Bruce Springsteen takes you to "The River" on his new tour: A heartfelt, back-to-basics show — that so far avoids politics

The E Street Band opened their new 22-city tour in Pittsburgh with a David Bowie tribute—and 3+ hours of rock

Published January 19, 2016 7:25PM (EST)

  (AP/Keith Srakocic)
(AP/Keith Srakocic)

Bruce Springsteen began his "The River" 2016 tour Saturday night in Pittsburgh, PA, out to promote the album’s recently released box set. Bruce and the E Street band will be bringing the big rock show to 22 cities across the U.S. What can you expect to see over the coming months if you’re holding tickets to the show? (Warning: a few minor spoilers ahead.)

The main event of the tour is, of course, the end-to-end performance of 1980’s "The River" album, in order. Although on the original River tour, it wasn’t uncommon for Springsteen to perform almost the entire album—the 1980 Tempe, Arizona show included in the recent "The Ties That Bind: The River Collection" included 18 of the 20 tracks—Bruce has played the record in this format only once before, at Madison Square Garden in November of 2009. But that performance was a surprise added long after the show had already sold out.

According to Springsteen in multiple recent interviews, the 2016 tour grew out of what was originally supposed to be one show to promote the record, then a couple of shows, then “maybe we should do a series of shows,” he told SiriusXM’s E Street Radio (when the Boss called into the channel’s “Live From E Street Nation” talk radio show back in December). He continued, “…my recollection was that it was a very good night of music when we played it at the Garden. It's something that we haven't done; something unique for the fans.”

Unlike the last couple of tours where there were 18 musicians onstage, including a four-piece horn section and four backup singers, Springsteen has gone back to basics in 2016. This time around it’s the E Street Band—Max Weinberg, Garry Tallent, Roy Bittan and Nils Lofgren—along with Charlie Giordano continuing to handle organ and Jake Clemons on sax. Patti Scialfa is back, and Soozie Tyrell continues to round out the group on vocals, guitar and violin. The stripped-down outfit suits the material, and although there’s nothing Springsteen loved more than leading that enormous band, a smaller outfit lets him keep his attention focused on his performance and the complexity of the material at hand.

On this front, based on Saturday night’s performance, the Springsteen and the E Street band are there to deliver. While in the past it may have taken a couple of shows to get on track, Saturday night’s performance showcased the band in prime mid-tour form. Any glitches were minor and likely not noticeable to most of the audience—unlike the opening show of the original "River" tour, where Springsteen launched into “Born To Run” only to forget the words and need the crowd to shout it the opening lines back at him. (To be fair, this was the first time the show had opened with “Born To Run” and it had been about a year since he’d played it last.)

Saturday’s show kicked off with “Meet Me In The City,” a high-energy "River"-era outtake included in the recent box set which was also performed during the band’s recent appearance on "Saturday Night Live," and a perfect show opener. At the end of the song, Springsteen asked, “We’re here to take you to the river…are you ready to be transformed?” As the crowd roared their response, the house lights were dimmed, and Springsteen offered a brief introduction to the genesis behind "The River," 36 years ago: “I was trying to find out where I fit in…if I could write it, I could get one step closer to it…I wanted to write a record that felt like life, that felt like an E Street Band show.” And with that, Bruce counted in “The Ties That Bind,” the first song on what was then Side A of Record 1.

For the rest of the album performance, the Boss kept explanation and narration at a bare minimum—just enough to preface the more challenging numbers, specifically “Independence Day,” “I Wanna Marry You,” and “Stolen Car.” The introductions seemed positioned to both enhance the experience of the performance, as well as to enlist the audience’s help with it—it was his way of acknowledging the challenging nature of the material and asking the crowd to hang in with him. This worked very well in Pittsburgh, which had an electrified and excited crowd willing to keep conversation to a low murmur during the quieter songs, but your mileage on this may vary—even Madison Square Garden in 2009 had widespread complaints from fans about unnecessary conversations in the crowd during key moments in the album.

The band rehearsed extensively in New Jersey in advance of this tour, in addition to a couple of days in Pittsburgh. While the E Street Band has been pretty busy, with tours in 2009, 2012 and 2013, there are more than a few songs on the record that hadn’t been been played on a regular basis since the original "River" tour. And while the band has played all of the material on the record at some point, they’ve only played it in this order once before.

The advance preparation was key to not only the band’s strong execution of the material, but also to things like the transitions between the songs, keeping energy and momentum going from track to track. Putting in the effort pays off for the audience, because it allows Springsteen to focus on the emotional aspect of his performance, and not worry if he has to cue the band to come in on time. Springsteen observers and aficionados widely agreed that this was the best opening night of a tour in years.

Yes, the hair is shorter and greyer (where there is hair), but the members of the E Street Band remain a unit to be reckoned with. Weinberg is crisp and tight behind the drum kit; Tallent’s bass is solid and swinging, Bittan’s keyboards are as magnificent as ever, and Lofrgren’s guitar work is a joy each and every night. And Van Zandt is more active than ever, dueting with Bruce, offering harmony vocals, taking guitar leads when appropriate, and will awaken the memories of the old-timers in the crowd who were there the first time these songs were played live, and let the newer generations get a glimpse of things they’ve only seen on video.

