Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Madison Square Garden, 1/27/16

River MSG

I reviewed this show for the Village Voice. This is the inside baseball edition.

Pure and simple, it was a barnburner tonight. Somehow the band were even tighter than Pittsburgh, for the entire night. It was absolutely insane, in the best way possible.

Two shows have showed them how they need to run this thing, and there is zero lost energy between songs. There is just none. You think that it doesn’t matter, but to me it was such a marked difference. It doesn’t feel rushed and if you aren’t someone who obsessively watches production details you probably won’t even notice. But it kept things moving, kept the energy up, kept the momentum going. Even the difference of a minute can lose the crowd in this song sequence. It was most noticeable in places like “Jackson Cage” into “Two Hearts,” or Bruce starting “Independence Day” before offering the introduction, or going into “Out In The Street” immediately after “Hungry Heart.” There wasn’t the even the tiniest fraction of a second break.

Even with all that, people around me all shifted into reading their email during “Crush On You.” He’s really having fun with that one now, and the crowd down front does too, so I don’t get why that was the moment that everyone stopped trying, screens all white around me.

“Fade Away” was the number where people just gave up, and there was a steady exodus out of GA, and up the stairs in the side sections. But it was a curious crowd tonight; there was almost no reaction during “Meet Me In The City,” I don’t get it, because even if you haven’t heard the song, the chorus is easy to catch onto and the hooks are killer, but it just kind of fell flat. Maybe the problem is the house lights still being up; I don’t know. But this would be a repeated problem during the album set. Bruce kept trying to get people to jump up and down, that foray to the back platform during “I’m A Rocker” because it was just dead, flat out in GA. Then again, when hedge fund dudes are buying 4 GA tickets at $1200 a pop (this is a thing that actually happened; I know someone who knows a hedge fund dude), what do you think the floor is going to be like? I know there are ways of getting around this and you can’t do paperless tickets in New York; at least make the front of floor will call only or enter immediately or something. I am reminded again by the very dude audience last night how much I miss the diversity of the audience in Europe.

I said after Pittsburgh that I had no idea how this show was going to play in the stands. Well, now I know. I was in section 117, row 8, so close to the stage and the floor. The people around me had some connection to acquire their tickets; most had E Street Lounge passes or bitched that they didn’t get them. (If you have never been in the E Street Lounge, it’s not ‘backstage’ but rather a room with a cash bar, and the only advantage really sometimes is that there’s a private bathroom, and sometimes free water.) I offer this caveat as a base line between sitting in a section with fans who had to work for their tickets, and sitting with people who have some kind of connection. Still, they were chatty but I could still focus, but I attribute the latter to what was going on on that stage.

I do not understand why people were not moved by “Stolen Car” or “I Wanna Marry You” or “Fade Away” or “Point Blank” — I was going on about “Side Four” but it really is “the end of side three into side four”. I thought it was amazing in Pittsburgh, it was absolutely STUNNING tonight. It almost feels like Bruce is perversely relishing the challenge of delivering these songs to a chatty crowd, his old bar band instincts kicking in.  That is a great thing to witness, but I wonder about it wearing him down round about show #10, or #20, or even after that. Like, I get that he’s Bruce Springsteen, but having 16000 of 18000 people yakking it up through songs you have gone out of your way to indicate are important to you has to get to you after a while. Even if you are Bruce Springsteen, it is hard to perform those songs. It is hard to run that part of the show. There is a real physical and emotional effort that’s even more than a normal show.

And the talking people are crazy-making. At least during “Crush On You” they weren’t talking, or I couldn’t hear them talking. These tickets were so hard to get, and cost so much money, and the performances were so magnificent, but yet it was like being in the loudest bar you could think of on a weekend.

Jim Rotolo did a live remote for E Street Radio before the show, and I was hanging out in that vicinity because Chris Phillips got shanghaied into going on the air. During his appearance Rotolo mentioned that people are calling and writing the station and saying that gosh, they really weren’t familiar with the River album before the tour, but now they’re “getting into it.” And you would think that can’t possibly be true, but yet, compare the audience’s reaction to the record to the audience’s reaction to “She’s The One” and “Candy’s Room” and it is like night and day. But if you were old enough to be around for ‘78 or ’75 then you were old enough to be around when The River came out, so none of this makes any sense to me.

