Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band’s “The River” Tour At Madison Square Garden, Wednesday, January 27th, 2016, Reviewed
At the beginning of Bruce Springsteen’s sequential run through his 1980, somewhat controversial, double album The River, he claimed it was about a person writing about how other people live their lives in order to figure where he fits in: a young man’s concerns. Two hours later, he would add that it was also about the passing of time: an older person’s concerns. That’s interesting but it is hindsight, The River is of a piece with Nebraska, story songs detailing absolute pessimism at odds with the very idea of the USA. It is the difference between American can do and Russian won’t. The US is still a new country, Russia went from an aristocracy and mass starvation to Communism and mass murder: tens of millions of unnatural deaths laid the groundwork for great Russian artists, like Pushkin and Chekhov, in an art form that encroached upon death and wrapped itself in dread. American art, Bruce Springsteen’s art, always has an escape hatch. But the change from Chuck Berry meets John Steinbeck to Chuck Berry meets Anton Chekhov is at the heart of The River. He would perfect the concept four years later with Born In The USA, but here they were equal but different concepts.
This duality reached its apotheosis during The River’s final song, “Wreck On The Highway”. Last night at Madison Square Garden, Bruce’s stripped down for action eight piece E Street Band performed the “Wreck On The Highway” in all its Russian glory. The story is an incident that illuminates the deepest of concerns. Driving home the singer sees a crash, leaves his car to help a man dying in the wreckage, and later, holding his woman close to him, can’t rid himself of the image. It doesn’t take a leap to imagine that the dead driver had not run fast enough. The song is a dirge and almost the definition of existential despair. Whatever hope Bruce had seven years earlier, isn’t there anymore. Nothing is cut loose like a deuce during this hushed burial of high hopes. Last night on a darkly lit stage there was nowhere to hide, and in a winter with a surfeit of death, the song is all too apt: it lingered in the air with even the E Street Band, itself down Clarence and Danny through the ravages of time, muted, a hush transcended like a dark magician conjuring a vision of the end.
But it wasn’t always like this.
Two hours earlier, the band had hit the stage at a perfectly timed 815pm, for what would prove to be a sprite three hour, 32 song set, opening with an outtake, followed by the twenty song album, and capped by eleven hits, with only one outright dog among them. The set was shorter than expected, Pittsburgh and Chicago both got 34 songs, and on the High Hopes tour in 2014, 38 songs were average, but I didn’t mind at all. I’ve always felt less was more with Bruce, and everything last night was relatively less, low key, and on point, much more than the big production stuff. No huge horn section, Jake Clemons has apparently won the position, no backing singers either. I hadn’t seen Bruce since the Wrecking Ball tour (he didn’t play New York behind High Hopes) back in September 2012, a very long evening that ran out of steam before midnight even with a mind-blowing 20 musicians on stage, and still kept going and going. So despite “Meet Me In The City” being new to audiences, it was obvious the band were all in, cleaner, better delineated, sharper, tighter. The song itself is classic happy song about a sad thing, a sort of less than high hope:
“I was busted for feeling no pain
Charged with doing things I can’t explain
Picked up for parole violation
Locked with the boys in the subway station
Handcuffed on the killing floor
Transmitting from behind these jailhouse doors.”
This is a blueprint for Bruce’s “Born In The USA” –they are both songs that don’t sound at all like what they are saying – “City” sounds like “Out On The Street” but it is “Out On The Street” spiked with arsenic. The band is all attitude and swirl, as Bruce grabs the spotlight more than usual. He kids around with Little Stevie (who co-produced the album), but he pays scant attention to the rest of the band. Sure, they come together but he pushes them back. Bruce’s most intense moment with his wife Patti Scialfa is when he kisses her on the cheek after “Brilliant Disguise”, a sort of belated thank you for not being Juliana. Nils is all but ignored except a fine though rote solo in the middle of the hits segment, the rhythm section is completely ignored, and Jake ain’t his Uncle.
So it is left to Bruce to carry the show and at first it carries itself. The River is an odd album. Originally meant as a single, Bruce took it back from Columbia and worked on it for another year. Jon Landau handled the slow songs, Little Stevie the fast ones. The two halves don’t connect and the albums pacing, certainly on record, is a little off putting. It starts with a bang and then subsides into slow weariness, before imploding.
