As you may well know, Bruce Springsteen’s right-hand man Steve Van Zandt is off filming his gangster series “Lilyhammer” in the nether regions of Norway, leaving a big fat hole in the E Street Band.
The Boss has filled that slot with one mean gunslinger in Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello, who’s providing such an electric shock he might as well just become yet another member, swelling the E Street Band to a proper Boulevard of — what — 20?
Pittsburgh got its taste of E Street Rage Tuesday night at the Consol Energy Center in the Boss’ first trip back in two years. This tour comes on the heels of “High Hopes,” a middling collection of odds and ends that doesn’t require much of Bruce’s attention. So, Springsteen and the newly Hall of Fame-inducted E Street Band were free to cut loose with whatever.
This one started with a fury, as they hit the stage at 8:15 with a version of “Working for the Clampdown,” that made The Clash anthem sound more like a party song. Bruce trading vocals with Morello and looking like he was wearing one of the Rage Against the Machine guitarist’s military-style shirts, a nice change from the formal vest.
Pittsburgh’s blue-collar history and industrial landscape always seems to put the Boss in “Darkness” mode, so he went right into a roof-raising version of “Badlands” and then into “Johnny 99” (from “Nebraska”) that the five-piece horn section, featuring Jake Clemons, turned into a wild New Orleans brass wake for Johnny.
He would return to that theme later with “The Promised Land” and another scorching version of “Youngstown,” with Morello firing the furnace.
“High Hopes” was handed to Morello, who brought the new element of a shredding guitar solo with his teeth in addition to the Rage-y wah-wah riff. Their stellar moment together, of course, was on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” where E Street meets Rage in a tour de force with a driving duet and guitar duel that Morello slays with aural pyrotechnics and scratching metal.
As always, it was a brilliant three-hour mix of powerful, playful and joyously rocking. There was a rockabilly section with “Stand On It” going into a “Seven Nights to Rock” that featured a hilarious teasing exchange with wife Patti Scialfa doing the math on just how many nights they were allowed to rock.
His backward stage dive on “Hungry Heart” took on a comic twist as he made his way back to the stage with a Bruce blow-up doll.
“Someone out there is a master of balloon art!” he yelled, having also noticed the blow-up yellow duck as well.
The crowd sign-request segment was less than top shelf, featuring a pair of love-song outtakes from “Tracks”: “I Wanna Be With You” and “Back in Your Arms,” which did come with an impassioned soul-belting vocal.
The specter of 9/11 hovered over in the bittersweet rockers “Lonesome Day” and “Mary’s Place” and, of course, the anthem “The Rising,” going right into “Land of Hope and Dreams.” “The Wall,” with an idea credited to Joe Grushecky, was a somber trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, paired with a pummeling version of protest anthem “Born in the U.S.A.” that climaxed with fireworks from Morello and drummer Max Weinberg.
When Joe Grushecky and son Johnny arrived in the encore for “Light of Day” and “Frankie Fell in Love,” it was a rock ’n’ roll orchestra of seven guitars across the stage. (He announced that he will join the Houserockers again at Soldiers and Sailors on May 22-23 and said tickets would go on sale today.)
They even stayed out there for the lights-up combo of “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark,” filling the stage with dancing fans.
As the set raged on into hysterical versions of “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” and “Shout” (it’s funny to think of Tom Morello playing “Shout”!) — with Springsteen climbing the piano, shimmying down the mike stand and running back into the crowd — his energy hit that point of super human.
Back when he was a skinny young guy with curly hair playing the Stanley, people would marvel at his three-hour energy. He would do that bit about being a “prisoner of rock’ n’ roll.”
Now, at 64 — 64! — he still does and he’s still living out that life sentence, praise be to the gods of rock ’n’ roll!
firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg