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The last time Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played Los Angeles, back in 2016, it was to formally close down the venerable Sports Arena — “The Dump That Jumps,” as he famously dubbed the about-to-be-demolished venue he’d played so often. His song “Wrecking Ball” had a special resonance, then, in association with that dive that it can’t now: Springsteen’s current home in L.A., the Kia (nee: Fabulous) Forum, which he goes back to the ‘70s with, does jump, but no one’s going to go all Bette Davis and utter “What a dump!” about it in its refurbished state. Occasionally, there’s an arena that was meant to live forever, against all odds, and the Forum — where Springsteen played Thursday and will again on Sunday night — is a girded, gilded survivor.

But “Wrecking Ball” remains a key moment in his set, not for how sentimental it makes us feel about basketball barns, but for how it makes us feel about us, its true intended subject. Like a lot of the standby songs and commentaries on his 2023 tour and now (following a sick-day pause) the ‘24 outing, this particular standout has to do with his most recurring theme of recent years, live and on record: the thin veil between life and death. In Springsteen’s advanced view of mortality, we’re all dumps-that-jump, in a manner of thinking. And he’s come back from enforced hiatus to throw us the best party, or wake, we could possibly have.

Springsteen hasn’t spoken so much publicly about the condition that took him off the road for six months, and which caused these particular L.A. dates to be postponed for four. But something about his first Forum show Thursday caused him to get a little bit chattier about the malady.

“We’re sorry we missed you last time,” he said during a spoken interlude in the middle of an epic version of “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” being performed as the show’s penultimate number  after the setlist had already passed the three-hour point. “I hope we didn’t put you out too much. But, man,” he elaborated, “I had the worst motherfucking bellyache you could ever imagine.”

“When I sang, my belly ached,” he said.

“When I did anything, my belly ached,” he continued.

“But it’s not achin’ now.” With that assurance to the audience, he grinned and rubbed his hands together, in the universal gesture for enthusiasm, or avarice — a lemme-at-it motion that felt hilarious, in approaching the midnight hour, or just approaching this point in his career.

Bruce Springsteen has fire in the belly. Lucky for him and everyone else, it’s back to being a fire that does not consume.

Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt at the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert held at the Kia Forum on April 4, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.
Michael Bucker for Variety

At a length of three hours and 20 minutes, Springsteen’s opening Forum show pretty much set the bar for not gentle into that good Thursday night. Its 200-minute running time was 40 minutes longer than most other sets of his lately, all of which already test and transcend what a guy in his early 70s who recently recovered from illness ought to be pulling off. It’s reductive, though, to focus too much on the running time, which makes it feel like an endurance test or marathon. Yes, every minute added onto a show beyond the tour mean confers some kind of badge of pride on attendees, and it’s great fun to start doing the numbers as a show begins to expand… but the miracle is not just that he endures.

The miracle is that he bobs and weaves with a dynamic setlist that needs that much expansiveness to sufficiently cover multiple moments of sorrow or grief and “Twist and Shout” (should you be so lucky to get that bonus track as a celebration of life, as Thursday’s crowd did).

As fans have already noted during these first few weeks of the 2024 touring resumption, the setlists tend to be only about 75% set in stone. That’s to say, they’re much looser than when the E Street Band hit the road again in 2023, closer to how they used to be in legendary days of yore. For anyone who likes to go to more than one show on a tour, or just for anybody who enjoys knowing they’re in the presence of some free-spiritedness, this flexibility is a godsend.

Given that the surprises each night are added onto the surety of some of the most powerful song sequences he’s ever constructed for a tour, a 2024 Bruce Springsteen show is really something that gives “overstuffed” a good name.

Jake Clemons and Bruce Springsteen at the Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band concert held at the Kia Forum on April 4, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.
Michael Bucker for Variety

Most of his shows on this show have opened with “Lonesome Day,” which is nearly an overture for the conflicted lyrical feelings that will come up in the emotionally dynamic hours to come. But occasionally he’ll start off with a ringer in advance even of that opener. Thursday, it was a cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” which ain’t nothing but primal — the blues as filtered through a “Nuggets” sensibility. He hadn’t done this oldie since 2016, which augured well for tour premieres and oddities.

Springsteen will sometimes take requests off tour signs, which can feel like a magician’s sleight-of-hand: Can even a band this accomplished have the sense memory for tunes so long unplayed? He pulled a huge banner up from the audience, claimed not to be able to decipher the spray-painted script — “Can anybody read this thing out there?” — and then led the band into “Jole Blon,” a traditional that found its way into E Street shows years back after he produced a Gary U.S. Bond recording of the tune. If it was a trick, he still had to call out some instructions. “B flat!” he yelled, helpfully; then, after flubbing the start by doing his trademark “1-2-3-four!,” Springsteen laughed and said this one required “a count-in of just two,” and he started the countdown afresh.

Would an oldie this obscure count among the highlights of a three-hour-plus set that includes an inordinate amount of the best rock songs ever written? On the face of it, no. Or yes, for that segment of fans that lives for the idea of audibles being called.

