Live Review

Bruce Springsteen Opens His Storybook--And Ours

Bruce Springsteen on January 29, 2016

In the end, the subject was about time and how time slips away. That realization was voiced by Bruce Springsteen two hours into his concert at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, after he and the E Street band played the entire album and 20 songs of The River in sequence.

Springsteen brought us back in time to 1980 when he had recently turned 30 and was trying, as he reflected, to figure out his role in the community, to transcend his role as an outsider on earlier albums and explore themes about family, love and personal commitment that were being made all around him. “Maybe if I started writing about them they’d start happening in my life.” 

It was the narrative of his life as much it was ours—and perhaps had an even deeper resonance with the vantage point of time, reflection and personal life experience—against which we could look at who we once were, who we hoped to be and who we had become.

And for three and a half hours, Springsteen and the E Street Band provided a frontal assault that was plain old fashioned rock and roll. The underlying architecture of The River is built on garage band ethos and the guitars and harmonies of Sixties bands like the Searchers, the Byrds, Manfred Mann and the Hollies. When guitarist and sidekick Steven Van Zandt sang into the mic with Springsteen, it was as much and affirmation of their 50-year friendship as much as a stand of solidarity built on the bedrock of rock 'n' roll their lives from which their dreams were realized.

The challenges of playing four sides in sequence seemed at first a bit daunting, especially for music that ebbs and flows and has quiet reflective interludes. But Springsteen, with drummer Max Weinberg leading a relentless charge, ran through The River with a frenetic pace only slowing down when it came time for songs like "I Wanna Marry You" and the noir psychodrama of “Point Blank.” He gave and energized an almost punk reading of “Crush on You” and a thrashing and crashing “You Can You Look But You Better Not Touch.”

The vocal embellishments built over the years by Van Zandt and Springsteen, both around that song and “Two Hearts,” make the versions we’re hearing now more fully realized than on the original album. Before “I Wanna Mary You,” Springsteen talked of a song of youth he wrote as a daydream after seeing a beautiful girl walking down the street—a kind of love he said that makes you limp all the way home even if it is not real—but a place "where we have to start." "Here She Comes," with all his and Van Zandt alternating vocals owed to doo-wop and an earlier romanticized era, was reminiscent of the younger Springsteen's dramatic prelude before his cover of Manfred Mann's “Pretty Flamingo”.

When he stepped out on the stage’s front steps to sing “Fade Away” to those in the front rows, it was almost like Springsteen had opened up his life’s storybook. He talked about fathers and sons and his own personal struggles in “Independence Day.” But Springsteen’s intro was more like a curator of a museum speaking than earlier eras when he’d literally put us in the dark kitchen to face his disapproving father. It also left us to think about the lessons he’d learned raising his own son. The rich narrative of the album left lines jump out and lingering to ponder. “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse?” (“The River”); “An unfulfilled life girl makes a man hard” (“I Wanna Marry You”); and “In the end it was something more I guess/That drove us apart and made our love cold” (“Stolen Car”).   

Time has taken two members of the E Street Band, keyboardist Danny Federici and saxophonist Clarence Clemons. His nephew Jake, going on four years in the band, provided the soulful sound we first heard from his uncle, who Springsteen called reverently the Big Man. But it takes a big man to fill the legend’s shoes and Clemons struck the right balance of being understated but confident and letting his horn do the talking. He didn’t charge down the runway like his uncle once did to embrace Springsteen in a kiss --but they when they met center stage, it was an emotional moment. The concert was a tip of the hat to all of Springsteen’s theatrical dramatics including coming into the audience during “Hungry Heart” lowering his back in the front pit to be carried up like a prophet and sing on cue for the next verse. On at least two occasions, he pulled women from the audience to dance and gently from one who was so emotionally overwrought in the moment she couldn’t detach herself from him.

The night was as much a tale of two concerts as it was the reading of The River.

If we were still taking it all in by the album’s last track “Wreck on the Highway,” Springsteen was ready to take us on another run, asking if we were ready to take a ride and launching into “Darlington County,” slipping in the guitar lines from the Rolling Stones “Honky Tonk Women” for a tantalizing few seconds. Just as he was a character in that song’s road trip, Springsteen the bandleader was content to stay back and marvel at guitarist Nils Lofgren's dizzying solo during “Prove it All Night." By the time Lofgren stop spinning, amazingly he was still standing after a solo for the ages that only ended when Springsteen turned around and gave drummer Max Weinberg the look that it was time to finally end the song.

Springsteen was once compared to Bob Dylan and was called the “new Dylan” back when we used to debate whether he was the savior of rock 'n' roll. Like Dylan, Springsteen has the vantage point and ability to reinterpret his work and make it relevant. It’s been nearly four decades since I sat in Madison Square Garden and listened as Springsteen introduced publicly for the first time a new song publicly that he dedicated to his sister called “The River.” She and her husband had fallen on hard times and he was the victim of an economic recession and lost his construction job. If things have changed, perhaps they’ve stayed the same as through all the booms and busts and a twenty-four hours new cycle that makes us more deeply insecure about our jobs and livelihood and the next recession that always seems to be looming in the global economy.  

If, as it’s been said the stage stays the same but people change, the greatest concession to time may be staring us in our own face—or in our own selfies. The endless lights of cell phones and texting and talking during the quieter songs, spoke to our own inattentiveness and a kind of narcissism that plagues our behavior in public.

Playing “Darlington County,” “The Promised Land,” “Tougher Than The Rest,” “Wrecking Ball,” “The Rising” and “Thunder Road” back to back helped overcome all this. He also gave a shout-out to DC Central Kitchen for their work helping train homeless people to be trained in becoming chefs in the food industry. Springsteen virtually created the grassroots advocacy movement fighting hunger and it was great seeing a new generation of people collecting donations in the concourse. Then there was “No Surrender” dedicated to peace advocate Bobby Mueller and paralympian Ryan Chalmers who powered his wheelchair seventy miles a day from Los Angeles to New York. Then the lights came up for “Born To Run” and “Dancing In The Dark” and a rousing version of “Rosalita” handpicked from a sign someone held up in the pit.

By the time the concert ended at eleven-thirty with the Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” over three hours had passed. It was true, time does slip away. But for tonight it seemed like a fair trade. We were still in delirium and walked out smiling and with still a lot to think about our lives on our way home --and for long time to come.