Bruce was definitely standing on it, with a brisk River set where the pace never waned. At times it felt a little rushed, but the overall impression was that he and the band were simply letting her unwind. Vocally, Springsteen put everything on the table, from "you've been judged" in "Jackson Cage" to "pretty baby!" in "Drive All Night," and to say he was in fine voice doesn't cut it. If on many nights the takeaway from the River set is the E Street Band as precision auto, tonight was a reminder of just who sits in the driver's seat, and what a fine-tuned, high-powered instrument his voice is.
Not that you'd ever expect an uncommitted performance from Bruce. But his introduction of The River on Monday gave an extra reason why this 20-song sequence was delivered with such force: because it could be the last. Springsteen put a finer point on Saturday night's remarks about these Brooklyn shows being the final runs through the album sequence: "Tonight this is going to be our last official performance of The River from start to finish.... We're gonna open up our setlists over in Europe. So let's go down to the river one more time and see what we find." Surely there will continue to be speculation among fans, especially with at least one European promoter continuing to promise The River in full. But it seems clear that Bruce has decided to unlock these locked-down setlists. What we take from that "last official performance" statement is that it could happen again; Bruce could call that audible any time he wants. But it'll no longer be a guarantee.
And so, at this last scheduled U.S. show, a River sequence that left nothing in the tank, from Bruce's powerhouse vocals to his windmills on "Two Hearts." Roy Bittan hit the keys with that same intensity on the "Point Blank" intro, as Max Weinberg gave his cymbals the beating of a lifetime. There was just nothing rote about the performance, even the 37th time through. Springsteen was still tweaking certain portions, like the introduction to another breathtaking "Independence Day": "I was 24 or 25 years old and trying to talk to my father. He was never that vocal, so I thought, I'll write him a song. I'll write him a song."
Governor Chris Christie sang along (from his seat) on "Hungry Heart, asses were shaken (because it was "ass-shakin' time") on "Ramrod." Led by Bruce, the full-throated chant of the crowd practically turned "The Price You Pay" into "Badlands," though it's the choral vocals of the E Street Band's full front line on that one that still wows the most. "Drive All Night" built to an especially thrilling, heartwrenching climax, and before you knew it: "That's The River!" During the ovation, a friend said to me, "We may never see that again."
But even assuming, as Garry Tallent tweeted the day before, the River album will be played in Europe "Not in toto and not in sequence," that does open the door for a different kind of E Street magic. And as if to show us just what "opening up our setlist" looks like, Monday's post-River B-set was full of wildcards, an extremely rare stretch on this tour where you just didn't know what was coming next. A massive sign collection got underway after "Wreck on the Highway," and if you figured that Bruce would just find signs for songs he planned to play anyway, a placard for "Boom Boom" put the lie to that. "Alright," said Bruce, "An unusual request! John Lee Hooker!" He was grinning ear to ear as the E Street Band quickly found their muscle memory on this Tunnel of Love Express Tour standard, unrehearsed but a reminder that you still can't stump the E Street Band. "Come on, Professor!" Bruce hollered, and we went twice around with Roy soloing on the keys. Super-tight, they finished by stopping on a dime. Prince would be proud.
Throughout "Boom Boom," a sign for "Loose End" leaned against the drumriser in the background, a bit of a taunt — after all our yearnings for outtakes that came out so rarely, would he really grab that one next? You bet: "Steve Van Zandt's number one favorite right here!" It was a fantastic performance of a fantastic song, with Stevie killing the harmonies as he has since January, that we also hopes help confirm: these lesser-known songs do work live. There was no dip in energy. And if with this outting we're celebrating the River era, and the Ties That Bind box — and, make no mistake, celebrating Steve — then those outtakes are just too good to keep kicking to the curb.
So we had a classic cover and a River outtake instead of the setlisted "Candy's Room" and "She's the One"... surely now we'd get back to business as usual? Nope, another sign: "I've been Blinded By the Light! I'm 10 years old, and I know all the words. Try me!" Springsteen couldn't resist: "Are you sure? Are you sure? Get on up here!" The girl, Diana, hopped up and made good on her claim — no small feat, given that the songwriter himself admittedly couldn't do it. "That's impressive," he told her. "I don't know the words, I read 'em myself!" This was an abridged version of the song, with first only Bruce strumming lightly to accompany her, then the rest of the band coming in softly — after a few verses, he laughed, "Alright, you convinced me!" He gave her a hug and autographed her sign.
And then: "Trapped." Debuted with the E Street Band in 1981, this song harkens back to the original River Tour as much as any of Springsteen's choices so far, from "Here She Comes Walkin'" to the regular appearance of "Because the Night." "Trapped" never fails to work a crowd into a frenzy, and with its River-era connection it's surprising that this one hasn't come out sooner. (If there was any disgruntlement in the crowd at this point, it was from hardcores who had traveled around the country hoping for this kind of set: "He waits until the last night to do this??")
"Badlands" and a breakneck "My Love Will Not Let You Down" brought us back to setlisted tracks, but considering what they do to an audience, it was just an extension of the frenzy. "My Love" is a great example of an outtake that, with repitition, has become a much-loved live cut — you can't win if you don't play (it)! — with Bruce, Steve, and Nils cranking on their guitars in unision at center stage, and Max performing inhuman feats on fills and breakdowns. Cheers came from the crowd as the whole thing kicked back in.
Max turned in an astoundingly physical performance all night, as The River set has come to require. If this night was a victory lap at all, it was for the E Street Band, returning to the very space where they had been welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Inducted during the E Street Orchestra era, they returned to the Barclays Center stripped back down to their core, all of them shining individually and as a unit after three dozen full performances of 1980's magnum opus, perhaps the height of the classic E Street sound. And on one more audible, "Prove It All Night," Springsteen threw the song's monster solo to the hero of The River, a rare chance for Stevie to have that moment in the spotlight. But don't cry for Nils: as the encore opened with "Purple Rain," in the same slot where "Rebel Rebel" appeared as a tribute to David Bowie on this tour's opening night, Lofgren and his guitar once again provided a transcendent moment.
Brooklyn ate up the encores, all hands in the air for "Shout," followed by a bonus "Bobby Jean" for good measure, saying good luck and goodbye.... for now. Springsteen thanked the crowd for two great nights before a familiar farewell: "We love ya, we'll be seein' ya!" Count on it. The European River Tour begins May 14 in Barcelona.
Springsteen and the E Street Band walked on stage underneath purple light, the first sign that the show would mark Prince's passing. Band members wore purple: ties, shirts, and scarves. And their body language conveyed sadness: did the band actually wave and smile as usual? That's lost to the fog and YouTube. Once they took their places, Bruce began a tribute to a departed musician, his third this year.
The take was straight down the middle, heartfelt, and cathartic: the big question got answered early, driven home with a Nils Lofgren solo that sounded and felt like Prince himself might play, or as close as anyone else could get, anyway. "Purple Rain" was an obvious choice, but it fit perfectly: it was Saturday night in Brooklyn after all, and if one song had to reach every last person in attendance, this was it (though a fan's suggestion of "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" goes straight to the top of covers the E Street Band could easily make their own).
"Meet Me in the City" came next, played in slot two for the first time, and the musicians barreled through it. Springsteen skipped the usual mid-"Meet" greeting and vamp, speaking first after it concluded. Sounding markedly subdued, he dedicated the evening's music to Prince. "There's never been any better," Springsteen said, citing his comrade's skills as a bandleader, showman, songwriter, and arranger. "Whenever I'd catch one of his shows, I'd always leave humbled. So, I'm going to miss that. And we're going to miss him." (Springsteen also said that Brooklyn marks "the last two nights we're officially playing The River from start to finish," which leaves much to conjecture.)
The River performance was another good one. Barclays Center is enormous, and its floor-to-ceiling dimension must be one of the taller arena configurations anywhere. But the sound is very good (hat tip, Jay Z!) and the place wasn't just full, it sounded full. Springsteen certainly heard the audience singing along all night, and not just its customary parts. It was a full-throated crowd that helped turn a mournful start, in fact, into a remarkable, celebratory rock show. Tempos were up a bit: "Cadillac Ranch" moved closer to the fast lane, and when Bruce didn't have spring in his step, he was on his knees, finishing "Crush on You" down front with an assist from a fan who held the mic so he could play guitar and conduct it to a close.
Purple light appeared throughout the show. It accented "Point Blank," which began with Roy Bittan, Garry Tallent, and Max Weinberg forming their nightly power trio. That song felt especially dark, then went dark, then went red as Steve Van Zandt provided a backdrop for Springsteen's vocal.
"Stolen Car" featured no introduction, and while one could hear Charles Giordano's part just fine, Roy Bittan's piano could have used a boost. It was an odd thing on E Street: the Professor sounds high in the mix on "Ramrod," for example, but not on "Stolen Car." The part everyone did hear loud and clear: toward the end of "Drive All Night," Springsteen delivered one line ("dry your eyes, pretty baby!") with an intensity that shot through the arena. That moment moved the number up a level and will make for an interesting listen on playback. More purple light shrouded "Wreck on the Highway," the one time the music felt rushed. As a finished track, it closes the album gracefully. But in concert, it has an unenviable task, having to close the 20-song cycle. Nonetheless, as Springsteen talked about time, doing good work, and walking alongside mortality, it conveyed more meaning than anyone thought likely, and showed its durability.
April 20 / Royal Farms Arena / Baltimore, MD
Let's start with the good news. The band was playing quite strongly the last time I saw them just down I-95 in DC in January, but as I had hoped, they've picked up speed and momentum since then. Max is always a machine, but I don't remember ever seeing him so intense. Steve, as many have noted, is having a lot of fun stepping up on this tour. And Jake, having earned his spurs in 2012-2014, was full of confidence. Bruce himself is also more mobile than he was in DC, even on some of the slower numbers.
The rockers that seemed to be a little lagging at the beginning of the tour are now being delivered with the kind of adrenaline and energy we've come to expect. Two of my favorites tonight, "Crush on You" and "Cadillac Ranch," have a little extra grungy muscle and encore-levels of energy — I daresay these songs have never sounded better. “Independence Day” sounds smoother than it did a few months ago — I think Charlie has really gotten the hang of this one. The most emotional moment of the evening came right before "I Wanna Marry You," when Bruce brought an ecstatic couple onstage for a wedding proposal. "You got your courage up!" Bruce observed to the hopeful man, who went down on one knee and was rewarded with a tearful but clear Yes. Not the first time this has happened at a concert, but a very special moment.
The last third of The River is challenging for the crowd, due to the higher number of slow songs. Bruce counteracts this, in part, by cranking up the tempo on a more anthemic "The Price You Pay," but there is no way to rush through "Fade Away," "Stolen Car," or "Drive All Night." With multiple obscure ballads so close together, inevitably the attention spans of crowd members varies. Whether Bruce will continue to play the full album live, once he heads overseas and to larger venues, remains to be seen.
Clearly this is not a tour that rewards multiple show attendance in the same way many of us are used to— we've been spoiled over the years — and while in good spirits, Bruce was in no mood to encourage request signs tonight. Indeed, at this point in the tour it would be naïve for any fan to get their hopes up for a rarity-studded setlist. But as the band surged through another strong but predictable post-River set, what struck me most was just how incredibly similar all these E Street Band live warhorses are: serious, earnest, heavy, dense rock, with precious little roll. In any other setlist, these thunderous classics would be interspersed with lighter, more lively numbers, but so many of these had already been performed as part of The River. So in its own strange way, the awkwardly paced show reminded me of one of the great things about the album being celebrated, The River's fun rock 'n' roll songs counteracting the ballast of its more serious side.
After a slew of "important" rock songs, the high-energy encore with all the house lights on felt like a huge cathartic release. "Dancing in the Dark" saw Bruce bring up first one dancing partner and then, right afterwards, a group of eight enthusiastic young dancers, some of whom were surely up past their bedtime. And I connected more with "Shout" this time than I have ever before – perhaps being closer to the stage helped with that, although it seemed like the whole arena was up and rocking.
I left the show with the usual physical exhaustion, but without my usual yearning for more shows. In trying to recapture the glory days for himself and for us, Springsteen is certainly delivering far, far more than "boring stories" from the stage. But this time, he may be taking us on one nostalgia trip too far. Your mileage may vary, and as we're only approaching the end of the first leg, there is still time for the tour to go in new directions.
And thus started the love affair between Bruce and the young-skewing audience that lasted the duration of the nearly three-hour and thirty-minute concert, during which time a shocking lack of asses were planted in seats in favor of properly rocking. Bruce had a blast with the kids all night long, from pointing out a group of bros wearing American flag bandanas and losing their minds in the back of the pit, to a group of shirtless bros similarly losing their minds way up behind the stage. Lest you think he ignored the young female members of the crowd, Springsteen granted a "Dancing in the Dark" sign request that read, "20 years old. 20 E Street shows. Dance with me?" Though she was in hostile territory given her Indiana University hat, no one could be too upset with her — she was also the one who brought the "I Wanna Be With You" sign to Columbus. Not a bad week for the Hoosier.
The crowd's raucous response to such E Street staples as "Out in the Street" only reaffirmed Bruce's more mainstream approach to the concert; he took a noticeable moment before "Crush On You" to look around the arena and appreciate the vocal participation that had just showered down upon the Band. Even though it's been a nightly highlight on this tour, the fact that "Crush On You" was greeted with a relatively tepid reaction from the crowd was the first indicator that this wouldn't be a night for deep cuts (an apropos "Lion's Den" did not rear its regal head). The audience was sufficiently respectful during the side three and four ballads, but it definitely sounded like a majority were waiting to revel in Bruce's "greatest hits."
And once The River came to its hauntingly beautiful conclusion, he gave the crowd exactly what they wanted: his greatest hits, with 10 of the 12 songs in the B-set having appeared on his more comprehensive hits album The Essential Bruce Springsteen. After some of the more obscure tunes on The River, the crowd threw themselves into "Badlands," chanting non-stop, and seemed to love finally recognizing every song. For the first time on the tour, "The Rising," perhaps Bruce's greatest modern hit, was not followed by one of the greatest hits of them all, "Thunder Road." Instead, Bruce referred to "the biggest sign of the tour," which was a collection of 10 individual, neon green, human-sized letters spelling out J-U-N-G-L-E-L-A-N-D held by 10 different people in the pit. Amusingly, being respectful members of the crowd, they had put away the letters by this point in the show. Bruce gave them a few seconds to scramble the sign back in order, but spared little time in launching into a soaring performance of this masterpiece. A deafeningly loud, "down in Junglelaaaand!" rivaled the decibel levels that greeted the song's tour premiere back in Philadelphia (the overwhelming ovations from the crowd throughout the night were probably due to a combination of both the Lions and the Brotherly Love travelers in attendance).
"Born in the U.S.A." is still a rarity on this tour, even though it's now opened the encores at three consecutive shows (perhaps warming it up for Europe, where it seems to be played a heck of a lot more). Even so, it felt like an audible tonight, with "Born to Run" teed up before Bruce called out the change in honor of the bandana-clad bros in the pit. It's undeniably a fiery way to light the initial encores fuse. From the opening synth chords to Max's ferocious final drum solo that captures the intensity of the song's righteous fury, "Born in the U.S.A." basically blows the roof off the place throughout. Combined with "Born to Run," it's an explosive one-two punch that clearly communicates we've hit the homestretch.
After Bruce dedicated the final go-'round of "Shout" to the rafters — "One more time for these guys with their shirts off back here!" — he busted out a nightly dance that he does, raising his guitar and doing a little walk-in-place shuffle while constantly rotating to face the four corners of the arena. Jake Clemons, who the crowd absolutely adored all night (especially during "Jungleland"), decided to switch things up and join in. When the Boss realized he had a new partner in crime, he cracked up and beamed the biggest smile. This increasing reciprocity of energy between Bruce and Jake perfectly encapsulated the relationship between the performers and the youthful Penn State crowd all night long. Though it may have appeared like it was the same old show on paper (true story: there hasn't been a tour premiere since MSG's rescheduled concert back in March), the inexhaustible energy overflowing out of the Bryce Jordan Center really made it a special evening. As Bruce exclaimed at the end of the show, "Wow — what a great audience. We loved every minute of it."
April 14 / The Palace / Auburn Hills, MI
Springsteen really is in fine voice on this stretch of the tour. Whatever issues there were might have been with winter colds earlier in the tour were not in evidence the last two nights. And while it now seems to be taken for granted, the overall sound for this tour is some of the best Thrill Hill Inc. has had to offer in a long while. Such things are always subjective, but roaming the venue and finding a number of vantage points throughout the night, I was struck by the clarity and mix, which was superb. Sonically, it also hit me that, while this show is less of the E Street Orchestra of recent tours and more E Street Band, the sheer wall of sound is more impressive with seven or eight fewer singers/musicians on stage.
Things seemed pretty scary for a short while when Bruce was crowd surfing during "Hungry Heart." At one point it sounded like Bruce was saying "Shiiiiiit!" as the surf got rough in the middle of the pit. When Jake pulled him onto the stage, Bruce leaned in his ear for a bit, telling him about whatever happened, with Jake laughing along. What else caught my ear and eye during the River presentation: The moment in "I Wanna Marry You" when there's that half-second pause before Bruce's achingly beautiful "Oh Darling!" and the band crashes in behind him to bring the song to its finale? Wonderful. And the "don't cry now" backing vocals by the E Street Band and Jake's sweet saxophone solo during "Drive All Night" are simply gorgeous.
Following "Wreck on the Highway," Bruce announced, "Let's kick it a little bit now." And kick it they did, launching into "Badlands" and lighting up The Palace crowd. From there it was one classic after another, with the emotional highlight being "Backstreets." Charlie's organ part and Bruce's lead guitar drove the song; there was a moment during Bruce's solo near the end when the stage was bathed in a green light, and for 15 seconds it felt like 1978 again.
Bruce tipped his hat to the volunteers from Gleaners Community Food Bank, out on the front lines and accepting donations at the show. And then he touched on possible legislation before the Michigan state government:
A ferocious "Born in the U.S.A." followed, in the set since Bruce's North Carolina announcement.
Throughout the show, no one was singing and jumping, and pumping their fist as much as Bob Seger, located stage left. In 1980, when The River tour opened in Ann Arbor, Seger was there, too — at the Crisler Arena on 10/3/80 Bruce said he'd "admired [Seger's] music for a long time" and called it a "thrill" to bring him up for "Thunder Road." Some 36 years later it didn't appear that history would repeat, but during "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," while everyone was focused on Bruce on the back catwalk, Steven and Garry called the Michigan native up. Seger stayed on stage playing tambourine and singing with Steven for the "Shout" finale, when Bruce included him in the intros and called him "one of my musical heroes."
The River portion continues to be the jewel of the night, each band member contributing to the whole of the arrangement. What shows might have lost in spontaneity they've gained in highlighting the musicality of the E Street Band.
Tonight my focus was squarely on the contribution of Max Weinberg, on the eve of his 65th birthday. In the mid-'80s a friend of mine remarked that Max was the "most deliberate drummer in rock 'n' roll." He seemed to insinuate that Max was more metronome than backbeat. While I didn't agree, I knew where he was coming from. And that comment also came long before his time on the Conan O'Brien show, where playing every single night and in a different style, he picked up a swing and a swagger that has served Bruce well since 1999. When the band reformed and Bruce talked about E Street playing better than before, I always thought that applied most to Mr. Weinberg. Max services the song and not his own ego. When the band members come out on stage each night, waving to the crowd, watch Max: he literally nods his head, makes a sharp right, and jumps up on that drum throne which he doesn't leave except to take a five-second stretch during Bruce's harmonica intro on "Thunder Road." And while all of the band has to take it up a notch after the River portion of the show, I don't know if anyone else is as physical as Bruce night after night like the Mighty One. Bravo Max!
