Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band take a full two hours to lead a Chicago audience through The River, the double album they released in 1980 and are commemorating on this anniversary tour, which started last weekend and continues through March.
The effort itself is a feat: containing a Top 10 single (Hungry Heart) and the title song that has endured as one of his signatures, The River is a true testament to album-oriented listening, especially for an album that contains a whopping 20 songs. Detailing a coming of age, The River touches on themes that Springsteen had written about before and has done since. But what makes the album unique is that it takes its time to explore the highs and lows of growing pains, as adolescence wrestles its way into adulthood.
The themes, Springsteen said on stage, included fidelity and family. “I wanted to imagine and write about those things. I figured if I wrote about them, then I’d get a step closer to getting them in my life.”
For a stadium act to luxuriate on all these different moods and tempos and topics could be seen in the Spotify era as downright archaic. With fewer new artists approaching their music to make grand gestures in favour of making records involving a battalion of songwriters and producers and intended to push the live brand, the River tour is a testament to an era when artists felt emboldened to go deep, pushing their audience beyond the scope of the three-minute single. Enabling these efforts were audiences who were less distracted and mobile in their listening compared to today, which gave albums like The River patient ears more willing to sit awhile and soak in all of the nuances.
At the United Center, Springsteen notes that he was a much different person when he wrote The River. In his introduction of I Wanna Marry You, he describes its earnest pledge of fidelity as “a song of youth – love in all its glory and all of its early tentativeness before reality sets in … not real but I had to start someplace.”
This is not necessarily a rose-tinted retrospective. There are throwaway songs on The River that still sound hard to justify bringing back to life. A recent boxed set reveals songs that didn’t make the cut but maybe should have earned the places taken by raucous bar rockers like Ramrod. And with its name-checks of Burt Reynolds and his black Trans Am, Cadillac Ranch may have exceeded its sell-by date. Nevertheless, the E Street Band still prove formidable, able to break even its weakest material down to a rowdy good time.
The greatest revelation of the revisiting of this album is that, at its core, The River sees the band do something rare: get quiet. With the songs played in order, the album begins slowly to stretch out and soon, the slower songs begin to edge out the quick and fast. These songs – Point Blank, Fade Away, Stolen Car – grow into cinematic set pieces and since they are not often featured on the band’s setlist, there is a sense the band was energized, skillfully filtering all their strengths for big gestures into smaller pockets. This is especially true for The Price You Pay, the sweet spot of the night, which sounds most unlike other Springsteen songs. Four other voices harmonize with Springsteen for most of the vocals, which become lush and haunting.
Clocking in at three hours and 20 minutes, the show is the usual marathon length for Springsteen and, at 66, he may have been sweating but didn’t show it. Sure, his sprints through the audience now are leisurely strolls. Hungry Heart turns into the equivalent of a meet and greet as he clowns with audience members and then, without prompting, turns his back and falls backwards, allowing himself to be crowd surfed back to the foot of the stage.
Despite the deaths of core members keyboardist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, the E Street Band still plays like they met up last week. This band doesn’t know slick, exemplified on Crush on You, which sounds fresh out of the garage. Guitarist Steven Van Zandt is the comic foil as he and Springsteen improvise lyrics, exchanged at a single microphone. Following Two Hearts, they attached a coda: It Takes Two, the 1965 Motown hit for Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston. On Springsteen’s other side is guitarist Nils Lofgren who plays with a sense of harmonics that gives songs bounce and color. But his spotlight comes when Springsteen hands Cover Me over to him and he plays a rousing solo heavy with distortion, but never noise.
Once The River is complete, the band continues for 80 minutes, performing 12 songs, including Take it Easy, a tribute to Glenn Frey, the Eagles co-founder who died on Monday. Springsteen sang the song while accompanying himself with an acoustic guitar, with fiddler Soozie Tyrell. With so much death in the headlines since the beginning of the year, especially involving musical icons, here is a night that doesn’t forget life comes first.