Why would Bruce Springsteen want to revisit the more-than 35-year-old album The River?
I asked myself the above question as the New Jersey-based singer-songwriter, accompanied by his incomparable E Street Band, played the 20 songs on the breakthrough double album in chronological order to a sold-out crowd at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Springsteen, who was once heralded as the future of rock ’n’ roll, asked the audience if they were ready to be transformed. Yet when the band launched into “The Ties The Bind,” I feared we would only be reliving the past.
The River isn’t considered a concept album, but it spoke to a generation who saw the American Dream slipping away from them. There are songs that tackle the subjects of middle-class life, sex, and responsibilities that come with growing up. Springsteen explained to the audience that he considers The River, with its weighty themes and dark undertones, his “coming-of-age album.” He said he wrote the song “Independence Day” about parents who had their own hopes and ambitions, only to feel frustration when their aspirations didn’t come true.
It felt like the E Street Band members were playing onstage roles in the stories Springsteen was strumming. Occasionally, guitarist Steven Van Zandt would sneak up behind Springsteen to join him on vocals for “Hungry Heart.” Springsteen dedicated "I Wanna Marry You" to his wife, Patti Scialfa, who wasn't in attendance. Jake Clemons, taking over on saxophone for his legendary late uncle Clarence Clemons, showed off some amazing footwork during “Ramrod.” They displayed an amazing chemistry that comes after more than 45 years working together.
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Soozie Tyrell's fiddle and Van Zandt's restrained acoustic guitar gave the title track’s story of a couple rushing into the world of adulthood more poignance. Springsteen didn't sing “The River” with any twinges of irony or nostalgia, but with a strong sense of urgency. When Springsteen resurrected the album, he must have been aware that history was repeating itself. Americans are slowly climbing out of a recession. Working families feel like they’ve been lied to by the government and the corporations that employ them. "The River" would not feel out of place in the present day.
As he crooned “The Price You Pay,” it became clear why Springsteen wanted to revisit the album that made him a superstar. The themes he tackled in 1980 haven’t gone away. Things aren’t any easier now than they were three-and-a-half decades ago. There were even moments when I thought he was speaking directly to me, knowing I was someone who was facing burdens of my own. I’ve been an adult for many years now, and I want to try to do something meaningful with my life. Springsteen’s lyrics inspire us to make the attempt.
The Boss’ voice sounded weary as he ended the The River portion of the show with “Wreck On The Highway,” but his second wind blew in quick. (He thanked a doctor for helping him with some voice problems he was having.) The E Street Band wasted no time tearing into old classics like “Badlands” and “She’s The One,” but it was hometown hero Nils Lofgren who stole the show with his jaw-dropping guitar solo on “Because The Night.” The Valley resident showed off his chops as he spun around the stage like Superman, attempting to go back in time to take the song back from Patti Smith.
The three hour-plus show wrapped up with Springsteen pulling some tweens from the audience at the end of “Dancing In The Dark.” He dedicated “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” to those who were there back in the 1970s and “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” to Clarence Clemons, who passed away in 2011. Just when the crowd thought the show was over, the band played a cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout!”
As Springsteen had promised, I had left transformed.
Setlist (from Setlist.fm)
Meet Me in the City
The Ties That Bind
Out in the Street
Crush on You
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
I Wanna Marry You
I'm a Rocker
The Price You Pay
Drive All Night
Wreck on the Highway
Because the Night
She's the One
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
What: The River Tour — Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Bank at Talking Stick Resort Arena
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The Crowd: Parents of various ages sharing Springsteen with their kids
Overheard in the Crowd: “First concert I’d been to where the band exhausted the audience.”
Personal Bias: I’m a member of the MTV generation, so I associate more with the Born In The U.S.A. and the underrated Tunnel Of Love era than I do with Springsteen’s earlier work. After this show, The River just became my favorite album. As someone about to enter fatherhood, it spoke to me in a way that eluded me previously.
Correction, 10 a.m., 3-11-2016: This review originally stated that Bruce Springsteen's wife, Patti Scialfa, played fiddle at the concert last night. This is incorrect, and the review has been updated to reflect that.