The Best Live Music in America: Bruce Springsteen’s “The River Tour”
Hello, America. If you’ve been not only under a rock but clean below ground lately, you will not know that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band embarked last month on The River Tour. When The River was released in 1980, the double album was Springsteen’s fifth record and first to reach No. 1. He had initially served it up to Columbia Records as a single album, “The Ties That Bind,” but took it back and made instead the record currently being celebrated on stage by Springsteen, his fantastic E Street Band, and thousands of lucky, giddy concertgoers.
You can buy the deluxe 35th anniversary set of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection (2015), and you should, if you have an extra hundred bucks. But what you must do is go and see this tour live, if you live even remotely near one of the gigs. It’s the best live show on in the country right now. Tickets are sold out in many places, and criminally up on scalp sites for thousands of dollars — despite Springsteen’s well-voiced anger at such resales for his shows and efforts, like using credit card access at venues, to stop same. (The Barclays Center is such a venue; be warned.) I geared up three computers and fought my way through on Ticketmaster for evenings in New York City (now rescheduled for the end of March) and Albany.
Albany is a fine place to see a show. New York’s capital is a river city, with broad flats by the water and high palisades over the Hudson, so much thinner here than downstream at the ocean-mouth of Manhattan. The Times Union Center is directly off a spur of Interstate 87, the New York Thruway, and surrounded by a vivid downtown full of pubs and old Italian restaurants and places to visit when you get there early for a concert, as you should. We drove up in a starting snowstorm with plenty of company, parked in a deck right across the street from the venue’s front door, and relished the energy well before things began. That energy, at a Springsteen show, is the best I’ve ever felt listening to live music. I can’t think of a performer who is more passionately beloved by his fans of all genders and ages, or who gives it right back to his audiences with mind and voice, body and soul.
A little after eight, there they were. Bruce hailed us, hailed Albany, brandished his Fender that looks like it’s been clawed by wild beasts, and counted. “Meet Me in the City,” the song with which the show began, is an outtake from the River sessions, released just last year. It sets the evening: the band perform The River in its entirety, with no pause for air, no room to breathe, cycling through the rocking highs and deep, bleak lows on an emotional roller-coaster that leaves you — in a paradox like the central one of the record — exhausted and elated, wrecked and revitalized.
The River is an album that swings from hard rockers to intense ballads, but, thematically, the songs are the same; as Springsteen said on stage in Albany, they deal with the passage of time. He was just over thirty when the record was released, and, with a grin, he now refers to a few of the tracks as “a young man’s song.” Young people, ask the old folks next to you for corroboration, he suggests. Darkness On The Edge of Town (1978), some of whose initial tracks like “Sherry Darling” ended up on The River, was a beginning for Bruce when it came to songs of maturity, love, life and their dark complexities, but The River rolled those emotions and experiences together. Now, he brings it all back home to you. You listen, you remember, you sing around the lump in your throat — and maybe, every night on stage, Springsteen does that too.
The hits come at you all the way from “The Ties that Bind” to “Wreck on the Highway.” Sure, the first is a rocker and the last a ballad, but even as you start to dance madly to the wild tangle of guitars and drums, the words demand reflection: “You’ve been hurt and you’re all cried out, you say / You walk down the street pushin’ people out of your way….” Every song on The River is a sad song. With the slow ones, you come to expect it. The rock and roll ones still broadside you, those classic riffs driving painful situations. “Sherry Darling” could be a pop song. Its seduction is classic, solid American: I got beer and a car, so come on, girl. Ever since Henry Ford gave us the Model T, the song of the open road has compelled American culture and literature, most famously in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957). But cars can be dangerous, too — The Great Gatsby (1925) will always be there to remind us of this. It is a way to escape, to run away; “here’s another song about running away,” Springsteen says, later in the show. The refrain of “Sherry Darling” couldn’t be simpler, in its clear short words and its invitation:
Well I got some beer and the highway’s free
And I’ve got you and baby you’ve got me
Hey hey hey, whattaya say, Sherry Darlin’.
But it is a song about disliking and fighting with Sherry’s mother, who goes to the unemployment agency every day, who lives in the ghetto, and who is part of a package deal with Sherry. Max Weinberg’s classic, thunder-rolling drum start to “Hungry Heart” gives way instantly to the liberation — and haunting, eternal frustration — of abandoning a family: “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack / I went out for a ride and I never went back.” The singer knows it’s a “wrong turn,” but he just keeps going. You borrow a brother’s car and get a girl pregnant, down by the river. Some day, you might just end up dead out there, wrecked on the highway, buried in your Cadillac.
