Sounding Off: A River Ran Through It

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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A short while back, Bruce Springsteen did something he’d never done before: he performed The River, in its entirety, in front of a rapturous audience at Madison Square Garden. Released in October of 1980, the ambitious double album helped usher in a decade of economic strife and conflicted foreign policy. Now, hard times had once again fallen on America, and Springsteen’s River revival couldn’t have come at a more resonant time. As he sings in the title track: “I got a job workin’ construction for the Johnstown Company/but lately there ain’t been much work, on account of the economy.” Having been laid off myself in 2009, I was ready to get my dose of religion; I was ready to go and see the Boss.

In keeping with the current set list ritual, the evening began with “Wrecking Ball,” about the razing of Giants Stadium. But it was merely an appetizer. “We’re going to try this just one time, because it’s too long to do it again,” quipped Springsteen. “This record was a gateway to the future. It was written and recorded during a recession. The title song I wrote about my brother-in-law and sister after he lost his job. A lot of men, women and families were hurting. The River led into Nebraska. “Stolen Car” led into Tunnel of Love. It was the style of record where I wanted to keep the characters I had on Darkness on the Edge of Town with me. We’re going to take you down to The River tonight.”

With that, he and the band spent the next hour-and-a-half bringing that album to life, which I imagine was akin to watching Michelangelo recreate the David in front of you. It kicked off, of course, with “The Ties That Bind”—a major Springsteen-ian work that is sometimes overlooked in favor of “Badlands,” “Promised Land,” etc. “Let’s make some party noise!” Bruce shouted, launching into “Sherry Darling,” a seaside boozehound’s lament, played with affection and energy, the Big Man lighting up his sax solo. This is Springsteen’s “your-Mom is-a-pain-in-the-ass” song. The claustrophobic, impassioned “Jackson Cage” was always one of my favorites. Life is a James Dean movie, it seems to say. The stakes are high. “Two Hearts” is a handy summation of Bruce’s mission statement (“two hearts are better than one/two hearts can get the job done.”) You can’t help but get “Bruce bumps” at the tacked-on coda, where little Steven and Bruce harmonize on the outro.

1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town was a moody and haunted album, especially on the heels of Born to Run, and Springsteen seemed to want to reward his audience with some crowd-pleasers on the follow-up. The River alternates between simple, feel-good songs like “Out on the Street,” “Crush on You” and “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” with songs that lurk in the shadows, your “Stolen Car”s and your “Wreck on the Highway”s (his car infatuation was in full force here).

Springsteen jokingly called “Crush On You”

“a lost masterpiece!” and had the crowd sing the first verse of “Hungry Heart,” as he’s been doing since 1980. His biggest hit (alongside “Glory Days”) was written after Bruce met Joey Ramone in Asbury Park, and the Ramones frontman asked him to write a song for them. Ever the rock and roll showman, the 60-year-old Springsteen used the occasion to body surf over the crowd.

The melancholy, mournful “River” has one of the most resonant opening lines ever, and Springsteen’s harmonica playing is always masterful; it was amplified here by Nils Lofgren’s ghostly slide guitar. The ending touched off a round of deeply heartfelt Bruuuuucccce’s, reminiscent of the 1979 “No Nukes” concert (also at MSG), which featured James Taylor, Carly Simon, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Springsteen stole that show as well, and the movie, with his impassioned performance of “The River” and an insane high-octane, over-the-top performance of “Quarter to Three,” in which he can best be described as the white James Brown.

“I’m a Rocker,” always my least favorite Springsteen song, turned out to be a highlight. If anybody’s “a rocker, every day, in every way,” it’s Bruce Springsteen. “Drive All Night” was the big moment I’d been waiting for; I’d recently been crushing on that song hard. Apparently, it’s a lot of people’s favorite, too: I read reports of people crying in MSG during its performance. Springsteen drove it home. Shoes were purchased. Tears were shed.

It all built to a subdued and somber ending, with “Wreck on the Highway,” capping the very first and possibly the last, performance of The River. Ain’t it funny how those who were born to run end up in the wreck on the highway? Actually, it’s not funny at all. “Thank you!” Bruce said as The River concluded, and brought the original E Streeters to center stage to take a bow. “These are the guys who recorded the record… and Phantom Dan Federici.”

Then, incredibly, the real show started. From “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” to “(Your Love Keeps Liftin’ Me) Higher and Higher,” the hours-long encore was like its own concert.

The loss of Danny Federici is poignant; the E Street Band is not invulnerable. Clarence’s bad knees might mean this is his last tour, and they’ve been swapping out the drummer so that Mighty Max can rock segues on Conan O’Brien. I felt blessed to see the real thing one more time.

“New York! New York! New York! You’ve just seen the last of, for a little while, the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, earth-shocking, hard-rocking, bootie-shaking, earthquaking, love-making, Viagra-taking, history-making, legendary E Street Band!” Followed by, what else?

“1 2 3 4!”

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  1. Wonderful writing, Evan. As I read it, I felt it.

    I saw Bruce Springsteen for the first time during one of his very first forays through the South. Tickets were $11 and there were some still available the day of the show. That gives you an idea what decade it was. I was fascinated to see this young rebel that everyone was chattering about but I was just as fascinated to see his effect on the audience. As he told a story about his father (one that he’s told many times since) I heard my friend Sherri sniffle next to me. What? She’s crying? At a rock concert? Then I noticed the bubba football player a row in front of me quickly swipe at his eyes. This was new to me. I took note.

    Bruce is the everyman energizer bunny of rock. Thank God for him.

    Thank you so much for a lovely piece of heartfelt writing about an artist and band with sooooo much heart.

  2. I paid a scalper $20(!) to see Bruce on the River tour in St. Paul in ’81. Only concert I’ve ever been to where I looked at my watch, wondering how much longer it would last. May not be the best show I’ve ever seen, but I’ve never seen one better!!!!!!!

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