What felt like urban gridlock apocalypse meant that it took us nearly four hours to drive the 35 miles to Manchester and caused us to miss the first hour of the opening night of the UK leg of Bruce Springsteen’s River tour at the Etihad Stadium.
So while the Boss was powering ahead with the E Street Band on tracks such as ‘Two Hearts’, ‘Hungry Heart’ and ‘Crush on You’ from the classic 1980 album (and inviting a man dressed as Father Christmas onto the stage to join him in an impromptu rendition of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town‘), we were locked down in the worst traffic chaos I have ever experienced – the result, apparently, of four simultaneous accidents that shut down Manchester’s entire tram network.
So, instead of the real thing, we sat and stared at the red congestion lines on the Google satnav and listened on the car stereo to the songs that Springsteen was singing in person less than fifteen miles away.
At the back end of 2015, Springsteen released The Ties That Bind: The River Collection, a collection that not only contained the remastered original River album plus outtakes from those sessions, but also reassembled the 10-track single album The Ties That Bind which Springsteen pulled in 1979, in favour of the double album released in 1980.
I can still recall the experience of first listening to the 20 songs packed onto the two vinyl discs crammed into the single sleeve of The River, of being electrified by the album’s combination of exuberant, bar-band rock ‘n’ roll with themes of adult responsibilities, disappointment, and darkness. I can never honestly say which are my favourite tracks because the answer varies according to mood: some days you just need the wild fun of ‘Crush on You’ or ‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’ more than the anguish of ‘Point Blank’, ‘Stolen Car’ or ‘Wreck on the Highway’. Springsteen’s genius, though, is that when you hear the album unfold, the theme of youthful ideals crushed by the reality of a decaying American dream. It seems that ever since Springsteen has been asking the question posed in the title track, ‘Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?’
Here was stirring evidence, then, that in the wasteland (musical, economic and social) of the early 1980s, there could be a convincing return to the roots of the rock ‘n’ roll tradition with passionate, literate songs that dealt with grown-up themes of solidarity and family ties, and the consequences when desires and expectations are shattered. Back in 1980, Rolling Stone’s review recognised the album’s power and maturity:
Each song is just a drop in the bucket, and the water in the bucket is drawn from a river that can take you on a fast but invigorating ride (“Sherry Darling,” “Out in the Street,” “Crush on You,” “I’m a Rocker”), smash you in the rapids (“Hungry Heart”), let you float dreamily downstream (“I Wanna Marry You”) or carry you relentlessly across some unknown county line (“Jackson Cage,” “Point Blank,” “Fade Away,” “Stolen Car,” “Ramrod,” “The River,” “Independence Day”). When the surface looks smooth, watch out for dangerous undercurrents. You may believe you’re splashing about in a shallow stream and suddenly find yourself in over your head.
Reviewing the Chicago leg of The River tour for the Guardian in January, Mark Guarino described the album as:
A testament to an era when artists felt emboldened to go deep, pushing their audience beyond the scope of the three-minute single. Enabling these efforts were audiences who were less distracted and mobile in their listening compared to today, which gave albums like The River patient ears more willing to sit awhile and soak in all of the nuances.
Springsteen took the album out on tour throughout 1980 and 1981, playing sets that approached the four-hour range which firmly established the reputation of Springsteen and the E Street Band and became the core of the equally mind-blowing box set, Live 1975-85, that appeared just in time for Christmas in 1986. By this time I was in deep with The Boss, and there was no going back.
The three of us finally arrive at the Etihad Stadium with Bruce an hour into his set. As we take up position he and the band launch into ‘I Wanna Marry You’, unrecognisable at first with a new keyboard intro. Then the number I’d been hoping we hadn’t missed: ‘The River’. Beginning with a harmonica that sent shivers down your spine, it soon developed into one of those classic interactions with the crowd that punctuate a Springsteen concert, as he held the microphone out to capture our voices as we sung the words back to him in a spontaneous communion.
It soon became clear that the E Street Band were at the top of their form. Is there a tighter, more professional band operating at present? With Stevie Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren wielding guitars, Max Weinberg hitting the drums, Gary Tallent on bass, Charlie Giordano on keyboards, ‘Professor’ Roy Bittan on piano, Soozie Tyrell on violin and backing vocals, and Jake Clemons admirably filling his uncle the Big Man’s shoes, the E Street Band has never sounded better.
‘Point Blank’, beautifully, gorgeously melancholic followed, decorated with Roy Bittan’s elegant piano lines. It’s a song that, like many of the darker ones on The River, is not best suited to over-amplified presentation in a brutalist stadium. But, listen to those words:
Do you still say your prayers little darlin’ do you go to bed at night
Prayin’ that tomorrow, everything will be alright
But tomorrow’s fall in number in number one by one
You wake up and you’re dying you don’t even know what from.
I’ve always admired the brilliantly observed penultimate verse; it’s as if you’re standing there in that bar right next to this doomed couple:
Once I dreamed we were together again baby, you and me
Back home in those old clubs the way we used to be.
We were standing at the bar, it was hard to hear
The band was playing loud and you were shouting something in my ear.
You pulled my jacket off and as the drummer counted four
You grabbed my hand and pulled me out on the floor.
You just stood there and held me, then you started dancing slow
And as I pulled you tighter, I swore I’d never let you go.
Then the killer shot, point blank:
Well I saw you last night down on the avenue;
Your face was in the shadows but I knew that it was you.
You were standing in the doorway out of the rain;
You didn’t answer when I called out your name.
You just turned, and then you looked away
Like just another stranger waiting to get blown away.