There’s a sure-certain heroism in the “I” of the songs of The River. Springsteen is entirely unafraid to invoke, and indeed extol, the phrase “working class” and all it conveys; America’s politicians, who go to great lengths to avoid the phrase, should remember these are not dirty words, but who most of the folk in this country are. Women on this record are baby, honey, darling, little girl — but they are also working girls, women with no partner and small children to care for, beset by troubles from which the singer often wishes to rescue them, but does not really know how to. Introducing “I Wanna Marry You,” Springsteen set the scene from a young man’s point of view: you see a girl walking down the street, and you fantasize — what would a first kiss be like, falling in love, having kids and a life with her. The singer’s intentions are honorable; instead of saying let’s spend the night together, he wants her to wear his ring. Yet what happens if you do get married? The next song is “The River,” and the performance starts to make you feel like The River is Springsteen’s version of James Joyce’s Dubliners — stories connected into a saga of the transition from boyhood to what Springsteen termed, in his intro to “Independence Day,” as “adult compromises.”
“Out in the Street” is also an address to working people, that starts with an address to her:
Put on your best dress, baby
And darlin,’ fix your hair up right …
All day you been workin’ that hard line
Now, tonight, you’re gonna have a good time.
The guy who labors as a longshoreman is taking her out, out in the street, where absent the confines of walls and blue collars and social constraint you can walk, and talk, the way you want to.
As The River washed over us, brilliant individual moments abounded. Even in the rafter seats, people could hear well, and see all courtesy of the Times Union Center’s mammoth monitors. Springsteen’s spoken intros to a few tracks were greeted with near silence and given respect. He always had his eyes on the crowd, watching faces, looking through the many signs waved at him. One proclaimed a kiss from him to be on the holder’s bucket list. Springsteen smiled, strolled over, and obliged her in a leisurely way. Seventeen and a half thousand people thrilled along with her. The edgy, bump-and-grind “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” was standout, with Springsteen and Little Steven Van Zandt doing their back-to-back, face-to-face exchanges joyfully — as fresh on the many-hundredth time as if the first. Audiences always wait, desperately, for the moment when Bruce turns his back to us and lies down, mike held tightly, singing as he goes. It’s a mistake to call this “crowdsurfing.” It is a near-religious, surely spiritual moment: Springsteen literally puts himself, by choice, in our hands. No one tears at him, rips his clothes, or gropes him: he’s lifted almost on fingertips, conveyed carefully, for all the world like a saint’s figure in a feast-day procession through a city street. An appropriate image, and nowise sacreligious, to apply to Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen; there is a worshipful attitude, as well as celebration, coming at him from his audiences. Not only those girls down at Sacred Heart, but all of us, love him.
Springsteen stepped into a single spotlight and gave a little half bow. That was The River. He hoped we had liked it. And then he grinned and turned around. Crash. No pause. No quarter given. No time to recover. “Badlands.”
The Albany show circled past three hours without any break. Well, life does that, too. No one minded. Even the performers didn’t seem to mind. How in the name of everything does Springsteen not only maintain the energy level he does in concert, but feed his band and audiences with it as well? Don’t ask, just roll with it.
Glowing, shuffling into the storm, we finally spoke to each other. No one talks during a Springsteen show; I’ve yet to have to hush anyone jabbering through one of his songs, which I can’t say for any other performer I’ve seen regularly. The couple next to us were from the Jersey shore. They’d driven all the way up from Springsteen home country because they couldn’t get tickets for any shows that were closer. She said it was the best concert she’d heard him give, and I wholeheartedly agreed. She had met Springsteen once, in Asbury Park at someone else’s gig. I’ve met him, too, the first time in the basement hallway of a building at Princeton University. She and I swapped stories. He had been interested in what we had to say that wasn’t about his music — their conversation was about Southside Johnny, ours about New Jersey poets from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg (Springsteen was tickled to hear that a girlfriend and I had bought drinks for Ginsberg and Gus Van Sant, after a performance they did on campus).
Snow had filled the streets while Springsteen and the band slowly soaked in their sweat, while we danced in the dark. Policemen in heavy winter gear offered help and directions. With dark-comic invocations of “Wreck On The Highway,” we got into vehicles cautioning one another to drive and get home safely. The exit ramp up to the Thruway was unplowed and slippery. Politely, people flashed lights and climbed it car by car. I didn’t see any accidents made, or even anyone cut off. The camp-meeting spirit of the concert had shed a grace, perhaps, on every one. Levon Helm used to say that when things were bad or you were tired or hurting, rub a little music on it. The spirit of the Times Union Center was remarkably close to that at Helm’s home in Woodstock, “The Barn,” where many times I’d left a Ramble a better person, and this is a compliment to Bruce and the band. As they go, crisscrossing the country and then on to a few cities in Europe, ending up (to date) at the Circus Maximus in Rome, join them. That’s what it feels like, a joining — a collaboration. Springsteen invites it, revels in it, encouraging you to sing along and extending the mike for you to do it, literally touching hundreds of people every night. You’re part of it, and you feel it, from the moment Bruce takes the stage, greets and welcomes you in that distinctive raggedy-man voice, and, setting the beat for your heart, counts out that galvanizing one-two-three-FOUR.
Lead portrait via Bruce Springsteen; Albany gig photographs via @springsteen, @greasy.lake, @annmarielussier, @natgeo and @betneywhitsy on Instagram, with thanks.