By Steve Houk
It’s a rare thing, seeing someone grow up. If you’re really lucky, you’ll see your children, your partner, other relatives, even some close friends, go through the myriad of miraculous changes and trying times that growing older brings. But it is a special and beautiful thing to witness and share.
For many of us, we have been given that unique blessing with Bruce Springsteen. Thirty five years ago, when his fifth album The River was released and I saw him for the first time third row in Hartford in front of Clarence, he was a 30 year-old, wiry, scrappy, mutton-chopped young man still searching for his true path, unknowingly on the precipice of true greatness. And he was using his extraordinary music to find his way, creating stories in his songs that described the pains and triumphs of becoming an adult. We were all growing up too, on our own edge of discovery, finding out who we were going to be, and his music spoke to us, it said to us: be free, exult, laugh and dance, but also be wary of what life will bring, and here’s why. It was like we grabbed his hand and said, hey, take us along with you, we may need help with all of this growing up shit, too.
Three decades later, a beefier yet fit, mature, grown-up Bruce Springsteen took the stage last night to play The River for us again, this time as a 66 year-old man who through his incredibly powerful and passionate music has spent those last 30 plus years telling us his own story about his coming of age. And now, with us also being adults, some of us parents, all of us as older people, who have lived some life by now (oh boy, have we), we are still holding his now rougher, deeply-lined and a tad more craggly hand, and have never been more appreciative of how he has helped us through the hardest, most beautiful, most challenging times in our lives, while also living his.
With his astonishingly tight even-after-all-these-years band in superb form as the newborn tour revs up to speed, Springsteen cold opened with the rare River sessions track “Meet Me In The City” with full lights up, serving as a “We’re back, and we’re yours” type of welcome. Bruce then paused to tell about how when The River came out, he was still trying to figure out who he was, how he fit in, how “I’d taken notice of things that bond people to their lives. Maybe if I started writing about them, they’d start happening in my own life.” He said he had wanted “to make a big record that sounded like life and would contain fun, dancing, laughter, jokes, politics, sex, good comradeship, love, faith, lonely nights, and of course…tears. So tonight I want you to come along with us as we…go down The River.”
And with that, The E Street Band, led by their ferociously committed bandleader urging the crowd on with the chant of “Let’s hear party noises!” launched into the classic album with a string of rockers that would cover the comradeship element to a tee: “The Ties That Bind,”, the raucous “Sherry Darling,”, the tempting “Jackson Cage” featuring a rare turn by Big Man nephew Jake Clemons on harmonica, and the always joyful Bruce/Steven Van Zandt ode, “Two Hearts.” The wild dancing was full steam ahead by the first note of this opening suite of some of Bruce’s most joyful songs, provoking images of friends and neighbors shaking it deliriously at a backyard party in Jersey on a hot summer night.
Yes, like us, this is an older E Street Band, not that 1980 version, but even though some songs this night may have been a tidge slower than their ’80 predecessors, and Bruce would not be sliding on his knees or sprinting across the stage, there was very little loss of power or glory all night, and it’s clear the band has already hit its stride. Nils Lofgren was in excellent form with his virtuostic playing while Van Zandt filled his sidekick role as good as ever. Garry Tallent and Max Weinberg shined on the deep end, Charlie Giordano was strong on keys, and Clemons continues to wonderfully fill in for his legendary uncle on sax. And as always, Roy Bittan provided his masterful piano magic. Some die-hards may incorrectly think the talented Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell aren’t necessarily essential, but last night, they helped fill in splendidly on background vocals and in other understated ways, and definitely added an extra element to several songs. There were moments looking across the front of the stage and seeing the five players in line when I thought, yes this works, they are in sync and this newer E Street Band ensemble, although different from the boys’ club of 198o, is a perfect evolutionary piece of this lifelong puzzle.