Columbus was full of signs, not much different than any other city. But in most other cities, save Seattle, request signs haven’t had much of an effect. The River gets played each night, and then a pretty specific set of "hits" that have some rotation, but nothing that signs have significantly altered. Maybe Columbus is the show that will change that. Following "Wreck on the Highway" Bruce asked for requests: "Whattaya got there? Let me see your signs!" Bruce then pointed off to Little Steven's side of the stage and called two ten-year-old boys up. They forgot their signs, and he sent them back to get them. "What do these say?" remarked Bruce. "Growin' Up," replied one of the boys. "My Mom is so pissed I'm here tonight" read the other. And before you know it, a height-appropriate microphone appeared and Bruce sang "Growin' Up" with two young fans. What it lacked in pure performance was made up for with a wonderful interaction between Bruce and his younger fans.
Almost immediately Bruce referenced another sign he saw while on the back catwalk earlier during the show. "20 Years Old, My 20th Show, I Wanna Be With You." With that the band tore into one of the finest outtakes from Bruce's canon. Previously played on this tour only once, and clearly not rehearsed, it wasn't exactly a refined performance. The band chugged along, and Jake's solo was missed well into the instrumental. Springsteen and the band were good-natured about it, and Bruce was screaming for more cowbell. Getting towards the end of the song it was fun watching Steven try to conduct Max and the rest of the E Streeters. It was ragged but right. I'd take that off-the-cuff performance of such a treasure any night.
"That young lady right there is asking for this," Bruce said before tearing into a white-hot "Cover Me." And Bruce referenced a beautifully well-lit request sign for "Born in the U.S.A." before launching into the anthem, another song only played once prior on the River Tour. Again it came back to Max, really tearing it up during the "Born in the U.S.A." drum solo and bringing the song to its fiery conclusion.
So is this the start of a more open dialogue regarding what gets played after The River? Let's head on up to Auburn Hills Thursday night to find out.
Bruce worked the crowd early and often during the River set, frequently playing to stage right and left during "The Ties that Bind," "Sherry Darling" and "Jackson Cage." As has been noted here however, The River is a difficult ask for the casual fan, and that left many upper-deck asses in their seats during the album performance, despite Bruce's best efforts to engage them.
Of course, Springsteen could have helped his own cause by name-checking the correct state. Twice he called out to "Kansas," perhaps not aware that the Kansas City he was performing in was on the Missouri side. But the man worked hard to bring the crowd to life during barnburners like "Out in the Street," "Cadillac Ranch," and "I'm a Rocker," reaching out to fans down front, heading to the second stage, using everything in his arsenal to reach the nosebleeds. The crowd gradually engaged with Springsteen throughout the night; it was just a slow burn.
Upper decks and wrong states notwithstanding, the band was firing on all cylinders, with Bruce in fine voice and the front of house mix sublime. Crowd response began to swell in the lower sections during "Hungry Heart," singing the first verse with great aplomb. Bruce's crowd surf was a larger concern, however, as the pit wasn't nearly filled enough along his typical pathway back to the stage. Sensing that potential danger, Bruce had to summon people from left and right sides of the pit to ensure his trip was a safe one.
There were no real surprises in The River performance beyond the return of the true "roadhouse" version of "Ramrod," which reemerged in Dallas and feels like an old friend has come home. Patti's absence also left some holes in the set's harmonies. But the real magic of the album performance is the details. Perhaps no longer shackled by the pressure of setlists made up on the spot or playing by the seat of their pants, the E Street Band can focus on subtleties and fine points that bring more power and emotional focus to the album. "Crush on You" is muscular and in-your face, "Independence Day" places you in the midst of that father/son conversation, "Drive All Night," with its powerful "don't cry now" refrain that builds to a heart-wrenching climax… these all have a power that really can't be captured in an album recording. While Bruce had intended to capture the essence of an E Street performance with The River, well… you still kind of just need to be there, because the two don't compare.
The biggest takeaway of the night is the presence and importance of Steven Van Zandt to these performances. While this is perhaps an obvious statement for obvious reasons, the Kansas City show, for me, reinforced the fact that he is the vital thread, the consigliere, even more than he has ever been. "Two Hearts" has always been a Bruce/Stevie staple, but there's a subtext that is poignant and central in the context of The River performance: "It takes two, baby… me and you."
It's Van Zandt's deft contributions that take songs to new heights and new interpretative places. His more resonant harmonies, his omnipresent interplay, his Dick Dale-esque solo on "Cadillac Ranch," his killer 12-string on "The River." Let's not forget about "Point Blank" — my god, "Point Blank" is just exquisite. A first-time observer noted that Steve's twangy Gretsch on "Point Blank" helped "give that song the darkness it deserves." So very true.
With The River, Bruce talks about the journey you take through life and the people you choose in your effort to do something good. Bruce and the E Street Band have been together more than 40 years, and Steven has been a primary catalyst and partner in that journey. It's wonderful to see their relationship celebrated within the context of this album. And for the record, this album performance is something that is not just good —it's great. KC gave it the standing ovation it deserved.
Turning the corner for the "house party" extravaganza, the first song slot in the B-set appeared to be an audible. Bruce, Steve and Nils were in heavy discussion for what ultimately turned into "Badlands." Many in attendance had hoped that a Merle Haggard tribute may have been in the plans, but alas, that was not to be. Perhaps Bruce had intended to do something different in that post-"Wreck" slot, but sensing that he was this close to putting this crowd over the top, he went for the sure thing.
From this point on, the energy level was akin to being at a completely different show. The response from the audience gave Bruce what he'd been striving for all night, so he put the pedal to the metal with "No Surrender," "Candy's Room," and "Because the Night." Nils's solo in the latter was so well received, Bruce asked him to jam out another just before the end of the song. The crowd ate it up.
Next up, a four-shot from Born to Run: "She's the One," "Backstreets," 'Thunder Road" and the title track. The sequence left some wondering if Bruce said, "Fuck it, we're doing this album, too."
"Dancing in the Dark" saw a young girl come to the stage who was celebrating a birthday. As they began to dance, the girl asked Bruce if her mother could join them onstage, and as it turned out, Mom looked an awful lot like a 1984-era Courteney Cox. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and Bruce gave them a turn with the song's chorus. With house lights up, the transformation was complete, all the tides had turned, Bruce had the entire place on its feet, and the energy continued to swell through "Rosalita," "Tenth Avenue," and "Shout." What began as a potentially low-energy show turned into a force awakened by night's end.
Springsteen wrapped the night, fittingly, with "Bobby Jean." The song, long attributed to his relationship with Van Zandt, is the perfect coda to one of Springsteen's lifelong journeys, taken with a friend, to do something good. No — to do something great.
But since it was primarily those lucky enough to make the pit who were affected by the negative side of their antics, let's first focus on all of their positives that the majority of those inside Dallas' American Airlines Center enjoyed throughout Tuesday night's show. From the moment Bruce walked onstage, he couldn't help but notice the young mademoiselles joyously waving their red bandanas at every single song. He played a majority of the songs to them, which led to a lot of blocking changes for The River performance; he led Stevie and Jake to a side platform to elicit some loud "Texas-style party noises" from them before playing to the rear seats.
Bruce first addressed them directly at the end of "Crush On You," when he grabbed one of their signs to show the crowd: "We got on a crush on you, Bruce" was printed on a — you could have guessed it — pink sign. Before launching into another fun performance of "You Can Look," he yelped at them, "Shake those hankeys!" referring to their bandanas. Speaking of yelping, Springsteen walked to the side platform again during his "I Wanna Marry You" introduction where he repeated his OKC question, "Do we have any cowgirls out there?" As Bruce held his microphone toward the gaggle, the crowd was greeted with an unsurprising yet alarmingly loud chorus of squeals. He responded, "I'm not even going to ask the cowboys, because you can't top that."
What also couldn't be topped on Tuesday night were the southern-style rockers on the second half of The River. After a particularly haunting "Point Blank" that felt more like a spoken word performance, a rollicking "Cadillac Ranch" — a landmark located around 350 miles away from Dallas — turned the arena into a hoedown, featuring Bruce and Jake side-stepping and sashaying to the cowgirls' platform during the sax solo. The performance clearly put Bruce in a rocking mood, which had him shimmying behind the rear-pit cameraman during "I'm a Rocker."
The highlight of the night may have been an absolutely raucous "Ramrod," perhaps the best of the tour. Imploring the crowd to "shake your ass to a little roadhouse music," Bruce brought back a lot of his older, more extended "Ramrod" shtick. Instead of launching right into this evening's particularly strong "Boss Time" solo, Bruce revived a stretched-out "What time is it?" call-and-response with the crowd. Even Garry was feeling the roadhouse vibe: he pulled off an impressive "foot to the floor" shuffle, moves no one thought such a cool and collected cat could bust out.
The post-River portion of the set largely mirrored that of OKC (the night's only substitution was "Backstreets" in for "Lonesome Day"), but those cowgirls were still making their presence felt and setting the night apart. The added vitality that they instilled in Bruce throughout the night obviously had a powerful effect on the crowd, too, which was much more vocal than those who were greeted to basically the same show in OKC. Bruce complimented the crowd multiple times, from proclaiming, "Dallas rocks!" at the beginning of the encores to exclaiming, "You put on a hell of a show!" at the end of the evening.
But before the end, in a move that may have been even more predictable than the first 21 songs of the show, Bruce invited the cowgirls on stage for "Dancing in the Dark." One came up, and then another, and then more from the other platform, and then it was just a flood, quickly making up for any gender imbalance from Patti's absence. Though security was trying to limit the numbers, Stevie just kept imploring more and more to crowd around Bruce. And boy, did they ever. I'm no Bruce archivist, but I feel safe saying that this night featured more dance partners than any show in E Street history. Just look at this madness:
By the time Bruce and Co. managed to wrangle all of them offstage — which took an excessive amount of time, especially since none of them showed any interest in leaving — the Boss had a rare look on his face: exhaustion. "Oh my fucking God," he concluded, using language that the girls' mothers might not approve of, "That was a lot of fucking children." Bruce mostly left the children behind for the rest of the show, only jokingly inviting them back on stage for "Shout" before finally referencing them in his usual, "We ain't got nothing left" spiel by saying, "The little kids took everything out of me!" Stevie brought over a cold towel and pretended to help a ragged Bruce off the stage before launching into an increasingly customary "Bobby Jean" finale.
Yet before I reach the finale of this recap, I have to address the negative aspects of the cowgirls' presence, which the picture above sort of captures; finding Bruce is like playing "Where's Waldo," largely because they seemed concerned less with letting Bruce do his job and more with being in the spotlight themselves. Though up to that point Bruce probably only saw their unwavering energy, it was apparent to many pit-goers that they were more consumed by getting noticed and being invited onstage than by the music itself. Nobody wants to bemoan their enthusiasm, but it definitely seemed odd that they were waving their bandanas just as vigorously for "Independence Day" as they were for "Hungry Heart" (especially since most stopped waving them after "Dancing in the Dark"). There was even an obnoxious "I ♥ U. Pull us onstage" sign that blocked other fans' view for much of the night. They chatted loudly through the slower songs, some even doing so on their cell phones. They actually may have been talking to their friends on the opposite platform — throughout the night a lot of the girls were running back and forth based on where they expected Bruce to go next, often making the floor feel more like a playground than a rock concert. A few were applying more makeup in the middle of "The River."
Though I don’t condone any of this behavior, it by no means ruined the show; anyone who may have been bothered was free to move to a different spot in the pit less overrun with cowgirls. And I think it's important to stress "most" and not "all" in describing their behavior. We simply can't make definitive statements about their intentions, and it's unfair to group the entire mass of cowgirls together as one unified entity. There was immediately plenty of chatter on the message boards, and while some of these kids may have been at the concert for the "wrong" reasons, it's really a matter of conjecture. There may have been some real fans in the bunch, and perhaps being on stage with their idol was one of the highlights of their lives. This tour has seen Bruce time and time again focusing on the younger members of the crowd, for as he nightly looks back at his own youth on The River, he's also looking ahead at how the youth of today will be the ones to take his music into the future. It was fitting that he changed his blocking for "Fade Away" so that he sang parts of the song on both of the cowgirls' platforms; some of these girls will be the reason his music doesn't fade away for future generations. It may have felt like a playground at times, but Bruce definitely played better because of them.
Even though he was surrounded by an inordinately youthful pit, Bruce showed his age twice by amusingly forgetting the lyrics to "The River" and "Thunder Road," songs that have been played every single night of this tour. Maybe he was just distracted. But for the most part, Dallas witnessed Bruce in spirits that defied his age, largely thanks to the cowgirls. Some in the pit may disagree, but most people in attendance at any Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert would happily accept some annoying behavior in the name of seeing such a phenomenally spirited performance.
April 3 / Chesapeake Energy Arena / Oklahoma City, OK
Those who ventured inside were treated to the type of show that has made this band legendary: non-stop energy and musical perfection, along with the usual assortment of Bruce's antics. As he has said since the beginning of his career, Bruce takes his responsibility to the audience very seriously, because there may be someone who has never seen him before or had to scrape together the money to be there. During his romp around the floor during Hungry Heart, one audience member proved his point: a woman who had the opportunity to slap Bruce's hand was immediately overcome with emotion, bursting into tears and nearly fainting.
That said, I don't think I've ever been at a Springsteen show with less crowd energy overall. There were people in the back who never stood and didn't even applaud at the end of The River or even at the end of the show. Sometimes magic happens when Springsteen plays a show off the beaten path, for a fanbase that's been deprived; there's no such story on this Sunday night in Oklahoma City. You could tell Bruce was struggling to supply the energy from the very start — and, the professionals that he and the band are, they kept it up — but the extra elevation that occurs when a crowd gives it right back to them wasn't happening here.
Regardless of how many fully appreciated it, 29 shows into The River Tour, the band's command of the album has reached near-perfection, and in Oklahoma City, a rested Springsteen was in fine voice as well. The 20-song album now flows like a single piece, a rock opera, if you will. There's no mistaking that the hopeful singer seeking ties that bind in the opening song is the same one sitting in the dark in the final song, scared by the rending of those ties caused by a fatal accident. Likewise, you can imagine the woman trapped in the "Jackson Cage" being the same one whose life has reached a breaking point in "Point Blank." During his intro to the expanded "I Wanna Marry You," Bruce explains that the song is a dream of "love without consequences," an emotional set-up for what's about to come next: the unplanned pregnancy of "The River" that has the singer asking, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true?"
As a fan of the song, I'm glad Bruce has done a 180 on "Crush on You." At the start of the tour, he said that it was the one song he wished he hadn't included on the album and was introducing during the show by sarcastically calling it "my masterpiece." Now that it's being performed nightly in the midst of a crucial hard-rockin' segment of the album, it gets its proper due, with Springsteen shouting, "Oklahoma City, I've got a crush on you!" as he launches into the song.
No sign-wavers were rewarded with requests, but a chorus line of dancers made their way to the stage during "Dancing in the Dark": a woman whose sign said, "Dance with my Navajo family," another whose sign said, "Dance with me, Jake," and a father and son who enthusiastically made their way all over the stage, with the dad taking the opportunity to say hello and grab hugs from Soozie, Nils, Steve and Garry, while the son took up a guitar and joined Bruce and company up front. For these lucky fans and the thousands who were on their feet singing along and pumping their fists, it was a long-awaited night with the Boss that they'll never forget.
Denver is undoubtedly a Music High City in addition to being the Mile High City, and it showed in the audience. Though properly loud and participatory throughout the night, perhaps even more importantly, they understood that a loud crowd isn't necessarily a good crowd: the entire arena fell completely silent for the many beautiful ballads contained on The River. This temporary, appropriate quiet seemed to rejuvenate the crowd throughout the night, allowing them to come back with even more energy for the conventional rockers.
On the final night of Bruce and the Band's dump-destroying run of shows at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, fans added a new dimension to "The Price You Pay" by contributing their own "oooh-oooohs" to match the song's instrumental introduction and conclusion. Bruce clearly liked this addition, as he's begun chanting it himself to get the audience to join him at every show since — and in Denver, the entirety of the Pepsi Center was communally chanting the beginning and end of "The Price You Pay" at the top of their lungs.
The fact that Bruce is now incorporating the Los Angeles audience's impromptu chant into his nightly performance of "The Price You Pay" further emphasizes how much importance he places in the type of crowd participation that was so electric in Denver. We're an integral part of the magic that is a Springsteen concert, so much so that we can actually change how he performs a song every night. Another case in point: the "fireflies" that the crowd now provides nightly with cell phones to illuminate the entire arena during "Drive All Night." I'm not 100% positive about this (enunciation has never been Bruce's forte), but I'm fairly sure he added a "stars in the night" line during the "Dream Baby Dream" portion of the song.
Bruce increasingly fed off that participatory party energy, which was reflected in his post-River setlist choices. A sign request for the sha-la-las of "Darlington County" started things off, a rollicking performance that included Bruce kissing a girl in the front row and haphazardly tossing his mic halfway across the stage to one of the tech guys who miraculously caught it; elongated, dual sax and violin solos from Jake and Soozie; and a finish that featured Bruce briefly cutting out the band so he and Stevie could get one last guitar riff in.
All of the non-tour staples called for audience participation of some kind, from "She's the One" to "Backstreets": during the latter's interlude, Bruce intoned, "on the Backstreets until the end… until the end… until the end…" over and over and over again." It of course ended with Bruce giving his all to the song's signature howl into the void, and on this night in Denver the crowd joined in mightily, reminiscent of the earlier "Price You Pay" chant. Finally "Bobby Jean" was a post-"Shout" reward to the crowd from Bruce, who just kept yelling "I! CAN'T! STOP!" without a single trace of altitude fatigue.
March 28 / Madison Square Garden / New York, NY
Routing was just one unusual element of the New York show, rescheduled after a January snowstorm forced a postponement. It was a River show, all right, but the audience sounded primed for what came after, which was something of a blowout performance. The Garden was packed, and the floor looked especially full. And the sound system wasn’t just clear, it was loud: that gave the advantage to the rockers all night long. Nevertheless, the audience was slow to warm up to the River material. On “Sherry Darling” Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa danced a cha-cha down front then shared a mic with Steve Van Zandt: hey, hey, hey, what do you say, New York? Bruce walked back to work the audience behind the stage, leading to an extended vamp as the band kicked into “Jackson Cage.” On “Independence Day,” Springsteen paused during the introduction but kept his composure and sang a slightly changed-up vocal. On this song the volume paid its first dividend: Soozie Tyrell’s fiddle part was clearly audible. With a steady musical performance everywhere else on stage, too, this song was a standout.
By side two, the arena began to come around. A stress test ensued during the crowd surf in “Hungry Heart,” as Bruce dipped below the surface more than once. Then he got turned around, and it appeared he might reach the stage feet first. “You can do it!” he told his supporters. And they did. By “Out in the Street,” the audience had joined in fully at last. The E Street Band made this stretch of rock music glorious.
That was the vibe in the Garden: it was a big loud rock show, played as if the E Street Band were mere sprouts, trying out alongside acts they admired who'd actually come along before in the building, like The Who or Led Zeppelin. Perhaps that’s what Springsteen had in mind when he told the crowd at the outset that “we’re going to make it up” after having to scrub in the winter.
