Only for Bruce Springsteen does performing an entire double album front to back to front to back — with bonus tracks and spoken annotations — feel like just a warm-up. On Monday night at the Xcel Energy Center, Springsteen and his E Street Band played the entirety of their 1980 classic The River before launching into a fiery set of 13 more songs that emphasized the anthemic material Springsteen released from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s.
In a typically epic performance that clocked in at just over three hours and 20 minutes, Springsteen used The River as the centerpiece of a meditation on mortality, maturity, and transcendence. That’s not just my interpretation: he told us so.
“The River was about time slipping away,” Springsteen said after playing “Wreck on the Highway,” the album closer. “You walk alongside your own mortality” as you go through life, he said, knowing you only have a limited time “to do your work and raise your family and try to do something good.”
That was a message that was bound to resonate in St. Paul, as it long has. Springsteen has a long history with the particular piece of riverfront land on which the Xcel Energy Center now sits: he’s played there several times, dating back to its pre-Xcel history as the site of the St. Paul Civic Center. That’s where the live “Dancing in the Dark” clip, featuring a young Courteney Cox, was filmed, and it’s where — as Springsteen reminded us last night — Nils Lofgren played his first show with the E Street Band, in 1984 when Steve Van Zandt left the band and the quiet virtuoso was hired to take his place.
Lofgren’s still in the band, even though Van Zandt is now back, giving the band a four-guitar attack — including Soozie Tyrell, who had her acoustic strapped on for most of the night — that you might call overkill if we weren’t talking about Bruce Springsteen here. Since the 2011 demise of Clarence Clemons, Van Zandt has become Springsteen’s most resonant foil: a friend from youth and longtime bandmate whose unmistakable vocal parts are now accentuated, the Sopranos star frequently sharing a mic with the Boss.
Clemons’s nephew Jake has assumed sax duties, visibly more confident than he was on his first outing with the E Street Band and displaying some flashes of his own personality (tall and lanky in tight-fitting pants with squared-off eyeglasses and a majestic shock of hair, he at once resembles both his uncle and Gary Louris) — though his role remains largely to replicate the songs’ original sax solos note-for-note.
Springsteen’s most recent tour was a head-on confrontation with mortality, as fans and the band mourned both Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici; on this tour, Springsteen is stepping back to look at that theme through the lens of what he called, onstage, his “coming-of-age album.” With The River, Springsteen said, he “wanted to make a big record that felt like life,” a record that recognized both the compromises of adulthood and “the blessings that come with those compromises.”
Last year’s box-set reissue The Ties That Bind: The River Collection demonstrated just how carefully Springsteen worked to achieve that end. While a record like Born to Run wears its calculation on its sleeve — in the sense that inspirations like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper did — The River is ostensibly unassuming, trading multipart epics like “Jungleland” for simpler, emotionally direct songs that range from pointed narratives like “Jackson Cage” to seemingly throwaway rave-ups like “Ramrod.” The Ties That Bind, which includes a single-disc version of the album that Springsteen originally considered releasing, documents how he stayed in the studio until he achieved the scope and sprawl of the finished double album.
It’s an album that feels live, even though it was entirely a studio creation — yes, even the cheers of the unruly revelers on “Sherry Darling” — and its performance on Monday ebbed and flowed like a well-constructed live set should. While no arrangements were radically reconsidered, the songs take on a new resonance in this arena tour unfolding three-and-a-half decades after the album’s original release.
The set started with Ties That Bind outtake “Meet Me in the City,” followed by Springsteen’s eloquent introduction — his forthcoming memoir is sure to be similarly articulate and probing — and a complete performance of The River that paused only for Springsteen’s occasional comments and for “This Little Girl” (a Springsteen River-era song originally recorded by Gary U.S. Bonds for the 1981 album Dedication, co-produced by Springsteen and Van Zandt), inserted as a sort of prologue to “I Wanna Marry You.”
Though the album’s several rockers would seem to be tailor-made for live performance, they were actually the numbers where the evening tended to sag, the crackle and pop of the studio versions blunted in renditions that tended toward the plodding. That trend was evident from “Sherry Darling,” the album’s second track: whereas Springsteen snarls his disconcertingly vituperative mother-in-law insults on the studio version, the live version became a good-time singalong. The nadir of the set was a sluggish “Cadillac Ranch” (complete with a fiddle solo) and its follow-up, a cutesy organ-driven “I’m a Rocker.”