Also in the “does not make sense to me” is the reaction to “Wrecking Ball.” I realize I have never really been in the camp of liking or understanding why Bruce let this song have a life beyond that last night at Giants Stadium, and I know people are just reacting to melody, but seriously, people who were filing their nails during “Crush On You” or reading email during “Stolen Car” (and making fun of me for being excited during the album performance) were executing choreographed dance moves to “Wrecking Ball.”

The band fucked up a couple of times tonight, minor mishaps I record here but cut out of the review as being less important than the rest of it: two missed cues during the intro to “I Wanna Marry You,” one they missed–”Even the tightest band in the world fucks it up,” Bruce observed, before then missing the cue himself. But he made up for it in spades, that lovely Roy Orbison moment, that “Oh darling,” was heart-stopping. Then, Steve hit a repeated series of wrong chords during the intro to “The River.” There was also something else going on during “She’s The One,” where poor Nils spent a great deal of time running around and looking meaningfully at people, especially Steve. I think the rhythm was just wrong, and he was trying to sync himself with Max before bringing it around the rest of the stage.

I hesitate to ever mention Jake Clemons because the pro-Jake faction gets so defensive if anyone ever criticizes him in the slightest, but I really appreciated Jake’s performance in Pittsburgh and tonight he really brought it home. That “Drive All Night” solo was phenomenal. I think he has really found a good place for himself in the band and in the show and his energy is not as obtrusive to me personally (please note emphasis) as it was on previous tours. I realize he has a thankless job.

On the note of thankless jobs, we come to Charlie Giordano. (I really like Charlie and am happy he got this gig; he played keyboards for one of my favorite local bands in the 80s.) But I mention this because the sound is much improved in my opinion, apparently there is some new sound system, and the separation is fantastic; I can actually hear the organ. I realize he was not hired to offer his interpretations of the material, but rather to play the material as written. I think I just notice the gaping hole left by Danny Federici more when it comes to playing a set of River material. That lightness, that delicate touch, the way he could make a melody just swing. I am missing it, hard.

And while we’re in this neighborhood, there was a moment last night during “Thunder Road” that felt like it was right out of “No Nukes”. I had to cut the line from the review because it was too inside-baseball-ish and would have taken too many words (I had 800, with an option to go to 1,000) but while “Thunder Road” is one of the greatest gifts in the history of rock and roll, it is different now than it was back then; last night it felt like it did back then, and I missed Clarence SO HARD.

I am surprised there was no Bowie tribute offered tonight, to be honest. On the other hand, I do not feel that this needed to be a thing for the entire tour, and maybe Bruce felt that if he did one he had to do the other and then it becomes a thing for the entire tour.

Tonight, all the dead are here, indeed.

I was thinking about going out to Newark if I could find a ticket, but now I have a ticket available to me at the rescheduled MSG show and still have a ticket for Philly, and now of course there is the second leg. I am still curious what this show is going to be like after, say, 12 performances, and then 20 performances, and whether the back half changes.

I am focusing on the back half because after tonight I feel safe in saying, if we didn’t get outtakes at the hometown gig beyond “Meet Me In The City,” we are not ever going to get outtakes, so say goodbye to your hopes of “Stray Bullet” or “Chain Lightning.”

We are also stuck with “Shout” as the last number and that is the one thing in the set that is going to drive me literally insane.  Why not bring out the “Detroit Medley”? Why not any number of other actual Springsteen compositions that people will love just as much. It just feels like a cheap way to end the show because people love “Animal House” and are going to act like idiots. This set deserves so much better than that.

It is honestly a great show, and as a fan it is great to hear the songs that dropped out of the set, and it is great to watch the band execute the River material. But that only has legs for so long. For me, the thing about a Springsteen show is the unknown, the unexpected, and of course, the new material, and the way all of it gets juxtaposed together. When this tour was first announced, all I could think of was all of the possibilities of being able to sequence the material from The River with everything that came after it. And if Bruce wants to take it easy by not having to craft an intense setlist, he gets to do that.  But that means that this is not the kind of tour that is going to breathe or grow much beyond what we have right now. We will have to get used to that.