On “Ramrod,” Springsteen grew visibly distracted, his gaze fixed to a row of seats just up the stairs from the floor, stage left. Soon, everyone else looked, too, and saw his mom, Adele Springsteen, rockin’ the roadhouse and smiling non-stop. Bruce made his way up to her seat for a few measures, ending with the two of them shaking it for all to see. “She’s still got the moves,” Bruce said. (He introduced her at the end of the show, and she rightfully earned applause alongside the E Street Band.)
The ballads had to compete for space, and that resulted in a performance of The River that wasn’t quite even. It didn’t stop Bruce and the band, however, from building “Drive All Night” to a monumental ending. It was a beautiful, all-together-now moment, and the whole place rose as fans turned on cell phone flashlights and waved them liked lighted metronomes. That was the high point for the album, and if the band and audience had to search for a place for it to coalesce, they could have hardly done better.
A rousing “Badlands” led the B-set, and the crowd greeted it with a roar of its own. Stay for the hits, it suggested, and get The River as a free bonus first. That’s how this performance unfurled, and there was simply no fighting it. A flubbed lyric, as in “Brilliant Disguise,” or a miscue that led to part of a verse missing in “I’m a Rocker” were inconsequential: Bruce was loose and gained momentum as the night went on. Still, introducing “Stolen Car” as “a love song” raised an eyebrow, as did his recounting a different story than he’d told earlier in the tour about where he and Patti Scialfa first got together.
But there was no mistaking geography when Roy Bittan began to play the introduction to “Meeting Across the River,” its first appearance on this tour. Once again, the sound system helped out immensely, as Garry Tallent’s bass notes rolled out to gird the piano part. It was a striking version: as it concluded, Springsteen let the ovation play out, and the dramatic pause became part of the show. “Jungleland” followed, and it sounded sublime. If Bruce is holding this one back for nights that he deems special, he and the E Street Band are matching it with performances that count.
Springsteen played to his mom again during “Thunder Road,” then thanked a “hell of a crowd, inspiring for us.” The encore that followed felt like one: loud, fast, and furious. And fun. A trio of partners made for a messy attempt at the vocal coda for “Dancing in the Dark,” but Bruce pivoted quickly, making lemonade from it all the same (and a YouTube moment, too). “Rosalita” had him going back and forth between “New York!” and “New Jersey!” several times (New Jersey won this time). And if he couldn’t find the right chords at first for “Shout,” no matter: this show’s lone soul number (okay, save for “Fade Away”) still made for a stomping finish.
An elongated introductory "Maaaaaaaaaax!" to kickstart "Meet Me in the City" confirmed Bruce's ludicrously high spirits — as well as the impression that he has finally gotten over the cold that has somewhat strained his voice recently. His pipes sounded pitch-perfect, and he really found ways to add some nice vocal flourishes throughout the album performance, including an extended "It Takes Two" coda at the end of "Two Hearts" (though no mention of Little Steven's American Idol appearance at any point in the evening); some beautiful ad libbing in the "I Wanna Marry You" intro as he repeatedly sang, "I'm in a sweeeeet mood tonight"; beginning "Cadillac Ranch" by slowly yelling at the crowd, "Bury me down in the Ca-ca-Cadillac Ranch!," and starting "Ramrod" by imploring the audience to "get down and dirty at the roadhouse."
Along with these welcome embellishments, Bruce even had the band changing up on the fly their customary renditions of some River songs. Beginning "Crush on You" by showering the audience with "Seattle — I got a crush on you!" he launched into an absolutely raucous version of the song (which has become a nightly highlight of this tour), leading to his call for an extended breakdown at the end. It caught the band completely off guard. Bruce, of course, took it in stride, saying, "We just fucked up that ending so bad — but that's all right, because the E Street Band knows how to save the day!"
Bruce doubled the length of the call-and-response portion of "Cadillac Ranch" — throwing Soozie this time, and her early jump back in on fiddle had him laughing maniacally. On "Ramrod," soloing after Stevie called for "Boss Time," Bruce hollered, "And I'm the Boss!" Happily, it wasn't only the rockers that got these flourishes. Bruce's hour-after-hour power nearly blew the roof off with those, but he was so engaged with the music that he easily converted his off-the-wall energy into intense focus for the ballads, including some fittingly eerie whispers of the track name over the instrumental denouement of a raw "Point Blank." In short, the Bruce was loose.
He also deviated from his usual scripts for a lot of the song introductions, beginning with calling his nightly stated intentions behind recording The River "a mighty quest." He adopted a much more conversational tone throughout the night, most memorably when introducing "I Wanna Marry You." After posing his usual, "Any lovers out there?" question, he responded to the audience's cheers with, "Pretty good. In some cities, everyone hates each other. But not Seattle! All that rain makes you wanna cozy up by the fire and get comfortable with your baby." He went on to claim that the original title for "I Wanna Marry You" was "Baby Steps of Love." After cracking up at his own joke, he told Stevie that he was going to use that title for a new song on the next record.
Post-River, for those who feared that his insane mood wouldn't translate into some insane surprises, that concern was quickly nullified when he immediately went into the pit and grabbed a bushel of signs upon the conclusion of "Wreck on the Highway." A creative fan had already made a sign requesting "Baby Steps of Love," which elicited more laughter from Bruce. First up: Bruce exclaiming "Oh, yeah, we know that one goddammit!" before launching into a rollicking version of "I'm Goin' Down," only the second performance of the Born in the U.S.A. song on this tour.
"Badlands" followed, and right at the point where Bruce calls for the audience chant to lead the band back into the final breakdown, he suddenly sprinted to the center platform to collect even more signs from behind the pit as the band kept vamping. After running back to the main stage and guiding the band through the final breakdown (because he was taking absolutely no shortcuts around rocking), he picked out "She's the One" from the now-large pile of signs behind him. Though a somewhat uninspired request given how often he's played the song on this tour, Bruce still found a way to change it up during his harmonica solo by bringing Jake down to the main mic to play his "I Wanna Marry You" maracas, a reminder that Bruce had already written a song before The River that could've been called "Baby Steps of Love."
And then, the highlight of the night (or so I thought at the time): a sign for the tour premiere of "Adam Raised a Cain." With a typically heated build to start and a cataclysmically fiery and lengthy guitar solo from Bruce, it was a heart-pounding performance that matched the lyrical intensity of this Darkness on the Edge of Town gem. Another scorching guitar solo followed — this time from from Nils — on "Because the Night" before Bruce went back to his pile of signs for a passionate rendition of "Tougher Than the Rest," largely thanks to Patti's welcome presence in Seattle. Bruce still wasn't done with the signs, though picking out one for the tour staple "The Rising" felt hardly necessary.
Yet the biggest surprise of all was still to come, and it was one that no one would have even dreamed of requesting on a sign: the encores began with Seattle's Eddie Vedder popping over to the arena from his nearby home to lend his soaring vocal talents to "Bobby Jean." Vedder was greeted with such a warm welcome that Bruce even joked, "Damn good reception for the hometown boy – I get booed in my hometown!" (A necessary aside to note: big ups to Pearl Jam for agreeing to match all donations made to the West Seattle Food Bank.) They each sang half of every verse, and even though Eddie messed up the order of some of the lyrics, it was a soulful version of the song, with the Pearl Jam rocker dancing back to back with Jake center stage during the sax solo to end the song.
Monday's rescheduled show at New York City's famed Madison Square Garden will be a good indicator as to whether the shows in LA and now Seattle are the first signs that this River tour has rounded a new bend in regards to predictability. But even if the rest of the tour only were to include shows like Seattle, there would be hundreds upon thousands of happy campers dancing out of arenas and stadiums in the coming months. Everyone should be lucky enough to see Bruce joyously lose his mind for damn near four hours like he did at Key Arena (by my count, it was the second longest show of the tour, a smidge behind LA3). It's nights like these that make it so clear how much Bruce utterly and completely loves what he does, and we're just lucky he not only shares that love with us, but we're an integral part of that love; he was feeding off the neglected-in-recent-years crowd's rapturous response all night long.
A stillness rose to meet the ballads. On "Drive All Night," which began nicely and got stronger as it went along, it was easy to hear Steve Van Zandt’s intricate guitar pattern, and easier still to listen as the number progressed. Earlier, Springsteen sang "Stolen Car" to an audience that sounded like it was holding its breath. Sure, one heard the odd cheer of one sort or other, but there was little else to distract. That made the Moda Center sound more like a cathedral as Charlie Giordano led the song to an end and made fans its congregants. Audiences in every city should be so lucky. And so attentive. Bravo, Portland!
"Hungry Heart" didn't get quite the ovation one might expect for a Top Ten hit, and the crowd surf, which looked dicey from the start, ended with Springsteen needing a hand up from both Jake Clemons and Nils Lofgren. But side two soon kicked into high gear as Springsteen pogoed to end "Out in the Street" before scoring points with the one-two punch of "Crush on You" and "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)." His guitar work and theatrics were the attractions there. Afterward, the "Here She Comes" segment sounded especially soulful; Bruce tacked on a few extra lines before counting off the transition to "I Wanna Marry You." The crowd voiced its approval of "The River," and rightfully so: Patti Scialfa added a terrific backing vocal, and Springsteen sang a stirring falsetto on the outro.
The most striking element from this concert was the complexity of The River itself. Arranged and presented this way, we hear turn-on-a-dime transitions we might not otherwise. We hear disparate themes in quick succession. On the one hand, a staple like "Ramrod" sounds dialed back relative to previous Reunion-era renditions. But that's only to fit the overall narrative. On the other hand, "Crush on You," which Bruce hits hard, is finally getting a fair hearing (it was the first River song he dropped from the set in 1980, and once held the record for length of time unplayed).
Was this complexity apparent in other cities? Probably so. But Portland felt like a concert where one may know the 20 songs, but not what comes next. Maybe the record resonated here more deeply at the time it came out, which might account for more meaningful applause tonight for the title track than for the hit single. (In 1980, the E Street Band played "On Top of Old Smokey" to acknowledge the eruption earlier that year of Mount St. Helens, a 70-mile drive north of Portland. Eruption, a just-released cultural history of that event by Seattle writer Steve Olson, tells stories from just up the road that line up thematically with several Springsteen songs from that era.)
The enthused response carried over to the B-set. Leading a near-flawless four-pack, "Because the Night" found Max Weinberg drumming to accentuate Nils Lofgren’s solo. A brisk "Brilliant Disguise" followed, as did fine versions of "The Rising" and "Thunder Road."
In the encore, the last song ("Shout") had all hands reaching for the roof. It was a remarkable sight, looking around to see an audience whipped up like that. Bruce had the joint flipping, and he exhorted the audience to give him everything they had, which is exactly what they'd been doing all along.
Reprising a role they'd played in 2009 for the closing of Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Bruce and the E Street Band became the final act to appear at the Sports Arena, which is slated to be torn down. Springsteen made clear his connection to the building: "We're going to miss this old place," he said. "It's a great place to play, and we've had fabulous crowds every time."
Just like his first appearance at the Sports Arena in 1980, the final one focused on The River. The latter, of course, included a complete, sequenced performance of the record, followed by 14 songs in a high-energy B-set — 35 in all, clocking in at a cool three hours, 45 minutes.
Those might be enough for some customers, but numbers tell only part of the story. This tour began just over two months ago in Pittsburgh, an opener that was by turns competent and exciting. In Los Angeles, the E Street Band was a well-oiled machine, showing its mettle in a number of ways, whether it was an extra Max Weinberg fill on "The Ties That Bind," the harmony vocals that provide extra lift whenever they appeared, or just watching as Springsteen worked through the songs.
In "Jackson Cage," for example, he set his marks for the night, showing both the precision and focus he's brought to bear on the 20-song suite. He sounded deliberate in setting up songs like "Independence Day" and "Stolen Car." And when he wasn't working the audience or playing guitar, he was standing still at center mic, as he did on "Point Blank." Don't let that fool you: he was working just as hard on that one as he did on any of the rockers. Bruce still managed to end up atop his amplifier cabinets as "Ramrod" drew to a close.
"The Price You Pay" sounded exquisite, and, at the very front of the stage, Springsteen looked amused as the crowd added its voice to the instrumental parts. If fans have been chasing this song, tonight the E Street Band sounded like it was never far behind. The audience stood and cheered for the song as its long identity crisis — whether it has this verse or that one, or this arrangement, or a second, or third, or played at all — seems as distant as its absence from the set. All along, the way it appeared on The River (and on stage this tour) was the right call. That was evident, plain for anyone to hear.
In the B-set, Springsteen was in a mood for music, not sentiment. Everything the E Street Band played sounded refreshed. "Wrecking Ball," written for just such an occasion, brought a shift in lyrics to suit the California setting (and where "Rams play the game," once again). "Prove It All Night" has undergone something akin to a revival, with Springsteen delivering remarkable guitar work. And "Tougher Than the Rest" was in the wheelhouse. The E Street Band beat the demo on this one, playing just right as Springsteen and Patti Scialfa sang a fine duet.
The unquestioned highlights on Saturday were "My Love Will Not Let You Down," which Max Weinberg played with skill the likes of which no one could recall hearing. When his drumming didn't thunder, guitars chimed, and Springsteen, in good voice all night long, sang with high conviction and strong emotion. It was a great version, and coming after a very good airing of The River, that made it even more remarkable. "Jungleland" sounded especially crisp, whether the simpatico pairing of Soozie Tyrell and Roy Bittan to start the song or Jake Clemons' beautiful sax solo. And from start to finish, Bruce was right where he needed to be on the song, "a little something," he said, "for our last night at the Sports Arena."
The house lights merely began to warm up for "Born to Run," giving that song an old-school look, apropos for its last Sports Arena performance. Bruce chose "Dancing in the Dark" partners of both sexes ("Dancing is a Man's Job," one sign read). On "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," children of Danny Federici and Garry Tallent joined in on tambourine. It was a sprint to the end, well-paced but a sprint nonetheless, and Springsteen added "one more!" for the Sports Arena twice: first "Shout," then "Bobby Jean."
Being Los Angeles, many well-known people attended, like actor Harrison Ford and director J.J. Abrams. Also spotted: behind the stage at the Sports Arena, an old clock keeps time, just not for much longer. Its image would have made a fitting one on the night's commemorative poster.
How should we consider The River Tour 2016 and specifically the performance of the 1980 double album in its entirety? Is it a revisit? A re-creation? A re-imagination? Entering the Dump That Jumps with those questions in mind, Thursday night's show hit notes of all three.
First and foremost the show is a structured performance, not only with the album songs in sequence (and "Meet Me in the City" as an invitation at the top to join in), but with Bruce as Narrator at the open and close of the River set, which felt a bit like the playwright addressing the audience in a theater on opening night.
Album performances of the last few years acknowledged, The River '16 feels like the first leg of the Tunnel of Love tour in '88 in its deliberate intentions. As such, the first three songs ("Meet," "The Ties That Bind" and "Sherry Darling") felt a wee bit perfunctory, and it took "Jackson Cage" to get those on and off stage truly in the moment. That song followed by "Two Hearts" offered genuine 1980-revisited stuff (albeit with the "It Takes Two" tag), featuring Steve on full co-lead (not backing) vocals. Great to see the 12-string electrics back on stage, too — case in point: Van Zandt's gorgeous, understated playing behind an austere "Independence Day."
On balance, The River's ballads, its darker and moodier songs, fared better tonight than the rockers, even as it was great to hear the latter played at pacier tempos than on some of the first stops of the tour. Bruce was clearly having a blast, turning "Crush on You" into an audience call-and-response and hammering home a positively pile-driving "Ramrod." Unfortunately, the house mix didn't do the loud songs any favors, with instruments getting lost in an overwhelmed mix to the point where even Max's snare was nearly inaudible during "Cadillac Ranch."
In terms of re-creation, "Point Blank," featuring Roy's stark, unsettling piano prelude, and the "Here She Comes" intro to "I Wanna Marry You," especially Steve's exceptional singing, brought the 1980-81 tour brilliantly back to life. We surely have the Tempe recording to thank for sparking memories of both. This cadre of songs also brought out some of Bruce's best vocals of the evening, notably "Fade Away," which just killed.
The same can be said for Max and Jake when they brought home the big third act of "Drive All Night" with power and grace. The only song of this darker ilk that didn't quite work was the last, "Wreck on the Highway." A reimagined lush arrangement seemed to take the song from a haunting coda into a full-bodied closing number, losing something poignant in the process. Roy's "taillights fading" piano refrain was an unwelcome casualty of a bigger but not necessarily better "Wreck."
With that, the second part of the show commenced, and "Badlands" brought the entire house to its feet, in a sort of "You know you want it. We know you want it. Let's just do it" kind of way. Acknowledging St. Patrick's Day, Bruce went Irish for the tour debut of "Death to My Hometown," which was well-rehearsed and played with spark. Another variant followed in "The Promised Land," and Bruce eschewed the setlisted "Because the Night" in favor of "Backstreets," performed with conviction more so than emotion.
The emotion was definitely there for "Brilliant Disguise," one of the night's strongest songs, as Bruce and Patti hearkened back to five great shows played at the Sports Arena in 1988. The second tour premiere was a lusty "American Land" that put every member of the band in high spirits, especially Charlie and Roy on their accordions.
The good vibes continued through the encore as Springsteen made it a family affair. First he pulled Danny Federici's daughter Madison on stage to dance during "Dancing in the Dark." She returned moments later, along with her brother Jason Federici, The Big Man's son Jarod Clemons, and Garry's daughter Olivia Tallent. Jason played accordion while the other three tapped tambourines. It was fun to see Patti in full-on mom mode as she moved around the stage, encouraging the kids to step up to the microphones and sing.
It wouldn't be a Springsteen show in Hollywood without a few celebrities, including the brothers Lowe (Rob and Chad, both of whom are regulars at L.A. gigs), long-time pal Tim Robbins, Conan O'Brien, Colin Hanks and Hilary Swank.
The lengthy set undoubtedly left the audience satisfied, and Bruce lingered long enough after "Shout" to let you know he felt that same way. If any question hung in the air it was how this show, built around a brilliant piece of work from 1980, connects to today. Sure, many of its themes are still relevant (as are "Death to My Hometown" and "American Land"). But in an election year, this election year, given Springsteen's recent political history, it did feel odd that the work was left to speak for itself on present matters.
Yes! Yes, we do!
When you are lucky enough to watch the show from the pit, it's pretty obvious that you are part of the show, adding energy and intimacy with booty-shaking, sign-waving, picture-taking, and general hysteria. The pit is something of a living organism, moving in waves as fans rush to the edges to catch an even-closer glimpse and reach for a high-five or a backslap from the Boss.
Bruce typically makes his first trip around the pit during "Hungry Heart," ending it with his nightly crowd-surf starting at the little stage in the middle of the floor. In Oakland, I decided to move from my spot in front of Steve's mic over to the little stage and found myself right in front of it as Bruce got ready to fall into the crowd. He briefly scanned the crowd looking for the right spot to land, and there I was, my arms extended and my hands in the tabletop position as I silently communicated with him: "That's right, I'm ready. Just go for it." And with that, Bruce Springsteen turned around and flopped right into my hands for the start of his trek back to the stage. Honestly, it felt like the most natural thing in the world, not like I was suddenly holding an international rock star in a crowd of 20,000 people. It actually took me a couple of seconds to realize that my next job was to start handing him back into the sea of hands waiting to transport him, but soon enough, others took up the burden and Bruce started his journey. I gave him a couple of pats on the back as he left my arms, as if to say, "That was fun. Happy I could help out — have a great rest of the show!"
