It's a cool, crisp November evening in Nashville, and yes, Bruce Springsteen knows exactly where he is.
It's a few days after Springsteen committed what he called "every frontman's nightmare" by confusing Michigan with Ohio during an onstage call-out. But if Springsteen gets mixed up occasionally as to which city or state he's about to rock, it's understandable.
Springsteen and his E Street Band have been on a global tour since 2007, through two album cycles, performances at the Super Bowl and presidential inauguration and first-time appearances at several major festivals. Even for an artist who has largely built his career on epic shows, Springsteen and the E Streeters have shifted into a higher gear.
Springsteen has been unusually prolific in the studio as well, releasing albums of new material in 2007 ("Magic") and this year ("Working on a Dream"). At the same time, he's acknowledging his beloved albums of the past by playing full sets of classic recordings in concert. On this night in Nashville his 1975 breakthrough album, "Born to Run," will get the live treatment, to stunning effect.
"This last year, in my point of view, was as great a year as we've ever had," longtime Springsteen manager Jon Landau says backstage at Nashville's Sommet Center. "It's fair to say I've never spent a year with him where he's just been so consistently enthusiastic, energetic. And Bruce is one of those guys who leads by example. When you're working with him, if you're a collaborator, a manager or in the band, you can't be doing less than 1,000 percent. You wouldn't like yourself if you didn't dig as deep as he's digging."
Springsteen is indeed digging deep, but in his dressing room before the show, he laughs it off. "We were talking about it the other day -- we said, 'I don't know if we've been this busy since 1985, or ever,'" he says. "It's just the way things worked out. Some of those things we planned and some of them just happened."
Four nights before this marathon trek is set to end in Buffalo, N.Y., Springsteen isn't fatigued, but excited about his future and that of the E Street Band. What the Boss is most concerned about is his pending show, during which he repeatedly assures the ecstatic crowd that he knows he's in Nashville, Tenn. -- and is thrilled to be there.
Billboard: The last couple of years for you have been pretty exceptional in terms of productivity, both live and in the studio.
Bruce Springsteen: I've been prolific with my songwriting, so I've been able to just get more music out there, which is something I always wanted to do. I found my 50s to be very, very fruitful. The songs came -- I don't want to say easy -- but they came in a continuous flow. I had a lot of things I wanted to write about, so it allowed us to record quite a bit, and then back it up with the touring.
Really, with the end of these shows, we're coming to the end of a decade-long project with the band that really was a tremendous renewal of the power, the strength and the service that our band hopefully provides. It's just been a great 10 years, not just the past couple. A decade ago I wasn't quite sure if I wrote in a style that was suited to the band anymore. I wasn't quite sure how we functioned as a unit. And to sort of see the whole thing just have so much vitality and power and strength, it's just one of the sweetest chapters in our entire time together.
Billboard: I remember as a kid waiting three years for the release of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" in 1978. Why so prolific now?
Springsteen: Looking back, when you look at "Tracks" (1999's boxed set of unreleased songs) I guess I always wrote them. For every record we released there was a record I didn't release. I think at the time I was very interested in shaping what I was about, what I wanted to be. I was very cautious in my releases and I wanted my records to have very strong identities and be about a very particular thing.
The nice thing about where we are now, the rules are much fewer and far between. You can really record anything you like. This past decade I had this huge folk band that I toured and recorded with, and that was a wonderful experience. I toured solo and I loved that, and then to have the (E Street Band) at full power, I can do all these things now and I can really record whatever kind of music comes into my mind. Who you are and what you do is already established, so you don't have those identity concerns that you had back in the day.
Billboard: So you were less cautious about it and just turned it loose?
Springsteen: You become better at discerning your good songs from your not-as-good songs. The writing process is shorter, because you refine what you leave in and what you leave out. You're able to do more work in a compressed amount of time without the quality suffering in any way.
Billboard: Why work the road so hard for so long? Isn't it a grind?
Springsteen: I can't say I experience it as a grind. Of course, you're flying in, you're flying out, you're driving, but I really like the people that I do this with, I like being with them onstage and off, I enjoy the time we spend traveling together, and I enjoy the work that we do.
