brucespringsteen.net on “The River”
Originally posted on brucespringsteen.net.
Like you, I have at this point listened to The River an untold amount of times. In high school, for a very long time, I used to fall asleep to side two. In other words, this record is not new to me. But I will tell you that right now, I feel like I haven’t truly felt or understood the brilliance of the narrative and lyrical arc of this record until Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, seeing and hearing it unfold start to finish in front of me.
After “Wrecking Ball” to get the band and crowd warmed up, it was clear that Bruce was ready to get down to business. He explained that The River was “a gateway to a lot of my future writing,” and he noted that it was recorded during hard times, that the characters on the record shared a lot “like so many people today.” He noted that several of the songs later led to whole albums; and that some of the characters had been there since Darkness and that he wanted to keep them with him.
With the weight of this intro behind him, the band plowed into side one and “Ties That Bind.” “Ties” is still familiar ground; “Ties” into “Sherry” still familiar; “Jackson Cage” and “Two Hearts,” we’re still in known territory. But “Independence Day” is the first moment of weight, of something that we don’t hear all the time, and it’s freaking “Independence Day.” There is never any way to deny its significance in the body of work.
“Hungry Heart” coming next — complete with the now-mandatory run through the audience — makes sense like it never has before. “Out in the Street” feels like an old friend. And call me shallow, call me lightweight, call me flighty, but the moment I had been waiting for almost more than anything else on the record was up next: “Crush on You.” I have to say, the band nailed this one just as hard as any of the more significant moments on the record. It was sharp. It was tight. Bruce was dancing the frug in front of Stevie, who was right there with backing vocals. Why on earth this song has never been a regular part of the set is beyond me.
Madison Square Garden in its entirety has been on its feet for most of this. The crowd is having fun with this, and more importantly, the band is having fun with this. You can see it on Nils’ face. You can see it in the way Roy is hitting the keyboard with authority. You can see it in how Garry is swaying back and forth. You can see it in Bruce’s smile and in his hips as he shakes the maracas. It is important to me as a fan that this not be a chore for them.
A super-fun “You Can Look” takes us into “I Wanna Marry You,” the next stop for those of us collecting punches in our club membership cards. This one was an absolute jewel, Bruce going over during the instrumental break at the end and slow dancing with his wife. It was a delightful, unexpected moment. “The River” was probably an unexpected highlight, as he manages to somehow find the place from which he can still sing that song with power and authenticity, no matter how many times before it has been in the setlist.
We now come to side three, where I have to reconsider my previous rating of “The River” and compare it to the heartwrenching hollow created with the performance of “Point Blank.” Fans may wonder why stuff like that doesn’t get into the setlist more often, but these are not lightweight rock ‘n’ roll songs here. There is depth. There is meaning. There are dark corners.
And then there is “Cadillac Ranch,” which was hokey and bouncy precision guitar slinging-at-the-front-of-the stage and more USA-era in performance vibe than River tour, but no one cares. “I’m a Rocker” takes it up a notch, which is fine, because we are getting ready to slope downward again. “Fade Away” was right behind “Point Blank” for me in terms of the songs I wanted to hear tonight. In context. In place. Bruce isn’t even breathing hard, shaking maracas and keeping time.
Long before this record was even announced, I had a discussion with some friends about what was the most depressing song in the Springsteen catalog. “Stolen Car” was my nomination for that role. “Stolen Car” is brutal. “Stolen Car” messes with my head. “Stolen Car” just squeezes the life out of your heart. It does tonight, too, even though I tell myself it won’t.
Luckily, “Ramrod” is to the rescue, and while he works it and he shakes it and he plays the heck out of it, it isn’t a marathon “Ramrod,” and I am glad he is keeping it true to the context of the album. “The Price You Pay” garners a surprisingly strong audience reaction, and a remarkable number of people remain on their feet and at attention for “Drive All Night.” I do not mock the shrieks from the members of my sex in this particular case; in fact, I am feeling my sisters at this moment. And then, “Wreck on the Highway” takes us out of the record and has me revising my previous vote on “Most Depressing Springsteen Song.”
The hills, the valleys, the ups, the downs, the light and the shadows. You have never felt this record like this before, and you will probably never have this chance again. As highly as I hold this record in esteem, after tonight’s performance, I question if I hold it highly enough.
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