t Stop. Springsteen’s smaller acoustic tours were so clever that I yearn for a full E Street band tour that doesn’t take the form of a marathon, that’s less athletic, less famous, but no less meaningful. And yet Springsteen, older than many of the artists who have embarrassed themselves on YouTube, still feels like an exception. With a star: A student of music history, he deliberately incorporates our ambivalence with decline into the show.

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The E Street Band is, no joke, up to 19 members (although Patti Scialfa, his wife, was based out of Milwaukee). There are five horns and four backup singers and a percussionist – which Springsteen cleverly uses to bring jazzy jams from the early 70s to life. There’s the big, sloppy energy of “Rosalita” and the punk-adjacent roar of “Candy’s Room.” Nils Lofgren, an occasional Neil Young collaborator, carries a Crazy Horse slam into “Because the Night.” But the greatest moments are in a whisper. Tellingly, one of the few covers on Tuesday was Commodore’s “Nightshift,” a paean to soul and connection.

After 50 years of this, as well as a few years of contemplative Broadway shows and a depressive memoir that tore apart his own working-class image, the old Springsteen intimacy with his audience resembles a joy and a willing burden. His face is stonier now. At times he speaks out lyrics, a hand swinging to the rhythm of the lines. The wild-eyed clumsy younger Springsteen breaks through, but never easily, always with gripping power. His contemporaries are dead, on farewell tours or already retired. He will be gone one day too. His legacy will be this live act. Recording exists, video exists, memories remain.

But his lasting gift is the impermanence of it all, the insistence that there’s no sin in being glad you’re alive, but also the reminder that one minute you’re here, the next minute you’re gone.

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Springsteen & E Street Band set list from March 7 at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee:

“No Surrender”


“Prove It All Night”

“Letter to You”

“The Promised Land”

“Candy’s Room”

“Kitty’s Back”

“Nightshift” (Commodores cover)

“Pay Me My Money Down” (Weavers cover)

“Burning Train”

“Death to My Hometown”

“The E Street Shuffle”

“Last Man Standing”


“Because the Night”

“She’s the One”

“Wrecking Ball”

“The Rise”



“Land of Hope and Dreams”

“Thunder Road”

“Born to Run”

“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”

“Glory Days”

“Dancing in the Dark”

“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”

“I’ll See You in My Dreams”

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