Perhaps it’s fitting that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s epic-length concert tour in support of the 1980 double-pocket LP, ‘The River,’ pulled into Sunrise’s sold-out BB&T Center the night after the Grammys telecast found one “voice of the generation” after another stumbling through one single performance: Adele, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Lady Gaga et al.
The Boss, in a concert that defies the whole Spotify modern era in which we cherry pick singles to listen to, rather than albums, schooled the young crowd from the stage in how to deliver music written not by committee or algorithm. And, as the loss of two original members resonated (saxophonist Clarence Clemons, whose nephew Jake took his place, and keyboardist Danny Federici) a Springsteen concert hammers home the cliché: Who will fill these shoes when even he departs the mortal coil? In a year barely two months old that has already seen the loss of Natalie Cole (who had Springsteen to thank for one of her Top 40 hits, ‘Pink Cadillac’), David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Maurice White, among them, no one is guaranteed a long run.
Springsteen devoted a full two hours to a performance of his longest album, in sequence — a potential disaster on stage that could rob a show of its spontaneity and surprise, especially for an artist famed for changing his set lists each night. He also challenged his audience by bookending ‘The River’, itself loaded with lengthy, cinematic setpieces that don’t seem to lend themselves naturally to the pace of concert stage, by opening with one of its outtakes and then followed with another 80 minutes of E Street classics. These favorites, like ‘Badlands’, ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’, ‘Thunder Road’ and ‘Dancing in the Dark’ would seem tossed candies to the faithful for sitting through the main course.
Granted, Springsteen’s fans are devout and ‘The River’, the artist’s first No. 1 album (he bumped Barbra Streisand’s made-in-Miami ‘Guilty’ to achieve this feat in the fall of 1980) is hardly obscure.
“This was my coming of age record,” he said of ‘The River’, a body of work he wrote over a period of years as a single man in his late 20s. He performed the album in its entirety once, at Madison Square Garden in 2009. “By the time I got to ‘The River’ I took notice of the things that bond people to their lives, their work, their commitments, families. I wanted to make a record that was big, was full of life, like an E Street show.”
Now, at 66, Springsteen has grown into the themes he was studying on songs like the scrappy ‘Hungry Heart’ (the album’s sole Top 10 single, originally intended for New York punk group, The Ramones), the title track, a ballad about the recession’s impact on his sister and brother-in-law and the devastating mood pieces ‘Stolen Car’ and ‘Wreck on the Highway’.
Springsteen’s fans, too, have grown along with their musical hero. The album’s themes of family, fidelity and frailty (along with brash frat rockers like ‘Crush On You’ and the dated ‘Cadillac Ranch’) are now familiar life experiences, shared by star and audience alike. “I wanted to imagine and write about those things. I figured if I wrote about them, then I’d get a step closer to having them in my own life,” he shared.
Married twice and a father of three, current wife Patti Scialfa has been a band mate for decades, Springsteen relived his past, mining the material for its gold. The music, live in 2016, sounds fuller, richer and the E Street Band is a more accomplished unit today than the rawer band they were in 1980.
For a rocker to bask in all these moods, tempos and topics in one sustained set is an anomaly. ‘The River’, itself, is a testament to when artists were emboldened to take advantage of four sides of vinyl to reflect on life. The success of this unexpected tour – Springsteen plans to go solo for awhile so he designed the tour to work with his E Street pals once again – is a tribute to the audiences he’s built, one willing then and now, to give the music the space it needs to absorb its nuances.
Springsteen referenced that he was a different person when he wrote the album in a year then marked by the saturation radio play of the Bee Gees ‘Saturday Night Fever’ songs. In introducing the fetching ‘I Wanna Marry You’, he described its earnestness as “a song of youth – love in all its glory before reality sets in…not quite real but you gotta start someplace.”
Some of the lesser lights, like ‘Ramrod’ and, to a degree, throwaway raveups like ‘Crush on You’ and ‘Two Hearts’ were made rowdy treats by the roar and zeal of the E Street Band (Clemons does his late uncle proud on sax on two solos on the 10-minute ‘Drive All Night’).
But the richest moments came via ‘The River’s’ quieter second half in songs like a languid and jazzy ‘Point Blank’, with Roy Bittan’s dramatic intro on piano, ‘Stolen Car’ and the ‘The Price You Pay’, turned haunting thanks to harmonies from longtime members Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren and Scialfa.
The concert stretched beyond three hours and 20 minutes and Springsteen’s voice surprisingly held up, if a bit weathered and he proved indefatigable by crowd surfing during ‘Hungry Heart’.
The post-River 80 minutes was a sprint through old favorites like ‘Badlands’, ‘80s radio smashes like ‘Dancing in the Dark’, his reclamation of his own ‘Because the Night’ from co-writer Patti Smith who had the hit with the song in 1978. The 9-11 balm, ‘The Rising’, and the joyous ‘Wrecking Ball’, were newer songs every bit the equal of ‘The River’s’ best.
“Can you stand a little more?” he cried after ‘Bobby Jean’. The full house could. So Springsteen detonated the old Isley Brothers party tune, ‘Shout’.
The Boss and that remarkable band (kudos also to drummer Max Weinberg who may have the most physical job of the lot) left a tributary of emotions, sensations and musical breadth that will be discussed for as long as ‘The River’ has endured.
(Photos by Charles Trainor Jr.)
Springsteen The River Tour set list
‘Meet Me in the City’
‘The River’ album in full:
‘The Ties That Bind’
‘Out In The Street’
‘Crush On You’
‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’
‘I Wanna Marry You’
‘I’m A Rocker’
‘The Price You Pay’
‘Drive All Night’
‘Wreck On The Highway’
Hits, LP cuts, covers:
‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’
‘Because the Night’
‘Born to Run’
‘Dancing in the Dark’
‘Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’