Blinded By the Light
June 9, 2014 | by Andy Battaglia
The Boss comes to Mohegan Sun.
Room 704 at Mohegan Sun, a gleaming casino and resort hotel on an Indian reservation in Connecticut, has a phone in the bathroom, right next to the toilet, and it’s hard not to wonder what kinds of calls might wriggle down the line. Are they orders for room service? Broadcasts of wins and losses at the slots? Wheezing pleas from depleted souls in search of a semblance of breathable fresh air?
The big picture windows in the room, which is appointed with a luxe king bed and an authoritative TV, are of a type that cannot be opened, and any attempt at Mohegan Sun to venture outside among earthly elements is met with a kind of bewildered disdain. The best you can do is to sit out on a bench by the carport, where valets prevail. If you have a car, they will gladly park or retrieve it for you. If you want to simply sit and take in the evening air, they will look at you as if you’re insane.
The valets had a lot of cars to tend a few weeks ago, on the occasion of a pair of concerts by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The Mohegan Sun arena, a two-hour bus ride from New York City, has become a regular tour stop for a long list of momentous musical acts: Prince, Bob Dylan, Jay Z, Taylor Swift. The roster goes on, with more of a caste otherwise accustomed to playing settings bigger than a ten-thousand-seat room.
The Boss very much among them. “Did you lose your money?” he asked upon taking the stage on Sunday, the second part of his two-night stand. “You must’ve lost your money. If you didn’t lose your money, then we wouldn’t be here.” Springsteen, coming clean with the ways casinos use show-biz happenings as a loss-leader for all the other entertainment they shill, somehow sold this as a winsome arrangement for all involved, with a beneficent grin signaling a sense of solidarity that was convincing in spite of the usurious logic at play. “Either way,” he continued, “we’re going to make you feel lucky tonight.”
And so they did. The set launched off with “Roll of the Dice,” played for the first time on Springsteen’s current tour and by no means insignificant in a casino setting. Then “Leap of Faith,” continuing the theme, and then a cover of Van Halen’s “Jump,” ditto. It’s moves like these—shrewd and more clever than they need to be—that make the ritual of a live Springsteen show impressive even to a casual observer. To the much more heavily represented legions of evangelical fans, they represent scripture in set-list form.
The day had not started quite so illuminatingly. Though no more so than others of comparable size (read: huge!), Mohegan Sun is very much a casino, with all attendant bells and baubles and spirit-sucking sights. People in extreme states of solitude shuffled around in great abundance. A woman around eighty pushed a wheelchair in front of her, empty except for her own oxygen tank. Weight, on old and young alike, was not shy about making a show of itself. In the Brookstone, one of many shops arranged along a winding corridor, a couple reclined in electric-massage chairs, their ample bellies jiggling. In the center of it all was a grand waterfall issuing a ceaseless and inescapable torrent of noise—an impediment to processing what the eye could all too clearly see.
Springsteen, inside the arena, offered reprieve. With the E Street Band comprising around eighteen for the night, he wound his way through a twenty-seven-song set that made a good case for rock ’n’ roll as a galvanizing force, no matter its battered standing in the wider world beyond. The Boss controlled it all, sometimes with just a mic, sometimes with a tambourine, more often than not behind a worn Fender Telecaster whose mangled top looked like it might have been the victim of a shark attack.
He has a strange presence, at once no bullshit and all show. It would be nice to mean anything half as much as he seems to mean everything. A little more discernment wouldn’t hurt—Springsteen concerts do not lack for more melodrama and gloss than would be ideal—but it’s easy to see, for those intensely devoted fans, why he makes such a rewarding object of adulation.
Early in the set, after just four songs (however lengthily extended), Springsteen went into the crowd to gather signs bearing requests. As per custom, he gathered a bunch handed up to him, on poster board mostly, and flipped through to find one to his liking. The first was scrawled by a little girl who couldn’t have been more than ten, asking for an oddity: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Springsteen smiled, turned back to the band, and they played it. Not just a couple bars, but a full-throttle five-minute version of it complete with buildups, breakdowns, sax blasts, false endings—everything that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band bring to bear.
It was May 18. A Christmas song with sleigh bells blared in an auditorium in a casino. The little girl must have been ecstatic. That it was only the seventh or eight most absurd occurrence of an otherwise fertile day made it no less special an occasion.
Andy Battaglia is an arts writer in New York. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, The National, Frieze, The Wire, The New Yorker, and more. Find him here.