After that, Bruce and the E Street Band built up the intensity: ‘Johnny 99’ featured high octane guitar and electric violin, and was followed by a terrific rendition of ‘Darlington County’ and ‘Working on the Highway’.
Then, as the rain fell more intensely for a while, Bruce launched into ‘Waiting on a Sunny Day’ (just as he had last time I saw him here in 2012), and we got another of those magical moments that always happen at his shows. He spotted a little girl in the crowd holding a sign that read ‘This is my first Bruce concert. Please sing ‘Waiting on a Sunny Day”. He pulled her up on stage, found her name was lssy and handed the mike to the nine-year old for a chorus. With the crowd’s encouragement she sang confidently before Bruce gave her a big hug and she handed back the show.
The Boss has always been unapologetically crowd-pleasing and generous – and it’s a huge part of his appeal. He’s not embarrassed to entertain and he’s rightly loved for it. In the year where we lost Bowie and Prince, everyone should treasure the Boss. He runs through the crowd for Hungry Heart, he brings up a boy for Waitin’ on a Sunny Day and doesn’t stop grinning throughout this giddy experience.
Now the E Street Band were in power overdrive mode. ‘Because the Night’, written with Patti Smith in the late 1970’s,was met with a roar of approval from the crowd. A solo from Nils Lofgren ended with the guitarist spinning throough 360 degrees repeatedly.
A tremendous performance of ‘The Rising’ came next: novels have been written about 9/11, but it’s all there in Springsteen’s powerful, elegaic lyrics. The dedication and bravery of the fire crews that climbed the towers as they fell that day:
Make my way through this darkness
I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me
Lost track of how far I’ve gone
How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed.
The preciousness and the fragility of life:
A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancing on the end of my line.
And the memory of the beauty of that blue September sky – and the horror blazoned across it:
Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life.
If Springsteen expressed the feelings of a nation in that song, in ‘Thunder Road’ he gave a generation its anthem. With Springsteen and the band giving their all, this became one of the great collective moments that we go to his shows to experience. Bruce pauses before the line, knowing that sixty thousand voices are about to sing back at him: ‘We ain’t that young anymore’. But, hell: ‘Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night!’
Come take my hand
We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land …
So Mary, climb in
It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win.
With some artists, that might be the climax of the show, but Springsteen was only just beginning. An immense ‘Backstreets’, featuring an impassioned Bruce guitar solo came next, followed by ‘Born To Run’ and the irresistable sardonicism of ‘Glory Days’. The ritual of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ with Bruce picking a young woman out of the crowd to dance with him led into what has now become another sacred ritual at these shows: in ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’, when he reaches the line about ‘the big man’ joining the band, Springsteen pauses while video footage of his saxophonist Clarence Clemons and keyboardist Danny Federici is shown in tribute to much-loved and missed band members.
Tonight, life and energy endure. For the last hour, the stadium lights are set to full beam, as Thunder Road and Born to Run blare out like clarion calls. The Isley Brothers’ Shout and Bobby Jean end the main set, with their leader crying out “One more time! One more time!” like a demon possessed. It’s a madness, really, rock stardom, just like dressing up as Father Christmas in May. But if this isn’t magic, then nothing else is.
The encore performance of ‘Shout’ was thunderous, followed rather inexplicably by what, for me, is one of the weakest songs on The River, ‘Bobby Jean’. Then it was goodbyes, as The Boss bellowed: ‘You’ve just seen the heart stoppin’, pants-droppin’, booty shakin’, earth quakin’, love makin’, viagra takin’ history makin’, legendary…E! STREET! BAND!’
But he did return to the stage, alone, for a second encore – a spine-tingling acoustic version of one of his finest songs only to be found on Tracks, that collection of songs that never made it to an album. ‘This Hard Land’ tells of those who have ‘been blowing around from town to town, looking for a place to stand’. People who have ‘made their bed from the rock on the mountainside’ and scrabbled for a life in ‘the dirt of this hard land’. All around there is decay and emptiness:
Now even the rain it don’t come ’round
It don’t come ’round here no more
And the only sound at night’s the wind
Slamming the back porch door
But – and these are the last words Bruce leaves us with as the rain falls steadily in the Manchester night –
Stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive
If you can
Here are two acoustic versions of the song from YouTube; the first from 2013 features a heartfelt intro by Bruce:
While this one is from the San Sebastian show in the current tour, and gives a sense of his performance and the stage set-up in Manchester:
As we were filing out of the soulless, bottle-strewn stadium – just as I was musing about how a Springsteen show offers secular hymns which bind us all, for three hours at least, in a kind of holy communion of rock fellowship – over the PA they played (no doubt at Bruce’s instigation) ‘Down to the River to Pray’. Sung by Alison Krauss and a heavenly choir, it’s from the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou? It’s an old gospel song from far back in the 19th century, picked up by African slaves, which addresses us as ‘sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers – and sinners all’.
As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way.
Bruce announced at the end of the American leg of the River Tour that in Europe he would not be playing his 1981 album in its entirety, perhaps realising that some of the darker songs might not work as well in front of a stadium crowd.
The Ties That Bind
Santa Claus Is Coming to Town
Out in the Street
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Crush on You
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
I Wanna Marry You
Working on the Highway
The Promised Land
Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
Because the Night
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
This Hard Land (solo acoustic)
- ‘Bruce Springsteen is one of the last great showmen of his era’: Etihad Stadium Manchester review (Telegraph)
- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Etihad Stadium review: The Boss mixes it up as he proves himself an enduring treasure (Independent)
- Bruce Springsteen: the magic and the madness: Guardian review
- Bruce in Manchester: standing shoulder to shoulder in hard times: the last time, in 2012
- Posts I’ve written about Springsteen