By Erik Flannigan
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN, March 20, 2008
Bruce Springsteen called Danny Federici “one of the pillars of [the] sound” of the E Street Band. Clarence Clemons’ spotlighted saxophone solos in “Born to Run” and “Badlands” may be more iconic, but take away Danny’s glockenspiel on the high end, organ on the low, and both songs lose precious layers of their musical magic.
Great players have a signature sound, and Federici’s organ, glockenspiel, and accordion parts carried his mark. I remember listening to Tunnel of Love for the first time in 1987, fully aware it was a Bruce solo recording with minimal involvement from the E Street Band. But when “Two Faces” came on, there was no doubt who was playing the organ solo.
The start of the Magic tour in 2007 marked 32 years of the core E Street Band line-up of Bittan, Clemons, Federici, Tallent, Van Zandt, and Weinberg, then augmented by Patti Scialfa, Nils Lofgren and Soozie Tyrell. As the first US leg wound to a close in November, it was announced that Danny would take a temporary leave of absence to receive treatment for melanoma. Charlie Giordano from the Sessions Band capably filled in, starting with the European leg that ended the year.
When the next US leg started back up in the spring of 2008, the chances of a full recovery by Federici had diminished. But when the tour rolled into Indianapolis, Danny summoned the energy to play with his bandmates one last time. A month later, he passed away in a New York City hospital room, at only 58 years of age.
Indianapolis 3/20/08 is both a celebration of and a goodbye to Phantom Dan Federici. He performs on eight songs in the show, and the emotion is palpable each moment he is on stage.
The set gets off to a roaring start with a ripping version of “Night” into “Radio Nowhere.” Later, a sharp “Prove It All Night” carries through to “Gypsy Biker,” for my money the most fully realized song from Magic on the concert stage. Both Soozie Tyrell and Stevie Van Zandt contribute sublime backing vocals, and the drama of lyrics and music coalesce like a long-lost River outtake, heightened by the crescendo of guitar solos that end the song.
The tour debut of “Rendezvous” is an appreciated addition, sounding spry and fresh, and Soozie has another lovely vocal turn on a terrific “Because the Night.” The show has hit its stride, and “She’s the One” is the next to impress. The Born to Run classic has had its share of meaningful resurrections, notably on the Tunnel of Love Express tour in 1988 and here as a Magic tour staple in a pacey, faithful arrangement.
After an always-entertaining “Livin’ in the Future,” we go back to the past. Bruce welcomes Danny to the stage, who resumes his position, stage right, in a graceful handoff from Giordano. An optimistic “The Promised Land” comes first, then Bruce yells, “turn him up!” as Danny weaves the swampy “Spirit in the Night” organ prelude on his own. Perhaps it’s just hindsight, but the gravity of the occasion feels present in the band’s somewhat measured reading of “Spirit.” And who could blame them?
“We can’t let him get away without playing this one,” Springsteen announces ahead of “Sandy.” “We’ll start, just Danny and me.” Sweet accordion swirls around guitar, and the Shore scene comes to life. The deeper meaning of the night comes fully to the fore when Springsteen sings, “For I may never see you again.” A graceful performance of bittersweet beauty.
Federici exits (“He’ll be back!”) and the set returns to focused form through the ominous “Devil’s Arcade,” “The Rising,” “Last to Die” (another River outtake that never was), and a cathartic “Long Walk Home,” before closing with a rousing “Badlands.”
Phantom Dan rejoins for a five-song encore that opens with “Backstreets” dedicated to Danny. Like the aforementioned “Born to Run” and “Badlands,” Federici’s organ part is central to the tonal pathos of the song, which Springsteen sings with tender conviction in a truly compelling reading.
“Kitty’s Back” saunters in from the alley to display the virtuosity of the E Street Band and the depth of its roots back to the early ‘70s. Danny gets a fitting turn in the solo spotlight, but the performance isn’t solely about him—it is a celebration of the extraordinary band he was a crucial part of. As retro as “Kitty’s Back” is, it sure sounds vital in 2008, in what is one of the best performances of the song in the post-Reunion era.
Glockenspiel rings clear as a bell in a passionate “Born to Run,” ended neatly by Van Zandt’s, five-note descending coda before Bruce rolls exuberantly into “Dancing in the Dark.” For the final song of the night, “American Land,” all three E Street keyboard players share the stage, with Roy and Charlie accordion-dueling up front, and Phantom Dan holding it down from his keyboard perch, his traditional station for so many years.
Sadly, E Street would go on to lose another great, with the Big Man passing just a few years later in 2011. Which only makes the Indianapolis reunion of Danny Federici and his blood brothers all the more meaningful.