There are only two words needed to describe Bruce Springsteen live… Pure Energy.
On Saturday, January 16th, we saw The Boss as he opened his 2016 tour in Pittsburgh, PA with a three and a half hour performance that would leave any twenty-something pop star exhausted. The 66-year-old rocker just kept coming, showing he had more stamina than pretty much everyone in the 20,000 seat, filled-to-the-rafters Consol Energy Center.
The River – The Album
This tour, entitled “The River”, after the 1980 album of the same name, includes an in-order performance of every album track from the two record set, followed by some of the other standard Springsteen favorites. I initially expected a more well-rounded list of songs, and would have normally been upset not hearing hits like Born in the USA, I’m on Fire and Glory Days (can you tell I was eleven when Born in the USA came out?), but instead of feeling let down, I listened as Bruce described The River and let myself just go with his flow. I am so glad I did.
From the first notes of the opening number, Meet Me in the City (complete with house-lights up for an extra boost of energy to start the show), the audience knew they were in for a night filled with high energy and outstanding music. After the first number was complete, Bruce introduced the tour, welcoming the audience of Pittsburgh to the opening night, and explained the intent behind writing The River. It was his goal, he said, to capture every possible human emotion in the words and music on this album. No small undertaking, for sure. But that introduction made us all listen closely for the rest of the night. Not that you had to listen hard to hear, and not that the fans didn’t already know the music.
A Word on Springsteen Fans
A quick note on the Springsteen fans I met – From where I was sitting, one thing became quickly apparent. We were surrounded by some of the most friendly, and, more importantly, loyal fans in all of pop music. Before Bruce started, everyone around us started talking to each other about how many Springsteen concerts they had been to. No one was limited to single digits, and the highest I heard was over 30. The only other “Springsteen newbie” I found was an 11 year old, there with her die hard Boss-fan parents. Everyone who heard that Andrea and I were at our first Springsteen concert immediately told us how we would be back, and then described the other multiple cities they had tickets for on this same tour. And even more telling of the dedication of a Springsteen fan was the fact that virtually EVERYONE knew EVERY WORD to EVERY SONG. I’m not exaggerating. With only the rarest of exception, there didn’t seem to be any song that Bruce picked that at least 90% of the audience knew every word to, and sang along at full volume. The only time I’ve seen this level of knowledge of a performer’s extensive body of work is at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Great company to be in, Bruce, and well-deserved. So, enough about the fans, on to the show.
Capturing every human emotion in music has to be an unbelievable undertaking. When Bruce released the album at the age of 31, I’m sure he had experienced quite a few of them. Seeing him now, at 66 years old, I was glad I got the added benefit of so many more years of life experience, coming out through his performance. In addition to the unstoppable energy that Bruce put into his show, the close up camera repeatedly showed on the big screen the emotion he poured into every word. From the expression on his face to the inflection of his voice, Bruce sang from deep inside, giving the audience everything he possibly could. After more than three hours, I’m sure The Boss left the stage just as mentally and emotionally exhausted as he was physically exhausted.
The E Street Band, with some of the current members dating back to the mid-1970’s, has to be one of the tightest, highest energy and most hit-producing bands of the rock era. From Sopranos star Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren and Patti “Mrs. Springsteen” Scialfa contributing to the five guitars out front, to the driving rhythms of Max Weinberg on the drums, to the combination of Roy Bittan and Charles Giordano filling in the gaps on pianos, keyboards and everything else, Bruce’s signature wall of sound is as hard-hitting as ever. Every member of this group just “brings it”. One of my favorite parts, no doubt, has to be the fantastic contributions of saxophonist Jake Clemons. Nephew of the original E Street Band sax player, “The Big Man” Clarence Clemons (known for one of the most distinct signature sounds in rock music), Jake must make his uncle proud every night. His spot-on replication of his uncle’s sound and style, mixed with some of his own interpretation, shows that the musical prowess runs strong in the Clemons gene pool.
The Show – Bruce Springsteen Live!
After the opening number, it took about 2 hours to get through the entire performance of The River. After watching Bruce and the E Street Band give it all they had, I knew two things. First, I needed to get The River and add it to my playlist. While the performance was (to use an unfortunately over-used phrase) truly amazing, I wanted to take my time and listen to the album again and again. I wanted to listen to the words and think about their meaning. The music and lyrics just left me wanting more. Second, I knew that many stars today would be content to then go home. Any average musician that had performed twenty one songs over two hours would have given the crowd their money’s worth. Bruce, however, isn’t your average musician. He was only getting warmed up.
Bruce’s On Stage After-Party
I can’t speak to what happened back stage after Bruce and the E Street band left that night, but the after party started as soon as the performance of The River was complete. After the last note of Wreck on the Highway, the last song on The River, The Boss let us know that he wasn’t done. That’s when Badlands came out. And Backstreets. And Because the Night. And The Rising. And, of course, Thunder Road to finish the concert. But that wasn’t really the end, either. More than two and a half hours had gone by. But it was encore time.
Starting off the encore was the appropriate homage to David Bowie (who had passed away only a few days earlier), in the way of a story about David and Bruce recording together and a great cover of Rebel Rebel. Then more Springsteen hits. Bobby Jean, Dancing in the Dark, Born to Run, and one of my personal favorites, Rosalita. This last one was a fantastic way to end the show, with it’s unstoppable ten minutes of energy. But Bruce still wasn’t finished!
Energy, Energy, Energy
When I’m sixty six years old, I hope I have one third of the energy that Bruce Springsteen does. He just didn’t let up. It was infectious. In three and a half hours, he took no breaks. He sang and played guitar on every song.
He just went and went and went. At one point, he literally threw his body onto the audience and body surfed for a while. He pulled an excited audience
member up on stage to dance with him. And, throughout his whole encore, he screamed at us. He yelled and yelled. After every song, he shouted things like, “You got anything left?”, “You got nothing!”, “Do you have to get up for church tomorrow?” The 20,000 Springsteen fans around him got louder with every taunt. And the music just kept coming. But his choice for the last song of the night couldn’t have been more appropriate, even though it wasn’t a Bruce song.
Bruce reached way back to 1959 to finish up the night with the Isley Brothers hit Shout. The Websters Dictionary defines shout as “to utter a sudden loud cry, to command attention as if by shouting”. How appropriate, after what seemed like an endless stream of music and energy, to end with a ten minute version of the song whose very title reflects high energy. The boss commanded our attention. And we stayed with him as best we could, throwing our hands in the air and echoing his lyrics the whole time. It was during this song that The Boss’s exhaustion may have started to show, if only for a second, when he laughed into the microphone, “I don’t know where I am in the music!” But he jumped right back in and figured it out in no time.
I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed this performance. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are just a timeless ball of energy, pumping out one hit after another. Go see them if you get the chance.
Here is the evening’s full play list on setlist.fm.