By Tara Machen
Say what you will, Twitter-critics, about certain songs in the Bruce Springsteen cannon being “old warhorses” — but don’t you dare call the likes of “Born to Run” and “Badlands” “played out.” Because as was proven once again on opening night of Springsteen and the E Street Band’s latest tour last weekend at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, PA, it’s impossible not to feel these standards on a visceral level when Bruce and the band are up there meaning it so hard. Springsteen asked the crowd at the start of the show if they were “ready to be transformed,” because that’s exactly what his concerts do to people. Just ask any of the hungry-hearted fans who were down in the belly of the “the pit” when the 66-year-old rocker crowd surfed over their heads and hands while belting out the song of the same name.
As is the case at any Springsteen tour opener, there were fans from all over the country (and world) in the Pittsburgh crowd Saturday night. But as everybody knew going in, this promised to be an event even by epic three-hour-plus Boss standards: A celebration of 1980’s The River, with all 20 songs from the iconic double-album played in their original sequence, from the anthemic “The Ties That Bind” straight through to the haunting “Wreck On the Highway.” Actually, make that 21 songs, counting the show-opening “Meet Me in the City,” one of the outtakes featured on the appropriately sprawling recent box set release, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection.
Although “The River Tour 2016” marks the rare — perhaps even the first — time that Springsteen has taken to the road with a set “set,” let alone one that the audience knows ahead of time, there was nothing remotely rote about the evening’s performances. The arrangements were compelling throughout, with highlights including a particularly complex and chill-making intro (thanks to the ever-amazing piano work of Roy Bittan) for “Point Blank,” the stunningly effective fading away outro on “Fade Away,” the delicate harmonies on “Stolen Car,” and the Jake Clemons saxophone wrapping around Bruce’s “heart and soul” ending on the down-right penetrating “Drive All Night,” to name a few stand-outs.
Granted, it would have been nice to hear a few more of the excellent River-era outtakes from the Ties That Bind box live — most notably the previously unheard “Stray Bullet” and “Time That Never Was.” But that’s a petty quibble given how much Springsteen and the band did give all night. After the evening’s main course of The River, there was still a generous dozen songs to go. The aforementioned “Badlands” and “Thunder Road” bookended the last six songs of the main set in fitting triumphant fashion, while the more recent anthems “The Rising” and “Wrecking Ball” (especially “Wrecking Ball”) more than held their own next to the classics as the only songs played from the last two decades of Springsteen’s 43-year recording career.
The encore portion of the show started with a salute to David Bowie via a rousing “Rebel Rebel,” with Springsteen acknowledging Bowie’s vital support when he covered two of his songs (“Growing Up” and “Saint in the City”) way back in 1973 — so far back, Bruce recalled with a laugh, that he “took the Greyhound bus” to meet Bowie at the time. Coming right after the tribute, the Born in the U.S.A. concert standard “Bobby Jean” managed to resonate with an even more bittersweet poignancy than usual. After that, the exhilarating four song finale — “Dancing in the Dark,” “Born to Run,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” and “Shout” — was pretty much gravy. But nobody on earth dishes it out like the Boss, and even after three and a half hours of feasting on The River and then some, there probably wasn’t a fan in the house who wouldn’t have happily gone back for more.
And more it seems there just might be. Although “The River Tour 2016” is currently only scheduled through the spring (ending with two nights in Los Angeles in mid March), there’s already rumors that Bruce and the band might be extending the tour through the summer and even taking it overseas. Here’s hoping that happens, because this River, as much as every other proud and proven “warhorse” in Springsteen’s stable, deserves to run as long as its hungry heart desires.