Monday, November 09, 2009

Bruce and "The River"

Last night at Madison Square Garden, Bruce Springsteen did something he’s never done before, and is unlikely to ever do again – he played “The River” in its entirety, in sequence.

As this year’s tour has neared an end, Bruce and the band have taken to playing entire albums in sequence, within the scope of an entire concert. This was something they first tried in May 2008, when at a fundraising show they played both “Born to Run” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” from start to finish. But until this past weekend, only three albums had gotten the full in-sequence treatment: the two aforementioned works, and “Born in the U.S.A.”

But Bruce obviously wanted to do something special for the Garden party, and this past weekend added two more albums to the mix: “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” on Saturday night, and “The River” on Sunday night. And while the first show would have been fun, I would have given just about anything to be at last night’s show.

Even though I know “The River” isn’t Bruce’s best album – I still get annoyed every time I hear “Hungry Heart” in concert – it may be the one with the most personal meaning for me. It was the album that came out just a couple of weeks before I saw my first Springsteen concert, the concert where I heard him sing 17 out of the 20 songs on the record (and yes, in those days they really were records). It was my first quarter at Cal, and everything about that first quarter was burned into my memory – the experience of being away from home for the first time, what it was like to be in “real” college classes, the camaraderie in the dorms, my first (and worst) failure in a real college mid-term –it’s all up there somewhere – if not like it was just yesterday, like it was a lot more recent than nearly 30 years ago.

All I can say is that I hope they filmed this show.

As the tour winds down, a lot of people are beginning to get the feeling that this just might be the last time for the E Street Band, at least as we’ve all known it for so long. And yeah, I know they’ve been saying stuff like that about the Stones for almost as long as the E Street Band has been together, but the simple fact of the matter is that none of them are getting any younger, and Clarence in particular is probably not up to many (if any) more tours like the one that is about to wrap up.

So if these are the last shows, at least in the current incarnation of the band, they’re certainly going out in style. Below, reproduced verbatim, are the notes from last night’s show on the Backstreets setlist page.

November 8 / Madison Square Garden / New York, NY

Notes: Context has always been important to Bruce Springsteen's music, and he reinforced that notion with a galvanizing performance of The River in its entirety for the first time on Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. In a precise, exhilarating, and high-energy show, Springsteen faithfully reproduced all 20 of its songs. Most have appeared in shows on various tours since the album's 1980 release, and usually to great effect. But hearing the songs in their original order left many in the building gasping in astonishment.

Springsteen introduced the 20-song cycle as a "gateway to my future writing," singling out "Stolen Car" and the title track as seed work for Tunnel of Love and Nebraska, respectively. He also mentioned the album was "made during a recession," an obvious connection to the hard times of the present. Then he lit it up, and as he made his way from "The Ties That Bind" to "Wreck on the Highway," Springsteen positively radiated with passion and energy.

On the rockers, Bruce got physical: that was evident by the last verse of "Jackson Cage," where he sang with the force and conviction of a young artist trying to win over an audience with a new song. That investment extended to the fun rockers, too: "Crush on You" and "I'm a Rocker" weren't simply dusted off for the night. Rather, they were full-tilt, all-in exhibits A and B of what attracts fans to rock 'n' roll in the first instance, and to Bruce Springsteen's music in particular. Simply put, Bruce couldn't have put any more of himself into those two songs if he had tried. He prowled, vamped, sang, and played guitar as if his very life depended on it. Call it Springsteen uncorked, vintage 1980.

But there's another side to the music from this album, and there Springsteen made an equally resonant connection. "I Wanna Marry You" stood out, as did Bruce, singing at the front of the stage, maracas in hand to keep time. His voice sounded sweet and soulful, his delivery balanced in sentiment and sincerity, and he ended it by taking Patti Scialfa for a slow dance. "Fade Away" was equally resplendent, but this time Bruce ended on his knees as the song faded away. "Drive All Night" was perhaps the evening's emotional high-water mark: the band found one groove after another, and Bruce asked Clarence Clemons for a second sax solo to put a stamp on the crescendo. Steve Van Zandt had a great night too. He was all over the guitar for "Crush on You" and "Cadillac Ranch," and his background vocals — as integral to the album as his role as its co-producer — sounded exactly as they should have: right behind Bruce's voice in the mix. That made for an especially strong version of "The Price You Pay" in only its second appearance since 1981. Props, too, to Charles Giordano for his stately organ playing on this song.

At the outset, Springsteen said that the album would be played like this just once because "it's too long to do it again." Clocking in just shy of two hours, The River felt like a show in and of itself. Afterward, he wasn't ready to end the set, and appeared unknowing of how to end the set. So he departed markedly from his handwritten list of songs, adding a thunderous "Atlantic City," and a romping “Seven Nights to Rock.” In the encore, he treated the audience to a work-up of and then a fine, off-the-cuff "Sweet Soul Music." Another treat appeared as Bruce led the band through "Can't Help Falling in Love." Throughout, he appeared to be a bottomless well of energy. At the end he escorted his vocalists to the platform at the back of the pit to conclude "Higher and Higher."

On this night, where the past met the present, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band lifted the veil, lifted themselves, their music and their audience. Bruce may be wise to let this performance stand alone, because it's one that even he probably can't replicate.- (Jonathan Pont reporting)

Setlist: Wrecking Ball (with Curt Ramm)/The Ties That Bind/Sherry Darling/Jackson Cage/Two Hearts/Independence Day/Hungry Heart/Out in the Street/Crush on You/You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)/I Wanna Marry You/The River/Point Blank/Cadillac Ranch/I'm a Rocker (with Curt Ramm)/Fade Away/Stolen Car/Ramrod/The Price You Pay/Drive All Night/Wreck on the Highway/Waitin' on a Sunny Day/Atlantic City/Badlands/Born to Run/Seven Nights to Rock/Sweet Soul Music (with Curt Ramm)/No Surrender/American Land (with Curt Ramm)/Dancing in the Dark/Can't Help Falling in Love/Higher and Higher


Paul J said...

I was at the Nov. 8th show, was simply blown away by it.

I have seen a few of Bruce's shows, and this was easily as good as any I've seen; in other words, phenominal.

After finishing the entire two-disk setlist, Bruce just kept right on going, without a break.

I want to comment on Crush on You, which I *think* Bruce pointed out as not one of his faves.... he started Crush on You by calling it, sarcastically, IMO, "A Real Masterpiece" and then, as noted above, proceeded to pour his entire soul into performing it (and then some!), finishing up by calling it, again, "A Masterpiece".

Even though I like almost all of what's on "The River", I always thought it could have been cut by a few songs, which would have made it tighter. But I never thought that even once during Sunday's Garden show.

I have discussed "The River" with friends, and many forget that it includes such Springsteen standards as Sherry Darling, Hungry Heart, Out on the Street, and Cadillac Ranch.

Surprising is how many really good ballads are on "The River", including Independence Day, Fade Away, Stolen Car, Drive All Night, and Wreck on the Highway, not to mention "near-ballads" such as Point Blank and The Price You Pay.

Absolute poetry.

Paul J said...

I know, I didn't mention "The River" itself. Thought it was self-explanatory, but then it looked like I left something out after I read my comment. Performed with haunting fiddle accompaniment Sunday, a true masterpiece.

Jeff said...

Thanks, Paul - I'm envious! I saw Bruce at the Garden in 2000, and it was probably the highlight of the ten that I've seen.