“This one’s for the old timers.”
Six words were all it took for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to leave any Bruce Tramps who found themselves inexplicably shut out of last Thursday’s sold-out scorcher inside First Niagara Center green with setlist envy. The “one” in question, of course, was “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” a titillating rarity from 1973’s “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” that saw Bruce and guitarist Steven Van Zandt going lick-for-lick in all their raunchy, underground garage noise glory, but perhaps whatever shade of green they were turning should have been tinged with red given the reason why they were left out in the cold to begin with.
By now, you’re probably familiar with the scalper bots that have assumed control of the ticketing process and how New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman vowed to strike them down with Draconian impunity moving forward. The reality is that the fix was in long ago and not even the self-professed ‘Sheriff of Wall Street’ Eliot Spitzer could keep his hands off Ashley Alexandra Dupré’s britches long enough to properly follow through on what he started. Had he done so, western New Yorkers would have had more than a puncher’s chance at being able to experience the moment cited above rather than falling victim to the inexorable rise of the machines.
But that’s not what we all gathered here to talk about, is it? No, what we came together to discuss is the show itself and why “The River” deserves the full-bodied treatment it’s been receiving on a nightly basis. Trying to decipher why Bruce chose to commemorate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the double album responsible for catapulting his career into the commercial stratosphere with a tour isn’t as important as simply being thankful that he did.
It’s almost as if everything he had written up to that point served as a primer for the thematic depths he would plumb on “The River,” because, instead of just singing about growing up, we got the sense that he was actually doing it. His father represented an entire generation of post-WWII consumers whose dogged pursuit of the American Dream left them burned out and unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor, which meant that the struggle to understand each other deepened once Bruce became aware of the opportunities that existed outside of New Jersey. He knew people who were trapped in the factory life after getting a union card and a wedding coat for their nineteenth birthday, and he refused to accept a similar fate for himself. He spent the seven years and four records prior to 1980 raging against that complacency, so the fact that “The River” symbolizes his unofficial transition into adulthood makes revisiting it as a 66-year-old rock ‘n’ roll icon in 2016 all the more enthralling.
Opening with “Meet Me in the City,” a jaunty outtake featured on the recently released box set, Bruce and the mighty E Street band proceeded to give what many in Buffalo are already calling one of the greatest gigs in the 20-year history of the venue. I’m inclined to agree with that assessment, because they continue to defy the laws of aging en route to staking their claim as the best pound-for-pound touring act on the planet today. They generate a profound three-and-a-half-hour wave of jubilation that continues to compound from one song to the next until the house lights come up during the climactic home stretch of “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” a song featured as an encore back during the original River excursion.
Concerns about how the audience would react to the frequent tonal changes associated with tackling the entire album in sequence were squelched when the early firestorm of “The Ties that Bind,” “Sherry Darling,” and “Jackson Cage” transitioned into the soul-searching “Independence Day” without creating even the slightest lull in the action. In many ways, “The River” was tailored toward mass appeal, because Bruce called it “his first insider record” and, when you see it being played live directly in front of you, you realize that it contains a little something for everyone.
If Happy Hour sing-alongs are what you crave, try “Two Hearts” and “Out in the Street.” If you’re a diehard disciple trawling for deep cuts, “Crush on You” and “I’m a Rocker” have got you covered. If you need a good cry, there’s the emotional sucker punch of “Stolen Car” and “The Price You Pay” to electrify the waterworks. Or, if you only went to the show to mollify the fandom of your significant other, “Hungry Heart” and the accompanying crowd surf prove to be just what the doctor ordered.
Guitarist Nils Lofgren wasn’t kidding when he told me how much fun the band is having each night as they attempt to recreate the magic of this beautiful collection, and, with their bandleader setting the tone, they have no choice but to push each other beyond what is normally expected from a live band.
Saxophonist Jake Clemons has blossomed into his late uncle’s shoes in sizzling style and I’m pretty sure his searing work is still tunneling into the night sky. Drummer Max Weinberg makes arguably the strongest statement of all during “The River,” because his physical endurance on the kit is what allows those songs to reach their full potential. And, finally, bassist Garry Tallent, pianist Roy Bittan, organist Charlie Giordano, and multi-instrumentalist Soozie Tyrell all dazzle their way toward proving that the scaled-down lineup doesn’t cost a thing.
Every other band would have called it a night after 21 songs, but The Boss still had 13 more to get off his chest before saying farewell.
Thus, “The Promised Land,” “Thunder Road,” “Lonesome Day” and The Rising” all made appearances, but it was the one-two punch of “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and “Because the Night” that ended up leaving the strongest impression on me. Lofgren’s possessed soloing on the latter has morphed into a must-see moment in its own right, which speaks to how underrated he really is.
Because I don’t care to live in a world where everyone agrees with me, I stopped trying to explain Springsteen’s greatness a long time ago. He either speaks to you or he doesn’t, and that’s just fine with me.
But to a Buffalo electorate still haunted by the ghosts of Trico and Bethlehem Steel, his rust-belt resolve and dedication to giving his hardworking fans the most “heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, and booty-shaking” show they’ve ever seen is what separates him from the pack.