When the stage lights flashed and turned him into a silhouette, Matt Ryan, for a second, was indistinguishable from Bruce Springsteen. The hair combed back, the sleeves of the worn black shirt rolled up past the elbows, the weathered Telecaster – every piece was in place, and even when the lights changed and he was fully visible again, the band maintained the illusion as well as any tribute band possibly can.
Bruce in the USA, a Springsteen/E Street Band tribute act formed in Las Vegas, were visibly surprised to see a packed Paradise in front of them Saturday, the night after more than two feet of snow effectively shut Boston down. Ryan mentioned several times how grateful they were to play for so many Bruce fans, and they gave the crowd a show that made the trek through the snow worth it.
Unlike regular artists, tribute bands are free of any obligations to play half of their new album every time they go out on tour – which meant Bruce in the USA skipped most of Wrecking Ball to fit in songs like “Sherry Darling,” “Because the Night,” “Tunnel of Love” and “Out in the Street” that the real E Street Band left out when they came to TD Garden last March.
They’re also free to pull out some surprising set list constructions. It’s hard to imagine Bruce playing “Thunder Road” fifth in a two-and-a-half-hour show, but that’s what Bruce in the USA did. And, with the caveat that no one on this earth can recreate the experience of seeing Bruce and the gang play that one for real, they just about nailed it.
Bruce and his bandmates – especially Steven Van Zandt and the late Clarence Clemons – have exemplified the classic bromance since long before the word was invented, and Bruce in the USA got that part right too. When they launched into an extended jam at the end of “Pink Cadillac,” they were grinning at each other and clearly having a great time.
During “Rosalita,” the exuberant and perfectly chosen closer, Ryan as Bruce spent several seconds leaning on the shoulder of Dave McLaurin as Clarence, hamming it up for both the crowd and his bandmates. Because I am an idiot and turned down several offers from my mother to see Springsteen in my youth – I guess I thought going to concerts with your mom wasn’t cool or something – this is the closest I’ll ever come to seeing Clarence perform. By all accounts, the Big Man was a presence nobody could match, but McLaurin hit the sax solos note for note, especially when he took center stage near the end of the set in “Jungleland.”
One of the most striking parts of the show was the audience reaction. When Matthew Sully, the guitarist wearing Van Zandt’s trademark bandana, ran up to high-five the audience, they lunged toward him like he was the real deal. Ryan only reminded us all that he was a fan too when he said this was unlike any other tribute act he’d done, because he connected so much with Springsteen’s lyrics. Other than that, the crowd treated him with the same enthusiasm they would Bruce himself, singing the entire first verse and first chorus of “Hungry Heart” themselves before Ryan even stepped to the mike.
Plenty of people have imagined being rock stars, but unless you’re one of the creative few who imagined a song of your own to perform in your daydreams, you probably pictured yourself as someone else, whether that was Bruce or Bob Dylan or Jack White or Beyoncé.
What Bruce in the USA get to do is live that dream, turning themselves into a detail- perfect recreation of one of the most iconic bands in history. If you closed your eyes during, say, their version of “Promised Land” that had kids 15 years younger than Darkness on the Edge of Town pumping their fists and shouting along, it was nearly impossible to tell the difference.