While he’s had an almost impossible task, with a couple of years on the road under his belt, Jake Clemons seems more comfortable onstage, which is reflected in the strength of his performance on this tour in particular. His skill and fluency in the material has grown and his playing felt stronger this time out. (He’s also filling in on percussion and even once on harmonica, during “Jackson Cage.”) Giordano continues to handle the second keyboard role with aplomb, Tyrell provides additional vocal warmth and and an extra guitar, and Scialfa is once again out with the band. Springsteen always seems happier onstage with the missus is around, and Saturday was no different.

If it wasn’t enough that he was playing a double album in its entirety, Springsteen has also taken the occasion of the tour to work up some enhanced arrangements of "River" tracks, along the lines of what you might have heard were you following the band on tour during the first "River" tour. This is most notable on “Point Blank,” which was nothing short of breathtaking. Other songs with slightly enhanced arrangements to their benefit include “Stolen Car” and “The Price You Pay,” even if the latter did suffer a bit from first night jitters on Saturday.

Another gorgeous moment was “I Wanna Marry You.” Grabbing a set of maracas off of the drum riser, Bruce took a moment to offer his thoughts on the song—“I wrote this song as a daydream…it’s not the real thing, but you gotta start some place,” he said, eyes closed, with a small smile on his face that seemed directed at a younger version of himself. But before beginning the song proper, the band segued into a intro known as “Here She Comes,” a moment taken right out of the original "River" tour, a poignant duet between Springsteen and Van Zandt about youthful lust and longing, highlighted by delicate piano work from Roy Bittan. But it felt fresh and genuine, while speaking to both the OG fans in the crowd, who got to have their moment of deja vu, while the younger generations got to witness a moment they thought they’d never get to see.

Other notable album performances on Saturday included “Crush On You,” which Springsteen performed with obvious enjoyment and aplomb, “Sherry Darling,” where the Boss appeared delighted at the volume of the audience, a heart-stopping “Fade Away,” and a thudding, muscular “Ramrod,” as much of a dance party on the floor as it ever was.

Following “Wreck On The Highway” (the last song on Side B of Record 2), you could feel the crowd’s attention start to slip away just ever so slightly. Of course, this is why the back half of the concert is, essentially, a greatest hits collection. The average fan will be completely delighted with this segment of the show, with the likes of “Badlands,” “Backstreets,” “Because The Night” as well as “Thunder Road,” “Born To Run” and “Rosalita.” That part of the show absolutely feels like it’s meant to be a reward for a crowd that sat attentively through emotional and dramatic tracks like “Stolen Car” or “Wreck On The Highway.” But unlike an average Springsteen show, there’s no narrative arc—there’s no message he’s trying to communicate by the order in which he presents the material.

Not surprisingly, Springsteen took a moment Saturday night to mention David Bowie. At the beginning of the encore, Springsteen came to the mic and said, “I want to take a moment and just note the passing of my good friend David Bowie. David – not that many people know, but he supported our music way, way, way back at the very, very beginning,” telling the story of visiting Bowie in Philadelphia while he was recording the "Young Americans" record, before launching into a well-intentioned version of “Rebel Rebel”:

Saturday night’s show followed the printed setlist from start to finish, with no variation. It’s hopeful that there will still be some room for spontaneity as the tour moves on, and that the post-album set can offer some more variety in selections, and maybe even a cover beyond the version of the Isley Bros. “Shout” that closed the set down Saturday night--maybe some of the great "River"-era covers, like the Detroit Medley, “Trapped” or “Who’ll Stop The Rain.” On the latter note, the show has zero reference to any current events, either in narration, or in a deft juxtaposition of songs in the setlist. This will delight some fans, and disappoint others, but seems like a missed opportunity (especially in what is now an election year), given that the original "River" tour is known as the tour on which Springsteen found and developed his political voice.

Also missing were any other outtakes from the "River" sessions, aside from “Meet Me In The City,” despite Springsteen’s pre-tour assurances that they would be there. While outtakes are generally left off a record for a reason, there’s a strong collection of material from this era (including some of what Van Zandt has called some of his favorite songs) that would only add to the set, and further enhance the special nature of the performance, such as “Roulette” (a track Springsteen has repeatedly said was the biggest mistake to omit), “Be True” (which was released as the b-side of “Hungry Heart”), or “Where The Bands Are” (which fans will know from the 1998 "Tracks" outtake box set). Hopefully, some of these will surface in future shows.

Gone (or at least missing at the moment) are the feats of skill and strength from previous tours. Bruce is no longer knee-sliding across the stage from one end to the other; he’s not hanging upside down off the microphone stand, or climbing on the piano. He is still crowdsurfing from the back of the front pit to the stage during “Hungry Heart,” and still prowling the back of the stage to play to the punters in the rear. But most importantly, his voice is still as clear and strong as ever, and he still has the uncanny ability to find the emotional center from which to believably deliver the material, and powerfully so.

By the end of the night, Springsteen and the E Street Band had played for more than 3 hours and 20 minutes and worked their way through a 33-song setlist. The Boss did not want to leave the stage; he spent a long time waving to the audience and thanking them, before heading to the back of the stage to send his band offstage with hugs, handshakes and back slaps (and kisses from one Ms. Scialfa, of course). See them soon in a town near you.

Springsteen's Getting Ready for Upcoming Tour With E Street Band

By Caryn Rose

Caryn Rose is a Brooklyn-based writer who documents rock and roll, baseball and urban life. She is the author of the novels "B-Sides and Broken Hearts" and "A Whole New Ballgame." Find her on Twitter @carynrose

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