Back to 'The River': Springsteen kicks off tour Saturday in Pittsburgh
January 13, 2016 12:00 PM
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will perform "The River" in its entirety when he performs here on Saturday.
By Scott Mervis / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
From The Boss’ perspective, “The River” is now safe again for diving.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have played the classic 1980 album just once in its entirety, that occasion being Nov. 8, 2009, at Madison Square Garden, capping a landmark year for the pride of New Jersey.
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE E STREET BAND
Where: Consol Energy Center, Downtown.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: Sold out.
The Boss had serenaded President Barack Obama at his Inaugural Celebration, won a Golden Globe for “The Wrestler,” rocked the Super Bowl XLIII halftime show (Steelers over Cardinals!), released his 16th album “Working on a Dream,” headlined Bonnaroo and Glastonbury, among other festivals, and then tacked on a Kennedy Center Honor.
Late in ’09, E Street did a series of shows performing “Born to Run,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Born in the U.S.A.” in full. On that November night in New York, he introduced “The River,” saying they’d be doing it “just this one time. It’s too long to do it again.”
Needless to say, when the 24-date The River Tour opens at Consol Energy Center Saturday, celebrating the December release of “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection” boxed set, it will be the first time Bruce and the E Street Band have played the whole “River” here.
Sort of. Technically.
Between Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 1980, about a month after the album was released, they played all of “The River” over two nights at the Civic Arena. They did 15 of the songs the first night, and 16 the second night, managing to play all 20 before leaving town.
Bob Dylan didn’t play most of “Blonde on Blonde” when he toured in 1966, nor did the Stones play “Exile on Main Street” or Led Zeppelin “Physical Graffiti.” Bands didn’t generally play entire single albums, let alone double ones (“Tommy” and “The Wall” aside). But Springsteen’s situation was unique, in part because his idea of a concert was a three-hour marathon, meaning the 32-song 1980 setlists could still accommodate 16 or 17 non-“River” tracks.
“The River,” as he states in the documentary that accompanies the boxed set and aired on HBO, was a natural focus coming after the cinematic “Born to Run” and more austere “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in that it was designed to sound like the E Street Band live.
“ ‘The River’ album was set up to play like a live show,” he told Backstreets magazine last month. “And so it does play well. … That’s why we took all the time we did with it: It was our idea of new material that played like a show. Because the fans, up to that point, were saying, ‘Gee, you know, this record’s great, but …’ there was always the show, the show, the show — you know, that we’re not quite capturing the show on one record.”
Making ‘The River’
Having released “Darkness” in June 1978, three years after “Born to Run,” the plan was to strike faster with a 10-track album called “The Ties That Bind” in late 1979.
“We were still in the process of carving out our identity,” he says in the documentary. “For most of my audience, they were still familiar with basically two records: ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town,’ so we were still carving out who we were, so I needed a record that had a very, very strong identity.”
Springsteen handed Columbia “The Ties That Bind” on schedule in 1979, and then, he says, “We took that record back and worked for another year. It was good, but as I listened to it, it just didn’t feel BIG enough. It didn’t have the room to let in all those different colors.”
Not only was it lacking a unified statement, it also didn’t satisfy the fan thirst for a record that kicked like the live show. Fortunately, Springsteen was bleeding songs at Dylan pace, writing more than 70 during this era. Between “BTR” and “Darkness,” he had moved on from themes of adolescent escape (“strap your hands ’cross my engines”) into adult responsibility (“mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man”), and he continued to try to “write for [his] age” on “The River,” weighting it with sobering ballads like a title track of marital discontent and the father-son lament “Independence Day.”
But in expanding it to a double album, the other goal was to reach back into his garage-rock roots with tracks that pushed against the “sterility” of ’70s records to channel the rowdy spirit of Gary U.S. Bonds, Dion, Elvis and songs like “Sherry Darling,” “Out in the Street” and “Cadillac Ranch.”