Aside from all the other amazing and special things about him, Bruce's generosity of spirit is unrivaled in pop music, and arguably, in the world at large. During this tour, he seems to be making a very conscious effort to include the full generational spectrum of fans, coinciding with the passage-of-time, coming-of-age themes of the night's centerpiece, the full 20-song rendition of The River. And it's not just during "Dancing in the Dark," when he often pulls a young person out of the crowd for a dance. You can also see it in the way he has embraced and included Jake Clemons in the show. Jake — who was born in 1980 during the recording of The River — has assumed a central role in the show, bringing both his own unique talents and channeling his Uncle Clarence's spirit at the same time. I love watching him shimmy and slide as he wails on the sax, and it makes me really happy to see him join in on background vocals right up front with Bruce and Steve, representing Clarence while simultaneously being his own self.
The 35-song Oakland setlist was almost identical to the previous show in Phoenix, with only two changes: "Prove It All Night" in the post-River set and "Growin' Up" — "by request from somebody out there!" — to open the encores. During "Growin' Up," Bruce looked over to the crowd in front of Soozie Tyrell for a young man in a checkered shirt — "that's right, you, come on up here!" — calling up Backstreets contributor Steven Strauss for a duet on the last verse of "Growin' Up." Steven, who has been adding non-stop manic energy to the pit as he follows the tour to most of its stops, flawlessly joined the show, clowning and dancing and playing to the audience like a member of the band (check out Steven's full report on his experiences in his write-up of the Albany, NY show). Bruce clearly appreciates Steven's nightly contribution and rewarded him on this night with a twirl on stage. Right on cue, Steven played his part — because he was not just at the show, he was in the show.
As he seems prone to do, Springsteen set himself up for an artistic challenge when he decided to take the 20-song River album on tour. For the last several full-band tours, his entire setlist typically ranged from 24 to 27 songs, leaving him with a bit of an arithmetic problem as he planned the set for this tour. So at age 66, rather than slowing down like the typical aging rock 'n' roller, Bruce added upwards of 10 songs to his nightly setlist, giving him room for some thrills and surprises that tell more of his story. In Phoenix, that added up to a love-themed three-pack of "Candy's Room," "Because the Night," and "She's the One," as well as a springtime-in-Arizona special of "Glory Days," prompted by a sign reading "Spring Training + The Boss = Glory Days."
As the surprisingly festive Phoenix crowd got things off to a strong start by loudly singing along to "Meet Me in the City," one marvels at the fact that after all these decades and with hundreds of well-known songs in the Boss' playbook, fans are still embracing newly uncovered gems.
And then it was on to the show-within-the-show. "The River was my coming of age record," Bruce says. "By the time I got to The River, I had taken notice of things that bind people to their lives – work, commitments, families. I wanted to imagine and write about those things. And I wanted to make a record that felt like life — or an E Street Band show. I wanted it to contain fun and dancing and laughter and jokes and sex and faith and lonely nights and teardrops." With that, Bruce and the band launch into the theme-setter for the entire record, "The Ties That Bind," in which the singer struggles with those very commitments Bruce had just talked about.
It's useful to remember that when The River was initially recorded and sequenced, it was intended to be a two-disc, four-sided record, and that Bruce has always insisted that "the album," not the individual song, is his preferred unit of full artistic expression. Each of the four sides of The River is its own mini-set, sequenced to tell the story of life through Bruce's eyes.
The first mini-set outlines all of Bruce's central themes, including his own family-of-origin struggles. So after "Ties" and the jokes-and-sex song "Sherry Darling," Bruce moves on to the intense "Jackson Cage" about a woman's lonely nights and teardrops, then on to the insistent "Two Hearts" — the two hearts needed to produce a baby, the two hearts that come together to form the essential human bond in life, the family. Side One closes with "Independence Day," a song Springsteen insists was his first song about fathers and sons, even though his performances in the 1970s, when the song was written, were famously filled with references to his contentious relationship with his own dad.
Flip over the first disc to side two, and it's on to the second mini-set, led off by the light-hearted "Hungry Heart," which itself often served as the opener to the second set on the original River tour. "Out in the Street," "Crush on You," and an incendiary "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" bring the show-within-the-show to a fever pitch before Bruce settles it down for the sweet stylings of "I Wanna Marry You." Closing the mini-set in dramatic fashion, and standing on a nearly dark stage with only his harmonica and Little Steven beside to play acoustic guitar, Springsteen kicks off "The River," putting one of his signature songs perfectly in context as the emotional thunderbolt it was written to be.
As "The River" ends, Springsteen turns to the back of the dimly lit stage, raises his right hand and twirls it in the air, symbolically switching the record for Part Two. Having finished addressing the universal themes he learned as part of a family, he now turns to his observations about how they play out in other peoples' lives. Roy Bittan responds in kind with a brief swirling riff on the piano before continuing into the haunting extended intro to "Point Blank," a devastating song about the struggles that living brings to one woman's life. Max Weinberg uses his left hand to strike a wood block and create an unmistakable tick-tock symbolizing the passage of time, and the beating heart. As he closes the song, Springsteen sings, "bang bang baby, you're dead," and just like that, Max stops striking the wood block. Amazing.
Did someone mention death? Because the very next song is "Cadillac Ranch," a lively rocker set in a graveyard of luxury cars that have seen better days. In the end, all the singer wants is to be thrown in the back of that long-and-dark, shiny-and-black ride, bound for life's junkyard.
The story continues, and in Part Two, the 2016 audience is treated to one rarity after another on a nightly basis, including "I'm a Rocker," "Stolen Car," "The Price You Pay," "Wreck on the Highway," and the most surprising song of the show-within-the-show, "Drive All Night." On the record, the song is brooding and quiet, never reaching much of a crescendo, but in concert, it breathes deeply and comes to life, with the whole band helping Bruce build to a stunning climax.
As the closing strands of "Wreck" die down and Bruce concludes his remarks about this monumental record, he says, "It's about time. That clock starts ticking, and you walk along side not only the people you've chosen to live your life with, but you walk along side your own mortality, and you realize that you only have a limited amount of time to raise your family, to do your job, and to try to do something good."
Twenty-one songs into the concert, it's now officially Boss Time. When other artists might be taking bows, Bruce grabs his trusty Fender and rips into "Badlands" and another baker's dozen. An audible of "Lonesome Day" precedes the aforementioned three-song love suite, and as the main set ends with "Thunder Road," Bruce cruises back to stage right and calls for the sign he saw about spring training, bringing it up to the mike to signal the start of "Glory Days."
Since Bruce isn't taking many requests these days, most of the sign-wavers are petitioning for a chance to dance on stage to "Dancing in the Dark," and in Phoenix the honors went to five pre-adolescent girls who were "hopping" to dance with Bruce and demonstrated it by wearing bunny ears. They formed an impromptu chorus line, bringing the unmistakable energy of youth to a show centered on an album first performed when their parents were no older than they are now.
As the lights come up and the roadies start their nightly chores, Bruce has one more treat for attentive ears: an elegiac a cappella rendition of "Down to the River to Pray" from the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou. The Boss doesn't miss a beat.
March 6 / Chaifetz Arena / St. Louis, MO
Performing The River in a college arena seems fitting — remember, the original River tour opened in Crisler Arena at the University of Michigan. But this arena is not at a Big Ten school; it's the smallest venue the band will play this tour. Maybe that was why the delivery seemed so crisp. With no upper deck to play to, and the faces at the opposite end of the arena actually visible, Bruce really seemed to connect with the "St. Loooo" crowd.
Playing such a small building seemed to have Bruce in nostalgic mood, laughing at himself when he referred to The River as an "album." And, in what may be a preview of his upcoming autobiography, during the intro to "I Wanna Marry You," Bruce called St. Louis a "romantic city," revealing that it was in St. Louis that he he and Patti first got together. Patti herself was not present, though here in spirit as Bruce reminisced about taking a walk with her under the Gateway Arch and being drawn in by the "magnetic forces."
Showing only the faintest remnants of a cold, which left Bruce a little hoarse by the end of the show, the delivery of the album material was dead on. Everything just seemed to click. Charlie Giordano really stood out on the soaring organ parts that are the trademark of the River material. Patti's missing vocals were more than ably covered by Garry Tallent, who seemed to be singing backup on almost the entire album. Even the final push, from "Stolen Car" to "Wreck on the Highway," somehow seemed lighter. Slight variations to the arrangements of "The Price You Pay" and "Wreck" made the album seem more hopeful than the somberness of some of the material suggests.
But the desire to make The River magical seems to take a toll on Bruce. After the album presentation is concluded, he appeared emotionally drained; apparently there's a price you pay for inhabiting the characters on the album in a way only he can. That would be the best guess as to why the "second set" has been heavy with the tried-and-true, instead of the plethora of outtakes that some fans were hoping for. Last night's second set featured three songs from the Darkness on the Edge of Town era and three songs from the Born in the U.S.A. era, plus "The Rising" and "Thunder Road." (It's actually surprising that the title cut to Darkness hasn't made its tour debut yet, given how that song has always seemed like a security blanket.)
However, even the desire to stay with the familiar didn't detract from the spontaneity. After concluding the album portion, Bruce brought up a special guest named Tom. Not Morello, but a fan in the pit with a huge sign asking if he could "work on the highway with the E Street Band." After checking with the band to figure out what key they play the song in, and confirming with the fan that he could play the Born in the U.S.A. song in the key of C, saying to him "I hope you know what you're doing," Bruce invited Tom up on stage. Outfitted by Kevin Buell, Tom first played the dutiful sideman, sharing a mic with Little Steven and doing background vocals. But as the song progressed, Tom ended up center stage with Bruce, to the amusement of the rest of the band.
His guest's energy, and that of the enthusiastic crowd, seemed to rub off on Bruce. The second set featured him on guitar more than usual, with "Prove It All Night" and "My Love Will Not Let You Down" being particularly powerful. St. Louis has a recent history of outstanding E Street Band shows, and last night was no exception.
The Bradley Center in downtown Milwaukee has some of the best acoustics of any the arenas the band plays on each tour. Which is why it was a bummer to hear Bruce say, "This is the last time we'll be playing this building. They're gonna be tearing it down... and we're here to help them do that."
Since the December 2015 release of The Ties that Bind box set, I've mulled over which of the outtakes were lost opportunities that should have made the official 1980 release of The River double album. There are a lot of similar-sounding songs, all heavy on the glockenspiel, snare drum, and organ and piano chords in the upper registers. "Meet Me in the City," which opens the show, does not set itself apart sonically from "The Ties That Bind," "Two Hearts," "I'm a Rocker" and others that did make the cut. So while it doesn't add much we haven't heard already from The River era, Bruce aptly chose it because it serves as an invitation to the audience to join him for the trip down the river.
As has been reported here, The River and its length challenges the attention span of many an audience member. But this Milwaukee crowd was phenomenally attentive, and the sound was loud and enveloping, which had the delightful effect of drowning out chitchat during slow stretches of "Point Blank," "Fade Away," and "Stolen Car."
"Hungry Heart" got everybody on their feet after a poignant "Independence Day." In preparation for his crowd surf, Bruce signaled the people on whom he was about to fall to make sure to support his shoulders and his butt. There was no shortage of grabbers to oblige him. "Crush on You" has become a highlight for me, with Bruce's full-throated commitment to the goofy lyrics. Keeping time with his hand he spit out "She makes Venus de Milo look like she's got no style / She makes Sheena of the Jungle look meek and mild" like a 21st century rapper saddled with 1960s pop culture references for rhymes.
Patti was absent for the show, and her harmonies were missed. It did open the door for Garry to contribute backing vocals, something he may have been ready for given the imminent release of his first solo record. Steve Van Zandt, however, hasn't been this busy on stage, with guitar solos and harmonizing, since, well, the original tour in 1981. Steve is also sporting a pair of Jack Sparrow-esque earrings, long chains with feathers on the bottom. During "Ramrod," Steve glanced at a nonexistent watch on his wrist and declared, "Boss Time!" before Bruce's withering guitar solo. Tonight's "Ramrod" also featured a four-man, one-woman, backs-to-the-audience booty-shake before the first of two false endings.
Other highlights were Bruce's vocals on "The Price You Pay" and his falsetto on "The River." Nils' solo on "Because the Night" featured "4,320" in snowboarders' parlance (12 complete revolutions!), which brought the house down. Bruce called "Jungleland" as an audible: "This is for my man down here in front. We haven't played it much on this tour. We'll see how we do." The hairs stood up on the back of my neck for the entirety of the song. Bruce nodded approvingly during Steve's guitar solo and pointed his finger to the heavens as Jake Clemons soared through his late uncle's signature sax solo. The audience cheered him on in waves, and Bruce thanked him with a pat on the shoulder.
"The E Street Band loves Milwaukee!" Bruce said at the close of the show. "We'll be seein' ya!" Yes you will, and we'll be loose!
February 29 / Xcel Energy Center / St. Paul, MN
It has been 35 summers since The River was released, and Bruce describes it as a "coming-of-age record" where he was trying to create something big, "that felt like life, felt like an E Street Band Show." At a whopping 20 songs, the sequence ensures that there are plenty of opportunities to sing, dance, laugh, cry, and ponder the hidden complexities of Springsteen's lyrics. This is the 17th show on The River Tour 2016, and the 18th time that The River has been performed in its entirety. While the first two-thirds of each 2016 setlist has been the same, however, neither Bruce Springsteen nor the E Street Band put on the kind of show that can be defined by song titles on paper.
The St. Paul crowd was in full swing tonight. From the moment the band hit the stage at 7:59pm, we were ready to be transformed and be taken through our favorite double album. When "party noises" were requested of us prior to "Sherry Darling," we were right there; we felt the conviction in "Jackson Cage," returned the joy that Little Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren exuded during "Two Hearts," and carried the first verse, as well as The Boss himself, on "Hungry Heart."
The prelude to "I Wanna Marry You" recognized something that Bruce seemed to be very excited about on this February 29, if not quite sure of the history: Leap Year. Shaking his maracas and smiling, he exclaimed, "It's Leap Year! Yes! It's the year of love. Back in the old days it was when a woman could turn and propose to a man, or ask them out on a date, or ask them for a kiss... I forget." Clearly so enamored with the perfectness of being in love for the first time, he missed the downbeat to the song. Laughing, he called himself out and blamed it on getting "in such a love-filled mood."
Dancing was also a large part of the show tonight. During "Cadillac Ranch," there were necks of guitars waving, reminiscent of the same moves on the original River tour. Though it was "Ramrod" that had the slickest moves of all. Bruce jumped around, Jake Clemons did a very endearing shuffle, and Garry did kicks that would put the Rockettes to shame. If the line that told us to "look over yonder, see them Twin City lights" didn't get us to cheer and pay attention, then Bruce's for the entire band to "Shake your booty!" certainly did. You could see the band was having fun, and we were so glad to be a part of the wild, the innocent, and E Street shuffle that was taking us down to the river.
An incredibly powerful and beautiful "Drive All Night" and sentimental "Wreck on the Highway" closed out the The River, a "record that was about time. Time slipping away..." And we were left with the words of wisdom that "You have a finite amount of time... to do something good."
The 13-song encore kicked off with "Badlands" and soon another Darkness classic in "Prove It All Night," which featured some fierce shredding on the guitar by Bruce. Nils impressed us all with his now legendary, semi-possessed twirls during "Because the Night;" it was fitting that he got to show off in the first city he performed in with the E Street Band, in 1984. The return of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," after its tour premiere over the weekend, enabled us to remember Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, and to end the night, "Shout" had us all on our feet and dancing.
With their finite three hours and 26 minutes, the E Street Band not only did something good, but something unforgettable.
Bruce and the band (sans Patti) took the stage in a particularly celebratory mood, and Bruce soon explained why in his introduction to The River: "Two big occasions tonight! One: Jake Clemons' birthday. He was born in the year The River came out. So he and The River are exactly the same age." This received a wave of laughter from the crowd (perhaps to mask how old they may have felt?) and was the perfect primer for yet another fantastic performance of The River (the other thing we were celebrating), with the band impressively locked-in given that this was their fourth show in seven nights.
Though Jake has looked increasingly loose at every stop on this tour, he seemed to really let it go on his special night. The River obviously prominently features the saxophone, and Jake put a little extra oomph into his playing, from his party noises on an especially rambunctious "Sherry Darling" (party vibes were definitely in the air all night long — come Saturday night we let our ramrods rock!) to miming cruising in a Cadillac as he made his way downstage for his "Cadillac Ranch" solo. From every conceivable position — on top of the speaker in front of Max's drums, on the front platform with a leg perched on the speaker in the faces of the dazzled front-row crowds — the birthday boy showed why there's only one letter separating sax and sex.
Yet he wasn't only in the spotlight during The River; it was clear as the post-album portion kicked off that this was a night for Jake when the sax-heavy "Night" made a welcome, jolting return to the setlist, soundchecked tonight but previously performed on this tour only at the second stop in Chicago. The exact shot in the arm the crowd needed after the morose (yet beautiful) "Wreck on the Highway," Bruce followed that up with an equally energetic Born in the U.S.A. favorite "No Surrender." Then things got really interesting.
Feeling the crowd 100% with him, Bruce immediately grabbed a sign that caught his eye. After its soundcheck rehearsal in Buffalo, the rare and rollicking River outtake "I Wanna Be with You" stunned the crowd in what was only the third performance of the song in the 21st century. Minus a little rough start, the top-notch performance of this wholly underappreciated power pop tune made it feel like a tour staple. And though it might have fallen on uninformed deaf ears in most cities, the faithful hordes packed into the Blue Cross Arena greeted the song with as much enthusiasm and noise as any of the classics that preceded it.
That alone probably would have appeased the diehards, but the surprises didn't stop there. Simply flipping the sign around, Bruce and the band returned to Born in the U.S.A. with uproarious rendition of "I'm Goin' Down." If "I Wanna Be with You" had a slight false start, this had a big one, with Bruce mistakenly counting it off instead of starting with the guitar riff, but they quickly ironed out the kinks for a fantastic performance.
It was clear from the start that this was a big home crowd for Bruce, full of fans who had made the trip to Rochester knowing how much he loves playing in such an intimate room. He said as much in the encores, declaring, "This is a great building to play, actually. It's the perfect size." Simply put, they were with him every step of the way, and they sang the "Badlands" chant so loudly that Bruce even had the band play a little softer just to hear fans' voices beautifully echoing off the old walls of the arena. "Badlands" was dynamite, and it put the crowd in state of euphoria, powering them through the usual stretch of "Because the Night" (featuring Nils flying around the stage like a madman during his solo, potentially his best of the tour so far) to "Rosalita."
More than just being engaged, this was a very E Street-literate audience, partaking in the crowd participation sections without Bruce needing to ask. They even knew the right times to hold up and put down their creative "Dancing in the Dark (with Bruce)" sign requests — which he visibly enjoys reading every night — without disturbing the experience of those behind them. Tonight's honors went to a woman who got to celebrate her 65th birthday onstage with Bruce. This was very evidently not the first show of the tour for a majority of the audience, and they were more than ready to celebrate the night's multiple special occasions. And there was still a big one to come.
After leaving "Rosalita" in a little café down San Diego way, Bruce made a signal to the band we'd yet to see on this tour: he held up ten fingers. Sure, he ended up finding a sign in the crowd afterwards requesting "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," but given the fact that it was soundchecked, you have to assume that he was planning to play it all along. And why wouldn't he? The song celebrates the event that ultimately led to Jake being able to celebrate his 36th birthday surrounded by 13,000 of his biggest fans: the creation of the E Street Band.
