The last time this reviewer covered Bruce Springsteen was when he finished his seven fall stops in the Metropolitan area in 2009 with a complete performance of The River. You easily sense from the review at the time that a big part of what made the night so special was the understanding that this was a once in a lifetime performance.
But even though Bruce pledged to never do it again, 2015 found him releasing a box-set of The River and many of its outtakes, entitled The Ties That Bind. He explained that the 2009 show was a fun experience and that the album would provide a good platform by which to tour in 2016. In typical Springsteen fashion, “a few shows” became a full tour and that gave birth to an entire overseas jaunt that begins on May 14.
The River in the double-album presentation Bruce ultimately released, not only brought the sound of an E-Street Band show but the varied emotional themes as well. Basically, it includes all the euphoria, tragedy and everything in between that we all experience. But I’m sure even Bruce was having trouble playing the same 20-songs consecutively night after night for the first time in his career and some fans who attended multiple shows were finding it tough to appreciate the journey after a few rounds.
It was universally agreed that The Boss would honor Prince, as he did David Bowie and Glen Frey earlier in the tour. But everyone who wasn’t aware of that day’s sound check was floored as the guitars played the opening chord to “Purple Rain.” It was an incredibly powerful tribute and the Springsteen camp has since released the official audio as a free download. It was great to see Bruce abandon his own vocal comfort zone and put some soul in the “honey I know times are changin’”part. Not only was the stage bathed in purple light, but each band member wore something of the same color for the show.
After saying a few words about Prince, Bruce launched into the show. “Meet Me In The City” has become a great show-opener and worked especially well following the emotional opener. Bruce sounded even stronger than he had at the Madison Garden show earlier in the year and was visibly more mobile; he isn’t skipping around the stage any more, but can still muster a good Sherman Hemsley strut when the occasion calls for it. Highlights of the album sequence continue to be some of the lesser-played (normally) songs in the middle part of the album. Bruce crooned on the “Here She Comes” that preceded “I Wanna Marry You” and was clearly having fun honing his maraca skills. “Point Blank,” with its extended keyboard intro from Roy Bittan and Charlie Giordano, was its usual cinematic best. Bruce really gave his all to what is almost a one-act play of a song.
In fact, every song was played with that extra punch. The crowd (and The Boss) was even more energetic than they had been at MSG. “Ramrod,” a tune that Bruce clearly loves to play, works really well after the powerful ballad “Stolen Car.” “Ramrod” could be seen as a sillier “Cadillac Ranch,” but serves as a joyful release in this context. “The Price You Pay,” another song rarely heard before this tour was once again excellent and “Drive All Night” was its usual show-stopping self. After the The River’s final song, “Wreck On The Highway,” Bruce gave his nightly explanation that “being an adult means knowing you have limited time to make your mark and you choose the person you share your life with and do the best you can.”
The post-album set kicked things into an even higher gear as “Badlands” assured the Saturday crowd that he wasn’t messing around and “No Surrender” had a similar punch. Since it had been played the show before in Baltimore, it was surprising to hear “Backstreets.” Bruce ended the song by repeating that we’d be forever friends until the end. He’s closed the tune the same way all tour, but he sang those words with a little more sadness in his voice.
While “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising” would not be ideal choices to follow, Bruce lit into both of them. The rest of the set, which had all been played at every show, were all given full-throttle treatment. On this tour, it hasn’t been so much about what he’s played but how he’s played it after two years away from the stage.
But setlists were on everyone’s mind for the tour finale. Bruce said after “Purple Rain” that these would be the last time he’d be playing The River album in sequence on the tour. What did that mean, many asked? At the start of Monday’s show, Springsteen expanded on his comments and assured that the band would be “opening up their setlist in Europe.” Of course, he said this after “Meet Me In The City,” so we knew we’d have to wait 19 more songs to find out what he meant now. The album sequence on this night seemed even more intense than Saturday. But the wear of the 36 previous shows also showed a bit. At first Bruce’s voice sounded a little ragged and the band seemed a little rushed while playing the same songs in the same order that they had so often lately.
But this is what separates Springsteen from so many others. On this night, Bruce simply powered through and he didn’t hold anything back with his voice. By the time he got to the vocal crescendo of “Drive All Night,” he had returned to form. But the way he laid bare to the crowd and exposed his vulnerability once again explained his appeal.
As soon as The River was over, Bruce started collecting request signs and you know this was going to be an even more special show. He started with John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom,” a staple of the Tunnel Of Love Express Tour and performed the tune down and dirty as it should be. Next up was the requested “Loose Ends,” played previously on the tour only once in Hartford (2/10). Steven Van Zandt has long proclaimed this his favorite tune and Bruce acknowledged as much after they shared the microphone for the song’s final chorus.
Next up was a 10-year old girl’s request to sing “Blinded By The Light,” which her sign promised she could remember all the words to. She was true to her word and the crowd joined in by the end, but once he started “Trapped,” another tour premiere, the place was ecstatic. Even though he played this song every night on the Human Touch/Lucky Town tour, it never fails to excite with the E Street Band. “Badlands” and “My Love Will Not Let You Down” were similarly fantastic. On the latter song, Max Weinberg was drumming so hard you’d think he’d puncture his snare: at the very least his usually impeccable tie was moved from its moorings.
“Prove It All Night,” another favorite not on the setlist, was excellent and set the stage for the home stretch. Once again, all these songs had been played consecutively, as the 20 that comprised The River song cycle. But they were played even better than they had been on Saturday, and Bruce threw in an extra song, “Bobby Jean,” after “Shout.” It was clearly to all in attendance that this had been “one of those,” if not “the” show.
The Boss promised he’d “be seeing us,” which suggests that the rumored fall dates will materialize. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to see Springsteen these days and not wonder how more times we’ll get the opportunity to do so. Clearly, he knows that as well. But he keeps playing his ass off in response and the understanding that we’ll be friends until the end only makes it that much more special.