You can have Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. And Adrian Peterson and LeBron James. I'll cast my vote for world's greatest athlete for Bruce Springsteen.
Preposterous? A 63-year-old rocker with fitness-center biceps and tight-butt jeans? Well, imagine Bolt or Phelps competing in 25 races back to back with nary a minute between contests. Or imagine Peterson carrying the ball on every single play in a football game -- without halftime or a chance to sit out while the defense takes the field, or James having the ball on every play to try to make a basket all by himself (he's tried that, hasn't he?).
Peterson may be known as "All Day" but Springsteen is "Prove It All Night," which is what he did Sunday at the Xcel Energy Center -- over the course of 25 songs and three hours.
Not only was he an extraordinary athlete, but Springsteen was also a singer, songwriter, guitarist, bandleader, showman, ham, preacher, politician (he shook more hands per minute than any candidate running for office), comedian (he joked about having two streets in St. Paul named for him but the names expired after his Sunday show even though he's playing again Monday), choir director, daredevil (he body-surfed from mid-arena to the stage) and, most certainly, quarterback.
In fact, the Boss -- and the concert -- was at his best when he called audibles. He asked for requests from the fans and grabbed their handmade signs emblazoned with handwritten song titles. He held up "Saving Up," a tune he'd written for the first solo album by Clarence Clemons, longtime saxophonist for the E Street Band who died last year. It took him three attempts to figure out what key to do the song in, then he taught the chorus parts to his four backup singers and the horn lines to his five-man horn section. The expanded, 16-piece E Street Band winged it, with Springsteen doing a soulful strut across the stage and his raspy growl ringing loud and joyfully. Then he audibled into "Open All Night," from his "Nebraska" album, and used this old-time rocker with New Orleans horns to rock the joint.
Clearly, the momentum of the evening had shifted. The rest of the night felt like a series of two-minute drills, filled with urgency, purpose and elation. The celebrative "Darlington County" moved into the requested "Two Hearts," which oozed soulful sweetness. How could you top the triumphant pairing of "Badlands" and "Thunder Road," two 1970s Springsteen classics that felt like back-to-back touchdowns? Well, you encore with 1975's "Born To Run," which he always performs, and 1973's beloved "Rosalita," which he pulls out every once in a while, followed by the party classic "Dancing in the Dark," which became the night's highlight because the Boss invited onstage a white-haired woman who was celebrating her 88th birthday and wanted to dance with E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt (that's what her sign said). She got her wish. And that's the Springsteenian equivalent of a Lambeau Leap.
While many of the 18,000 fans will probably remember all those exhilarating rock 'n' roll moments, Springsteen came to St. Paul with the intention of balancing earnestness with abandon, the philosophical with the fun. He is featuring songs from his current "Wrecking Ball" album, which explores the gap between American reality and the American dream. The opening "We Take Care of Our Own" and the song "Wrecking Ball" were filled with vein-popping intensity, sudden-death urgency and church-choir passion.
One of Springsteen's themes was about loss, death and grief. He dedicated "Spirits in the Night," which was on his 1973 debut, to ghosts, which he said scared us as kids but now become friendly reminders of our dearly departed. That was an early, eerie prelude to the finale, "10th Avenue Freeze-Out," a joyous rocker from 1975 that included a mid-song video tribute to the late Clemons, who was not only the heart and soul of the E Street Band but also it's only bona fide athlete, who tried out as an NFL lineman.