"The subtext to 'The River' was time," Bruce Springsteen said as the E Street Band played a slow, shimmering vamp. "Time slipping away. And once you enter that adult world, the clock starts ticking and you've got a limited amount of time to do your work, to raise your family, to try and do something good."
That was Springsteen's postscript to the opening two-hour stretch of his concert at Madison Square Garden on January 27th: it was a complete performance of his 1980 double album, The River, prefaced by Meet Me in the City, one of the many outtakes from the album issued last year in the boxed set The Ties That Bind: The River Collection. He's performing the whole album throughout his current tour, and arrives in Dublin for a date in Croke Park on May 27th.
Time means even more now, 36 years after The River was released. The time Springsteen spent onstage: an intermissionless three hours as he followed The River with one can-you-top-this song after another. The time that Springsteen has led the E Street Band, which got its start in 1972, still includes its original bass player (Garry Tallent) and has now gone through generational changes, with Jake Clemons taking over on saxophone after the death of his uncle Clarence Clemons in 2011. (At the end of the show, Springsteen invariably praises the band with a carnival-barker string of adjectives that now includes "death-defying.") The time that Springsteen's loyal fans have had to absorb his albums, revisiting their joys and lessons as their own lives play out, perhaps marveling that Springsteen is still filling arenas.
The River has held up. For Springsteen, it was a pivotal album: the distillation of a lengthy recording process and long deliberation. Released when he was 31, the album opens, pointedly, with The Ties That Bind. As Springsteen explained onstage, The River strove to address the connections, responsibilities and compromises of adult life, from the fleeting pleasures of a night out dancing to the commitments of marriage and parenthood. The album also changed Springsteen's approach to songwriting; it newly compressed and streamlined his storytelling style. And the album's 20-song sequence carefully juxtaposed its ups and downs, with pensive ballads like The River itself and boisterous, cowbell-thumping rockers like Crush on You.
On the album, and now live, each song responds to the one before it – sometimes by extension, sometimes by contrast – in a flux of resilience and resignation, impulses and consequences. The songs themselves hold dualities; Cadillac Ranch, the album's most irresistibly twangy stomp and holler, praises cars yet contemplates death. Time is also folded into the music of The River, which was made in the 1970s with a history of rock and roots – the Byrds, Chuck Berry, Phil Spector, doo-wop, Bob Dylan, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison, Woody Guthrie – threaded through its songs.
Onstage, Springsteen was committed as always to connecting with the audience and the band, clowning with guitarist Steve Van Zandt and sometimes sharing a single microphone with up to four band members, leaning in and out for call-and-response vocals. He often stepped onto a platform where people up front could reach his legs, and he walked onto and around the arena floor for handshakes, high-fives and selfies. During Hungry Heart, the hit single from The River, he not only led the joyful singalong but also fell back on upstretched arms to crowd-surf up to the stage.
Springsteen spoke in depth about a few songs, introducing I Wanna Marry You as "a song of imagining love in all its excitement and its tentativeness," then sharing an eerie, extended vocal introduction to the song, his voice overlapping with Van Zandt's.
The River ends in mourning and persistence, with Wreck on the Highway, a song narrated by an onlooker who wonders about the dead man's girlfriend or family and those who will have to bring the bad news: time ended for the man in the wreck, time stretches ahead for those connected to him.
But Springsteen wouldn't leave a concert on that doleful note. Moments later, the band was barreling through a string of songs about lust, love and romance: the pealing arpeggios and Bo Diddley beat of She's the One; the galloping momentum of Candy's Room; the anthemic surge of Because the Night with a leaping, swooping guitar solo played by Nils Lofgren as he hopped and twirled on one foot; and the updated girl-group pop, with troubled thoughts, of Brilliant Disguise, which ended with Springsteen embracing his wife (and backup singer), Patti Scialfa.
The concert's only 21st-century songs were Wrecking Ball from 2009 and The Rising. Then came the final, full-throttle, standing-ovation, shout-along final sprint: Thunder Road, Born to Run, Dancing in the Dark, Rosalita and – signaling show's end – Shout. They were, besides being unstoppable, songs that have what the succinct verse-chorus-verse songs of The River had set aside: elaborate structures, virtuoso instrumental passages, key changes. But they are also songs that have connected Springsteen and his fans through the decades, defying time once again.
– NYT Service