“Tonight we’re gonna take you to the River……”
The words flowed out over the crowd like the concept itself; smooth and welcome and warm. And if the words were the river, the congregation was once again baptized in rock and roll. For me it was a return to the record that confirmed my faith. Born to Run opened my eyes. Darkness on the Edge of Town asked the hard questions. But The River? The River sealed the deal. It was raucous and raunchy and dark and soulful. It reached into my life and told the stories I didn’t know existed yet. Fathers and sons, husbands and wives, cars, shoes, sex and yes, rock and roll at its most primal.
On Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, arm in arm with the beautiful girl I married and 17,000 other Canadian tramps, we lived it all again and we lived it with narration by the man himself.
One of the things that always drew me to Bruce Springsteen’s live shows was the conversation. The most vivid memory I have of my first show was Bruce, sitting on the edge of the stage at the CNE Grandstand. It was a beautiful Ontario summer night in July of 1984. I was 21 and he was 35. At one point with the band playing quietly behind him, he sat down. His legs dangled over the edge of a stadium-sized framework of scaffolds and plywood. His audience was 25,000 screaming fans but when he started to talk, he was tailgating in the high school parking lot. He was telling us about his family’s first new used car and how it felt when his dad drove it into the driveway. He wasn’t a musical superstar or a songwriting icon. He was your buddy reminiscing about the swirling emotional landscape of a small town. Over the years, those conversations disappeared. I’m not sure why. Maybe he decided we’d heard it all before. Maybe he thought the music said it all. Or maybe he didn’t think about it at all. Whatever the reason, I missed those moments of intimacy. Tuesday night was a return to that Bruce – the guy who opened the curtain on his life. He kicked it off with a rocket-fueled out take from 1980 called “Meet Me in the City” and as the roar of the crowd became a rumble, he told us that the River was the record where he was trying to figure out where he fit in within the broader community. Is it any wonder we connected so completely with these songs and this man? He ripped through “The Ties the Bind”, “Sherry Darling”, “Jackson Cage”, “Two Hearts” and I was transported back to my family home. That bedroom with the white Pearl drum set in the corner, Bose speakers on both sides of the room and posters on every wall. I could actually hear the echoes of my dad yelling at me to turn it down when Bruce gave the band the tempo for “Independence Day”. With Charlie Giordano on the organ, Roy on grand piano and Max’s high hat cinching down the beat – Bruce took the mic and walked out to the front of the stage. He didn’t sit down but it didn’t matter. 30 years and almost 100 shows in, his voice is so familiar to me; it’s like listening to your best friend tell a story. It’s compelling and dramatic and familiar and it lands somewhere south of the heart and north of the soul. “Independence Day was the first song I wrote about fathers and sons. It’s the kinda song that you write when you’re young and you’re first startled by your parents’ humanity. You’re shocked to realize that they had their own dreams and their own desires because all you could see is the adult compromises they’ve had to make. When you’re young you haven’t had to do that yet. I remember the idea that frightened me; the idea of how they seemed locked into a certain world and all you could feel was the desire to escape that world as a teenager and a young man.”
The tears were inescapable. He does that. He finds a way beneath the façade of your public life and pulls out the emotions we don’t show the world. I could see my dad at the kitchen table, my son at his computer and me wandering the years between them.
And that was just side one. Side two kicks off with the singalong “Hungry Heart.” It’s always been a “crowd participation” song but over the last few tours, he’s taken that to a new level by adding crowd surfing to the experience. More singing with “Out in the Street”, some localized contributions to “Crush on You” by the crowd down front and a hilarious “You Can Look” with lots of mugging and hand gestures from Little Steven. I wasn’t sure what to expect with “I Wanna Marry You” but I certainly hadn’t anticipated another conversational prelude. “I wrote this song as a daydream….a sweet little daydream. The kind where you’re standing on the corner in the summer, watching some girl that you’ll never meet walk by and you imagine a whole life with her in 30 seconds. Of course you imagine the easiest life – without consequences. That’s why it’s a song of youthful imagining and of love in all its foolish glory and early tentativeness and all of its perfectness.” It was a stunning re-imagining of this song and a perfect transition to the title track and the cornerstone of the record.
I have to say that throughout the whole show I was impressed with the normally sedate Toronto crowd. From the first note to the final wave, they were all in with the vocals, with additional lighting courtesy of cell phones and appropriate respect during the slow songs.
“The River” itself was brilliant. The interplay between Jake on sax and Bruce on the harp floated memories of Scooter and The Big Man but that’s not to take anything away from Jake – it’s just part of Clarence’s infinite shadow. Jake’s energy and commitment to every song was fresh and invigorating. He has definitely earned his own spot in the legend that is the E Street Band.
Time for side three. If side one is the call to join the party and side two is friends, mayhem and laughter, side three is when things turn serious. “Point Blank” was stunning and Roy’s piano – the sound that is maybe most identifiable with the Springsteen canon – was absolutely heart-wrenching. “Cadillac Ranch” piled everybody into the backseat and onto the lip of the stage. “I’m a Rocker” turned up the stereo. “Fade Away” was the harmony-laden soul that got everyone’s attention and the ghost-filled “Stolen Car” stopped us cold.
Finally we reached side four and again – we’re dancing and mugging with the roadhouse rocker “Ramrod”. It’s the last bit of untethered exuberance before the trio of “Price You Pay”, “Drive All Night” and “Wreck on the Highway”.
I’ve always said that perhaps the biggest strength of the E Street Band is their incredible sense of dynamics. Each member knows when to step forward and when to drop it down to a whisper. These three songs brought that home with passion and drama. “Price You Pay” is a mid-tempo rant led by The Professor’s piano riff, pounding out the fury of the main character as he swears to, “…tear it down and throw it away.” From that hammering backbeat the band falls away and we’re left with the piano and Max’s quiet rimshot pleading with us to “Drive All Night.” This – according to almost everyone I spoke to - was the diamond in a night full of gems. In ten minutes of musical perfection it builds from desolate harmonized misery to a plaintive full-band wail. It was amazing to watch the crowd - at first seated - rise with the crescendo of the band to one of the loudest ovations of the night. The final song, “Wreck on the Highway” was the beautiful ending; a denouement to one of the best musical stories I’ve witnessed and before the last note, Bruce summed it up this way, “The River was about time. Time comes us all and The River was about the ticking of that time and how we each have a finite amount to do our job, to raise our family, to do something good.”
That would have been enough for mere mortals but with emotions raw and bare we were treated to 12 more songs that ran the length and breadth of Springsteen’s career. “Promised Land”, “Brilliant Disguise” and the Isley Brothers “Shout” were among the standouts. Then again, it all stands out.
Later as I was chatting with friends I was asked several times how the show ranked for me and to be honest I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t place the show in a list because for me – it was too personal. The River was my record. I owned it for so many years and later, when I took my son to his first Bruce show, it became his. When I first met Ginette I gave it to her and this year, she gave it back to me. How do you rank something that is, for all intents and purposes, an heirloom? It stands alone and separate. It runs through us as a stark and glorious reminder that music has a power to transform and to heal and to renew.