“I wanted things that represented the band as the glorified bar band that we are,” he says in the doc.
Jon Landau, who produced the previous two records, nurtured the more formal songs while psych-rock guru and E Street guitarist Steven Van Zandt set about injecting the rockers with a “noisy” quality that mimicked the live show. If they seem at odds, Springsteen reconciles the two sides by thinking of the party songs as the music the characters in the serious songs use to blow off steam on the weekends.
“The River,” released to glowing reviews, became his first No. 1 album, due in part to the sing-songy “Hungry Heart,” his first Top 10 hit. He wrote it after coming home from a Ramones show, with the thought of handing it over to the NYC punks. He banged out the basics in just a few minutes, and while it sounds like a tossed-off pop ditty, it comes with a semi-humorous line that hints at his then-fatalistic view toward romance: “We fell in love, I knew it had to end.”
That fear is hammered home on the devastating side four with the coupling of “Drive All Night” and “Wreck on the Highway,” the first a breathless love plea, the latter an allegory on how fleeting life and love can be.
“It was love and death, life and death, I wanted the record to break down to that at the end,” he says in the documentary. “You have your love song, ‘Drive All Night,’ and then there’s just this quiet reckoning that this character has internally, with [himself], on a particular evening when what’s at stake in life is made vivid to [him].”
In wrestling with his own views about life, love, marriage, family and commitment, he created this “community of characters,” he says, to work through his feelings.
“I think I was thinking about how to make these things more than aesthetic ideas in my own life,” he says. “How do I practically live a life like this where I make the connections that I’ve been very frightened of, but I feel that if I don’t make, I’m going to disappear, get lost. The creative life, an imagined life, is not a life ... It’s merely a story.”
Back to ‘The River’
Fast forward to late 2015, and the 66-year-old Springsteen, still very much in game shape, had set the E Street Band aside to work on what he’s expecting to be a solo album, he told Backstreets magazine. But to hype “The Ties That Bind” — a four-CD, three-DVD 52-song boxed set complete with 11 previously unreleased outtakes — they talked about doing one show, which became two, and then a short tour, played with the core E Street Band (no horn section or backup singers).
When it was announced that it would be a full “River” show, there was an initial wave of disappointment among some longtime fans on social media.
Stan Goldstein, author of “Rock and Roll Tour of the Jersey Shore” and a Springsteen blogger at NJ.com who has seen The Boss more than 300 times, says, “When I first heard it, I was disappointed, only because it’s a great album, but a Bruce show is always about spontaneity, and all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Whoa, he’s locked into 20 songs’ and the only time he ever did it, it took an hour and 50 minutes. It left room for 12 songs. So, once he starts ‘The Ties that Bind,’ for the next hour and 50 minutes, we’re going to know what’s exactly coming next.”
But giving his third favorite Springsteen album another spin, he warmed up to the idea, and now part of the fun is speculating with other fans about what other songs and outtakes will turn up in the show. “Meet Me in the City,” the song he played on “Saturday Night Live” in December, is an obvious choice while the golden ticket, Mr. Goldstein says, would be “Stray Bullet,” which he’s never played in concert before. People are also speculating on whether he’ll pay tribute to David Bowie, having tweeted this week that he was “was a visionary artist and an early supporter of our music.”
Although fewer diehards may be traveling with the tour due to “The River” format, tickets for these shows have been harder than usual to snag because of the limited dates, says Mr. Goldstein. He has tickets for nine shows, including two in California, but has a conflict with the Pittsburgh opener as he’s going to the annual Light of Day benefit concert in Asbury Park, N.J., that night.
On the bill there, along with the Smithereens, Jesse Malin, Steve Forbert and many more, is Joe Grushecky, who’s been hopping up on stage with The Boss in Pittsburgh for decades.
Springsteen has appeared at 11 of the 15 Light of Day shows, but not this year. He has some business in the city of three rivers.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg
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