At the end of his concerts, Bruce Springsteen takes requests from the audience. The crowd brings signs with the names of songs he doesn’t perform often or hasn’t done that night. Bruce picks through the suggestions, tells his crew what he wants to do, and then they race to find the lyrics online and put them on a teleprompter at his feet (though it looks like his eyes are closed as he sings, he’s actually looking down to be sure he’s singing the right words, even if it’s one of his songs). Sometimes it leads to something special (e.g. after The Band’s Levon Helm died, he performed “The Weight”) or simply spontaneous and fun.
At a concert this summer, someone requested “You Can Never Tell,” a Chuck Berry song that you may remember John Travolta and Uma Thurman dancing to in “Pulp Fiction.” The E Street Band hasn’t performed the song in a very long time, so Bruce and Steve Van Zandt had to agree in which key they’d play it, and then the other musicians had to scramble to figure it out and keep up. It’s not an especially complex song, but most of the horn section seemed not to recognize it (at least by name), so Bruce walked them through it and they worked it out — all in front of the crowd.
While watching this, I was reminded of a story Springsteen told in “Hail Hail Rock and Roll,” the movie directed by Taylor Hackford about Chuck Berry’s 60th birthday concert at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. In it, Chuck reminisced about his career, and others who were influenced by him shared stories, too. In one scene, Springsteen remembered a time long before he was famous when Chuck was going to play a gig in New Jersey and needed a backup band. The promoter hired a very excited Springsteen et al, who showed up early to rehearse — but Berry didn’t. Instead, as was his habit, he drove up a few minutes before showtime, got paid in advance by the promoter (in cash), then headed for the stage.
As Berry pulled his guitar out of his case, Bruce introduced himself and the band, said no one had given them a set list, and asked “What songs are we playing tonight?” Berry answered “We’re playing Chuck Berry songs, son,” and tore into the opening riffs of “Johnny B. Goode” as Bruce and the band hustled to keep up.
Here’s the modern-day version of Bruce leading the band in a Chuck Berry song…