Thoughts On Bruce Springsteen’s The River Tour 2016 Tour Opener In Pittsburgh
Also see my tour previews in Salon and the Village Voice (link coming)
I went on record on Twitter during the show stating that Saturday night in Pittsburgh was one of the strongest tour openers in years, and an overall fantastic performance, especially of The River. I stand by that now, even later. I literally do not have enough superlatives to apply to what was a first-night-of-the-tour performance, or in fact any performance. When great bands rehearse, it only helps them, and this was so clearly visible on Saturday. It also takes pressure off of Bruce, because he’s less worried about leading the band, and that lets him apply his energies towards the performance.
I remain utterly blown away at “Point Blank.” If Bruce had said in any pre-tour interviews that they had created some enhancements to the arrangements of some songs, I would have likely blown a gasket. Instead, they just showed up and played it and it was phenomenal. I am conscious of spoilers for those waiting to see shows but these small touches, which are not any different to how things transformed as they were performed over the course of time back in 1980, are valid and will not damage anyone’s memories or expectations. “Stolen Car” was masterful. “Crush On You” was an absolute delight. I even enjoyed “You Can Look” which is honestly not one of my favorite songs on the record. I was thrilled to see something like ‘Here She Comes Now’ added to “I Wanna Marry You” (which was another standout performance)–this is the kind of thing the people who have followed Bruce for a long time will especially appreciate, along the lines of the revival of “Prove It ’78”. NOW GIVE ME ‘ONCE UPON THE TIME IN THE WEST’ BEFORE ‘THE RIVER,’ PLEASE. Or even “No Money Down” before “Cadillac Ranch.” I don’t need all of them in the show (but WHY NOT?), but I hope they are rotated in and out.
I am utterly defeated at the lack of outtakes after we were promised outtakes. And I am not looking for a full band “Mr. Outside” (although it would be HILARIOUS), but “Roulette”? “Where The Bands Are”? “Restless Nights?” “Be True?” I realize the Bowie tribute took one slot but we couldn’t have traded DITD for one of those? One outtake to open the show (and it is a barnburner of a moment) does not “the best of our outtakes” make.
I was personally glad to see the album performed again without morons talking nonstop through the performance as they did at MSG in 2009. There were still some egregious offenses, even down on the floor a couple of rows from the second barricade. Let me please shame them publicly:
INDEPENDENCE DAY. Dude #1, loudly: “I NEVER THOUGHT MUCH OF THIS SONG.” Dude #2: “YEAH, ME EITHER.” Thank you, oh great men, for sharing your weighty opinion with everyone standing near you, some of whom may never have seen the song played live. We are so privileged to hear your thoughts. (I didn’t say it, but I thought it later.)
STOLEN CAR. Props to the guy behind me who yelled, “Play the Tracks version.” Of course, as my associate Mr. Radecki pointed out, the very introduction to the song on Saturday explained why he’ll never play the Tracks version. This song was a definite chat trigger, but at least standing amongst people who cared enough to queue in the cold for hours ensured that a pointed look regained silence.
THE RIVER. Woman behind me screams the lyrics, which usually I give a free pass to–it’s a concert–except that she did not know the words, and kept getting them wrong. It’s “I got a union card and a wedding coat,” not “wedding ring.” This would be forgivable except that she then announced that “Point Blank” was her favorite song of all time. She also did not know the words to that, and had begun a Garth & Kat-like yelled mumble, but was thankfully defeated after the first line.
I don’t know what this will be like in the stands. Pittsburgh, to their credit, really hung in there with Bruce, and there were not endless exoduses up the aisle for beer and similar until “Wreck On The Highway,” by which point it was hard to take much issue. But those of us who were at the Garden in ’09 had a much different experience (and I wasn’t all that far from the stage). It will be interesting to see how Bruce manages crowds that are less interested in paying attention, because he can’t just call an audible and switch to something else.
On that note, I was most struck by how strongly Bruce was able to be emotionally present at the most difficult transitions. There was an emotional modulation in his voice during “Stolen Car” that was utterly breathtaking. But this is, again, where the idea of playing a record back to back is a much different experience than sequencing a show with a majority of the songs alongside existing material. While I felt that he was struggling with finding an emotional center during the first half of “Drive All Night” (it’s why I stopped the Periscope–I wasn’t sure if what I felt missing was me or the performance), he did find it later.
There was a proposal next to me in the pit during “I Wanna Marry You.” I congratulated the happy couple (who stayed for the whole show, more props to them) instead of asking them why they didn’t just pick “The One I Love.” To be fair, the gentleman’s sign asked for Bruce’s help with the proposal, and when they lost the lottery, he obviously had to scramble for a Plan B. (The lottery was a debacle and a half, which was already covered by my associate.)
As for the rest of the set, it’s so hard to take issue with the back half of the show when everyone around you is losing their minds and acting like this is the best concert ever in the history of the world. I generally get a lot of enjoyment watching the audience during the encores, finding those people who are hearing these songs for the first time in their lives and going bonkers. But the lack of a theme or narrative arc was more disorienting than I had anticipated (because I didn’t really anticipate there not being one, to be fair).
“Sunny Day” has finally left the set, and no children were brought onstage for any reason. The endless reprises and other unnecessary extensions of songs are nowhere to be found. And to the people complaining that no specific mention was made of Danny and Clarence, it’s in every god-dammed note, and when he started those moments, people complained that they went on “too long.” I remain flabbergasted.
I was personally selfishly happy to see the Bowie dedication (although the crowd seemed a little meh on it) but keenly felt the absence of any type of commentary on current events, either specific remarks or the thing Springsteen does best, which is communicate a message through the way he sequences the setlist. I’ve been studying the 1980 tour for another project, and those setlists were stunning–not just for their length, which is not what I’m looking for, but in the way he put points across. “Racing In The Street” into “The River” into “Badlands,” or “The Promised Land” into “This Land Is Your Land” into “The River” into “Badlands.” Don’t try to say, “It was a different time” –have you been watching the news at all? It’s an election year, and Bruce Springsteen is on tour with nothing to say about it. Even in 2009, he made the very specific point at the Garden when he introduced the record:
“It was a record made during a recession, hard times in the States, title song is a song I wrote for my brother and sister, my brother was in the construction industry, lost his job and had to struggle very hard back in the late 70s, like so many people are doing today.”
Of course, he could have absolutely zero desire to address any of the current political landscape publicly, and that is his right. But if he thinks he’s unable to do it because of the constraints of the tour, it will make me profoundly sad. The longer he’s focused on older material, the longer we have to wait for new material. I think he knows this–he specifically made a comment on Saturday that I believe was obliquely referencing Bowie’s passing:
A friend of mine was sitting around last night; he said, ‘Time catches up to us all.’ You’ve got a limited amount of time to do your work, to take care of your family, and try to do something good.
My essential objection to the tour remains thus: The longer this goes on, the further out we push a new record, and selfishly I want as much new Bruce Springsteen as I can before we no longer have that option available to us. This past week, which for me personally has felt like sitting shiva, has made that point paramountly clear.
It’s a fun show, and it’s absolutely fine for me to sit this one out. But I fervently hope this wraps up in Los Angeles.
Postscript: I apologize for the delay in publishing a piece, but knew the opener would be amply covered, I had other paid assignments that had to be written and filed and didn’t want to jeopardize them before writing a personal piece. I was also in town with friends and so didn’t want to have to pull my usual stunt of running back to the hotel as quickly as possible in order to write something as quickly as possible.
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