Springsteen's set for 'hard times' wows Bonnaroo

MANCHESTER, Tenn. — Bruce Springsteen astonished the Bonnaroo crowd with a passionate three-hour performance, offering sweat and rock ‘n’ roll to inspire, he said, in “hard times.”

Springsteen was the Saturday night headliner at the Tennessee music festival, where Phish was headlining both Friday and Sunday. It was a rare festival performance for Springsteen, who said it was only the second for him and the E Street Band.

His inexperience didn’t show. After all, headlining Bonnaroo is only the third biggest concert Springsteen has played this year after the Super Bowl halftime show and President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

Springsteen was running into the crowd — no easy feat on Bonnaroo’s massive main stage — before the first song, “Badlands,” was through. Throughout the evening, Springsteen would frequently leap into the crowd, whom he asked: “Is there anybody alive at Bonnaroo?”

“We didn’t come all the way down to the beautiful Tennessee hills just to rock the house,” said Springsteen early in the performance. “We came down here tonight because we want to build a house. That’s right. Right here in this field. … A house of love. A house of hope.”

With his full band backing him — including both Max Weinberg and his 18-year-old son, Jay, switching off on drums — Springsteen launched into a performance that he pledged would show “the power of music.”

The recession was never far from his mind.

Springsteen’s songs of down-and-out characters and blue collar life had particular resonance. With songs like “Jersey Girl,” ”Johnny 99″ and “Youngstown,” Springsteen painted the current economic landscape. On “Youngstown” — off his 1995 album “Ghost of Tom Joad” — he sang from the perspective of a coal mine worker: “Once I made you rich/ Rich enough to forget my name.”

For the first of several encores, he sang Stephen Foster’s Civil War-era “Hard Times Come Again No More,” introducing it as a song that has “stayed written” for more than 150 years because of its timelessness.

“You pick up the newspaper and you look out and you seen millions of jobs here in the country lost. Hundreds of thousands of jobs every month,” said Springsteen. “If anybody ever told me I’d be part owner of General Motors, I wouldn’t believe it.

“But you see things that I never thought I’d see. There’s many, many folks struggling out there.”

Springsteen brought the show to a climactic finish, playing crowd favorites “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” ”Rosalita (Come out Tonight)” ”Glory Days” and “Dancing in the Dark.”

Bonnaroo and other mega-festivals today aren’t known for political discourse. But Springsteen wasn’t the only one with the economy on his mind Saturday.

Jenny Lewis, the singer-songwriter who sometimes fronts the band Rilo Kiley, performed earlier in the day, introduced a new song titled “Big Way,” noting that she comes from “a state that’s totally bankrupt”: California. Lewis sang, “They’re gonna get you in a big way.”

Lewis was joined on stage for one number (“Carpetbaggers”) by Elvis Costello, who also performed solo Saturday.

Other acts Saturday included the Decemberists, Nine Inch Nails, the Mars Volta, Of Montreal, Raphael Saadiq, Booker T, Bon Iver, Robyn Hitchcock and Allen Toussaint. One stage — dubbed “Tennessee Shines” — hosted bluegrass all day with acts such as the David Grisman Quintet and the Del McCoury Band.

After torrential lightning storms Thursday and humidity Friday, Saturday was the sunniest day yet at the eighth annual Bonnaroo, which concludes Sunday night with Phish’s second performance.

None got the benefit of the good weather more than Wilco, who played a scintillating sunset performance, running the gamut of their earlier material as well as songs off their upcoming disc, “Wilco (The Album).”

The band played on the main stage before Springsteen, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy could already feel the Boss’s presence.

“If anybody boos us tonight, we have a built in excuse,” said Tweedy. “They’re just yelling ‘Bruuuuuce.’”

Jack Coyle/The Associated Press