An Arctic chill spilled into Philadelphia late Friday afternoon. Grains of snow splattered against the car windshield on the way into the parking lot of the Wells Fargo Center, where wind gusts sliced our exposed skin once we started the (thankfully short) trek to the North Broad entrance; and those aforementioned snow pellets worked akin to salt in the newly opened wounds.
I’m exaggerating a bit, of course, but it was so cold that the concert promoters had their hands in their own pockets for a change.
The last time I saw Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in concert, in early 2012, the show – tied to his then-recent Wrecking Ball album – played like a Steinbeck novel, with the setlist of new and old songs chronicling life during the Great Recession. This night, however, the show unfurled like a collection of interconnected short stories. The reason: The tour is tied to The Ties That Bind, his 2015 box set that presents his 1980 double album, The River, plus copious amounts of outtakes; and, each night, he’s playing the album proper from start to finish.
The River, for those unfamiliar with it, is a sprawling set that’s home to both frivolous songs and sober treatises; and, like most great works, reflects and transcends its time. As I noted a while back, a malaise blanketed America during the latter 1970s that was deeper than just “the Carter recession” (as Springsteen, in his introduction to the title song, called the era’s tough times). A generation of young adults came to realize, during those years, that the complexities of life and love were more complex than they’d assumed, and – like a deer frozen by oncoming headlights – weren’t sure how to proceed. Springsteen was no different. The River, more than anything, marks his coming to grips with the paradoxes that are part and parcel of adulthood.
That recognition is something every generation grapples with, I hasten to add. It’s why The River still resonates.
The show opened with one of The River’s outcasts: “Meet Me in the City” – a rockin’ declaration that condenses the double album’s yin-yang themes into three-and-a-half minutes. “Everybody’s lost in romance/Do you feel the way I feel/I’m just searching, girl/For the blood, for the bone, for the muscle, for what’s real…”
And, then: The River in full. If you know the album, you won’t be surprised by the set’s highs – whatever your favorites are, those are them. Springsteen tackled the songs with reverence and affection, and even shared vocal duties with the audience on “Hungry Heart” and “The River.” That said, one highlight for me was a song that – as he says in the introduction – only a young person could write: “Independence Day.”
Another: “Hungry Heart,” which featured the Boss “crowd-surfing” (though it was more like “crowd-crawling”) his way back to the stage.
As The River flowed on, however, I realized that not everyone in attendance was aware of the concert’s design; and some had no knowledge of The River as a whole, just the songs from it that are played on whatever Classic Rock radio station is currently in vogue. Too many people yakked their way through the lesser-known numbers; you can hear them on my “Independence Day” clip, in fact. (Proper concert etiquette is a planned topic for a future post.)
The River closes with the haunting “Wreck on the Highway,” in which the narrator comes upon the aftermath of a car accident and, for the first time, recognizes the fragility of life. Such realizations, and they come at no set age, generally mark the final ascent into adulthood, I think. The diversions of youth remain with us to one extent or another for all our lives, true, but sans the same sense as importance and urgency. Life concerns, like love and death, take precedence.
Anyway, that is where most acts would have closed the main portion of the show, leaving the stage for a few minutes before roaring back for a two- or three-song encore. Not Springsteen. He kicked off a mini-greatest hits review with “Atlantic City,” quelling the boredom (I’m sure) of even the most casual of fans.
“Prove It All Night” rocked, too.
And “Jungleland” came close to blowing the roof off the Wells Fargo Center.
When the house lights came up for “Born to Run,” as they always do, it occurred to me – and not for the first time – that the soundtracks to many lives have been written by this street poet. He still shares the romantic dreams and visions of his fans, and recognizes the hard realities many of them face. It’s why he gives each show his all. Like Neil Young or Paul McCartney, he’s at an age (66) and stage in his career where he could easily cut the length of his shows in half and few would complain – yet, this concert clocked in at almost three-and-a-half hours.
The young 30-something who released The River and the young fans who first embraced it would likely laugh at the idea that, 35 years on, they’re still spirits in the night, albeit just for the night. And, on the flip side, Springsteen and some older fans may cringe when singing some of the album’s frivolous numbers – “Crush on You,” perhaps, or “I’m a Rocker” – but have enough faith in our younger selves to give it their all, anyway.
To twist a phrase from the old Pogo cartoon, “we have met the future and it is us.”
The setlist: Meet Me in the City/The Ties That Bind/Sherry Darling/Jackson Cage/Two Hearts/Independence Day/Hungry Heart/Out in the Street/Crush on You/You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)/I Wanna Marry You/The River/Point Blank/Cadillac Ranch/I’m a Rocker/Fade Away/Stolen Car /Ramrod/The Price You Pay/Drive All Night/Wreck on the Highway//Atlantic City/Prove It All Night/My Love Will Not Let You Down/Wrecking Ball/Human Touch/Jungleland/The Rising/Thunder Road///Born to Run/Dancing in the Dark/Rosalita/Shout