By Brian Ives
“Once you enter adult life, the clock starts ticking,” Bruce Springsteen explained to the audience from the stage at Newark, New Jersey’s Prudential Center on Sunday night (January 31).
And the audience knew that all too well; many of them probably bought Springsteen’s 1980 classic double album The River when it was new, on LP (or maybe cassette, or even 8-track). The 20 songs—played in order—made up the centerpiece of the Springsteen’s concert. On this tour, he’s playing the full album every night, since he’s promoting his latest archival release, The Ties That Bind – a box set that contains The River, as well as a scrapped earlier single LP version of that album, and a full disc of outtakes (as well as a documentary about the album and and a two DVD live set from the tour).
The River was Springsteen’s fifth album, and it was released as he was entering his 30s, which—even for a rock star—marks the beginning of adulthood. After the romance of 1975’s Born to Run , 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town looked at the dark side of the American dream. The River kind of split the difference: it had joy and it had disappointment. It had raging rockers and solemn ballads. It was a rave-up on one hand, and on the other, serious as death. For the first time, Springsteen and the E Street Band showed on record why they were such a blast to see live: it had some of his best garage rock moments, the songs that didn’t seem to fit on his earlier albums. At the same time, he followed the Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams influences that began surfacing on Darkness even further (and he’d go further still with his next album, 1982’s Nebraska).
So, how did an entire performance of the 20 song cycle hold up in concert, 36 years later? Incredibly well as it turns out. The River, Bruce said, was meant to be a “big” album, and to “feel like life, with fun, dancing, laughter, jokes, politics, love, faith, and tears.” That’s ambitious, but the album, and the show, were both successful there. It’s also notable that for the first time in a few years, Springsteen ditched the “preacher”-type persona that he’s used on stage in recent tours; this time, when he spoke to the audience, he simply spoke to us. But the talk was kept to a minimum (for him); there was a lot of ground to cover.
The show opened with one of the album’s outtakes, “Meet Me in the City,” which reminded the audience that for all of the gravitas that Springsteen brings, he also leads one of the best garage rock bands in the world, for four-plus decades running. Appropriately, this tour features a stripped down version of the band, much like the E Street Band circa 1980 (and much smaller than the band he used on his last tour, which featured a horn section, backing singers, a percussionist and Tom Morello on extra guitar). It’s River players Springsteen, guitarist Steven Van Zandt, pianist Roy Bittan, bassist Gary Tallent and drummer Max Weinberg, with Charlie Giordano filling in for the late organist Danny Federici, and Jake Clemons ably filling the shoes of his legendary sax-playing uncle, Clarence Clemons. Guitarist Nils Lofgren, singer-guitarist Patti Scalfia and singer-violinist-guitarist Soozie Tyrell round out the lineup.
After “Meet Me in the City,” Springsteen took us to The River. Many of the songs from the album have been staples of E Street shows from the past few decades: “The Ties That Bind,” “Two Hearts” and “Out in the Street” as well as “The River.” Somehow, those songs never seem to get old: they never were overexposed on the radio, and they’ve always been the secret weapons of Springsteen’s live arsenal. “Hungry Heart,” an unavoidable song in 1980, was Springsteen’s first big hit single, but he hasn’t played it to death in his sets over the years, and it’s still a hoot to hear live, especially in this context. Of course, if you listen to the lyrics, it also stings. You may know someone who left their families and never looked back.
But many of the highlights of the show were the songs that don’t get played as often. On the garage rock side, that would be “Crush on You,” which Springsteen has actually said he doesn’t like (and in The River documentary, laments that he didn’t put the outtake “Roulette” on the album instead of it). But last night, it was a Nuggets-worthy barnburner.
Many of the slower songs were incredibly moving, notably “Independence Day,” “Fade Away” (a song that seems ripe for covering by some great country or R&B singer), and “The Price You Pay.” Without the backing vocalists of the past few tours, Scialfa, Van Zandt, Lofgren and Tyrell had to work a bit more, and they created a beautifully imperfect sound together (“I Wanna Marry You” was particularly gorgeous), adding a sense of wisdom to the ballads. Van Zandt, who seemed underused on the last tour, was particularly effective this time around, both as Springsteen’s mic-sharing foil, but also as an instrumentalist: whenever he switched from his standard Fender Strat, he changed the texture of the song (this was particularly true on “Point Blank,” where his spaghetti-western playing gave the song a new, more ominous, dimension).
After The River ended, they dove right into a set of other songs, the first group of which were from the post-River era: a rock version of Nebraska‘s “Atlantic City,” Born in the U.S.A.‘s “Working on the Highway,” the title track of his 1992 post-E Street Band album Human Touch, “The Rising” and “Lonesome Day” from his post-9/11 lament The Rising, and the title track of 2012’s “Wrecking Ball,” a song inspired by the now-torn-down Giants Stadium. All of these songs were met with ecstatic reactions (many more so than some of the slower segments of The River), and they pointed out that while Bruce (and his audience) may look back at 1980 with fondness, he’s still relevant decades later. How many of his peers have added classics to their catalog since the turn of the millennium?
The set also included “Thunder Road” (“You’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore” never gets old), “Badlands,” “Born To Run” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.”
During “Dancing in the Dark” a woman at the front of the stage held up a big sign with a checklist: “Just Got Married” was checked off, “Preggo” was too. Not checked off :”Dance with Bruce.” Of course, he obliged, calling her onstage, and checking off the unchecked box to the delight of the audience. It was a typically heart-warming “Bruce” moment, one that fans are used to seeing, and never get tired of. But it also pointed out how timeless his music is: she’s probably about the age he was when he wrote The River, and clearly it still resonates with her.
Earlier in the night, one of the show’s many highlights was “Independence Day,” a song which Springsteen described as a conversation between himself and his father. He said that when he was writing The River, his parents “Had their own dreams, and their own desires, and their own hopes and maybe they didn’t pan out as perfectly as they might have wished.” But, as a 20-something or early 30-something, “All you can see are the adult compromises that they’ve had to make. The daily lives that they seem like they’re locked into. And a world that seems like they can’t escape. And when you’re young, all those limits, and all those boundaries, you can’t see the blessings that might come with them. All you can feel is the desire to get away.” Again, it’s something that many in the audience probably are familiar with. Only now, like Springsteen, they can see the parent’s point of view, because they’ve been there. They may even be advising their kids how to have that conversation with their kids. That may be something that Bruce’s dancing partner may think about in 20 years or so. Maybe “Independence Day” will help her out a bit. But she’ll also probably still be listening to “Two Hearts,” “Cadillac Ranch,” and maybe even “Crush On You.”