Though Roy messed up the introduction (a trend tonight for the tour debuts), it was everything that you could possibly want in a performance of "Tenth": an extra-long rev-up, Bruce in full-on preacher/James Brown mode, a crowd that knew every single joyous word. Tonight's version fell somewhere between the ecstatic, congregational style of the Reunion tour performances and the reflective, memorial style of the Wrecking Ball tour performances. And given what this tour seems to be about, that felt exactly right.
Near the end of The River performance every night, Bruce says that the album is about the finite time that we have, and how throughout your life "you walk alongside of your own mortality." In a way, "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" may be the biggest reminder of the band's mortality in their entire catalogue. Though it wasn't accompanied by the Wrecking Ball tour's customary pregnant pause to let the crowd watch, an abbreviated version of the memorial montage from that tour was played tonight on the big screens as he sang the final verse, as "the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band."
Yet the montage was also superimposed over live shots of Bruce, who had made his way to the center platform to be surrounded by his adoring fans. Yes, this tour is very much about reflecting on the past — Bruce reflects throughout on the differences in perspective between his youthful River self and his current self — but this was a striking visual and musical declaration that as long as the band's up there and we're down here, the show will go on. Though many wondered how the E Street Band could survive after Clarence's death, here we are still rocking three tours later. And Jake is hugely responsible for that: he's a nightly reminder that this music will persist into the future, past the mortality of the original E Street Band members. Younger fans — and there seemed to be an inordinate number of families in attendance, perhaps because it wasn't a school night, including multiple signs exclaiming it was their first show together — will inherit the legend of the E Street Band from crowds like Rochester's and shows like Saturday night's.
We may walk alongside our mortality, but in a way, Bruce is in fact playing alongside of and in front of his own immortality every night in the form of Jake and these more diversely aged crowds. With the birthday boy on stage, Bruce on the center platform, and the crowd in between and all around, there were a literal lifetime's worth of memories and songs and stories and shows contained within the room that span from now all the way back to the origins of both The River and Jake himself, some of which were captured in the montage playing on the screens. It's safe to say that the legend of the E Street Band put forth in "Tenth Avenue Freeze-out" will not fade away anytime soon.
After a victory-lap performance of "Shout," the night of celebration had to come to an end, but not before Bruce took an extra few seconds alone on stage after the band had already left to soak in the crowd's deafening, joyful cheers one more time. Rochester?!... Rochester!
After the somber "Wreck on the Highway" conclusion of yet another masterful album performance, Bruce immediately got the crowd energetically "la-la-la-ing" back to their feet with the welcome return of "The Promised Land." And then, it was time to set the place ablaze.
For "the old timers," Bruce launched into the sole tour premiere of the night: a blazing "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City." Though some may have expected a debut to be one of the excitement-generating soundchecked songs — "We Take Care of Our Own" and two outtakes, "I Wanna Be With You" and "Take 'Em as They Come" — Bruce instead decided to reach back for another rarity off his first album. This was the second show running to feature a tour premiere from Greetings after Cleveland's surprise "Growin' Up" on Tuesday. Perhaps the snow outside combined with the song's plethora of heat-related imagery inspired Bruce; perhaps it was the site of the album's only complete performance in 2009. No matter the reason, those in attendance — surely full of hot buffalo wings themselves — were treated to a blistering rendition of "Saint in the City," highlighted by Max's vicious drum solo and the customary, flame-throwing (yet too short!) guitar duel between Bruce and Little Steven.
Springsteen obviously felt good taking center stage with his guitar, following up "Saint" with a fiery "My Love Will Not Let You Down." Always a highlight, the song allowed him to rip off yet another scorching guitar solo. But no night full of E Street guitar solos is complete without letting Nils Lofgren command the spotlight for a few minutes, which he achieved with aplomb as always with his sizzling (and spinning) work on "Because the Night." The night belonged to guitars.
And yet, there was one more searing (don't worry, I'm close to running out of synonyms for "hot") surprise in store; after the main set ended with the usual song selections, Bruce opened the encore with perhaps his biggest love letter of a cover to red-hot rock 'n' roll: a feverish "Detroit Medley," which he dedicated to a Stephanie in the crowd for her 22nd birthday. Stephanie, Buffalo thanks you — not a bad present from the Boss for us all.
I've made a point of using as many heat-related descriptors as possible only because Bruce himself kept referring throughout the night to the snow descending upon Buffalo. For some reason, inclement weather of any kind tends to bring out the best in him. Rain, heat, wind, thunderstorms, snow... if there's any trace of these in the air, you know you're in store for a special performance, and tonight was no exception. Bruce repeatedly mentioned the poor weather conditions throughout the show, from changing the "Cadillac Ranch" lyric to "drivin' alone through the stormy Buffalo night," to noting the "little bit of snow out there — we like it!" during "Meet Me in the City." He was truly giddy from the get-go, starting the night by gleefully singing a riff on the classic opening line from "Buffalo Gals": "Buffalo won't you come out tonight?"
And what I'm sure many Buffalonians had come out tonight to see — the full River performance — was as stellar as ever. Bruce and the band once again found ways to add new little wrinkles throughout the 20 songs. To the tepid reaction he received to his nightly query "Who remembers their first kiss?" during the "I Wanna Marry You" introduction, Bruce responded, "Has to be more than that! How do you keep yourselves warm out there?!" Over the coda of "Point Blank" he poetically added, "Did you forget our love? Did you forget our pain?"
But the funniest difference in the performance of The River tonight belonged to Mr. Garry W. Tallent. Since Patti didn't make the trip to Buffalo, Bruce called on him to replace her call-and-response solo in "Out in the Street." Perhaps emboldened by the imminent release of his first solo album, Garry gave the slowest, completely off-tempo, yet coolest delivery of "meet me out in the street tonight." Keep doing you, Garry.
Though The River performance was as good as ever, Buffalo's show will probably be remembered for the consecutive sizzling guitar work on "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City," "My Love Will Not Let You Down," and "Because the Night." This stretch should've reminded the tempest-tested Buffalo crowd that — to borrow and slightly alter a famous quote from Jon Landau — Bruce may no longer be rock and roll future, but he and the rest of the old-timers in the E Street Band on this River Tour are sure as hot hell the inextinguishable face of it right now.
The ticket I bought to my first show on the original River tour was $12.50, tax included. I still have the stub, too. That first show, Bruce played "Independence Day" and introduced its meaning to him, about talking to his dad late at night: "I never once asked him what he was thinking about... and later I realized that what he was doing every night was, he was sitting there dreaming... but what happened to him was... he didn't have the strength any more, or the power to begin to make any of the things that he was dreaming about real." And that felt so real to me. Now I know the things you wanted that you could not say.
Things have changed for me besides the ticket price. I met a girl and I settled down. Our son is a college freshman. I may be on the other side of that kitchen table now. Bruce said back at that first show, about holding on to dreams, "that's the hardest thing you gotta hold on to, so don't lose it." Bruce now refers to "Independence Day as "the kind of song you write when you're young," but maybe that's only because it's the younger person doing the speaking. Punctuated by Soozie's melancholy violin, the song hits as hard now as it did then. Harder, maybe, for all of us who have walked parts of that dark and dusty highway these 35 years.
By following the album's script, this tour almost forces internal questions. I remember that first listen, already knowing a few songs from radio broadcasts, with most of the others being revelations. The feeling of being suddenly kicked in the gut when the title song rolled around, and then the procession of disoriented and lost souls on the second record: their struggles, desperation, and lonely demises. Even "Cadillac Ranch" and "Ramrod," though they rocked out, weren't really happy songs.
How to make it all real and now, that's a challenge, and Bruce came through for Cleveland. He may have called out "Party noises, Pittsburgh!!" before "Sherry Darling," but he quickly corrected himself and with a laugh blamed the gaffe on seeing Joe Grushecky backstage before the show. The stage is no frills, but it gives each of the players their space, in a "front line" tonight consisting of Bruce, Steve, Garry (in Patti's normal place stage left, Patti not being present this evening), Nils, and Soozie, and a back line of Roy, Charlie, Max and Jake. Bruce has easy access to the audience on the perimeter of the pit, and to the first rows of the side; he uses that space to draw in the crowd. "The River" features the audience singing out "union card and a wedding coat." "Crush on You" is a sing-along, too, and if Bruce doesn't hit all the high notes of that one, so what? The audience doesn't, either. But Stevie does, in harmony — how did his voice get better?
Most of all, I think Bruce has drawn his own band closer in to the show. Stevie hasn't been engaged in the show like this in many years, but here he is providing vocal and instrumental support for Bruce song after song. Bruce enabled this in part by sometimes stepping aside himself: for a three-song stretch beginning with "I Wanna Marry You," Bruce doesn't play the guitar at all, as Steve takes lead. Then, after the guitar and violin blow-out of "Cadillac Ranch," two more songs without the guitar. Steve's 12-string support for a funereal version of "The River" and for "Fade Away" are notable high points (nevermind that Bruce flubbed the second verse of "Fade Away" tonight). And the harmonies! It wasn't so long ago that, after a televised performance of "We Take Care of Our Own," a musician friend emailed to say, about Steve, "I think he was singing 'Cadillac Ranch.'" On this show, the harmonies soar. The jaw-dropping moment for me is the "Here She Comes" introduction to "I Wanna Marry You," with Bruce pulling out maracas, and then trading the "little girl" line with Steve over and over again, so earnestly and soulfully that we're transported to another reality: these aren't mid-60's men anymore, and we're not greybeards in the audience; we're all romantics on our street corners, this is our shared moment, and for these few seconds we can even forget that the "love" in the song is just "youthful imagining." Other times, they would be goofy but no less spot-on; during "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)" they even appeared to toss in phrasing from the local frat rock classic, the Human Beinz' "Nobody But Me."
This show also reminds just how great the songs of The River are. It's easy enough to imagine grown-up themes; this record and these performances make them resonate. "Stolen Car" may be the greatest hidden gem of Bruce's career. There's the 1980 arrangement of "Point Blank," a soul-wrenching "Fade Away," an intense of "Drive All Night," in which Bruce seemed to intentionally go hoarse, only adding to the sense of desperation. Add a goofy crowd-stroll of "I'm a Rocker" (aka "I Maraca" for me), "The Price You Pay," and finally, the terrifying vision of "Wreck on the Highway." All songs just from the second disc, rarely played in the past three decades, now dusted off and played as if they were brand new.
The River album portion of the show ends with the reminder that time is limited, but of course, our time for the evening doesn't end there. For me, seeing this show finally for the first time, it could be, and I'd leave happy. It's that good. But for Bruce, it's not enough; for one thing, as long as The River is, it's not three hours. And it's not like he would send the crowd home thinking about a wreck on the highway. So bring on some Darkness-era rockers. Experience Nils blowing off the roof not just with one of his patented twirl-o-rama solos, but two, as the tour premiere of "Youngstown" followed "Because the Night." Bring out another "just for Cleveland" moment with a fun tour premiere of "Growin' Up." Bring Joe Grushecky and Johnny Grushecky on to the stage for "Born to Run," for those Pittsburgh party noises. Find someone with the coolest sign of the night and have a nice dance. Heck, find two someones, and have two dances, and let the second guy play guitar (Bana Moureiden is the girl with the cool sign, and Scott Williams is the guitar-playing guy). And finally, dance the night away with a sweat-soaked "Shout," and only then, after more than three-and-a-quarter hours, call it a night. The audience soaked it up until the very end, responding to every emphatic shout of "Cleveland!!" with a return shout of "Broooce!!"
Finishing the drive home in my own car, the memories from the arena still fresh, I wonder not so much when I'll arrive, or even how I'll get through Wednesday. I keep in mind that time has passed, and there are still dreams to keep and things to say.
"We don't play this one too much, but we'll do it for these two guys back here — you guys have been with me all night long. You had the sign! You had the sign, I don't see the sign, but I know it was there! This is for you guys."
It was a thunderous, full-band "Born in the U.S.A.," the first appearance of the song on this tour, Bruce singing "Forty years burning down the road." With a gruff vocal, loud synths and a lot of power, it was in keeping with the band's performance all night. Louisville was a hot show all around, with a strong, vigorously played post-River set that carried momentum from one song to the next, "Badlands" into "No Surrender" and beyond. Tracks from 2002 that can sometimes feel tired — "Lonesome Day," "The Rising" — were dynamic and inspiring, and that energy carried all the way through the encore.
For "Dancing in the Dark," a sign advertising "5 Sisters, 1 Boss" got a quintet of same-shirted women onto the stage, and as Bruce partied his way through "Rosalita" and soaked himself down for a "Shout" that actually felt fresh, you had the feeling that he could go all night. But of course "Shout" would have to be the end, right? Like always? Nope, there was our second encore surprise, as he came back to the mic to keep it rocking, boys. "It's too late in Lousiville!" Springsteen teased over and over, to escalating cheers from the crowd. "Are you sure? Are you sure?!" The sixth and final encore was "Bobby Jean" — not a shocker of a selection, certainly not the River outtake sign request Steve could be seen eyeing, but no one was complaining about this show going long.
All that, of course, was the icing on the cake (Yum!) of the exquisite River performance that formed the first two-thirds of the night. Springsteen described the album as one "where I was trying to find my way inside — my first series of records were kind of 'outsider' records, we were all part of a marginalized community on the streets of Asbury Park."
Part of what's interesting about following the River Tour is that the setlist may not change from night to night, but the songs themselves do. Bruce sings them differently, the band plays them differently. I'll remind myself here to compare various takes on "Point Blank" as the downloads become available. "Crush On You" has become even more of a blast now that Springsteen has stopped apologizing for it — letting go of the self-deprecation from earlier on, he rips into this "lesser" song, commits to it, and reminds us that novelty songs can rock your socks off, too.
The more talking from Bruce the better, for my money, and his commentary on the album's songs is expanding as well. "Drive All Night," which built to an astounding climax in Lousiville, now gets an introduction: "As we got to the end of the record, we were looking for a song that would sum it up. I was looking for a love song. We found this, something we'd cut back for the Darkness album, in 1977, in one take."
The attention and focus from the crowd on a song like "Drive All Night" — like "The River," like the emotional heart of the album that is "Stolen Car"— was one of the biggest takeaways of the night. This was the most respectful crowd of the several I've seen on this tour, first noticeable when there was actually quiet for "Independence Day," and it continued throughout the set for those slower songs that demand attention. There's a tendency to call these songs "quiet," but it struck me in Louisville that the band is introducing more dynamics as the tour goes on. "Independence Day" becomes so big and majestic, it's leaving sit-down ballad territory. But in the quietest moments, fewer distracted fans in the crowd really boosted the experience. It also fed the energy that sustained the barnburner back third and the feeling that it just couldn't have gotten too late for Louisville.
February 18 / Philips Arena / Atlanta, GA
If you're a hardcore fan sitting behind a laptop in Metuchen, NJ, you're going to write the show off due to the setlist. I know, I've done it myself. "Not special," we think to ourselves. But Thursday night saw the E Street Band in all of its power and glory playing a white-hot show in a market where it was relatively easy to score a ticket; a good ticket in fact.
The reason these particular shows are so wonderful is the level that the E Street Band is playing at. The old adage "addition by subtraction" seems to apply on this tour. Without the extraneous vocals, percussion, and horns, you get to the core of what the E Street Band can be about. More than the Magic tour or any I can think of, this is very much their garage band tour.
Part of this comes from the material they are featuring. Back when the High Hopes album was released, DJ Rich Russo tweeted (and I'm paraphrasing) "I prefer the arguments Steven lost to the ones Tom won." The subtext of this tour is about Steve Van Zandt as band leader and consigliere. Watching Steven on stage Thursday night, there were a number of times that he was truly basking in the crowd. After "Shout," while Bruce was off to the side holding hands with Patti and waving to the crowd, Steven was front and center, nodding up and down, hands outstretched like Pope Francis reveling in the reception they were getting. While the second half of the show is what drove the crowd wild, it's the performance of The River that is the diamond of this tour.
Sitting in Max's Coal Oven Pizza in the Marietta section of Atlanta Thursday afternoon, I was preparing my 12-year-old daughter for the show she was going to see. It was her fourth Bruce show in seven years, but she's still pretty new to The River. In the last ten weeks I've probably played The River as much or more than I played the original LPs back in 1980-81, to prepare her for this show.
"Rock 'n' roll bands often only get one real shot at a double album, and it's got to be at a time when they're firing on all cylinders and they've got the guts to think they've got that many great songs and that much to say," I find myself telling her. I start rattling off the classics — some she's heard, some she will: The Beatles' White Album, The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street, Husker Du's Zen Arcade, Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, The Clash's London Calling, Prince's Sign of the Times, The Who's Quadrophenia, and on and on.
The River lands somewhere in the Top 3 of those titles for me (don't ask the other two, it changes daily). What I've come to realize is that when these River shows were announced in December, it seemed easy and safe. How often has Bruce started a tour behind a record and, 30 shows in, the ratio of new to classic songs flip? This time, he and the E Street Band are locked into this format, and it's demanding of both the people on stage and the people in the seats. Having caught my second show, playing The River start to finish is far more ambitious than I originally considered.
Most bands on the road would look at Springsteen's setlist from Thursday and start their shows with "Prove It All Night" and end with "Shout," with maybe another song or two thrown in for 90 to 100 minutes of music, and the crowd would go away happy.
There were so many great moments Thursday night, especially during The River segment: Soozie's understated violin in "Independence Day"; Bruce's electric 12-string during "The Price You Pay"; the subtle spotlights on Charlie, Garry, Max, Roy and Bruce during "Drive All Night" as well as the "Dream Baby Dream" section of the same song; Roy's sonic organ that moves the tempo forward on songs like "The Price You Pay" and "Brilliant Disguise"; Nils' acoustic guitar adding dimension to "Wreck on the Highway," Bruce's beer chug at the back of the pit in the middle of "I'm a Rocker"; the dedication of "Born to Run" to the Atlanta Community Food Bank and longtime Atlanta concert promoter Alex Cooley; and finally his dance with a woman fighting cancer during "Dancing in the Dark" topped off a wonderful night of crowd interaction.
But none of that can be witnessed or expressed in a setlist on a laptop.
Times change, life changes over and over and, as the man says, it comes right at you. So this time the road was Alligator Alley, those Midwest winters finally too much to take, and just two of us headed off to someplace called Sunrise and a building named after a bank, with The River in a fancy box with lots of other stuff.
To this day I am convinced the only thing that rivals a Bruce show (and it is surely a show, not a concert) is the anticipation of it, and that just seems to raise the stakes. After all, we endured the online ordering nightmare wishing for the days when we stood outside for hours until our local Sears store with a ticket machine finally opened the doors.
But I did have a concern based on my only barometer for this tour, opening night in Pittsburgh. There was way too much chitchat that night, and that is being kind. Songs that resonated with me for the many decades were tainted by folks who were there for only old hits and arena-rattling rockers. As Bruce said again tonight as he led us down to the River: this album is about work, commitment and family. It deserves our time, our money and our respect.
I lucked out in Florida. The "best available" tickets turned out to be on the side of the stage, tucked in between Charlie's back and Soozie's side. And my newfound friends in section 122 were kindred spirits; they came for the music, all of it. A young lady in front of me even apologized in advance because she likes to dance a lot. I told her to just dance the night away.
