Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were in absolute and undeniable peak form throughout their nearly three and a half hour set January 19th at Chicago’s United Center for the second stop on their tour focused on The River, the 35-year-old 20-track double album classic from 1980. Springsteen also paid tribute to David Bowie and Glenn Frey during the thus far memorable tour. The show was just days before Springsteen's Madison Square Garden January 25th show was cancelled due to Winter Storm Jonas which caused the rocker to announce on Twitter that Chicago's United Center performace would be available to download for free until Friday, January 29th.
The band began taking the stage slowly, two at a time, all dressed in black with the house lights left up. It was startling to see a stage with 10 players on it, somehow looking “empty”; by the end of the last High Hopes tour, the E Street band had swelled to 19 members. This time there would be no gospel choir, Tom Morello or brass section, only Jake Clemons on sax (now doing a better job filling the shoes of his irreplaceable late great Uncle Clarence better than anyone could have hoped for); Soozie Tyrell on violin, and the 8 longstanding core members. Leaving the house lights on as the predictably thunderous applause continued, they opened with a pounding “Meet Me in the City," the only previously unreleased track played from the newly released The River box set.
For the next 2 hours starting with “The Ties That Bind,” Springsteen and the E Street Band played all 20 tracks in album-order sequence, from beginning to end. Musically, the album covers a wider range of emotions and musical styles than the near-constant operatic intensity of its predecessors Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run. Maybe that’s why The River makes a smoother transition to middle age.
While River classics like “Out in the Street” and “Two Hearts” have deservedly been set list staples for decades and have been played thousands of times, the night’s true revelations ended up being in the rarely performed tracks where Springsteen’s vocals and the band’s backing seemed more deeply felt and committed, especially on “The Price You Pay,” “Fade Away” and an epic 10-minute “Drive All Night.”
If there was a slight drop in the tempo and manic intensity compared to the original River recordings and their corresponding live performances on that tour - magnificently captured on the live DVDs in The River box set – the slower and more authoritative grooves were equally powerful and exciting. As always, the source of the E Street Band’s magic lies in their unrivaled mastery of dynamics, unleashing their thunderous and virtuosic power selectively and sparingly, always knowing when to hold back and when to stretch out their crescendos and builds to create maximum tension.
The mostly album faithful renditions were sometimes stretched out to show their roots, whether turning up the Drifters light Latin touch on the extended intro on “I Wanna Marry You,” or dropping in the stops and breaks of Eddie Cochrane’s “Somethin’ Else” in “You Can Look But You Better Not Touch.”
Although The River ends with the somber “Wreck on the Highway,” they took a right turn and just kept going, charging straight into an exhilarating version of “Night,” followed by Springsteen stopping the band a few seconds into the next song…twice. Claiming he “forgot how it goes," Bruce and the band again proved that there’s no trainwreck like an E Street trainwreck. Without ever being slick or stiff, E Street is generally so tight, disciplined and often serious, that it can be refreshing seeing them loose enough to take a chance on playing something they haven’t rehearsed or never played, cracking up while screwing up. (It’s the musical equivalent of Saturday Night Live cast members unable to keep a straight face while doing sketches with John Belushi or Gilda Radner.) Soon enough Springsteen of course remembered exactly how “No Surrender” goes (and if maybe it was all intentional and part of the schtick, nobody would ever be able to tell). They followed it with a hard rocking “She’s the One” where Jake Clemons’ sax soloing summoned loud crowd cheers as effortlessly as his uncle Clarence had done.
“Cover Me” featured an extended psycho solo from Nils Lofgren, possibly his best playing since he first blew the roof off of “Youngstown” on the reunion tour 16 years ago.
(Photo : Danny Clinch/Courtesy of Shore Fire Media)
One of the evening’s greatest highlights was a best-ever version of “Human Touch”, one of the most underrated and underappreciated songs in the whole Springsteen catalogue. In a rare error of judgment from the Springsteen camp, Springsteen took Sting’s advice on the 1988 Amnesty tour and replaced the E Street band with “better” studio musicians who recorded the track in LA, ultimately failing to provide the rougher treatment the song always called for. 23 years later, following occasional live performances, seeing the E Street band finally nail the right arrangement, killing it and rightfully making it their own was thrilling, a triumph not coincidentally capped by the night’s first and only searing Springsteen guitar solo.
These past few weeks have arguably been the most painful time of loss in rock history not involving the death of a Beatle. At the tour opener in Pittsburgh last Friday, Springsteen delivered a slightly more than serviceable version of “Rebel Rebel” following a heartfelt and appreciative tribute to Bowie who had recorded multiple Springsteen songs in the early 1970s. Four nights later in Chicago, the encore set began with no words spoken, just heavy steady solo acoustic strumming as Bruce eased into a majestic “Take it Easy” in tribute to the Eagles’ Glenn Frey that managed to combine the gravity of a eulogy with the sunny optimism of the original (“Come on baby, Don’t say maybe”…). Soozie Tyrell’s fiddle solo injected a note of deep-rooted Appalachian country soul to this memorable tribute.
The remaining encores included classic crowd pleasers “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Rosalita” and a manic, raved-up cover of the Isley Bros’ “Shout.”
Could anything have been better? Sure: one could say that “Ramrod” usually rocks much harder later in the set as an encore, and the slower speed of “I’m a Rocker” robbed it of much of its original energy, further marred by cheesy carnival organ settings.
But from The Rising to Magic to Wrecking Ball (only four years ago), Springsteen has proved that unlike his worthy peers such as Tom Petty and Elvis Costello, he can still consistently write and perform new songs as good - or very nearly as good - as his best from decades past.
Springsteen is no musical genius and didn’t invent any musical styles. His ultimate accomplishment is to have combined the best elements of all the great 50’s and 60’s rock, soul, blues and country music that he had loved, creating a unique blend that continues to excite and move music fans like nothing else in the past 40 years.
As always, at the beginning of each Springsteen tour, one prepares for the possibility of musical evidence showing that finally after 40 years, they’ve peaked, going through the motions, phoning it in. That may be the case on the next tour, but not on this one. (Not even close.)