By Erik Flannigan
He was the first to fall.
Just 58 years old, Danny Federici died on April 17, 2008 from melanoma, the skin cancer for which he had been undergoing treatment since 2005. The disease eventually forced him to take leave of the E Street Band in November 2007, vacating a seat he had occupied since 1972.
Despite his nickname “Phantom” and onstage introductions like, “now you see him, now you don’t,” Daniel Paul Federici was a stalwart, symbiotic soldier perched at Springsteen’s side for nearly 40 years, going back to Bruce’s early groups Child and Steel Mill. His swirling organ and glockenspiel parts are as core to the E Street sound as Clarence Clemons’ saxophone. Max Weinberg summed it up perfectly when he described Danny’s role to Rolling Stone: “He was the glue that held the band together.”
Tampa 4/22/08 was the first show after Federici’s funeral, and the performance is as soulful as one would expect. But there’s something more subtle going on that becomes gradually apparent as one listens to Jon Altschiller’s inviting and wide stereo mix: while the audience is an essential catalyst, Bruce and the band are playing for themselves in Tampa.
After a preamble video tribute to Danny (set to the studio version of “Blood Brothers,” included here), the show proper begins on a deeply emotional note with “Backstreets,” played with purpose and conviction in a version that stands among its best contemporary performances. Maybe his throat was just dry, but when Springsteen’s voice catches a couple of times, one suspects the gravitas of the moment was getting to everyone.
A solid “Radio Nowhere” yields to “Lonesome Day,” and “It’s alright, it’s alright, yeah!” never felt more cathartic. Next, “No Surrender” is one of many songs that feel expressly chosen for the occasion and provide a foundation of nostalgia and reflection throughout the set. That being said, this is still the Tampa stop on the Magic tour, and the prevailing mood complements that agenda (even if it reduces the number of songs played from the album).
As it was most nights of the tour, “Gypsy Biker” is a high point. Roy Bittan’s piano playing channels his Power Station finest, while the Bruce and Stevie guitar solo shred-off provides a highly entertaining Listen to This, Eddie moment. Note to trainspotters who quibble about how much audience audio is heard on archive releases: you will be pleased to hear a woman clearly shouting Danny’s name in the left channel at the end of “Gypsy Biker.” You’re welcome.
Later, “Last to Die” soars with pulsating urgency (and more 1979 channeling by Bittan), and the spotlight shines sweetly on Van Zandt for a solo vocal turn towards the end of “Long Walk Home,” which has grown more majestic since Boston ‘07, the last released version from the tour.
In total, Tampa offers 12 setlist changes from Boston, only one of which could be called a rarity, but the allure of this show is a heartfelt performance, not an unusual setlist. Maybe it’s hindsight filtered by the circumstances, but the arrangements of “Atlantic City” and “Brilliant Disguise” sound distinctively restrained, and the band plays warhorses like “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Badlands,” “Out in the Street,” “The Promised Land,” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-out” with marked vigor. As a wise man once said, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
Moments of direct Danny recognition are just as gratifying, with back-to-back versions of “Sandy” and “Growin’ Up” that begin with Bruce warning an accordion-adorned Bittan, “Roy, you better get this one right now, somebody’s watching.” It’s an especially delicate reading, enriched by the Big Man’s baritone saxophone and Stevie’s joyous mandolin licks.
Introducing “Growin’ Up,” Springsteen says, “Alright, one more fairytale,” acknowledging, as he did on Broadway, his own myth-making and Federici’s invaluable role in the tale, set this particular night in Danny’s hometown of Flemington, NJ.
When it comes time to truly say goodbye to Phantom Dan, instead of reaching for an original, Bruce opts for the gospel standard, “I’ll Fly Away,” in its only Springsteen performance ever. The arrangement is a Seeger Sessions-style hootenanny, with Max out from behind the drum kit on tambourine, Garry W. Tallent on upright bass, and Charlie Giordano filling Danny’s big shoes (as he does capably and respectfully all night) on accordion. The sentiment of death as a pathway to freedom from suffering couldn’t be more fitting, as summed up by the song’s second verse:
When the shadows of this life have gone, now I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly away, I’ll fly away
“I’ll Fly Away” provides an emotional epilogue, but the denouement of the evening comes six songs before with “Racing in the Street,” presented in a widescreen print not always screened on recent tours. It is patiently paced, sung with sober richness, and played magnificently on piano by Bittan. Like “Backstreets,” this is as good as “Racing” has been performed in the 2000s.
As vital as Danny was to 40 years of Springsteen history, life goes on. The Tampa show is a rumination on both of those undeniable truths, because the stage is “a place where miracles occur,” as Springsteen said at Federici’s funeral the night before the show. “And those you are with, in the presence of miracles, you never forget. Life does not separate you. Death does not separate you. Those you are with who create miracles for you, like Danny did for me every night, you are honored to be amongst.”