On January 27 at Madison Square Garden, Bruce Springsteen prefaced the E Street Band’s performance of his 1980 album, The River, by saying, “I wanted the record to contain fun, dancing, laughter, jokes, good comradeship, love, sex, faith, lonely nights, and teardrops.” Over the course of the next three hours, Springsteen and the band would provide all of the above, and then some.
As the sounds of “Big Boss Man” by the Pretty Things resounded from the loudspeakers a little after 8 p.m., the band took the stage in pairs, followed by the Boss himself, guitar aloft, greeting the crowd. House lights still on, E Street kicked into “Meet Me in the City,” an outtake from the 1980 River sessions included on the recent box set (The Ties That Bind: The River Collection).
“Hello, snowbound New York!” Bruce greeted the audience at the song’s conclusion, as the house lights came down. “Did you survive the blizzard?” he asked. “This is kind of a special night: The River was a record where I was trying to figure out where I fit in,” Springsteen continued, offering a brief introduction about the album before counting off its first track, “The Ties That Bind.” As advertised on the ticket, this tour’s main event is “Full The River Plus!,” or the performance of the entire River album from end to end with a selection of greatest hits rounding out the evening.
Although the opening night of the tour in Pittsburgh on January 16 was one of their strongest shows in years, the E Street Band was even tighter at MSG. “Efficiency” doesn’t seem like a positive rock-and-roll attribute, but when the band is performing a challenging twenty-song set, even the smallest pause could cause this show to lose momentum. While it’s less critical in going from the Top 40 hit “Hungry Heart” to crowd favorite “Out in the Street,” it’s vital in (for example) the segue at the end of Side Two, “I Wanna Marry You” into “The River” into “Point Blank,” three quieter, more intense songs that test the patience of a large arena crowd.
Yes, the section aisles suddenly filled with concertgoers seeking beer during “Point Blank,” the thirteenth song in the set, an intense tale of lost love and bad decisions, but that wasn’t due to the performance onstage. While audience chatter during the quieter numbers was at Saturday-night-bar level, Springsteen and the E Street Band still executed magnificent versions of their most difficult and challenging material: “Stolen Car,” an utterly bleak tale of hopelessness, was delivered with tremendous pathos and depth; “Fade Away,” a slight, country-flavored number, was presented with perfect, delicate timing that made you want to hold your breath; and the grand, rolling rendition of “The Price You Pay” saw Roy Bittan commanding the performance behind the grand piano.
But an undeniable highlight of the evening was the breathtaking, heartrending “Drive All Night,” where Springsteen swore, “I’ll drive all night/just to buy you some shoes/and to taste your tender charms.” In that moment, every woman in the Garden wanted to be the recipient of that ardor, and the men wanted to be brave enough to say that to someone. As your heart grew three sizes larger, Jake Clemons stepped into the center spotlight to play the sax solo with a warmth and majesty that the crowd cheered with glee, and that would have made his uncle, the late E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, proud.
The crowd’s response seemed surprisingly uneven during the album set. At moments like “Sherry Darling,” “Hungry Heart,” or “The River,” the Garden echoed like the world’s largest Springsteen karaoke night. But at others — even fun numbers like “Crush on You” or “I’m a Rocker” — Springsteen had to work extra-hard, heading out into the crowd a second time (after his first sortie to crowdsurf during “Hungry Heart”) to get any reaction during the latter. He would also have to exhort the crowd, “Shake your booty!” at the beginning of “Ramrod,” a song that is, literally, about shaking one’s booty. (Bruce himself would bust some moves that looked suspiciously like the Robot during the song.)
At the end of the album performance, Springsteen would acknowledge the band, and the moment, before noting that he was going to keep playing, diving straight into “She’s the One” from 1975’s Born to Run. The crowd’s reaction was akin to a rocket being launched, loud and raucous and immediate, the complete opposite of what it had been during the album set. This energy level would only increase through the rest of the show, which in Springsteen-land translates into “another 11 songs.”
Bruce is no slouch at reading an audience, and he proceeded to give them exactly what they wanted, with another two “Darkness”-era numbers (“Candy’s Room” and “Because the Night”), before continuing with crowd-pleasing hit after crowd-pleasing hit. “Thunder Road” felt like it was being played for the first time ever, and just when you were missing Clarence something awful, Jake came to the front of the stage for the solo, pausing to point upward in acknowledgement, and things got a little misty.
The house lights came back on for “Born to Run,” which felt like a party with your 18,000 closest friends. “Dancing in the Dark” had two dancers — one gentleman requesting a dance with Mrs. Springsteen, while a woman with a sign reading “52 days clean and sober and ready to dance” got the honors with Bruce. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” caused a small riot, before the crowd got the place literally bouncing up and down by the time Springsteen brought the night to a close with his cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” Eighteen thousand concertgoers poured out of the Garden delighted and exhausted, thinking about fun, dancing, laughter, good comradeship, and more, just like the Boss had hoped for.