About an hour before every concert, Bruce Springsteen draws up a set list of 31 songs, written in big, scrawly letters in marker ink and soon thereafter distributed to his musicians and crew in typed-up, printed-out form. But this list is really just a loose framework. Over the course of an evening, Springsteen might shake up the order, drop a song, call a few audibles to his seasoned, ready-for-anything E Street Band, or take a request or two from fans holding handwritten signs in the pit near the front of the stage. Or he might do all of the above and then some—as he did on the first of the two nights that I saw him perform in Gothenburg, Sweden, this summer.
That night, at the last minute, Springsteen jettisoned his plan to open with a full-band version of “Prove It All Night,” from his 1978 album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and instead began the show solo at the piano with “The Promise,” a fan-beloved Darkness outtake. Eight songs in, he again went off-list, playing a stretched-out, gospelized version of “Spirit in the Night,” from his first album, 1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., which he followed with “Save My Love,” a sign request. Onward he went with tweaks and spontaneous additions, to the point where, by the time the show was over, it was past midnight and Springsteen, a man approaching his 67th birthday, had played for nearly four hours—his second-longest concert ever.
“Yikes!” said Springsteen with mock alarm when I relayed this fact to him the next day, at his hotel in the Swedish port city. “I’m always in search of something, in search of losing myself to the music. I think we hit a spot last night where I was trying some songs we hadn’t played in a while, where maybe you’re struggling more. And then suddenly”—he snapped his fingers—“you catch it, and then, once you do, you may not want to stop.”
“You have to create the show anew, and find it anew, on a nightly basis,” Springsteen said. “And sometimes,” he concluded, laughing, “it takes me longer than I thought it would.”
~ David Camp, The Book of Bruce Springsteen