Bruce Springsteen The River Tour – LA Memorial Sports Arena, March 2016
The 2013 Ridley Scott produced film Springsteen and I begins with footage of The Boss speaking almost evangelically on stage which sets the tone for an enjoyable journey of short home-made movies from a few of his many disciples, compiled to show the long lasting effect Bruce Springsteen and his music has had on their lives. The highlight of the film, even more so than the wonderful archives, the comedy (often accidental) contained in some of DIY videos and a range of great anecdotes and emotive testaments, is an epilogue when Springsteen meets some of the contributors to their surprise; the film is just a glimpse, but a telling one, into the transforming experience he promises, and delivers, at the start of his live shows as he takes his audience back down to The River, thirty-six years after its release.
The River, as he explains on stage in this tour, was his attempt to make an all encompassing “big” record. His fifth album in 1980 followed two masterpieces, Born to Run (1975) and Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978), both of which he started playing alternatively in their entirety during the 2013 European leg of the Wrecking Ball, starting at Wembley, and also throwing in the hit laden and under rated Born in the USA (1984) to lucky crowds as well on other nights. Now it’s the turn of the double album, The River, taking the first two hours of performances that last 3 hours 20 minutes, where Bruce hardly takes a breath, sweats a monsoon and the E Street again prove all night that they are the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band of all time.
Perhaps unique amongst all the other studio albums Springsteen has released in over 40 years and counting, The River has two disparate clashing musical styles, with a real juxtaposition of fast noisy bar songs and slow ballads. The live dates start with the bonus Meet Me in the City, an upbeat extra which is apt for a bit of audience participation and perfect in intent of the occasion an E Street Band night carries with it, before going through the whole River album to its final track, Wreck on the Highway, a precursor in tone to his 1982 album Nebraska.
Decades on it is still recognisable how the track listing on The River had in mind the four sides of two records. In this 2016 tour Springsteen brings these songs to life, mixing party and poignancy and taking many of them, the ballads in particular (which Springsteen has said are the heart and soul of the record) to a new, elevated level.
In the live recording of the track The River on the 1975-1985 live album Bruce precedes the song with a five minute story about his teenage relationship with his father that is still memorable to everyone that has heard it; on this tour, before Independence Day, he explains how the song was set within the four walls where he was arguing with his father. When he goes on to sing it, he almost speaks the words to his dad, like an actor delivering lines with sincerity on stage. It is stunning.
There is the same effect in a powerful rendition of Point Blank, which itself directly follows a majestical double bill of I Wanna Marry You and the title track, which concluded the first half of the album. I Wanna Marry You is the best live interpretation on this tour and worth downloading any of the recorded live performances for. As well as an introduction giving context to a song about a two-minute daydream it then starts with a superb soul intro in which Bruce and Little Stevie harmonize before Roy Bittan’s piano takes us into the song. Musically brilliant on its own, the impact is even greater as it is followed by The River, wonderful in its own right but enhanced with the gravity of Bruce’s now aged, richer deep voice to the character narrating singing a song of regret about the hard hitting reality of life shattering dreams. These three songs in a row are worth the pricey ticket money alone.
And still there is more. The renditions of Stolen Car and Drive All Night are highlights of the second half of the album, all the more intense in an indoor venue in the dark, the last nights of the LA Memorial Sport Arena, self-titled Dump soon to be demolished for a soccer stadium to replace it in the University Park, next to the Coliseum that hosted the 1932 and 1984 Olympics.
Springsteen’s delivery of the slower songs is effortlessly combined with big bands tunes like Cherry Darling, Crush on You and Cadillac Ranch, which Springsteen wanted for a party feel for the E Street Band’s live shows. And the sing-a-longs Hungry Heart and Out on the Street are key components to an astounding live experience although as covers of the former have shown, and Springsteen himself shows with his acoustic performance of Two Hearts and the album opener in The Ties That Bind documentary (a story behind the making of The River), he could just as easily perform every song as acoustic ballad and it would be just as powerful.
The lights come on for another 80 plus minutes of fast paced rock ‘n’ roll, starting with Badlands, still an effervescent mission statement that allows us to harmonise ourselves as energetically as any crowd in a sports arena. In the first night in LA, taking the lead with his guitar, Springsteen performs an excellent version of Wrecking Ball for the dying venue, before Because the Night, She’s The One and Human Touch and give the impression Bruce is doing a little set directly for Patti.
On a second night where there are nearly as many green t-shirts as Bruce shirts on show in the crowd for St Patrick’s Day, two rebel songs with a big band folk feel, Death to my Hometown and American Land get predictable, but welcome, tour debuts. With the current state of political discourse in The States, that last song, with the authentic voice of America celebrating a nation of immigrants, is a breath of fresh air in the form of a knees-up with accordions, violins and drums. Better still on night two is a run out for Brilliant Disguise and the always wonderful live Backstreets, a real treat.
Both nights get classics where Springsteen’s writing is at its cinematic best with Thunder Road and Born to Run, the healing of The Rising, the everyman pop brilliance of Dancing in the Dark, the E Street signature Tenth Avenue Freeze Out (when like Hungry Heart and The Rocker Bruce gets up close and personal with the crowd on the walkway, as per picture above) and a finale of Shout, which is a long goodbye for everyone who doesn’t want the night to end. Which is everyone.
Springsteen jokes to the crowd about waking up everyone you know to tell them they have seen the legendary E Street Band. Yet that is exactly the imprint these performances leave. Astounding.
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