Before Bruce Springsteen released “The River” in 1980, he and his E Street Band were part of the underground, cult artists on the cusp of the big time. After “The River,” which formed the core of the stellar set Springsteen & E Street performed before a full house Thursday in First Niagara Center, all bets were off.
Springsteen went from being the guy loved only by rabidly devout music-heads and bookish rock journalists, to being the star who filled hockey arenas with the faithful and the casual fan alike.
“The River” was a game-changer, and its success could be at least partly explained by the fact that, for the first time, Springsteen was looking outward – toward the big questions, and how those big questions played out in the lives of everyday people – instead of inward toward his own fantasies of redemption-by-rock 'n' roll.
Springsteen was 30 when he released “The River,” a still young, single man wrestling with the idea of marriage, commitment, settling down, and finding a way to reconcile his working class background and work ethic with life as a touring rock musician. The man leading the E Street Band on Thursday was a 66-year-old father and husband who no longer had to imagine the plight of the desperate dreamers populating “The River.” He’d lived it, and so had so many of the fans filling the arena's seats.
Rather than making Thursday’s show come across as a mere trip down memory lane or a naked plug for the recently released “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection” box set, Springsteen’s age lent a gravitas to the material. These songs have aged as well as he has.
A stripped-down E Street Band, sans the horn section and backing vocalists of the last go-round, took the stage with “Meet Me in the City,” a “River”-era tune that is one of the roughly four albums worth of songs that didn’t make the final cut for the record. This was a perfect scene-setter – a sunny, vibrant slab of '60s-era garage-pop with a rousing chorus and a fire in its belly.
Then, they were off into “The River” proper, tearing through the up-tempo quartet of tracks – “The Ties That Bind,” “Sherry Darling,” “Jackson Cage” and “Two Hearts” – that together create the false impression that this album would be made up solely of power pop/rock 'n' roll hybrids celebrating primal joys and simple pleasures, as exemplified by the narrator of “Sherry Darling,” who simply wants to tell his girl “I’ve got some beer, and the highway’s free/I’ve got you, and baby, you’ve got me/Whaddya say, Sherry Darlin’?”
Ah, but not so fast.
The core of “The River” is darkly ruminative pieces, and the first of these performed Thursday – “Independence Day,” a story of fathers and sons and binding ties that demand to be broken – was received by a hushed, attentive crowd. “They ain’t gonna do to me what I watched them do to you,” Springsteen sang, and here was the essence of the album that gives this tour its name.
“The River” is populated by desperate characters, none more desperate than Springsteen himself, a man who needed, and still seems to need, rock 'n' roll the way a zealot needs religion. In this view, the songs become a way for the son to outrun the legacy of the father’s sins. Not for Springsteen, these 50 years of punching the clock and, if you’re lucky, a gold watch come retirement.
[Feeling nostalgic? Read the review of Springsteen's first Buffalo show, in 1978]
Once “Independence Day” had deepened the narrative, the rest of the “River” material strode the high wire between defiantly optimistic rockers (“Out in the Street,” “Crush on You,” “Cadillac Ranch,” “I’m A Rocker”,” Ramrod”) and rock-noir set pieces and mournful ballads (“Point Blank,” “Fade Away,” “Drive All Night.”)
The deepest and darkest tunes fared the best, but the rockers were delivered with pure abandon too, and the combination of the two has always been what "The River" is about. Springsteen also seemed to be offering saxophonist Jake Clemons, nephew of late E Street Band original Clarence Clemons, an opportunity to claim his place in the band. Jake crushed it. Repeatedly.
The E Street Band – Clemons, guitarists Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, bassist Garry Tallent, drummer Max Weinberg, keyboardists Roy Bittan and Charlie Giordano and singer/violinist Soozie Tyrell – appeared to be taking great delight in their performance throughout Thursday’s show. The interplay between Springsteen and Van Zandt in particular lent intensity to the proceedings, particularly when one considers the fact that these two men have been playing music together on and off for the better part of 50 years.
A post-"River" encore included "Promised Land," "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City," "Born to Run," "Because the Night," "Lonesome Day," "The Rising," "Thunder Road," "Dancing in the Dark" and the "Detroit Medley."
He kinda had us when he announced "That was 'The River'. " But if you know Springsteen, then you know he couldn't leave us hanging like that. With him, the chord always resolves. That's the whole point.
When Springsteen and the band broke into "My Love Will Not Let You Down," well, here was a high-volume answer to the question "Why is he still doing this?"
If you were there, you know the answer to that question. If not, throw "The River" on. The answer's in there.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Thursday night in the First Niagara Center
Email Jeff Miers at email@example.com