By now you know the drill, and probably the setlist, too. No surprises, no premieres, and maybe one fulfilled request. So we'll go straight to the highlights, which included Bruce looking quite happy to escape the winter weather for this solo date in the Sunshine State.
I knew going in that "Independence Day" would be the litmus test for the entire evening, the first of the straight-from-the-heart treasure chest on the album. It was treated around me just as it was those nights at the Uptown, some couples even holding on to one another and just moving their lips.
The trio of "Out in the Street," "Crush on You," and "You Can Look" stood tall among the rockers, even more so than the old standbys of "Cadillac Ranch" and "Ramrod." Still, it was another threesome that would define the night, if you were in the right place with the right people, and tonight it was like winning the trifecta at a Florida greyhound track: "The Price You Pay," "Drive All Night," and "Wreck on the Highway" quietly soared, bringing me back to a place that I thought was long gone. Imagine, if you will, any tour of the last decades where you got all three in one night. I dare say you would have floated out of the arena.
Other notable moments included a marriage proposal in the rarified air of the third level during "I Wanna Marry You"; Jake at one point taking over duties on the harmonica; and Steve taking the stage for "Meet Me in the City" (a song that was finally well received, by the way) looking like a clone of Darth Vader or Johnny Cash.
Not everyone was as lucky as me tonight — reports from the pit of rude behavior were numerous, and it left a bad taste for many of the tour diehards. But as I walked out into the beautiful Florida night I thought about those many days and nights along the trail with Bruce and E Street since the Uptown Shows. I wouldn't change a thing and lets hope the sheer joy of The River never changes, either.
Friday night's show at the Wells Fargo Center felt a bit more relaxed than on prior outings this tour, owing perhaps to the band's comfort in performing before a friendly, local, and boisterous audience. Taking the stage, Bruce greeted the crowd: "My brothers and sisters! We're so glad to be in the City of Brotherly Love," and asked "Are you ready to be entertained?" From the crowd's response, they were indeed. Bruce would grade the crowd's "Hungry Heart" participation as "A plus!"
A large contingent of the Springsteen family was present stage right (including an adorable sign reading "WE LOVE YOU UNCLE BRUCE"), providing additional subtext for "The River," as Bruce's sister and brother-in-law were acknowledged, and also as a foil for Steve, who had great fun reminding Bruce about what "Mama said" during "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)." It wasn't hard to recognize that Bruce's nightly introduction to "Independence Day," that "It's the kind of song you write when you're young and you're first startled by your parents' humanity," takes special meaning when his mother is watching. Bruce became audibly emotional at the end of the introduction, as he explained the setting, "a late night conversation around the kitchen table between two people that loved each other and were struggling to understand."
Bruce had more fun with his introduction to "I Wanna Marry You," as he came to the microphone gently shaking two sets of maracas, declaring that "Maracas are the instrument of love. They're the instrument of sex. Any idiot can do it." He shook the maracas some more, before continuing, "This song was a daydream, standing on the corner, watching someone you're never going to meet walk by. And you imagine this whole life with that person just by the way they're moving or walking. What your kids are going to look like, where you're going to live… You imagine the easiest kind of life, and it's all bliss, it's all first kisses. Who remembers their first kiss?" The crowd cheered in response, as Bruce referenced his story from "In Freehold," name-checking Maria Espinoza and his walk back home with a limp before starting the "Here She Comes," introduction. He stopped the band at the end, taking a pregnant pause, before cueing them and shaking the maracas in earnest for "I Wanna Marry You."
It wasn't until the second half of the record that the band's performance truly stood out with the introduction to "Point Blank," one of the most remarkable moments of this tour — one where even idiots yakking in the crowd (mostly) shut up because the musical vibration emanating from the stage demands such attention. It is gorgeous, and riveting, and remarkable, Steve on the Gretsch peeling off those Duane Eddy-esque licks, Garry in the back like some mysterious country gentleman, bass line reverberating. "Did you forget how to love? Did you forget how to fight?" Bruce added a refrain of these lines at the end, underscoring the theme of the song. And the nightly performances of "The Price You Pay" have helped the band finally exhibit the rollicking countrified masterpiece it is, complete with outstanding harmony vocals.
Bruce added a new introduction to "Drive All Night," explaining that when finishing the record, he wanted a love song for the end, and "went back into our archives and I found this, that we cut in 1977, I think, in one take." It's unfortunate that a Philadelphia crowd wouldn't rate additional actual outtakes from The River. The beginning of the encores feels like a missed opportunity, as a place where Bruce has in the past showcased rarities with great success. Tonight it was omitted, as Bruce counted right in to "Born to Run" as the house lights went up.
There was, however, a very welcome tour premiere of the Born in the U.S.A. outtake "My Love Will Not Let You Down," which was particularly energetic and rewarding, Max executing the solo with deliciously crisp precision and Bruce climbing up onto his amps to urge him on. Patti Scialfa returned to the stage for this show after two nights off and was featured on "Human Touch." Ordinarily a welcome highlight whenever Mrs. S. is there to sing with Bruce, tonight there was a different energy, even more intense, with a little Tunnel of Love flavor to it. Bruce wanted to sing with Patti and he wanted to play guitar with her too, locking eyes and keeping her close to the center even after the vocals were done. Happy Valentine's Day!
The big surprise of the night came next, as the familiar opening notes of "Jungleland" received a supersonic roar of approval and welcome from the crowd, as Bruce held the guitar aloft in the spotlight. Perhaps it was that applause that caused him to miss the cue for the first line of the second verse. He continued with a grin, and the crowd just sang louder in response. They cheered for Jake Clemons when he stepped up to play his uncle's signature solo, and they applauded in recognition as Bruce acknowledged him in the shadows after the solo ended. Come the final verse, as the band dropped out after "wounded, not even dead" there was silence, followed by a loud cheer, followed by a large "Bruuuce" before the Philadelphians joined Bruce for the final "down in Jungleland."
As "Shout" brought the proceedings to a close, Springsteen almost seemed ready to do one more song, but instead had the band keep modulating up in key changes as they circled back to the call-and-response portions of the song several times. The "Detroit Medley" will have to wait for another night, as Friday in Philadelphia was already the longest show of the tour to date, just short of three hours and twenty-seven minutes.
The second item of note is that, for the second show in a row, Patti Scialfa was missing from the E Street Band, with no explanation from Bruce. Or maybe it was acknowledged by him, as "Bobby Jean" made an appearance in the encores for the second show running, serving as the vehicle for the band intros as well. Without Patti, Garry Tallent stepped up into the front row, and Bruce put him on the spot early on, calling for him to sing on "Out in the Street." Garry seemed as shocked as anyone, but he recovered nicely to squeeze the line in. Throughout the night, Garry seemed to be more animated, after being liberated from the back of the stage.
The River album itself is showing positive effects of repeated playings, with different arrangements of songs starting to make their way in. Bruce has poked fun at "Crush on You" in the past as being a lightweight throwaway. However, since it is being played every night, the song is starting to fill out, sounding for all the world like a great Rolling Stones cover. "The Price You Pay" emphasized Garry Tallent's bass, particularly on the last verse. "Drive All Night" included the repeated refrain "I just want to see you smile" from "Dream Baby Dream." And maybe it was just wishful thinking, but "Ramrod" seemed a little faster.
Bruce introduces the album section each night stating that he wanted the River album to feel like an E Street Band show. With these fresh, evolving arrangements — and don't forget the extended intros to "I Wanna Marry You" and "Point Blank" — this is happening, as the live version of the record becomes more and more like a setlist, as opposed to just an album being run through in order.
Something that is really apparent from listening to the album over and over again in a live setting is how saxophone-heavy The River is. Throughout the reunion era, Springsteen's compositions have trended away from the sax-heavy, classic E Street sound that turned Clarence Clemons into a folk hero. But The River album itself is dominated by Clarence's sax (as well as Roy Bittan's piano and Danny Federici's organ — when it was released in 1980, one of the most common observations about the record was how the guitar took a back seat). For any sax player, there's a lot of heavy lifting to do with The River as the setlist. Add in that Jake is the only horn on the stage (after playing with an entire section on the Wrecking Ball and High Hopes tours) and the job becomes even larger. Jake doesn't have Clarence's power, but then again, who does? After all, time and again, Bruce referred to Clarence as a "force of nature." There are times when the difference is noticeable on the album tracks. But Jake would probably the first one to acknowledge the huge shoes he's got to fill, night after night. His salute to his uncle before the solo on "Thunder Road" is a regular reminder of that.
The post-album set was heavy on material from Born in the U.S.A., as "Bobby Jean" and the usual "Dancing in the Dark" were joined by "No Surrender" and "Cover Me" which led off the second set. Although it was on the setlist, Bruce dedicated "No Surrender" to a deserving sign maker, who wrote "Chemo yesterday, The Boss tonight."
And then he looked right at me. "Alright, this one's going out to my man in the checkered shirt." Wait, I thought to myself, I'm wearing a checkered shirt... and I'm a man! But no, I can't be his man — since I'm very aware that Bruce has perfected the ability to stare/point/gesture at various spots in the crowd that make multiple people think he's personally addressing them exclusively, I assume he must be talking about some other man in a checkered shirt. As such, I put on my best inquisitive face and tentatively point at myself, waiting for Bruce not to respond so that I can go back to my usual anonymity. Well... "That's right — you brother!" The crowd's eruption into cheers pale in comparison to the multiple nuclear bombs going off in every corner of my cranium. "I see you every night... come backstage after the show! Let's give him a round of applause... " The crowd's shockingly loud round of applause drowned out whatever Bruce said next on my mother's recording of the moment, as did the bells of joy ringing in my ears in the moment. I guess now would be a good time for some brief backstory: Since I recently quit my job to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a writer, I was afforded the rare yet incredible opportunity to follow Bruce and the band around to as many shows as possible on this tour. Though I'm not going to every show, I've been to every one thus far, which explains Bruce's "I see you every night." Regarding the checkered shirt: I happened to be wearing it when I "won" the very first GA lottery in Pittsburgh, and being a superstitious fella, I've worn it to every show since, quickly becoming a rather lucky shirt for yours truly (I promise I wash the shirt in between every show... for the most part… and there's a t-shirt line of defense between the button-down and my profuse sweat every night. Thus ends my note to all of you hygienists out there). But it wasn't only the checkered shirt that got me noticed by the Boss in Albany (and the other shows before that): I have been told on countless occasions — by people standing next to me and by people sitting way up in the rafters — that I'm by far the most expressively enthusiastic audience member in the building. I sing (hopefully not too loudly for those standing around me) all of the words, I dance to all of the songs, I jump up and down, I cry, I fist-pump, I air guitar, I do things that no one has figured out how to describe in words yet. Basically, I'm a joyous ball of energy, and apparently Bruce has taken note over the course of the shows on this tour, which is why he singled me out at the end of the evening in Albany in front of 20,000 fellow fans. I won't go into detail as to what transpired during our backstage chat because that will stay between myself, Bruce, and my parents (who joined me backstage because I wouldn't be here without them for so many reasons — shout out to Bill and Margie Strauss!), but I will say that everything you've heard about meeting Bruce in person is 100% true. It can't be easy meeting so many people that consider you to be their hero, yet Bruce somehow exceeded my expectations, as he does with almost everything else. I will say that he thanked me for the nightly passionate energy, which I only want to share because I think it's the moral of this story. I, more than most, have experienced this tour's relatively static setlists night after night, yet I've made a point not to let it diminish my love of these shows. I refuse to lose sight of the reason that made me decide to spend far too great a percentage of my money on all of these shows. You don't have to be Nostradamus to know that Bruce and the band have way more shows behind them than they do ahead of them, and I have reveled in the opportunity to see what may become some of the final concerts in the legendary reign of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I focus on the fact that future generations will kill to be able to experience any of these shows, in the same way that I would kill to be able to experience even the worst show on the Darkness tour. I have these thoughts in the back of my mind every night. As such, it doesn't matter if I'm in the front row (thanks to the lucky checkered button-down!) or the back of the floor, I dance and sing and rock out like there's no tomorrow, because none of us really know how many tomorrows Bruce and the band — or any of us — have left. That's why I will throw my hands up every single night to come on up for The Rising, because in the future, I know I will give anything to be able to go back and experience just one more of these shows, setlist be damned. So that's my plea to you: enjoy these shows as fully as humanly possible. I understand there's a lot to nitpick — as there always is with everything in life — but you're going to forget those nitpicks once Bruce and the band hang up their guitars for good. For now, dance until your body feels like it's going to collapse, sing until your vocal cords go hoarse, and rock out like you've never rocked out before. Bruce and the band clearly notice, and they feed off that energy, making all of these already incredible shows that much more special and memorable. You'll enjoy the shows more, Bruce and the band will enjoy the shows more, and we'll all go through this tour singing and dancing and rocking out in beautiful harmony as the increasingly death-defying E Street Nation. And who knows, maybe Bruce will even notice you. As someone I met on Monday night once wrote, "faith will be rewarded." One final note about this whole ludicrous experience: the support that I felt from fellow fans both inside and outside of the Times Union Center in Albany on Monday night just made the evening that much more special. As I said before, the crowd's response to Bruce calling me out was overwhelming, as was everyone who came up to me to give me high-fives, hug me, call me their hero, etc. etc. etc. both as I was heading backstage and after the show as I was wandering around Albany in a complete daze of ecstasy. Instead of the expected jealousy, everyone seemed legitimately thrilled for me, and they all wanted to hear about what happened and to congratulate me; simply put, they just wanted to share in my special night. I've never felt more like a celebrity, and I think that's what's most unique and amazing about the community that Bruce's music has created: it can make an average joe like me feel like a special member of an even more special community of like-minded fans of the Boss. In a time that feels like people are more divided than ever, it was an unbelievable experience to feel like I'm a part of something that transcends everyday petty differences: an ardent love of the gospel of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And that's a love that nothing — not even the inevitable mortal hands of Father Time — can take away from us. And now, back to our regularly scheduled recap (I'll try to be as objective as possible):
And then he looked right at me.
"Alright, this one's going out to my man in the checkered shirt."
Wait, I thought to myself, I'm wearing a checkered shirt... and I'm a man! But no, I can't be his man — since I'm very aware that Bruce has perfected the ability to stare/point/gesture at various spots in the crowd that make multiple people think he's personally addressing them exclusively, I assume he must be talking about some other man in a checkered shirt. As such, I put on my best inquisitive face and tentatively point at myself, waiting for Bruce not to respond so that I can go back to my usual anonymity. Well...
"That's right — you brother!"
The crowd's eruption into cheers pale in comparison to the multiple nuclear bombs going off in every corner of my cranium.
"I see you every night... come backstage after the show! Let's give him a round of applause... "
The crowd's shockingly loud round of applause drowned out whatever Bruce said next on my mother's recording of the moment, as did the bells of joy ringing in my ears in the moment. I guess now would be a good time for some brief backstory:
Since I recently quit my job to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a writer, I was afforded the rare yet incredible opportunity to follow Bruce and the band around to as many shows as possible on this tour. Though I'm not going to every show, I've been to every one thus far, which explains Bruce's "I see you every night."
Regarding the checkered shirt: I happened to be wearing it when I "won" the very first GA lottery in Pittsburgh, and being a superstitious fella, I've worn it to every show since, quickly becoming a rather lucky shirt for yours truly (I promise I wash the shirt in between every show... for the most part… and there's a t-shirt line of defense between the button-down and my profuse sweat every night. Thus ends my note to all of you hygienists out there).
But it wasn't only the checkered shirt that got me noticed by the Boss in Albany (and the other shows before that): I have been told on countless occasions — by people standing next to me and by people sitting way up in the rafters — that I'm by far the most expressively enthusiastic audience member in the building. I sing (hopefully not too loudly for those standing around me) all of the words, I dance to all of the songs, I jump up and down, I cry, I fist-pump, I air guitar, I do things that no one has figured out how to describe in words yet. Basically, I'm a joyous ball of energy, and apparently Bruce has taken note over the course of the shows on this tour, which is why he singled me out at the end of the evening in Albany in front of 20,000 fellow fans.
I won't go into detail as to what transpired during our backstage chat because that will stay between myself, Bruce, and my parents (who joined me backstage because I wouldn't be here without them for so many reasons — shout out to Bill and Margie Strauss!), but I will say that everything you've heard about meeting Bruce in person is 100% true. It can't be easy meeting so many people that consider you to be their hero, yet Bruce somehow exceeded my expectations, as he does with almost everything else.
I will say that he thanked me for the nightly passionate energy, which I only want to share because I think it's the moral of this story. I, more than most, have experienced this tour's relatively static setlists night after night, yet I've made a point not to let it diminish my love of these shows. I refuse to lose sight of the reason that made me decide to spend far too great a percentage of my money on all of these shows. You don't have to be Nostradamus to know that Bruce and the band have way more shows behind them than they do ahead of them, and I have reveled in the opportunity to see what may become some of the final concerts in the legendary reign of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. I focus on the fact that future generations will kill to be able to experience any of these shows, in the same way that I would kill to be able to experience even the worst show on the Darkness tour.
I have these thoughts in the back of my mind every night. As such, it doesn't matter if I'm in the front row (thanks to the lucky checkered button-down!) or the back of the floor, I dance and sing and rock out like there's no tomorrow, because none of us really know how many tomorrows Bruce and the band — or any of us — have left. That's why I will throw my hands up every single night to come on up for The Rising, because in the future, I know I will give anything to be able to go back and experience just one more of these shows, setlist be damned.
So that's my plea to you: enjoy these shows as fully as humanly possible. I understand there's a lot to nitpick — as there always is with everything in life — but you're going to forget those nitpicks once Bruce and the band hang up their guitars for good. For now, dance until your body feels like it's going to collapse, sing until your vocal cords go hoarse, and rock out like you've never rocked out before. Bruce and the band clearly notice, and they feed off that energy, making all of these already incredible shows that much more special and memorable. You'll enjoy the shows more, Bruce and the band will enjoy the shows more, and we'll all go through this tour singing and dancing and rocking out in beautiful harmony as the increasingly death-defying E Street Nation. And who knows, maybe Bruce will even notice you. As someone I met on Monday night once wrote, "faith will be rewarded."
One final note about this whole ludicrous experience: the support that I felt from fellow fans both inside and outside of the Times Union Center in Albany on Monday night just made the evening that much more special. As I said before, the crowd's response to Bruce calling me out was overwhelming, as was everyone who came up to me to give me high-fives, hug me, call me their hero, etc. etc. etc. both as I was heading backstage and after the show as I was wandering around Albany in a complete daze of ecstasy. Instead of the expected jealousy, everyone seemed legitimately thrilled for me, and they all wanted to hear about what happened and to congratulate me; simply put, they just wanted to share in my special night. I've never felt more like a celebrity, and I think that's what's most unique and amazing about the community that Bruce's music has created: it can make an average joe like me feel like a special member of an even more special community of like-minded fans of the Boss. In a time that feels like people are more divided than ever, it was an unbelievable experience to feel like I'm a part of something that transcends everyday petty differences: an ardent love of the gospel of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And that's a love that nothing — not even the inevitable mortal hands of Father Time — can take away from us.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled recap (I'll try to be as objective as possible):
Throughout his career, one of Bruce's calling cards has been writing songs about "little" people, everyday folk who struggle to get through their days on the peripherals of society and who very rarely have songs written about their daily existence. Though the capital of the great state of New York, Albany can be considered a "little" city that few would mark as a must-visit destination on a tour itinerary.