With those four party songs over, the lights dimmed. ” ‘Independence Day’ was the first song I wrote about fathers and sons,” Springsteen said quietly. “It’s the kinda song you wrote when you’re young, and you’re first startled by your parents’ humanity. You come to realize that they had their own dreams and their own desires, and all you can see is the adult compromises they’ve had to make. When you’re young, you haven’t had to do that yet, all you could feel as a younger person was a desire to escape that world. So I had a simple setting for the song, it was just a conversation between two people futilely trying to understand one another around the kitchen table late at night.” There’s Bruce’s hand we’re holding again, making you think of the times you sat with your father, your mother, wife or husband, son or daughter, around that same table. “Papa go to bed now, it’s getting late,” Bruce sang achingly, “nothing we can say will change anything now, ‘cuz there’s different people living down here now, and they see things in different ways, soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away.” When my son Ben went to college two years ago, I put this song on and wept. And I’m sure I’m not alone. And last night, I wept again. But I also took Ben to his first Bruce show ever two years ago at Nationals Park, and it was incredible to share it with him, I cried but they were different tears. So there ya go, the ups downs and facts of life, all with Bruce alongside.
“Here’s another leaving home song,” Springsteen shouted, as the singalong fave “Hungry Heart” kicked off another string of out-of-your-seat songs that really are the centerpiece of the “fun-dancing-laughter” core of the record. “I took a wrong turn and I just kept going” conjures images of Bruce in that hot rod taking that turn and not looking back. But like everybody, like us, always craving love. He would also do his fall backwards into the crowd stunt here and be passed by hands gingerly along and back up on stage. “Out In The Street,” “Crush On You,” a surprisingly strong “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” were next, followed by “I Wanna Marry You,” where he reflected, “I wrote this song as a little daydream, where you’re standing on the corner watching someone who you’re never going to meet walk by, and you imagine a whole life with that person, in thirty seconds. Of course you imagine the easiest kind of love. One without consequences. That’s why it’s a song of youth.” Again, he takes us to a place in our imaginations, and in our real lives, where we’ve all been before.
Things would go very deep for the next two, and among many, this was certainly one of the evening’s most powerful pieces of the show. The stirring, run-back-to-your seat-if-you’re-getting-a-beer, harmonica opening of “The River,” the hauntingly baptismal title cut, began one of Bruce’s most pointed songs about finding out there are consequences to moments of passion and yet you can still find the beauty amidst the dissapointment. In one of the most devastating lyrics he’s ever written, Springsteen and Scialfa sang stirringly in harmony, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is something worse?” Sound familiar? Probably. His falsetto at the end was like a desperate cry from the banks.
Bruce continued this deeply affecting part of the show with another slug-you-in-the-gut look at relationships, “Point Blank.” Opening with the familiar gorgeously grand piano flourish by Bittan, Bruce sings of the ache of lost love and yes, more lives singed by dissapoinment. “I was gonna be your Romeo and you were gonna be my Juliet, but these days you don’t wait on Romeos, you wait on those welfare checks.” This was also a song that because of it’s lyric, “Point blank, they shot you in the back,” was not played at several December 1980 River shows after John Lennon was killed.
Weinberg’s familiar drum opening signaled another chance to ratchet the party back up as Bruce announced, “Has anybody got my Cadillac?” before “Cadillac Ranch”, Bruce’s slambanging ode to hot rods that featured a scorching fiddle solo from Tyrell, followed by “I’m A Rocker,” before returning to the perils of love with “Fade Away” (featuring one of Van Zandt’s strongest harmonies of the night) as Bruce pleads with his lover not to let their love dissapear.
As the lights lowered once again, Springsteen became thoughtful, pensive. “This is the first song I wrote about men and women. And to ask the question, if you lose your connection, do you lose yourself.” With the gentle strums of the acoustic and Roy’s tinkling piano that Backstreets magazine’s review described as “a lover’s tears hitting the street at night; lonely, delicate and fragile,” Bruce began the heart-rending strains of “Stolen Car,” which has turned out to be one of the early favorites on this tour. It’s a song that has always made us look long and hard at the love in our life and how important keeping the connection really is. “She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote, when our love was young and bold, she said last night she read those letters, and they made her feel one hundred years old.” There’s that kitchen table we’ve all sat around again, where the deepest things are often said. And there’s Bruce again trying to help us understand the heights and depths of love.
