Bruce Springsteen’s recent concerts have been of epic proportion–even for him. Like a summer olympian who missed out in going to Rio, Springsteen has been setting records for endurance in rock and roll marathons, clocking in most recently at three hours and fifty- two minutes and then breaking his own record, posting an all-time high in New Jersey that hit four hours.
Back in the youth of his twenties and thirties, Springsteen would sandwich a break in between two sets, allowing for human recovery and rejuvenation. Now in his late sixties, it’s as if he discovered the fountain of youth with a straight sprint to the midnight hour.
On a balmy night with rain that stopped just before showtime, Springsteen came into Washington D.C. and Nationals Park fresh from a European summer and three nights in his native New Jersey. When he charged into Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” he hit a nerve with everyone who was fighting seasonal depression now that the calendar had, in one day, changed to include the word September.
The tour is billed as “The River Tour,” the continuation of Springsteen’s winter shows when he played the entire double album from start to finish. But tonight the moniker was more in name only as Springsteen touched on just three of its songs. He might as well have borrowed from the Beatles and called this the “Get Back” tour as he reached deep into his storytelling of five decades.
The show opened with an eleven minute song. In “New York City Serenade,” Springsteen employed a string section and the dazzling piano playing of Roy Bittan, echoing the brilliance of David Sancious and his imprint on Springsteen’s second album The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.
With outstretched arms and handmade signs of song requests mirroring a political convention, the pit in the front of the stage is like a cauldron of both adulation and inspiration. Springsteen stalks his habitat like a hunter-gatherer, picking out requests, flashing them to the audience and band and then launching into the song within seconds. In a nod to his multi–generational audience, he picked out one creative sign that said “I’m trapped with my parents” and proceeded to play Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped.”
Springsteen took a sign that said “Our ‘lil Bruce is “Growin’ Up’” and fueled a run through half of his debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey. “This is the first song I played for John Hammond,” he recalled of his audition with the legendary head of A&R at Columbia Records. It was “It’s Hard To Be a Saint In The City,” the song he recounted was born on the mean streets of Asbury Park and then corrected himself to say, “Well not mean but unkind,” perhaps a tease of his forthcoming autobiography due out September 27. Springsteen nodded several times to pianist Roy Bittan to keep the song going. He played it back to back with “Does This Bus Stop on 82nd Street” and “Lost In The Flood,” its rich narrative born out of the jungles of Vietnam and his imagination of fantastical city streets.
Springsteen turned a stadium into an opera house bringing to life his amazing cast of characters like Jimmy The Saint, the Magic Rat, Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane in turbulent panoramic dramas. “Those romantic young boys,” he lamented during “Incident On 57th Street,” “all they ever want to do is fight.”
Springsteen’s sequencing of “Better Days” and “The Promised Land” into “American Skin (41 Shots)” was nothing short of genius. “You can get killed just for living in your American skin,” he repeated again and again with particular resonance in a year marked by an endless cycle of gun violence. When “Hungry Heart” and “Out In The Street” followed, it was like a welcome fresh summer breeze blowing in. In “Darlington County,” the band became the world’s greatest Rolling Stones cover band building in and repeating the tantalizing intro to “Honky Tonk Women” that ricocheted throughout the stadium rafters.
After a scorching version of “Badlands,” the smiles of guitarist Steve Van Zandt and drummer Max Weinberg spoke volumes that this was truly a special night, Springsteen called out Weinberg by name on a night when he didn’t formally introduce the band. When saxophonist Jake Clemons finished his solo in the show’s climactic “Jungleland,” Springsteen came over and hugged him before going out into to sing the song’s closing sequence.
The flood lights came on during “Born To Run” and, a string of songs followed in rapid-fire: “Seven Nights To Rock, “Dancing In The Dark,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “Shout” and “Bobby Jean.”
This being a baseball stadium, it was tempting to think about what the box score might look like the next morning. There were thirty-four songs in all. The show clocked in at three hours and forty-minutes. We got to hear “Lost In The Flood” and the gorgeous ”Secret Garden” that he wrote for the soundtrack of Jerry McGuire. He played half of all of his first three albums, including the entire second side of The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle (and a blistering version of “Kitty’s Back.”) Unassumingly, seven songs from Born In The U.S.A. made their way tonight on The River Tour.
But some things can’t be quantified statistically. For me, this was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen him perform. I will always remember the look on the faces of Springsteen and lifelong friend and rock and roll compatriot Steve Van Zandt during “Summertime Blues.” During the campy back and forth verses and mugging for the cameras, there was a look of unspoken words. In a moment of wonderment, it was if the two were thinking to each other : “Do we really still get to do this?”