And yet, rather fittingly, Bruce has a tendency to play memorable, gangbuster shows in such oft-overlooked working class cities full of the type of people that become the everyday romantic characters permeating his music. Bruce and the band's concert in Albany was yet another example of this uniquely Boss phenomenon, for they ripped through yet another outstanding outing at the Times Union Center on Monday night, one that may prove to be the first step towards really varying the setlists from night to night.
This setlist diversity was hinted at even before anyone was allowed into the arena: "Murder Incorporated" plus two River outtakes were sound checked: "Loose Ends" and "Be True." Though I was anxious to see which of these he was going to bust out for Albany, first came yet another marvelous full album River performance.
The most notable difference tonight: the absence of Patti Scialfa, who took the night off, allowing Garry to move down to occupy her space next to Steve on the front line (for all you Tallent-watchers, never fear: the move did not change the shade-wearing W's cool and collected energy one iota). Though Patti's background vocals were definitely missed on multiple songs (Jake replacing her part in the callback section of "Out in the Street" was priceless), Bruce made up for it by adding a few new bits into his usual song introductions, most memorably during his trip down memory lane before "I Wanna Marry You" when he asked the audience, "Who remembers their first kiss?!" and then immediately responded to himself with a chuckle, "Everyone remembers their first kiss... I remember all of my first kisses!"
Once they finished up "Wreck on the Highway," I was fully expecting them to launch into one of the soundchecked River outtakes, thereby cementing that spot in the setlist as the place to expect an outtake after premiering "Roulette" there in Boston on Thursday. And yet Bruce ended up skipping over the setlisted "Loose Ends" in favor of heading right into "Badlands." Though it's odd seeing such a landmark concert mainstay pop up in the middle of a set, Bruce must have had a very clear reason for making this quick decision: he likely sensed that sides 3 and 4 of The River— full of slow, beautiful ballads — had somewhat lost the Albany crowd, culminating in someone in the pit shouting, "If you want to talk, go outside!" to all those chatting their way through "Stolen Car." Bruce might have sensed the crowd's detachment from the material even earlier, as he decided not to ask for audience sing-alongs during moments when he usually does just that.
Though the diehard fans obviously want to hear those outtakes, Bruce must have recognized that he first needed to once again engage the vast majority of casual fans packed into the Times Union Center (as great as "Roulette" was in Boston, it didn't really land with that crowd in that slot). He followed up "Badlands" with "Wrecking Ball" and a soulful "Backstreets." Finally, he was ready to premiere another outtake; this time, he chose "Be True," introducing it as "a good one that got tossed in the trash, as many do" before dedicating it to "all our special friends." A fantastic performance of this beloved B-side led into "Because the Night," a great live song that felt a bit out of place here. Truthfully, this entire post-River song sequence felt oddly paced — full of strong songs, but played in a weird order.
And this brings me back to Bruce's dedication before "Be True" to "our special friends." I couldn't help but think he was talking to the diehards, whom he's clearly playing the outtakes for, but he hasn't fully figured out how to best fit them in yet. As such, he directed "Be True" to all of us — if we stick with him as he figures out the best way to vary up the post-River part of the show, he'll be true to us by continuing to play more and more rarities. That's how it struck me, anyway.
Yet I don't think anyone expected that he'd play another rarity so soon. I assumed "The Rising" would be the start of his same ol' song sequence through "Shout" — a belief that was only bolstered when he didn't replace the customary encore-starting "Badlands" with anything — but Bruce yanked a sign from the crowd after "Born to Run" and launched into the tour premiere of a raucous and hard-rocking "Detroit Medley." The diehards loved it, the casual fans loved it, everyone loved it. This simple diversification of the encores really added an extra oomph to the final stretch of the night.
Another surprise was in store before the end of the show as well: the return of "Bobby Jean" after only previously being played on the first night of the tour. With another fresh jolt of energy behind him, Bruce had the whole arena throwing up their hands and "Shout"-ing before the night was through.
Though they may not have yet figured out the best way to diversify the setlist after their monumental performance of The River, they're damn sure working on it, and my is it fun to watch them work every single night.
For us, the big takeaway of the night was about a four-minute pocket, mid-set. It was right after The River, when Bruce pulled out the tour debut of "Roulette" — a fist-pumping move for multiple reasons. A thrilling live cut just on its own merit, it's also the first River outtake that they've tapped for this tour besides the nightly opener "Meet Me in the City."
Springsteen stated his intentions before the tour started: "We'll play the record start to finish, and then we'll play some of the special outtakes that are there, and we'll play some favorites..." So we've been waiting eagerly for those special outtakes, with so many powerful, "lost" 1979/80 cuts just itching to be played. Whether or not "Roulette" opens the floodgates, it felt good just to hear him say the words after "Wreck on the Highway": "This is the first song we cut for The River. Never made it onto The River, but it should have." So this night's album performance, as magnificent as ever, was for the first time bookended by outtakes from the era.
Some of the double album's 20 tracks ("Fade Away," "Stolen Car", "Drive All Night") are bound to be highlights for me every time, guaranteed, and "I Wanna Marry You" has become a surprise cornerstone of the whole album sequence. But other contenders vying for attention are shifting from night to night. "You Better Not Touch" was blistering in Boston. It was unusual to hear Bruce harmonizing with Patti on "The River," being accustomed to hearing Steve's voice there, but it was a standout moment.
Strong contributions from Patti tonight all over, who besides being the backbone of the band's choral vocals also joined Bruce at center mic on "Because the Night" and "Human Touch." These kept energy high after another monumental "Candy's Room" (it's amazing what that one does to a crowd these days), and Mr. & Mrs. S.'s vocals on the "Because" bridge were tight. In slot 27, "Human Touch" was the first post-1980 song of the night; it fits right in with the River themes, though, and it's still a blast to hear the E Street Band take this one on. When it all kicks back in at the end, it kills. And while Nils, of course, killed as well on his "Because the Night" solo frenzy, the guitar hero of the night was really Bruce himself, with monster leads on songs like "Prove It All Night," "Candy's Room," and "Human Touch."
There were two charities in the house this night, with the Greater Boston Food Bank joined by The Food Project. A champion of the latter, serving on their board of trustees, was the late wife of longtime tour manager George Travis, and Bruce made sure to note the connection: "The Food Project was Lenore Travis's passion."
Beginning with his now-customary "Meet Me in the City," the line "calling out nation to nation" took on added resonance when sung from the other side of the border. Though some have complained about the fact that the lights remain on during the song, the effect perfectly introduces the idea that he says is at the heart of The River: building a community through music. Being able to see everyone inside of the packed-to-the-rafters arena highlights how much the song is truly a rallying cry to everyone, young and old, to come with him and the band down to the river.
And they took us all the way down in Toronto. Though the band's performance of The River started off shockingly strong in Pittsburgh, somehow it keeps getting better. They've really found a way to simultaneously tighten their performance while still finding new times to add brilliant flourishes throughout. Those seeing the tour for the first time will revel in being able to enjoy one of Bruce's greatest albums played front to back, while the die-hard fans dabbling in repeat viewings are afforded the opportunity to notice these small yet powerful nightly adjustments.
In Toronto, they included Nils and Stevie's fantastic (albeit all-too-brief) guitar duel, at Bruce's behest, during an especially rambunctious "Cadillac Ranch"; the whole band lining up with their backs to the audience during "Ramrod" to show how they can literally "shake their booties"; and Bruce throwing in a few "dream baby dreams" within an increasingly breathtaking "Drive All Night."
Besides giving the band ample opportunities to shine, the songs on The River also call for the most audience participation out of all of his records, which brings us back to the community-building nature of the album. Perhaps partially because they knew exactly what songs to prepare for going into the show, the Toronto crowd was by far the most engaged and vocal of the tour. The River is stuffed to the gills with sing/chant-alongs, and Toronto — unlike other crowds who seemed to sit back and wait for Bruce to impress them — was exceedingly eager to show Bruce how impressed they were by singing loudly throughout, even garnering a stated "A+!" grade from Bruce after the "Hungry Heart" sing-along.
Could Bruce appease the die-hards by throwing in more rarities following The River? Of course. But I think it's very telling that he continues — especially last night — to play songs that are so conducive to mass audience participation. This show's oft-played yet still absurdly strong selection of songs — "The Promised Land," "She's the One," "Candy's Room," and "Because the Night" — combined with the tried-and true-run from "The Rising" through "Shout" all demand and were greeted with rapturous participation from 20,000 fans. Having perfected his ability to make everyone in the house feel included in the show, constantly playing to those sitting behind the stage, Bruce creates a unified E Street community within the arena every single night, none stronger than what was felt in the ACC on Tuesday.
January 31 / Prudential Center / Newark, NJ
But if, like many Backstreets readers, night five of the tour wasn't your first show on this run, or if you are planning on seeing multiple shows as this tour extends into April (and beyond), mere statistics aren't as impressive. The outtake is the same one that has opened every show, and "Meet Me in the City" appears locked into that position. It also maintains the distinction of being the only outtake played on a tour in support of a box set that features more than 25 songs that were recorded for, but didn't make, The River. The 20-song album sequence on its face isn't going to change. And seven of the dozen or so songs that follow the album set appear to be every-nighters as well.
So what makes repeated attendance at these shows so compelling is the way in which the album sequence is presented. When most people get a new album, they listen to it multiple times. Maybe once or twice just to get a feel for the songs, and then you get into it deeper, finding individual favorites, brilliant lyrics, hidden gems, a musical phrase that catches your ear and, particularly, in the case of a Springsteen record, a theme that holds the whole thing together. Seeing multiple shows on this tour gives the listener the chance to do just that with the two-record masterpiece that is The River, but in a live setting, which gives the songs plenty of room to breathe.
It appeared that most of last night's home state crowd enjoyed the first two sides of the album more. Filled with uptempo rockers, it's easier for a concert crowd to get into. After all, being forced to listen to contemplative ballads in a room with 20,000 other people, each of whom have their own agendas and interests, can be a challenge at times. But if you can lock yourself in and ignore the conversations and picture taking going on around you, sides 3 and 4 of the album contain some of Springsteen's most masterful creations. The sequence starting with "Fade Away" through the closing "Wreck on the Highway" requires you to pay attention or you'll miss a lot of what makes repeated performances of The River worthwhile.
This six-song sequence is made up of five songs that were not concert staples in years past. In fact, those five songs — "Fade Away," "Stolen Car," "The Price You Pay," "Drive All Night" and "Wreck on the Highway" — barely survived the first leg or two of the original River tour. With Springsteen committed to the sequencing of the record, that's five songs that are relatively obscure to all but the most die-hard fans. And with the exception of a version of "Ramrod" which is played at the speed of a '32 Ford instead of a 2016 Ferrari, they are all slower/quieter songs. It's hard even for Bruce Springsteen to hold a crowd together for that kind of stretch.
But if you can do it, and just lock in with the band, it is oh so worth it. You can make connections between the songs that you wouldn't ordinarily get in a live setting.
Listening to "Fade Away" and "Stolen Car" back to back, night after night, drives home how the two songs are polar opposites in describing the end of the kind of adult relationship Bruce says he wanted to write about on The River. "Fade Away" takes more effort to actually listen to, as the crowd is still catching its collective breath after the back-to-back punch of "Cadillac Ranch" and "I'm a Rocker." But there was a reason it was the second single off of the album 35 years ago, as the pain in Bruce's voice highlights the lyrical pain of losing something you wanted to hold on to.
"Stolen Car" is the anomaly of the group, featuring a protagonist that is running away, instead of trying to hold on to what he has. The different viewpoint it presents is jarring after the desire in "Fade Away." And to their credit, last night's Jersey crowd even found a positive use for cellphones on "Stolen Car," lighting up the arena like fireflies, to a nice effect, even if it seemed a lot friendlier than the song reflects.
After "Ramrod," a friend turned to me and said ecstatically, "I can't believe we get to hear this song every fucking night!" as the band launched into the lost classic that is "The Price You Pay."
"Drive All Night," featuring Jake Clemons on his most moving sax solo of the night, could be the same protagonist as "Fade Away," trying desperately to hold on to a relationship by promising just about anything. And the protagonist in "Wreck on the Highway," which may be the scariest song Springsteen has ever written, is literally trying to hold on to his loved one, in the face of the outside world trying to take it all away.
Presented live in an arena, it takes more to hear the connections between these songs than it does with a pair of headphones in a dark room. But they have such a vibrancy in a live setting that it makes repeated listenings, even at the cost of a ticket and travel, worthwhile.
On a separate note to those who may be attending future/multiple shows on this run, pay attention to the venue emails and Backstreets.com, as the general admission process is experiencing problems that haven't been around since the Rising tour. A change in the personnel handling the fan GA line has led to confusion about the process, and communication between the tour and venue doesn't seem to be as sharp as it was. Stay alert if you are doing GA, as this situation bears watching.
But first, filing into the Verizon Center wasn't all that easy. What is it about DC Springsteen shows and getting to your seats? Nationals Park was a chore back in September of 2012, too. Tonight the doors didn't open until 6:55 p.m., though tempuratures were in the 30s and lines were all around the venue. Perhaps to compensate, the show didn't begin until well after the recent start times of 8 p.m.
Hitting the stage, Bruce and the band tore into "Meet Me in the City," a song that's certainly unknown to a large portion of those in attendance and yet it's so obviously "Springsteenesque" that it sets the house rocking from the get-go. "Did you survive the blizzzzzzzaaard?" screamed Bruce to the Verizon Center. What was immediately apparent was how good the sound in the building was. "Meet Me In The City" has everyone on stage firing away, and the separation was significant. Whether this is a new sound system or a new way of mixing the show, it's noticeable and only gets better as the show reveals itself through the moodier numbers.
You'd think that performing The River, a 35-year-old classic, would be a no-brainer. But as has been mentioned before, this is a fully realized performance of this album. Everything we see and hear is specific and deliberate. The backing vocals of Soozie, Nils, Steven and Patti were stunning. The eerie blue-green lighting at the end of the song "The River" combined with Bruce's "Lift Me Up"-like falsetto is haunting.
As time goes by and you experience so many songs in a Springsteen show, there are always one or two that hook you into wanting to return. During the 1999 Reunion tour I went to multiple shows just to hear "Land of Hope and Dreams" each night. On this tour, I'll try to catch shows just to hear "Stolen Car." Roy's piano lines sound like a lover's tears hitting the street at night; lonely, delicate and fragile. Combined with Garry Tallent's bass, perhaps the MVP of the E Street Band on this tour, Bruce sings what I think are the saddest, most universally relatable lyrics he's ever written. Crushing.
Am I the only one who got a Van Morrison "Madame George" vibe during "Drive All Night"? I was reminded of Bruce telling Backstreets that while he's never attended a full album show, he did watch Van Morrison's performance of Astral Weeks on DVD. I'll need to catch that to see what kind of influence Van's performance had on The River 2016 Tour.
It was also apparent that Bruce has thought hard as to how he's going to communicate to the audience. Gone are any "preacher raps" of the last dozen years. Bruce talks a lot more to the crowd, and it's very much in the voice of the characters. As Springsteen wraps up the album performance during "Wreck on the Highway," he gives the audience a postscript of sorts, summing up his intentions. Again he's speaking in the straightforward voice we heard in the 1984/1985 live renditions of "Racing in the Street" ("So that was the night that we left. We don't know where we're going yet, but I guess that will come in time....")
From there it was a barn burner, with a swath of songs getting their tour debutes. "Darlington County" turned DC into a roadhouse. "Prove It All Night" followed by "The Promised Land" had some hankering for a Darkness album experience. But the real highlight was "Tougher Than the Rest." Talk about an album that's been underrepresented in concert for so many years. Watching Bruce and Patti singing distant and then at the same mic was sublime. Springsteen changed the lyric from "Maybe your other boyfriends couldn't pass the test" to "Maybe some of your men couldn't pass the test." A small thing, but enough that he wanted to change it.
A shout-out for the DC Central Kitchen and the large group of Veterans in the house preceded Bruce's dedication and performance of "No Surrender" to Bobby Muller.
And though I may have tired of "Rosalita" over the years, tonight I was glad she was back. It was fun watching Patti and Soozie girl-grouping it on Patti's mic while Nils, Jake, Bruce and Steven contorted their faces every which way for the crowd. "Shout" may have seemed like too obvious a choice to close out a show, like maybe something Huey Lewis & The News would do. But it's really all about vamping and strutting and getting the crowd into it. Ending after 11:30 p.m., the crowd was well into it.
Where did the spark come from? Where did the excitement reveal itself? It was all on the stage and in the building.
The River portion of the River Tour may prove not to be for everyone — there were times during the quieter stretches of tonight's album sequence when the Garden might as well have been a coffeehouse, with the chat level in the audience. But the crowd proved their mettle after "Wreck on the Highway," with a locked-in enthusiasm that clearly buoyed Bruce and the band, creating one of those thrilling in-concert energy feedback loops to the stage and back. This was the toughest ticket of the tour, everyone in the packed "big room" was lucky to be there, and that's when the crowd as a whole felt it, and showed it. A classic Springteen concert tends to ask a lot of the audience along the way, with some trips into the darkness and the reward of blowing it all away in the encore; tonight that euphoric blowout lasted a full hour, the whole final third.
So it's a stronger show when the album doesn't have to carry the night. But the River sequence, back in the venue where it was debuted live in 2009, was no less magnificent for it. The band's rich backing vocal harmonies, a key element of so much of the River material, were even more prominent and on-point tonight, from the first chorus of "The Ties That Bind." The musical highlights just start piling up as The River rolls on: Jake's solo flowing into Stevie's flamenco-flavored lead on "Sherry Darling," the rhythm section on "Jackson Cage," with Max's steady propulsion punctuated by monster fills, working in tandem with Garry's complex basslines and giving Roy's piano something to ride. By "Two Hearts" — zipping along, no drag — my buddy J.P. and I were raising eyebrows at each other at the pace and the power.
Quieting things down with "Independence Day" is when the crowd issue reared its head, though. A constant buzz of chatter on this one — and really, on every slower song: "Stolen Car," which didn't suffer for it, and "Point Blank," which did — revealed that this was not an audience that wanted things a little bit softer now. It definitely affected the experience. I was waiting for the magic of that final verse of "Point Blank" that plays so effectively in the Ties That Bind doc, but in this venue it might as well have been background music. The irony, as Springsteen sang "it was hard to hear / The band was playing loud and you were shouting something in my ear," was not lost.
Even so, The River keeps revealing things in performance. It wasn't until last night, the second time I heard Bruce introduce "Independence Day" as "a conversation," that I realized the second verse and chorus could be the voice of the father. Maybe I'm slow on the uptake, but I'd always heard the song as a monlologue rather than a dialogue; it's a trick that Bruce would use more later in his career, shifting perspectives from one verse to another (think "Paradise" on The Rising), but it never occurred to me before on "Independence Day." It's just one of the aspects of The River this tour has opened up for me — even if it felt like only the minority was paying attention.
But get back to the rockers, and the crowd was right there. Who knew "Crush on You" would be a sing-along? Bruce went back and forth with the mic as the people shouted along — "got no style!" "meek and mild!" He joked with Steve before the song about it being his "masterpiece," but it really does have its place. It's a fun stretch, from the surfing on "Hungry Heart" to Bruce and Stevie trading off "Prove It"-style "yeah! yeah!" vocals on "You Can Look," and it played very well in the big room.
