BOSTON --When discussing an artist as consistent and durable as Bruce Springsteen, it is always best to avoid absolutes such as "best ever" or "greatest" or similar accolades.
But his two-day stint at Fenway Park last week pushes that envelope considerably. Some blogs are already terming the two-show appearance as "legendary." Too early for that, but they were darned good.
Springsteen rarely disappoints, but these Yawkey Way efforts on Aug. 14 and 15 were notable for even the lofty standards of The Boss and his rabid fans. In total, Springsteen submitted a 29-song, three-hour, 20-minute show on Tuesday night, and followed that up with a 30-song offering the next night.
The eyebrow-raising part of that was that the two shows were almost completely different. There were a total of 12 holdover songs played on Wednesday from Tuesday’s set, and four of them ("Wrecking Ball," "Death to My Hometown," "We Take Care of Our Own" and "Shackled and Drawn") were from his latest album, "Wrecking Ball" and almost obligatory. Three others, ("Born to Run," "Dancing in the Dark" and "10th Avenue Freeze-Out") have been near-mandatory parts of the band’s encore.
An eighth song, "Thunder Road," was played as the tumultuous finale of Tuesday’s set. On Wednesday, it was the show’s opener, a more measured version played by Springsteen accompanied only by Roy Bittan’s piano.
Hard to say which night was better, which was at it should be. Tuesday’s highlights included a blazing "Because the Night," featuring guitarist Nils Lofgren; a rollicking "E Street Shuffle," the rarely heard "Johnny 99" and a thoroughly unexpected version of John Lee Hooker’s "Boom, Boom."
During another of the show’s highlights, a wondrous "Spirit in the Night," Springsteen sat down in the front of the stage with Jake Clemens, nephew of the late Clarence Clemens and the band’s new sax player.
Referring to the song, a tale of Crazy Janey, Wild Billy and his friend G-Man written in 1972,, Springsteen looked at the 35-year-old Jake and said, "All this happened before you were born." The crowd loved it, and so did Jake.
Tuesday’s eight-song encore pushed the curfew limit, as the band played two more tunes after the usual "Freezeout" grand finale: The Standells’ "Dirty Water" and the Isley Brothers’ "Twist and Shout."
Over the past several months, Springsteen has been doing a good job featuring some of the lesser-known (but talented) members of the band. Trumpeter Curt Ramm and trombonist Clark Gayton, along with Jake, get good turns during "My City of Ruins." Meanwhile, new percussionist Everette Bradley and drummer MaX Weinberg exchange drum solos durung Shcakled and Drawn.
Wednesday’s show was geared a little more toward the veterans in the audience. After the acoustic "Thunder Road," which was the way Springsteen opened several shows in the early 1980s, the band played the sing-along "Hungry Heart" and then "Sherry Darling", both from 1980’s "The River."
But the real rarity came during the request portion of the show. Great enough that the band played Eddie Floyd’s "Knock on Wood," as well as early favorites "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street" and "Thundercrack" and the seldom-heard "Frankie."
But a roar went up when Springsteen brandished a sign that said "Prove It All night: 1978 intro."
That meant a brittle Bittan piano intro and a blistering three-minute Springsteen guitar solo that opened the song every night during the 1978 tour, and seldom repeated in the intervening 34 years. It was probably the show’s highlight.
The encore featured a beautiful version of "Rocky Ground" featuring Michelle Moore’s rap; the venerable "Mitch Ryder Medley" and another chestnut, Gary U.S. Bonds’ rocking "Quarter to Three." The encore opened with "Who’ll Stop The Rain," in response to a light drizzle that fell during the last hour of the show. It didn’t work. No one cared.