Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play in Pittsburgh, just a few weeks before this month’s date in Buffalo, which arrives Thursday. (Photo from Daryl Brothers)
Photo by Daryl Brothers

You never forget your first time. Some spend the rest of their lives trying to recapture the magic.

For a group of Bruce Springsteen fanatics from Buffalo, that means catching a single stop on any given Springsteen tour is not enough. Not even close.

“As long as he’s out there doing it and my wife doesn’t kill me for being away living out a stupid rock fantasy that started when I was 10 years old, I’ll be out there seeing Bruce wherever and whenever I can,” says Donny Kutzbach, a local concert promoter who marked his 40th in-concert experience with Springsteen on Feb. 8 in Albany.

Left to right: Jake Clemons, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt. Toronto, Feb. 2, 2016.

Left to right: Jake Clemons, Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt. Toronto, Feb. 2, 2016.

Springsteen and the E Street Band will take the stage Thursday evening in the First Niagara Center, marking the 15th time he has played the Buffalo area since 1973, giving his fans ample opportunity to bask in his legendary shows.

But that hasn’t been nearly enough for his most rabid local fans who are not bothered by such minor issues as dates or ZIP codes. Go to see Springsteen, and there’s a good chance somewhere between six and 12 fellow Western New Yorkers are screaming “BRUUUUUUUCE!”

What’s the attraction?

“He hasn’t lost a thing,” said Richard Battaglia of Buffalo.

Daryl Brothers, a part of Kutzbach’s traveling crew, noted that Springsteen is known to mix up his shows, with various set list changes night after night. “So traveling to different shows means you’re going to get different songs from his massive catalog. Also, we have a core group of friends to share in the entire experience and adventure. That adventure is a big part of the attraction.”

Bruce Springsteen on opening night of his 2016 ‘The River Tour,” Pittsburgh, Jan. 16. (Photo by Daryl Brothers)

Bruce Springsteen on opening night of his 2016 ‘The River Tour,” Pittsburgh, Jan. 16. (Photo by Daryl Brothers)

Springsteen rarely passes over Buffalo when he hits the road, whether on his own or with the E Street Band. At least two Buffalo shows are firmly entrenched in Springsteen lore by this point: The May 23, 1978 launch of the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tour at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, an abundantly bootlegged show widely held to be one of the most exuberant and defiantly triumphant in Springsteen history; and the bittersweet, poignant Nov. 22, 2009, show at HSBC Arena, when Springsteen and the E Street Band performed the entirety of “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.,” during what would turn out to be saxophonist Clarence Clemons’ final performance with the band.

For his current tour, a relatively stripped-down version of the E Street Band has been performing the revered 1980 double-album “The River” from start to finish, and then filling out the rest of sets that have been running close to four hours in some instances with different chestnuts culled from throughout his career. The full performance of “The River” seems to have increased the heat in the fire beneath the feet of Buffalo’s fellow Springsteen travelers.

“The singular focus on the ‘River’ material and the incredible musicianship of the E Street Band really brings the feelings of the characters in the songs alive, whether that feeling is anger, sorrow, fear, joy or trepidation,” said Thomas Heneghan, a Springsteen road trip veteran who has seen him 10 times.

Late E Street Band saxophone player Clarence Clemons, left, belts one out as Bruce Springsteen keeps the beat at HSBC Arena on Nov. 22, 2009. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

Late E Street Band saxophone player Clarence Clemons, left, belts one out as Bruce Springsteen keeps the beat at HSBC Arena on Nov. 22, 2009. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News file photo)

Springsteen makes it easy for the devout to follow him around; unlike the majority of touring artists, he plays several shows within driving distance of each other, often within the same market. Most artists avoid this, primarily to keep demand high and to eliminate performing for less-than-capacity crowds. Springsteen ignores such concerns, however. On this tour, among the 35-plus cities on the North American roster, he’s already played or will soon be playing Pittsburgh, New York City, Boston, Albany, Hartford, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Columbus, Buffalo, Rochester and Toronto. Members of the Buffalo crew have already seen, or are booked to see, all of these shows.

“I saw Springsteen in Philly last Friday,” Battaglia said. “As I expected, it was an amazing show. ‘The River’ start to finish accounted for the first two hours of a three-and-a-half hour show – and he never left the stage during that time. The band has so much fun, which is a joy to watch. I will be back home for the Buffalo show, and I’m also catching Rochester.”

“I plan on seeing a total of seven shows this tour,” Brothers said.

Most of these traveling Springsteen fanatics have a long relationship with the man, the band, and their music. It’s a devotion that can prove difficult to explain to those who have never felt such an all-consuming connection – with Springsteen’s music, or perhaps, with anyone’s. (Full disclosure: Some of these guys are friends of mine. Though I’m not able to travel for this current tour, I’ve seen Springsteen more than 50 times.) But it’s real, nonetheless.

Dan Dwyer, a Buffalo native who now lives and works in Manhattan, recalled hitchhiking from Burlington, Vt., to Buffalo and then to Montreal for the 1980 “River” shows. In Montreal, he held up a sign that said “Montreal” on one side and “Burlington” on the other. Someone tapped him and gave him the lift back to Vermont.

Bruce Springsteen opens the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tour at Shea’s Buffalo, 1978. (Photo credit: Eric Jensen)

Bruce Springsteen opens the “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tour at Shea’s Buffalo, 1978. (Photo credit: Eric Jensen)

“The ride was with two huskies in back of a cab-covered pickup,” he said.

So has Dwyer grown out of the Bruce obsession by now?

No.

“I just saw the New Jersey show, and I’m headed to Buffalo,” he said. “See you there!”

Kutzbach said when it came to Springsteen, absence made the heart grow fonder. He recalled receiving his album “Born in the USA” as a 10th birthday gift in 1984, but he never got to see him live until 1999 at then-Marine Midland Arena.

“I was blown away,” he said. “That was it. I said to myself, ‘From this day forward, I’m going to see Bruce every time I can.’ ”

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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