Bruce was aware of this in 2000 and in one of his best programmed sequences on that tour resurrected its highest energy blowout: the E Streeters would reach the halfway mark with “Two Hearts” followed by “Out On The Street” and finally the band introductions on “Tenth Avenue Freeze out”. That one two punch isn’t really equaled here. Though, when your first four songs are “The Ties That Bind”, “Sherry Darling”, “Jackson Cage” and “Two Hearts”, there is no question of a lull. By the end of this four song sucker punch, Bruce is making like Taylor Swift (or do I mean Elvis?) walking into the audience to be touched and shaken and hugged, before making like Courtney Love, and body surfing back to the stage. The first twenty minutes were just about flawless on any level, but we were expecting worse and didn’t get it.
I am not sure if expecting is the correct word. Everybody knows the setlist nowadays, so we all knew what was gonna happen the way we always do. However, Bruce has been releasing mixed mp3s of his concerts for years now. You can buy all of the High Hopes tour on http://live.brucespringsteen.net/ and you can also buy the opening night Pittsburgh and second show Chicago The River concerts. Indeed, the Chicago night mp3 was given away for free (to make up for Sunday getting snowed out). So not only do we know the set, we, in fact, KNOW THE SET. Bruce was reading his thoughts about the album (and the lyrics to every song) off a teleprompter –a Peyton Manning moment, but we already knew the fifth song (a change of pace closer of Side One on vinyl) was his first song ever about fathers and sons, “Independence Day”. A conversation at a kitchen table leads to a goodbye. This was followed closely by another song about leaving home, a husband leaving his family, an amazing happy rocker about sad things, the hit single “Hungry heart”, where he generously handed off to the audience for the first two verses (the entire album went five times platinum).
The question mark was “Independence Day” –if he could hold you, you were held. And he held tight.
Once he got passed “Independence Day”, the title track (dedicated to his sister) was too well loved to cause a problem and so there we were, freewheeling all the way to “Fade Away”, before we were worried about getting stuck in the swamps of Jersey. The chase to the finish of the album is a dark, heads down, manic depression. From “Fade Away” all the way to “Wreck On The Highway”, a six song downer only lightened up by a minor league rocker “Ramrod”, could be a problem. Here is where the set could seriously derail. But “Fade Away” is a gorgeous ballad of relentless heartache, which sets him up for the devastated “Drive All Night” and the slam door shut of “Wreck”. This run of live tracks works because unlike like, say “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”, there is a distance between the singer and the song. His earlier songs, “Blinded By The Light” say, or “Rosalita”, have no distance between the singer and the song, whether fair or not we assume they are Bruce. We assume it is Bruce with Mary on Thunder Road . But we don’t assume this rush of songs are Bruce, with the exception of “Independence Day”, we, in fact, assume they aren’t Bruce and so when he performs them in sequence there is a sense of performance art, of roleplaying. It makes the pain easier to deal with, especially in a live setting.
Put together, the two hours of The River are better performed, and better sounding than on record, it rushes at you and lets you in, and then slowly builds up the sad stories and then it stops. And, if there has been many questions raised about the production values of the album (really, it is an ongoing Bruce problem, he can’t compete with his live performances) than this show makes a very strong case that songs long considered second tier Bruce, “Wreck”, “Drive By Night”, like that, are actually much better than we gave them credit for.
The last hour is a dash through some hits to send us on our way. A towering “She’s The One” and a beautiful “Because The Night” making up for the godawful “Wrecking Ball” and not as bad “The Rising”. If you include “Brilliant Disguise” they even make up for a shruggable “Rosalita” and indifferent “Shout”. So, pretty good close out, no kick from me. In the end, the entire three hours seemed like a mid tour set, we are very near Ground zero for the Boss, but he refers to our beautiful city in the exact same tone he did for other cities on the tour. Really, it was just a bunch of pros doing what they do every night. So, even more to the point, if this was Bruce being Bruce, Bruce must remain our greatest living Russian (or American) pop performer. It is the dread of living freed by the joy of life transformed into community.