The biggest surprise of the night: the return of Patti Scialfa, who performed on a few 2023 shows and then disappeared from public view. (“Where’s Patti?” isn’t quite up there with “Where’s Shelly?,” but it still remained a question.) Now we knew, without the FBI being called in: His bride is just living her post-E-Street life, happy to show up for a cameo instead of being tied to a recurring gig. “My baby’s back!,” Springsteen exclaimed, kicking off the first of two numbers the couple performed as a team. The recently rare “Tougher Than the Rest” featured Scialfa leaning in close on their single mic for harmony, followed by “Fire.” That number, Springsteen said, hadn’t been played “in a long time. We did do it on Broadway,” he clarified, but “Patti’s never done it.” By which he possibly meant never performed it as a full-on duet; his wife unexpectedly got the first verse of this ‘70s perennial all to herself. (Patti as a Pointer Sister, to name the group that really made the song famous? Live long enough, and all sorts of things can happen.)

The bones of the set were otherwise mostly intact. “Prove It All Night” follows “Lonesome Day” at the beginning, as a promise. But sometimes it seems like rock ‘n’ roll’s power as an elixir won’t be enough, if you’re reallly following how an underlying narrative develops.

“Ghosts” and “Letter to You,” both from the album of the latter name, overtly introduce the theme of loss, so often returned to. Then the mournful hits keep coming, as pointed segues. “My City of Ruins,” whose “Rise up” chorus barely disguises just how sad it is, goes in for more than 10 minutes, with cheerful chatter, as Bruce introduces the band, followed by bittersweet moments dedicated to the group’s fallen members. That in memoriam segued into a cover of the Commodores’ ‘80s hit “Nightshift,” which pays homage to soul music’s lost ‘60s and ‘70s greats, including Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson.

The soul memorial led into “Last Man Standing,” his song about realizing he was the last surviving member of his original band — a song so solemn it’s performed just by Springsteen and a solitary trumpeter, who might as well be playing “Taps.” From there, much of the crowd is relieved to hear Springsteen singing something as light as “Backstreets”… or is it? “Until the end… until the end…,” he sang, drawing one line out into a chant. It’s a “Born to Run” suite that has finally turned into the requiem it was apparently always meant to be.

“Wrecking Ball,” certainly the most ebullient of his songs about facing the end, was, well, a ball. It’s fatalistic and defiant, a combination you don’t question too much when the five-piece horn section is playing it like a combination New Orleans/Irish jig. That was the perfect setup for the 9/11-themed “The Rising,” the most shattering of all his songs. If “The Rising” prompts this many tears in L.A., it might be too much to see it in New York, although reports from last year’s east coast leg confirm it’s survivable.

And then, as this emotionally fraught show drew closer to a close, we got the Three Stooges. That is, during the go-for-broke joy of “Rosalita,” there was a moment when the otherwise stone-faced Little Steven Van Zandt drew close to Springsteen and they indulged in some Larry, Curly and Moe-style face-poking, prodding, mugging and noise-making.

Springsteen has put on a tour that is the most bittersweet show on earth, until it finally settles for being the happiest, and occasionally even goofiest. That feels like a perfectly honest place to land, after having perhaps challenged some audience members’ expectations of a pure party by reminding them about the loved ones they’ve lost.

There was a workman quality to some of Springsteen’s performance, meant in the most positive sense: When you see him quickly switch guitars at the end of seemingly nearly every number — sometimes walking his guitar to a roadie, sometimes confidently tossing it across part of the expanse of stage — you can laugh at the sheer efficiency of that quickness, like he’s a factory worker switching out pieces of equipment at clockwork intervals.

Given his stage mastery, was it possible Springsteen was moving even himself with this show? It’s probably risky i to parse exactly what emotions a showman this great might be spontaneously feeling. The most deeply emotional moments are deeply baked into the tour. As always, he gave the much-quoted speech about his old friend and bandmate George Theiss’ passing, about the clarity that death brings the living. This should be rote for Springsteen by now, given how little variation he introduces into the homily, as he retells it. Yet his closed eyes looked moist enough as he eulogized his teenaged soulmate once again Thursday night. Honestly, it could also just have been perspiration (even though his face didn’t look that sweaty in the closeups seen on the two big screens for the rest of the show).

Either way, sweat or tears, it was working, like it’s always worked for a few generations now. “You’ll need a good companion for this part of the ride,” Springsteen sang toward the end of the show in “Land of Hope of Dreams,” part of the tumult of climactic numbers. Maybe he didn’t mean that line as an actual rock ‘n’ roll direct-sales pitch at the time he wrote it, but he sure keeps living up to it.

Bruce Springsteen at the Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band concert held at the Kia Forum on April 4, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.
Michael Bucker for Variety

(For Variety’s review of Springsteen’s San Diego concert March 25, click here.)

Bruce Springsteen setlist for the Kia Forum, April 4, 2024:

Boom Boom
Lonesome Day
Prove It All Night
Two Hearts
Letter to You
The Promised Land
Tougher Than the Rest (with Patti Scialfa)
Fire (with Patti Scialfa)
Hungry Heart
Jole Blon
Spirit in the Night
No Surrender
My City of Ruins
Last Man Standing
Because the Night
She’s the One
Wrecking Ball
The Rising
Thunder Road
Land of Hope and Dreams
Born to Run
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Bobby Jean
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Twist and Shout
I’ll See You in My Dreams

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