When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band take to the stage at Madison Square Garden on January 24 to play his 1980 album, The River, in its entirety from start to finish, it will only be the fourth time they will have played the record’s songs back to back. The tour kicked off in Pittsburgh on January 16, and the next two shows — at the Garden (January 24 and 27) and one show at the Prudential Center in Newark (January 31) — will make for a hometown run before heading out to other points of the U.S. on a short (22 shows in total) tour.
But pride of place still goes to the first time the album was performed from end to end, right here at MSG in 2009. That show was a special surprise announced less than a week before the November 8 concert, after Bruce and E Street added full-album performances of Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge of Town and Born In The U.S.A. to existing dates on the Working On A Dream Tour, as well as another one-off for The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle on November 7 at the Garden. While it was obvious why the other shows had full albums slotted into them — there were five shows at Giants Stadium, including the very last night of the venue — the Garden dates had sold out ten minutes after the tickets went on sale. (At the Garden, Springsteen would explain, “We tried to think of things that would make these last series of dates fun for us and our fans.”)
This was an unprecedented move. All of the other records clock in at under 45 minutes, having been recorded in the years before compact discs. But The River is a double-album set, and many of its songs had ceased to be performed live with any regularity since the Eighties. Springsteen prefaced the album performance in 2009 with, “Tonight, we’ve got something — never before performed! Just this one time! It’s too long to do it again!” before offering some background about the genesis of the album, his remarks then mirroring comments he made late in 2015 while speaking about the box set released to commemorate the thirty-fifth year of the album (The Ties That Bind: The River Collection).
Specifically, he touched on how the record was “sort of the gateway to my future writing…The River led to the writing on Nebraska; Stolen Car led to the writing on Tunnel of Love.” Springsteen also mentioned how the record was originally a single disc, but “…I took it back because I didn’t feel that it was big enough. I wanted to capture the themes I was writing about on Darkness. I wanted to keep those characters with me, and at the same time, add the music that made our live shows so much fun and enjoyable for our audience.”
While there were great moments during the 2009 MSG performance of The River, there were also definitely times where it felt like Springsteen might have regretted his decision to perform a double album just ever so slightly. But it was one of those once-in-a-lifetime events, and few were going to be nit-picky about glitches or errors. For many in the audience, it was the first and quite probably only time they were going to hear tracks like “Wreck On The Highway,” “Crush On You” or “Stolen Car,” which hadn’t been played in years (and when they had appeared more recently, were one-offs or special events). Even the OG Boss fans who had heard the songs before — on the original River tour, it wasn’t unusual for as many as eighteen of the twenty songs on the record to make the setlist — probably hadn’t heard them in years.
But the stakes are higher when you’re committing to playing a record for 22 nights in a row, which is why Springsteen and the band put in extensive rehearsal time prior to the tour’s kickoff in Pittsburgh on January 16, and the results were very much in evidence onstage. The depth and quality of the performance compared to the 2009 outing was drastic; the performance of all of the River songs was uniformly outstanding. There was also better pacing in the transitions between songs, stronger momentum, and more attention paid to places where the audience’s attention might wander. The band that will arrive in town this coming weekend is already in their mid-tour form, running on all cylinders.
Unlike the last incarnations of the E Street Band on the road, which had grown to include eighteen members, this time out, Bruce has stripped the band down to basics. There are no horns aside from Jake Clemons, continuing to take his late uncle’s Clarence’s role, and no backing vocalists or percussionists, aside from E Street stalwart Soozie Tyrell reprising her usual role on violin, vocals, acoustic guitar and percussion. While the eighteen-piece E Street Band was a great sight to behold, there’s something to be said about going back to basics. Although Springsteen has spoken in the past about what he learned from watching great band leaders like James Brown, Jackie Wilson or Sam Moore (most notably when Moore appeared with Springsteen during his 2003 Christmas shows in Asbury Park) and clearly prides himself on his own ability to do so, in Pittsburgh, the musicians proved that they are still more than capable of executing the repertoire without doubling the size of the band.
On the original River tour, Springsteen worked what were then the new songs into a setlist featuring core tracks from the existing repertoire. This allowed him to create the strong narrative arc that is a hallmark of Springsteen’s live shows, as well as manage the crowd’s energy (as well as the band’s and his own) and give his voice a rest. You don’t have the same physical considerations when sequencing an album, nor do you have to worry about pacing the attention of a live audience. In Pittsburgh, the Saturday night crowd was excited and definitely attentive even during the slower numbers in the album sequence, with none of the typical exoduses up the aisles. This was in marked contrast to the experience at MSG in ’09, where fans all over the building (even some in the VIP sections) complained about a loud and talkative audience. (Let’s be better than that this time, New York.)
On the River Tour 2016, the storytelling is confined to the order of the original album; the back half of the show is a straight-ahead, pedal-to-the-metal greatest hits extravaganza. Saturday night, it didn’t feel like there was any particular rhyme or reason to the order of things, but the crowd also clearly did not care. They were too busy dancing and singing their way through favorites like “Badlands,” “Backstreets,” “Wrecking Ball” and “Because The Night.” The encore would open with a dedication to David Bowie and the E Street Band’s affectionate cover of “Rebel Rebel” before offering another five-song powerhouse sequence with “Bobby Jean,” “Dancing In The Dark,” “Born To Run” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” before offering up the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” An obviously delighted Springsteen then spent a few more minutes thanking the loud and energetic Steel City audience before leaving the stage.
Hopefully, by the time the band rolls into town, Springsteen will be ready to mix up the back half of the set, maybe add some of the great River-era covers — the 1980 MSG shows featured amazing versions of the “Detroit Medley,” for example — or include some additional album outtakes besides “Meet Me In The City” which opened the show (and was performed on SNL back in December). In a December interview with Backstreets magazine, the Boss stated, “We’ll play the record start to finish, and then we’ll play some of the special outtakes that are there.” While there’s generally a reason outtakes don’t make a record, there are many from this particular era that Springsteen has regretted excluding (such as “Roulette,” which he talks about on the recent documentary included in the box set) or are among Steve Van Zandt’s all-time favorites (“Restless Nights” and “Loose Ends,” among others).
While it feels The River Tour 2016 leans a bit harder on the nostalgia factor than Springsteen ever has — even on the 1999 Reunion tour, he was promoting the Tracks box set — the band is playing so strongly that it’s impossible to chalk it up to just that. Fans holding tickets to the three-sold out area shows are in for a night to remember, to say the least.