After stopping at the musical keg for another brew and a dance on the roadhouse romp of “Ramrod” and a beautiful band-all-in version of “Price You Pay,” things would come to an emotional crescendo with two more of Bruce’s most stirring songs ending the River portion of the evening. “Drive All Night” was much anticipated and did not dissapoint, it was in fact magnificent, the best version of the song I have ever heard save the 1980 one, with the aching promise of devotion from one lover to another slowly building to an utterly stunning intensity yet unseen for this song before, with Bruce in is as fine a voice as he would be all night, or on this song, as he ever has been. Some of his most evocative lyrics — “I wanna drive all night again, just to get you some shoes and to taste your tender charms” — echoed through the sold-out arena, and tears twinkled and streamed down cheeks amidst the faithful. “Don’t cry nowwww, don’t cry nowwwww…” followed by a staggering Jake Clemons solo. I mean, really?
“Wreck On The Highway,” the last song on the record and a fitting way for Bruce to complete the mood and tone of The River as a whole piece, brought people to their figurative knees, with a story about a man — Bruce, you, me — coming upon a crash on a desolate stretch of road one night, and then getting home to his love and treasuring their life amidst the always present spectre of loss. “Sometimes I sit up in the darkness, and I watch my baby as she sleeps, then I climb in bed and I hold her tight, I just lay there awake in the middle of the night, thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway.” As the song ended, Bruce walked to the mike, and said, “And that’s…The River.” Certainly one of the most remarkably emotional sets many there including me had ever seen him do, The River was done total justice and was performed exceptionally well. And above all, once again, Springsteen had our hands held tight, telling us the stories of our life, and his, in his music.
Not slowing down one bit, Springsteen and Company would slam right into a fabulous seven song home stretch that largely he rotates every show this tour, give or take a couple. A fun roll of BITUSA’s “Darlington County” was followed by two major Darkness On The Edge Of Town gems for this ecstatic DC crowd, “Prove It All Night” and then seamlessly into “The Promised Land.” Two more songs that have always made us yearn along with Bruce for hope and redemption, if you just believe. A real nugget from Tunnel Of Love followed, “Tougher Than The Rest” featuring the best moment for Scialfa by far as she and her husband melded voices beautifully across the powerful lyrics and yes, sparking memories of my life when Tunnel came out. Speaking of powerful, “The Rising” was next, and at least for this fan, you could not help remembering Springsteen’s first show in Washington after 9/11, arguably the most emotional show he has ever played here. And to end the main sets, perhaps Springsteen’s greatest song, “Thunder Road” was the fitting closer. With lights fully up on the crowd and everyone singing every word at top volume, Springsteen and his band brought the house down with yet another song that in one way another we can all relate to. We’ve all rolled down the windows and let the wind blow back our hair, feeling alive and free, even with the uncertainty of life swirling around us.
It never seems the E Street Band would have any gas left in that ol’ Cadillac after 2 1/2 hours of playing, but of course Springsteen and Co. returned to the stage for a five song encore, starting with “No Surrender,” a song that no doubt resonated with the large amount of veterans in the audience who Springsteen had acknowledged earlier. With the house lights remaining on, fists were raised and crowd voices finally went hoarse on exuberant versions of “Born To Run,” “Dancing In The Dark,” a well-played “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and finishing the evening, as has been standard so far on the tour, with a lively and wedding-memory-inducing roll of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Even when rolling covers, Bruce is able to help us summon up memories of our past, I mean, who hasn’t gotten a little bit louder now next to the bride and groom? The band would gather front of stage and bow as is customary, bringing t and More edition of this incredible thing that is a Springsteen show to a close.
Of the dozens of Springsteen shows I’ve seen, the sheer emotional power of this rendition of The River was astounding, and affected me and I’m sure many others there very deeply. It took me back to 1980 and that first River show as a teenager on the brink of 20, and also reminded me how much water has flowed down my own river of life since. And other moments last night outside of The River made me remember other points in his career when, as he was writing about life and love and happiness and despair and how to best try to endure it all, we were all experiencing it too, and learning and listening and trying and failing and trying again, with his voice in our heads and in our hearts.
As last night becomes a treasured memory, I still have Bruce Springsteen’s hand in mine, as others do, and we will continue to as long as he will allow us to go along on this incredible journey of life, both his and ours. We’ve grown up with him, and hopefully there’s still a long river of life ahead for all of us. And as long as we’re all breathing air, Bruce will be there to ride the rapids of life’s river with us.