With a little snafu as Bruce tried to transition the band from his story into "I Wanna Marry You," it was a kick to watch him realize in real time and admit what the problem was. "We're gonna try that again — even the tightest band in the world sometimes fucks it up!" A few beats later, and you could see it hit him — Bruce himself had forgotten the "Here She Comes Walkin'" intro. "Oh!! I fucked it up!" he laughed. "I was ready to blame others... but I fucked it up. Because I was supposed to be doing this: Here she comes, walkin' down the street...." Good thing he remembered, because it's one of the continuing highlights of the River set, a beautiful duet with Steven, their cascading vocals intertwining: "Little girl, little girl, little girl, little girl..." "Didn't wanna leave that out!" he laughed at the end — and you better you bet.
Stevie's contributions are piling up, too, beyond the expected "Two Hearts" palling around or "Ramrod" roadhousing, as his commitment to this material really shines through. More of these songs are becoming duets: whether it's his vocals or his guitar, Steve is constantly right there as a regular counterpoint to Bruce. His 12-string and his harmonies on "Fade Away" (that's one to cue up when the NYC download drops), his noir guitar on "Point Blank"... "Drive All Night" is turning into another Bruce & Stevie showcase too. At least until Jake steps up to blow the whole fucking place apart.
Living with these songs and playing them night after night finds them opening up, with "Drive All Night" a case in point: Bruce is playing around a little more now with the vocal, with melody and phrasing, and it's a good indication of how the songs can start to breathe when they're not relegated to rarity status. As Bruce and the E Streeters keep at this material they've played so rarely since 1981, they're breaking it in like a new pair of shoes. Another nice touch was Bruce's dedication of "The River" to his sister Ginny and her husband, who inspired the song and were in the house: "I'm gonna sing this song tonight for my sister — gonna sing this for my sister and her husband Mickey."
"So that's the River!" Bruce said to rousing applause after "Wreck on the Highway," before adding, "I'm gonna carry on for a while." The crowd cheered, but I'm not sure anyone expected that "carrying on" to blow the night wide open as it did. Setlist watchers surely couldn't have gathered it. But soon the cheers were a roar. "She's the One" got things off to a good start, but it was "Candy's Room" where we really achieved liftoff. When the lights came up on the crowd just as everyone threw their hands in the air and shouted "Baby if you wanna be wild!"... it felt like a jet engine. It's easy to get all hyperbolic when writing about a Springsteen show, and I try to be conscious of it; so after the song I turned to J.P. just to doublecheck: "Did you feel that too?" He said, "Yeah, it was like the solid rocket boosters on a shuttle launch." Exactly. Liftoff.
And from there it was relentless. It felt like the band hardly paused for breath between songs from here to the end. Apparently Bruce dropped "I'm on Fire" from the written setlist, and even if that meant we were a song or two short (hooray, no classic rock legends died this time!), it was the right call. Much as I'd love to hear that Born in the U.S.A. track, it would have been a momentum-killer; as it was, the momentum felt unstoppable. It fueled "Because the Night" — Nils's solo, never perfunctory, was just face-melting. It fueled a punchy "Brilliant Disguise," a monumental "Wrecking Ball," "The Rising" — "he's not stopping for anything!" — and a "Thunder Road" where you could particularly feel the direct cause and effect of all the energy in the room: as the entire building shouted "pulling out of here to win," it propelled Bruce's leap into the air.
The rocket ride continued through the end of the encore, lights up all the way, as Springsteen pulled two different gals up to dance, and his wife got a dancing partner, too: Bruce couldn't resist a sign that read "This Aussie goes batty for Patti!" (though eventually he had to give the batty Aussie the boot). "Rosalita" was an absolute joy. There are nights during "Rosie" when you can see Bruce working hard, even forcing things a bit to try to get everyone's energy up, like, "Okay, now we need to get crazy..." Sometimes that's what a showman's gotta do. But with the energy level already in the crazy zone — certainly on "Rosalita," and well before it, too — the joy was in seeing Bruce just get to be in the moment, riding those waves. Not working. Playing.
When the band last stopped at the United Center, in September of 2009, it was the Working on a Dream tour's debut of the full album concept, with the first start-to-finish rendition of Born to Run outside New Jersey. This time, Bruce took another masterpiece off his bookshelf and played The River from start to finish in all its glory, sadness, elation, celebration and sorrow. The recorded double album contains 20 songs and clocks in at roughly 83 minutes. Live, it has run for nearly 2 hours on the first two stops of the tour, much of the overtime from Bruce's narrative before a few songs, crowd surfing during "Hungry Heart," and an extended intro of "Here She Comes" into "I Wanna Marry You." In addition to the 1980 River tour, this arrangement can also be heard on The Ties That Bind documentary from footage taken at Max's wedding in 1981. The arrangement has a very Drifters-esque feel to it, with latin beats, piano work from Roy, and Bruce and Jake playing the maracas.
With each sax solo, Jake would come to the center of the stage with the crowd cheering loudly every time, and he impressed with standout solos on "The Ties That Bind," "Night, "and "Thunder Road." Soozie added a whole other layer of sound with her fiddle solo on "Cadillac Ranch," which also featured searing guitar solos from Nils, Steve and Bruce. A real high point for me was the performance of "Point Blank," with an incredible piano introduction from Roy, exceptional guitar lines from Steve, and Bruce's vocals. After a haunting "Stolen Car," the band bit into "Ramrod" with glee and abandon, and the crowd gladly got into the action, too. A fan sitting next to me exclaimed, "This is one of his most underrated songs," and I have to agree after seeing this live version with Bruce and Steve mugging at center mic, Nils grooving while standing next to a beaming Max on the drum riser, and Bruce performing a slide guitar solo sans a finger slide. "Drive All Night" was a stunner with the passion in Bruce's voice and another incredible solo from Jake. Having heard it twice now on this tour, one could argue that "Drive All Night" is The River's "Jungleland" in its complex arrangement, epic sweep, and monumental sax solo.
Max's drumming tonight was incendiary. The man "who brings the power night after night" was smiling from the first downbeat until the last, adding fills I've never heard before in some songs and driving the entire band from song to song, most especially on "I'm a Rocker," "Night," "No Surrender" and "The Price You Pay." You'll note that two of those weren't played in Pittsburgh; Springsteen completely switched out the first five post-River songs in Chicago, with "Night" taking the place of "Badlands," a doubleshot of Born in the U.S.A. tracks in "No Surrender" and "Cover Me," along with "She's the One" and a rare "Human Touch." Some hot guitar playing from Nils on "Cover Me," playing with his teeth and dueling with Bruce. This being only the second show of the tour, that should answer at least some fan concerns regarding the tour's post-River setlist.
"No Surrender" hit a bit of a speedbump, and after two false starts, Bruce said, "I forgot how it goes!" before tearing into the guitar solo. Max pushed the train back on track with his thundering fills, and the crowd showed their approval and appreciation for a band that rarely makes mistakes. There were a few sign requests in the crowd, including one for blues staple "Sweet Home Chicago," though Bruce didn't pull or play any sign requests (fans may want to keep their signs at home this time around). But it was good to hear so much different material following The River — and while it's hard to imagine cornerstones like "Thunder Road," "Born to Run" and "Dancing in the Dark" leaving the set, it'll be interesting to see whether songs like "The Rising," "Rosalita," and "Shout" will retain their spots each night. That said, the fan sitting behind me nudged me after "The Rising" and exclaimed, "I don't know how any band can sound better than the E Street Band has played tonight." Indeed.
For the second encore, the lights were lowered to a single spotlight on Bruce as he strummed an acoustic guitar and the beginning chords of "Take It Easy," in tribute to Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey (and the song's co-writer, along with Jackson Browne), who passed the day before. At past concerts — including Saturday's in Pittsburgh, where he played "Rebel Rebel" for David Bowie — Bruce has paid homage to recently passed friends and heroes like Warren Zevon, Sam Phillips, Johnny Cash, and Levon Helm. For this one, Bruce stripped the classic song down to its bare essentials both musically and vocally, with Soozie adding some superb fiddle lines. As Bruce played, one by one, fans filled the darkened stadium with camera lights that reminded me of the "fireflies" that appeared in Boston a few years ago during "Frankie." As more and more lights shone brightly, and Bruce sang, I was reminded of another line from an Eagles song: "I want to sleep with you in the desert at night with a billion stars all around." This fan and many more were chilled and moved by the performance and the fireflies dancing amidst the crowd. Towards the end of the song, I could hear his voice break a little with emotion and could see the look of sadness on his face as he paid tribute to his fellow musician. Bruce concluded the song and simply said, "For Glenn Frey."
I am not sure of a better transition after the somberness of that moment, but a blazing-fast "Born to Run" got the crowd fired up into a frenzy. On "Dancing in the Dark," Bruce traveled to the back pit riser, like a man on a mission. He went directly to a place in the crowd looking for someone specific, and in this moment often reserved for a young woman asking to join him for a dance, Bruce pulled onto the riser a silver-haired lady who seemed to be in disbelief, and the crowd roared their approval.
What amazes me most at this point in his career is not the songwriting, the arrangements, the vocal phrasings, but that at the age of 66, Bruce Springsteen performs for three-plus hours, giving it all he has each and every night — not because that's what he has to do, but because it's what he loves doing for himself and for his fans. Bruce once said, "I believe that the life of a rock and roll band will last as long as you look down into the audience and can see yourself and your audience looks up at you and can see themselves, and as long as those reflections are human, realistic ones." Every night that he is on stage, Springsteen looks into the faces of his crowd and makes connections with the eyes and minds of his fans, brings fans onto stage to dance and sing, and, crowd-surfing the pit, literally puts his body and faith in the hands of his people. Springsteen puts his faith in his fans, and as they pass him forward, hand over hand, they repay that faith and belief in the promise of rock and roll a thousand times over. The characters on The River can attest to Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey's lyrics: we may lose and we may win, but we'll never be this way again, so open up by climbing in. At nearly every concert, Bruce implores Mary, the heroine "Thunder Road," to climb in to his car. Some of Bruce's characters may think it's a town full of losers, but we're all pulling out of here to win.
As a concert opener, "Meet Me in the City" is as strong a statement of intent as anything in the Springsteen catalog. On paper the song may share the most with "Out in the Street," but kicking off this night it had the zero-to-sixty thrust of "My Love Will Not Let You Down," with the same call for connection, and it was a soundtrack for the scene: "I shoved my way through the heart of the crowd / Past the sign saying this is not allowed / To where someone's standing straight and shouting out loud..."
There's some magic in the night already, just seeing the E Streeters onstage for their first full show since 2014, and some additional enchantment with the band stripped back down to "just" a ten-piece. Much as I loved the contribution of the singers these last few years, and much as many of us pined and lobbied for another horn section for years after the Tunnel of Love Express Tour, seeing just the core band on stage — the band, not the orchestra — felt like coming home. Sometimes, as they say, less is more, and this was just the right unit to tackle the promise that was right there on the ticket: "Full 'The River' Plus!' Nevermind the fact that fully half of the players on stage weren't there in 1980-'81, this is who you want taking you down to the river in 2016. And after the promised River outtake, it was right into the full album, in slots 2 through 21.
"The River was the record where I was trying to figure out where I fit in," Bruce told the crowd. "By the time I got to that record, I'd taken notice of the things that bond people to their lives: work, commitments, families. I wanted to imagine, I wanted to write about those things, and I figured if I could write about them, maybe I'd get one step closer to reaizing them in my own life.... I wanted the record to contain fun, dancing, jokes, good comradeship, love, faith, sex, lonely nights, and of course, tears. And I figured if I could make a record that was big enough to contain all those things, maybe I'd get a little closer to the home I was searching for."
Given that there won't be setlist shake-ups for this sizable portion of the show, it's good to be starting with something so unshakable. From the jokes to the lonely nights, the built-to-last record sequence has all the peaks and valleys of a typical Springsteen concert in its bones. More than any other of his albums, as Springsteen told us in the Backstreets interview last month, The River was really created and sequenced to give listeners something like the experience of an E Street Band concert: "That's why we took all the time we did with it," Bruce told us, "it was our idea of new material that played like a show... with The River, we were taking a swing at trying to get some of that feeling and some of that ambiance onto the album." So seeing it come full circle — from the live show everyone raved about, to studio material meant to simulate it, back to the concert stage — is a deeply satisfying cycle.
Jake Clemons, holding it down for most of the night between Charlie Giordano and Max Weinberg, is a big enough man to not make the old horn section home base look lonely. And when he came down front for the solo on "The Ties That Bind," a friend leaned over and said, "Well, he's living up to the pedigree." No doubt about it. This was a big night for Jake, starting his first tour as the only sax player — the only horn — on stage. There's a lot of heavy lifting for him on The River, from "Sherry Darling" ("Party noises, we need party noises!" hollered Bruce) through "Cadillac Ranch" to "Drive All Night," and Jake was, in short, magnificent.
Jake even broke out harmonica on "Jackson Cage" — unusual to hear live, but it is on the record. That's indicative of the thought and attention to detail that went into this full River performance. Sure, it was informed by live touches that are familiar from recent years, including the "It Takes Two" coda on "Two Hearts" and Springsteen's crowd surfing on "Hungry Heart" (yep, he did it on opening night — hoisted from the back of the pit to the stage on outstretched hands). But Springsteen and the band also looked back to the original River tour for certain elements that hadn't been revived in decades. Roy Bittan's electrifying piano intro to "Point Blank" was last heard that way in 1981; commencing "I Wanna Marry You" with an extended "Here She Comes Walkin'" prologue was straight out of 1980 — and one of the most compelling moments of the night.
Though they hit us with one song after another for the first few tracks without pausing for breath, Springsteen also broke up the album performance as it went on with some stories and reflections. It's effective, engaging, and further skirted any danger of this feeling like a recital. Speaking before "Independence Day," Bruce called it "The kind of song you write when you're young, and you're startled by your parents' humanity. You're shocked to realize that they have their own dreams, and their own desires. Because all you can see is the adult compromise that they had to make. And when you're young, you haven't had to do that yet. The idea of it frightens you. It frightened me. And all I could see was the world that they seemed locked into, and all I could feel was the desire to escape that world." Springsteen began the song alone at center stage, with the rest of the band bathed dimly in purple; subtle shifts in lighting as "Independence Day" continued added nicely to the drama.
The River sequence had it all — good opportunities to play to the back (the CONSOL Energy Center was packed to the rafters, with plenty of fans behind the stage) on songs like "Sherry Darling" and "Out in the Street," and moments for each band member to shine: Charlie on "Fade Away," Max pounding mightily on "I'm a Rocker," solos on "Cadillac Ranch" by not only both Nils and Steve, but also Soozie on fiddle. Great to see Ms. Patti Scialfa back on stage, she and Bruce shimmying toward each other and sharing harmonies at center mic. And of course, if you watch Garry — you do watch Garry, right? — back there next to Roy in his cool shades, there's a highlight every few bars. But probably most fun of all was seeing Steve Van Zandt so damn engaged. This is his wheelhouse, and it showed. From mugging on songs like "Crush on You" and "Ramrod," to his guitar playing — check out the mournful lines on his Gretsch Chet Atkins during "Point Blank" — to his crucial backing vocals throughout, the River co-producer is putting it on the line.
It's worth talking about those backing vocals, too. It's been a few years since the E Streeters have had to fully carry that weight, and based on their strength on certain numbers, it's clear that attention was paid. Ethereal backing harmonies on a monumental "Stolen Car," the full choral effect on "The Price You Pay"... it was a powerful blend of the voices we know and love: Soozie, Nils, Stevie and Patti all at their mics, and Jake back there, too. Of course Cindy and Curtis could have killed it — of course. But there's something about this material that makes it even more powerful with just the band, the band, the band.
As for Bruce's voice, he was in great form all night, but most astounding in soul-singer mode. "I Wanna Marry You," "Fade Away," and "Drive All Night" were all killer examples of the form. Springsteen prefaced "I Wanna Marry You" by calling it a "daydream": standing on a corner, watching "someone you'll never meet walk by, and you imagine an entire life with this person. Where you're gonna live, what kind of kids you're gonna have. Of course, it's the easiest kind of life: the one without the consequences. It's a young man's song! It's imagining love, in all of its glory! And its tentativeness. It's not the real thing. But you've gotta start someplace. So this is where I started." Bruce introduced "Fade Away" as "Steve's favorite song"; "Drive All Night" is where I literally got goosebumps, coming in waves as Bruce's vocal intertwined with Jake's saxophone at the end.
I could go on — about the fun of getting seldom-played rave-ups like "You Can Look" and, yes, "Crush on You"; the depth and power of "Stolen Car" and "Point Blank" — but hey, we'll have lots of chances to get into more River nitty-gritty, with all the full album shows to come. Suffice it to say that the dynamic, rarity-packed album sequence formed the heart of the show in more ways than one.
But Bruce wasn't close to through after "Wreck on the Highway." Given that 24 or 25 songs is probably average for a night with the post-reunion E Street Band, many fans were anticipating this tour as the 20-song River album plus a few more. The reality on the ground: 34 songs. It was a monster of a show in that way, backloaded with so many biggies, starting with "Badlands" (which drove the place nuts) and also including "Born to Run," "The Rising," "Thunder Road," "Dancing in the Dark," and "Rosalita."
Some of the selections tied in nicely with The River: for instance, before "Wreck on the Highway," Springsteen told the crowd that the album was also about time: the limited time we have, for work, for love, for life. Which made "Wrecking Ball," two songs later, feel like more than just Springsteen making sure he worked in a modern-era song. The crowd went nuts for that one, too. Separated by just a few songs, "Badlands" was a good reminder that Bruce had already written about "the price you (gotta) pay."
But it does seem apparent that this is where Springsteen's challenge will be, crafting a B-set after The River that feels like more than just The Hits. There must be a sense that, after more casual fans in the audience have experienced an album sequence that doesn't consist of popular favorites (a la Born in the U.S.A. or Born to Run), it doesn't make sense to dig deep for further obscurities. And how can you play a show without some of those warhorses? All true. But then there are the fans who are hoping for more of those River outtakes... so finding a balance should remain a challenge as the tour goes along, and an interesting one to watch Springsteen wrestle with.
(To anyone too frustrated by the concentration of chestnuts at the end, it's at least gotta be pointed out: "Waitin' on a Sunny Day" took a breather.)
But on opening night — or for anyone's first show as the tour goes along — the chance to see Bruce and the E Street Band blasting those big guns after a couple years off is bread from heavenly skies. And after such concentration on 1980, the back half of the show brought us a five-decade span of material, including a grand "Backstreets" and a welcome dip into Tunnel of Love, with Bruce and Patti sharing a mic on "Brilliant Disguise."
One big question of the night — how or whether Springsteen and the band would pay tribute to the dearly departed David Bowie — was answered as the encore began. "I don't know if people know it," Bruce said, "but he supported our music way, way, way back in the very beginning, 1973. He rang me up and I visited him down in Philly when he was making the Young Americans record. He covered some of my music — 'Hard to Be a Saint in the City,' 'Growin' Up' — and he was a big supporter of ours. I took the Greyhound bus down to Philadelphia, that's how early that was! Anyway... we're thinking of him." And with that it was into "Rebel Rebel," a fantastic blast of rock 'n' roll that felt perfect for the E Street Band. But then again, what doesn't? [video here]
With the crowd shouting along ("Hot tramp, I love you so"!), "Rebel Rebel" was a major highlight; but really, taking top honors tonight was the tour's namesake, the River album, full of heart and soul. Good thing it's gonna bear repeating. While perhaps lacking the "OMG" element of its one previous performance, at Madison Square Garden in 2009, this River had more subtlety, texture, and rehearsal. Which means they can do it again — 23 more times, at least — after all.
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