If you're a sports figure, your prime passes at such a young age. There's no ceiling here. I believe if you come and see us now, you're seeing the best E Street Band that's ever played; it just continues to improve. Not that you don't get tired or fatigued, but no matter how tired you are, when you're onstage during the night there's always this point that you go, "Oh, my God, this is just wonderful."
Billboard: How many songs are in your arsenal?
Springsteen: Since the Magic tour, I think we've done upwards of 150-160 songs, maybe more, because we do a lot of things just once.
Billboard: I was told you played 43 different songs at the Spectrum in Philadelphia over the four nights.
Springsteen: Yeah, we did a different show every night, and a third to half of it was different. If you see us two or three nights in a row at some of these stands that we do, you may hear 35-50 different songs. That's just something we're able to do. It's a combination of the old bar band experience and something I just ask the guys to do. We have a little bit of a set list, and I follow the end of it and I follow the beginning of it. Then there's a little section in there where it just slips and slides.
It depends on what's going on with the audience on any given night and what I think the band can pull off. It allows the fans to have input into the show in a way that just pumps the blood into everything and enlivens the evening. We've done stuff by the Ramones, the Clash and Tommy James.
Billboard: No one in your camp has said anything about it, but this tour has felt really celebratory, with so many milestones. Does this feel like it might be the last run for the E Street Band?
Springsteen: No. We don't even really think of it. The only thing that came into my mind was a decade ago, when I hit 50, I was onstage in Philadelphia, and you realize, "OK, this is exactly where I want to be right now. I wouldn't want to be any place else." You realize there is a finiteness to it.
We're playing to an audience now that will outlive us. There will be a seed of an audience out there tonight that's just going to outlive the band. But at the same time, the band is very, very powerful right now. And part of the reason it's powerful is that it's carrying a lot of very strong cumulative history. You come and you see 35 years of a speeding train going down the track and you're going to get to be on the front end of it. We look forward to many, many more years of touring and playing and enjoying it.
Billboard: It has to be very instinctive now after all these years.
Springsteen: They're paying for you to be live, present in full, right tonight at this moment. I think there's always this sense of, if you're 15, 19, 24 or 60, you come and you say, "There's Clarence Clemons and I get to stand next to him like I did 35 years ago." That's the continuity of just still being there, and for us and for the audience that's a powerful thing. It threads your life together and that's what we wanted to do -- we wanted to make music that threaded through your life as well as ours.
Billboard: Some bands crumble under that sort of weight of common experience.
Springsteen: It depends on who you are and how you see it. Some of it is just DNA, your personality and how you were built. This was just something that we were built to do in a particular way. The difficult parts of it took its toll on different people. Every band has had personal difficulties, ups and downs, people fell into bad things, got out of bad things, maybe not as much as some other bands, but we've had our share. We spent a decade apart, and so all of those things are a part of our experience, too.
But I think, particularly when we got back together in the late '90s, everyone realized, "This has been a special part of my life and I want it to continue to be so." And all of the incidental baggage completely sort of got left behind.
I think the band has a sort of unspoken code where people looked out for the other guy. We lost one member through illness (longtime organ and accordion player Danny Federici died of melanoma in 2008), but, hey, that's something that happens to you around a certain age. What I was most proud of was my guys were alive 35 years down the road, in good shape. Clarence struggled with some physical things for carrying around all that "Big Man" for all these years, but he's done great on this tour. That was something I was very, very proud of -- the band was intact.
Billboard: What haven't you done that you'd still like to do?
Springsteen: What I want to do is what I'm doing, except I want to do it a little better tonight than I did last night. I want to write some better songs, some more good songs, some songs that feel vital to mine and my audience's life today. We've made records over the past 10 years that have found as integral a place in my fans' lives as any of the records from my past days. You come out and a lot of those young kids don't start singing along until they hear "The Rising." I'm just looking forward to doing what I'm doing, looking forward to going out there in an hour and looking into those faces like I've done over the past 35 years.