By Michael Lester
HERSHEY, Pa. — It was worth the $100-plus price of admission, not to mention a bit comical, scanning the quizzical expressions on faces in the crowd, as Tom Morello traded guitar solos with Bruce Springsteen during “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” midway through Springsteen and his E Street Band’s rainy Hersheypark Stadium show last Wednesday.
Morello cradled his “Arm the Homeless” guitar and rubbed his left hand across the lower half of the fretboard, generating those shrieking effects he first introduced to MTV and radio airplay in the 1990s with metal/hip-hop band Rage Against the Machine.
The perplexed looks among the Springsteen faithful suggested some were wondering what the hell they were witnessing exactly.
That didn’t necessarily mean they didn’t appreciate it. Springsteen certainly did, nodding his approval of Morello’s guitar work during Morello’s solo parts in the song.
When Springsteen announced Morello’s name at the end of “Joad,” the crowd followed Springsteen’s appreciative lead with one of its biggest ovations during a 29-song performance that lasted a minute or two shy of three hours.
Morello — who is 49 years old, believe it or not — certainly injected an unusual, loud and heavy dimension to the 17-member lineup in the absence of revered Steven Van Zandt. “Little Steven” was busy doing some TV work in Norway, filming “Lilyhammer,” a new Netflix series. Van Zandt returned to the lineup for the band’s two shows in Connecticut that closed a 34-show leg of the “High Hopes” tour over the weekend.
Morello played his guitar with his teeth at one point and even stepped in on Van Zandt’s familiar spot, sharing a mic face-to-face with the band leader for vocal harmonies on “Joad.”
Of course, it was “The Boss” — or at least parts of him — that about 30,000 were in Hershey to see. (One of many signs held high in the pit below the stage paid homage to Springsteen’s backside as “The best ass in R&R.”)
And, at 64, Springsteen shows no signs of slowing down. While some of the band, which included 5-man horn and three-person backing vocal sections, cleared the stage throughout the night, Springsteen never departed. Other than to surf the crowd, shake hands and escort fans up on stage.
He was already crowd surfing by the start of the set’s fourth song, “Hungry Heart.”
During his ride above the crowd, Springsteen sang into a microphone while deftly grabbing a few signs with song requests as he “swam” back to the stage.
Once back on his feet on stage, he was greeted by saxophone player Jake Clemons, nephew of beloved late E Streeter Clarence Clemons. Springsteen fist-bumped Clemons and wrapped him in an embrace.
Every band member exited the stage at one point, leaving Springsteen alone behind a piano to fulfill a song request from one of the signs in the crowd. He launched into a solo rendition of “For You,” a melancholy ballad from 1973’s “Greetings from Asbury Park.”
Springsteen also remained as the lone musician on stage to start an 8-song encore with an acoustic guitar and harmonica, to honor another sign request, “Surprise, Surprise,” from his 2009 album, “Working on a Dream.”
Few, if any, musical performers connect with their fans like Springsteen does. In addition to playing some of what they had requested, he grabbed a basketball-sized, foil-covered Hershey Kiss from the crowd.
Springsteen laughed out loud when some clearly faithful Philadelphia fans booed his reference in “Wrecking Ball” to the Meadowlands, where “Giants played the games.”
He also invited a few musicians on stage and handed them instruments during “Dancing in the Dark.” It was an answer during the encore to the musicians’ plea on a sign that read, “Can we jam with the E Street Band?”
One song later, Springsteen tore off his sweat-saturated long-sleeve denim shirt revealing an equally-drenched gray muscle shirt at the start of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out.”
That was followed by the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” and “Thunder Road” to close the show.
Complete setlist available at http://brucespringsteen.net/shows/051414-hershey-pa