Bruce Springsteen. Pepsi Center. 03.31.16
The River opens with “The Ties That Bind”, a song that uses a long dark highway to measure the distance between two hearts. The River ends with “Wreck on the Highway”, a song that uses a fatal car crash as a metaphor for one’s own mortality. The story comes to a close with the protagonist watching his lover sleep. He is thinking about all the things they have been through together. He is also thinking about all they have survived. He holds her tight, as if that will protect them from the inevitable flood. He knows better though. Time is a river. And that river is bigger than any single man or woman. If Bruce Springsteen’s goal was to create an “all encompassing” record (as he claimed last night), then he was extremely successful in that endeavor. The River is as heavy as it is long, but just like the life documented within, the joyful moments outweigh the painful ones. So it was at the Pepsi Center last night. After warming up the crowd with “Meet Me in the City”, Springsteen introduced his “coming of age” double-album with a quick backstory. Then he navigated us down the river; highlighting all the beautiful sites along the way, while never attempting to shield us from the ugliness hiding in the shadows.
Performing a classic album in its entirety can be a daunting task for both artist and audience. While exciting in theory, I’ve found myself quite disappointed in practice on more than one occasion. Many albums stand the test of time, but very few are without mediocre tracks whose set time could be used more effectively. The fact that The River is a double-album, with a runtime of almost 90 minutes, had me questioning Springsteen’s decision to tour it. Especially considering it’s not exactly his best album. That being said, aside from a few moments when I found my thoughts drifting other places, I gained a newfound appreciation for the album last night. First of all, it was very well paced in a live setting. Tracks like “Jackson Cage” and “Out In the Street” got the adrenaline flowing high enough that we were able to ride it through (and appreciate) tracks like “I Wanna Marry You” and “The River”. In fact, “Independence Day”, a ballad about being “startled by your parents’ humanity”, was a real highlight from the first half of the performance. Springsteen is a born showman, but when backed by the always excellent E Street Band, he makes it impossible not to enjoy yourself no matter what the set selection.
True to his ‘everyman’ image, Springsteen is obviously the master of ceremonies no matter who is on stage with him, but he manages to do so without grandstanding. Steven Van Zandt (who will always be Silvio Dante to me) and Nils Lofgren were always at the mic with him. Jake Clemons was allowed to shine on sax in tribute to his late uncle as well. Max Weinberg was always projecting from the big screens that hung above, all while holding things down from the back of the stage. Even when the crowd was yelling “Bruuuuuuce” as he came down the platform into the audience for some crowd surfing during “Hungry Heart”, there was no doubt that the whole thing was a group effort – a true family affair. The audience was the tenth member of the E Street Band as well. When Springsteen’s fingers weren’t on his guitar or snapping and waving around, he used them to slap and shake every outreached hand available to him. “Denver, I got a crush on you!” “I’ve got one question, where are the marijuana gummy bears!” “Let me hear all you mountain girls out there!” I’m sure every audience receives the same treatment, but when he’s in your city, it truly is the only city that matters.
At one point the crowd was tricked into supporting young love; the kind “without consequence or responsibility”. “It doesn’t exist! What are you applauding for?!” he joked, before reassuring the young couples in the crowd with “It’s not the real thing, but it’s a good place to start.” It was just another one of those simple, but profound truths Springsteen is famous for. The production value of the show was simple as well. The open stage allowed the audience to see the band from every angle. The trio of screens were situated up high and were there to augment the view for those in the 300 sections. No pyrotechnics or technological enhancements are need at a Bruce Springsteen show; it really is all about the music. That’s why I couldn’t help but wish the setting had been some place like Red Rocks instead of Pepsi Center. There is something just so real and human and natural about what he does, so it’s kind of sad that it had to take place in a corporate arena. But no matter the venue, we all continued the journey through the second half of The River without pause.
A piano solo proceeded “Point Blank”, then we danced through “Cadillac Ranch” and rocked through “I’m A Rocker”. We swayed back and forth for “Fade Away” and (one of my personal favorites) “Stolen Car”. And a few songs later, there we were at the mouth of the river. “The river was about time slipping away. It was about the adult life. You choose your work and your partner. The clock starts ticking. You walking alongside your own mortality. You do the work to raise your family. You try to do something good. You try to do something good. That’s the river.” A river doesn’t just end though. And neither did the show. Just like a river, it flowed into a larger body of water. “Alright, here we go!” Without showing any signs of his 66 years on Earth, Springsteen took us to “Darlington County” like he’d just stepped off the tour bus (or plane). “Darlington County” acted as a gateway to the “Badlands” while Bruce introduced himself to more people in the front rows. Weinberg was absolutely killing it behind him. I had just seen Patti Smith perform “Because the Night” at the Fillmore in San Francisco in December, so seeing Springsteen perform it for the first time was another real highlight of my night, especially because Lofgren took that opportunity to break into a frantic guitar solo just when I needed a little kick in the ass.
There have been arguments about the encore (or lack thereof) on message boards today. They are extremely stupid arguments, but the language being used just goes to show how dedicated (fanatical) Sprinsteen fans can be. If I were to take a side, I’d say there wasn’t an encore. He never left the stage and the band never stopped playing for more than a few seconds during the entire three-and-a-half-hour performance. “She’s the One”, “Backstreets”, and “The Rising” followed one another in quick succession. The harmonica came out to introduce “Thunder Road”, before the audience took over vocal duties. And just when I thought he’d have to take a break (I needed one and I’m 30 years younger and wasn’t even performing), he gave a quick shout out to the Food Bank of the Rockies before blinding us with house lights during “Born to Run. Then the little girl with the “Courtney Cox ain’t got nothing on me, let’s dance!” sign was brought on stage to sing, dance, and play air guitar like a champ while her mother(?) stood there, unable to control her tears of joy. And then he kept going! “Rosalita”, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, a cover of The Isley Brothers “Shout”… By the time things closed out with “Bobby Jean”, it was like he was just showing off. The house lights were lit the entire time, once again making the crowd an extension of the band.
The River will never be my favorite Springsteen album, but that’s only because he has so many great albums in his catalog. I do appreciate why it means so much to him though. I also find it incredible that an artist can look back on something he did over three decades ago with such admiration. I’ve seen Springsteen a few times in the past, and while he always leaves it all on the stage, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him perform with such purpose. There were times when he had the ferocity of a heavy metal singer and there were times when he seemed so lost in a song that he almost looked 30 years younger. His stamina was literally superhuman. Encore or not, once he took the stage last night, he didn’t stop for a second until it was all over. I don’t know how he did it. Love, I guess. He must just really love what he does. I loved the show as well, but it was the adrenaline keeping me going in the end. I was literally dead on my feet. I felt like I’d lived those 66 years with the man they call The Boss. And although I’d been entertained, I couldn’t wait to get back on that highway and head home. The river wore me out and I needed to get some rest.
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