The tracks that gained the most from the expansive treatment The River is getting on this tour were the slow-burning story songs: notably a turbulent “Point Blank” and “Stolen Car,” the latter introduced by Springsteen as “one of the first songs I wrote about men and women that got down to the nitty-gritty of it.” Penultimate song “The Price You Pay” got a soaring rendition, with the band’s front line standing stock still at their mics and singing in forceful unison.
Though the album’s title track is preceded, on Springsteen’s Live 1975-85 album, by one of his most memorable monologues, on Monday night the band went straight into “The River” when they came to it, with Springsteen looking down at the stage for a straightforward reading of what some consider his single finest song: a precisely-observed and darkly melodic number that puts a painfully human face on the constricted frontiers of the working class. Closing the album’s first disc, it’s a bleak companion piece to exuberant opener “The Ties That Bind.”
After an appropriately poignant “Wreck on the Highway” brought the evening’s official business to a close, it was off to the races for Springsteen and his road warriors as they tore through a series of pounding numbers that epitomized what you might call the Springsteen Sound: soaring choruses with hard-bitten lyrics about making choices and daring the odds and striving for a better life.
We got the whole deluxe set of songs in that vein, including “Badlands,” “No Surrender,” “Prove It All Night,” “Thunder Road,” and “Born to Run.” The fact that they clustered around The River chronologically made an implicit case for the night’s centerpiece — which came out five years after his career-making Born to Run and four years prior to the blockbuster Born in the U.S.A. — as, in a sense, the heart of what we think of when we think of Bruce Springsteen.
The house lights, having come up for “Born to Run,” stayed up as the almost eerily inexhaustible 66-year-old frontman repeatedly asked us, “Do you have anything left?!?!” Of course the answer was yes, for both the audience and the band — who just kept going and going as they piled on fan favorites including “Dancing in the Dark,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”
The latter, a sort of E Street autobiography from Born to Run, featured in memoriam video footage of Clemons and Federici — though there was no suggestion of any kind of somber slow-down, which was just as well. The night closed with a raucous cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” in keeping with Springsteen’s longstanding tradition of reaching for classic-rock nuggets to bring things home.
With the lights up and hands in the air, it was apparent that local writer Raghav Mehta wasn’t exaggerating when he tweeted that the show’s audience was “whiter than the Oscars.” While Springsteen’s music is deeply indebted to R&B, soul, and even jazz — and while he’s striven to present an inclusive vision of America — there’s no denying that he’s always spoken most forcefully to people like himself, whites with working-class roots.
The stories of Springsteen’s songs have predominantly been, in their details and themes, the stories of people like those he grew up with in New Jersey; like many great writers, he seeks universality through carefully-observed specificity (think of that union card, and the bitter memory of that riverside idyll, in “The River”), but Springsteen’s never left Freehold behind the way the Beatles got out of Liverpool or the way Michael Jackson left Gary. He’s still telling the stories of the people he knew in his home town, and they still resonate as the river rolls on.
Meet Me in the City (The Ties That Bind, 2015)
The Ties That Bind (The River, 1980)
Sherry Darling (The River, 1980)
Jackson Cage (The River, 1980)
Two Hearts (The River, 1980)
Independence Day (The River, 1980)
Hungry Heart (The River, 1980)
Out in the Street (The River, 1980)
Crush On You (The River, 1980)
You Can Look (You Better Not Touch) (The River, 1980)
This Little Girl (originally recorded by Gary U.S. Bonds)
I Wanna Marry You (The River, 1980)
The River (The River, 1980)
Point Blank (The River, 1980)
Cadillac Ranch (The River, 1980)
I’m a Rocker (The River, 1980)
Fade Away (The River, 1980)
Stolen Car (The River, 1980)
Ramrod (The River, 1980)
The Price You Pay (The River, 1980)
Drive All Night (The River, 1980)
Wreck on the Highway (The River, 1980)
Badlands (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
No Surrender (Born in the U.S.A., 1984)
Prove It All Night (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978)
Backstreets (Born to Run, 1975)
Because the Night (Patti Smith collaboration originally recorded by Smith)
The Rising (The Rising, 2002)
Thunder Road (Born to Run, 1975)
Born to Run (Born to Run, 1975)
Bobby Jean (Born in the U.S.A., 1984)
Dancing in the Dark (Born in the U.S.A., 1984)
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) (The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, 1973)
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out (Born to Run, 1975)
Shout (Isley Brothers cover)