Entertainment and transformation don’t always go together -- that’s why the world needs Kim and Kanye -- but they do on The River, and they did on Wednesday night. After the classic Boss-by-numbers surge of “Meet Me in the City,” a tune about how being “lost in romance” might get you locked up, Bruce and his intrepid E Street Band dove into The River, all 20 songs of it.
“I wanted to make a big record that felt like life,” Springsteen said before charging his nine-member crew into the leadoff track, the chiming rocker “The Ties That Bind.” Indeed, The River contains multitudes, and for the next 90 minutes, Bruce revisited all of the hopes and fears that inspired his freaked-out 30-year-old self to put aside the romanticism of his earlier work and look hard at marriage, work, and parenthood.
Not everything on the album is built for the stage, and highlights predictably included the sax-heavy frat rocker “Sherry Darling,” the secretly profound pop smash “Hungry Heart,” and of course, “The River,” that cold swim of a ballad about how adult realities drown teenage dreams. Springsteen dedicated that last one to its real-life inspirations, his sister Virginia and brother-in-law Mickey, who were in the house.
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Although “The River” is hardly a rarity, the band sounded a bit tentative as it waded through. It was even shakier transitioning out of Bruce’s maracas-laced intro rap on “I Wanna Marry You.” The Boss blamed himself for the latter snafu, but regardless of who messed up, the brief hint of raggedness fit the material. The E Streeters can (and did) tear flawlessly through the monster hits and crowd favorites that fueled the show’s second half, but The River is a warts-and-all record that ought not be perfect. Performed live, it’ll bore you with dragging songs filled with great lyrics (“Stolen Car”) and thrill you with revved-up rockabilly jams full of silly TV references (“I’m a Rocker”). That’s the price you pay, and everyone knows it going in.
Following “Wreck On the Highway,” the death-haunted ballad that ends The River, Bruce ripped through a bunch of gems from different points in his career. Standouts of this portion of the show -- which lasted long enough to be a younger band’s entire concert -- included the Bo Diddley stomper “She’s the One,” the Max Weinberg drum free-for-all “Candy’s Room,” and “Brilliant Disguise,” a reminder that Bruce’s apprehensions about domesticity didn’t end in 1980.
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Alas, there was no surprise Patti Smith cameo on “Because the Night,” but that didn’t matter: Guitarist Nils Lofgren summoned plenty of brooding desire with a solo that even Bruce observed with genuine awe. Nearly as amazing: the ways in which relatively new songs like “The Rising” and “Wrecking Ball” already feel 30 years old.
As the concert pushed past the three-hour mark, Springsteen offered three perennial must-plays that each could’ve been the closer: “Born to Run,” ‘Dancing In the Dark,” and “Rosalita,” wherein saxophonist Jake Clemons channeled his late uncle, Clarence, and joined Bruce and “Little” Steven Van Zandt for some goofy “Three Stooges” mugging at the front of the stage.
Instead of stopping there, Springsteen sent the capacity crowd back into the slushy streets with “Shout,” the Isley Brothers favorite that, in the E Street Band’s hands, goes on and on and on. It’s like life, without all the sad stuff.
Meet Me in the City
The Ties That Bind
Out in the Street
Crush on You
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
I Wanna Marry You
I'm a Rocker
The Price You Pay
Drive All Night
Wreck on the Highway
She's the One
Because the Night
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
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