January 19, 2016
On Tuesday at the United Center, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band arrived at the song that served as the theme of the evening and things got downright eerie.
As “The River” wound its way down from youthful promise into adult responsibility that becomes a weight too difficult for two people to bear, Springsteen’s voice turned into a wordless wail. It was high-pitched and lonesome, like the shiver of a musical saw, and faded into a harmonica solo that sounded like a cry.
Things got bleaker still. “Point Blank” followed, another unraveling relationship, the bloom wearing off into the weariness of losing a job, paying the rent, waiting on welfare checks. It was swathed in Spaghetti Western guitars, the sound that always accompanies the movie scene where somebody dies in the dust.
It was that kind of night. Springsteen’s 1980 album “The River” was on the agenda, and it can bury an unsuspecting listener in darkness. On the occasion of a box set looking back on its release 35 years ago, Springsteen is performing the double-album front to back in a three-hour-plus show. Two-thirds of it was consumed by the 20 songs on “The River.”
With “The Ties that Bind,” Springsteen marked the album’s themes at the outset: commitment to another person, commitment to a shared life, and the responsibilities and burdens that can unravel those promises. “Is a dream a lie that don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Springsteen sang on the album’s title track.
At the time the album was originally released, Springsteen has said he was wrestling with exactly those same questions in his personal life. Now performing the same material at age 66, the songs still resonate. At the core of “The River” remains the notion, as the singer said, of “how we have finite time … to do something good.”
Springsteen’s characters haven’t got it figured out. In the back-to-back “Fade Away” and “Stolen Car,” the narrator desperately tries to hang on to a tattered relationship until it slips away completely. By the end, he’s invisible. So much of his life has been folded into his partner’s that once again on his own, he has no identity left at all. In “Independence Day,” a father and son try to hash out their differences at the kitchen table in the middle of the night. By dawn, the kid is gone.
Even the seemingly lighthearted “Hungry Heart,” a sing-along moment and Springsteen’s first Top-10 hit, was double-edged. Springsteen crowd-surfed while the fans celebrated, even as he told the tale of a guy who couldn’t deal with a wife, a family, a job, so he simply ran.
The singer’s original vision for the album turned on such uncomfortable scenes, and at the 11th hour he decided to expand it to include some songs that could provide a respite, a glimpse of a way out. These blow-off-stream rockers – from “Crush on You” to “Ramrod” – kept the album’s heaviest songs from becoming oppressive, and they served a valuable purpose Tuesday.
The E Street Band covered the album’s dynamic range. There was the doo-wop intro to “I Wanna Marry You” with sidekick Steve Van Zandt, who was Springsteen’s trusted foil all night. “Cadillac Ranch” burned fossil fuels with impunity until it drove right off a cliff, belching smoke. “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” brought Eddie Cochran swagger and “Sherry Darling” a touch of the Coasters’ humor. “I’m a Rocker” with its roller-rink organ riff suggested an outtake from the ‘60s garage-rock collection “Nuggets,” and “The Price You Pay” evoked the ringing 12-string guitars of the Byrds. The slow-burn soul of “Drive All Night” crashed into the Hank Williams-like plaintiveness of “Wreck on the Highway.”
Springsteen hewed strictly to the sequencing of the original album, though for the purposes of an arena concert the pacing might have been better served if he went into shuffle mode. But Springsteen was keen to revisit the album’s themes, and they have not faded with age. If anything, the issues that obsessed the singer – faith, family, fidelity – loom larger than ever.
It was only fitting that he devoted the final third of the show to anthems and party songs – and a brief pause to pay tribute to the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, who died Monday, with an acoustic “Take it Easy.” It’s a song that in the Eagles’ version felt light on its feet, as told from the perspective of a rogue wondering if “your love is gonna save me.”
Frey once sang it with a wink, but Springsteen played it straight, almost solemnly, flavored with a fiddle solo by Soozie Tyrell. He sounded like a guy who had just played a bunch of songs that turned Frey’s flirtatious lyric into a series of unanswerable questions.
Springsteen set list Tuesday at United Center:
1. Meet Me in the City
2. The Ties That Bind
3. Sherry Darling
4. Jackson Cage
5. Two Hearts
6. Independence Day
7. Hungry Heart
8. Out in the Street
9. Crush on You
10. You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
11. Here She Comes/I Wanna Marry You
12. The River
13. Point Blank
14. Cadillac Ranch
15. I'm a Rocker
16. Fade Away
17. Stolen Car
19. The Price You Pay
20. Drive All Night
21. Wreck on the Highway
23. No Surrender
24. Cover Me
25. She’s the One
26. Human Touch
27. The Rising
28. Thunder Road
29. Take it Easy (Eagles/Jackson Browne cover)
30. Born to Run
31. Dancing in the Dark
32. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
33. Shout (Isley Brothers cover)
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