Thursday, January 21, 2016

An Uplifting Ride Down to 'The River': Springsteen, E Street Band Deliver Quality & Quantity Like No One Else -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Bruce Springsteen
and the E Street Band
United Center, Chicago
January 19, 2016

Between the brilliant Bowie, the seemingly indestructible Lemmy, the unforgettable Natalie Cole and the original Eagle, Glenn Frey, the last few days and weeks have brought not only sad losses of musical greats, but grim reminders of our own mortality.

While these passings, at age 69, 70, 65 and 67, respectively, all came far too soon, hitting even closer to home was the death of Scott Weiland at 48--just a year older than me--and also that of a Chicago musician I really enjoyed, Kevin Junior of The Chamber Strings, at just 46.

The tragic loss of the son of longtime family friends, at only 52, himself a beloved musical instrument merchant, served to make the gravity, sorrow and sense of ephemerality all that much more acute, although I didn't know him personally.

So while certainly not lessening the losses, for me, seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band yet again on Tuesday night could hardly have come at a better (largely meaning worse) time.

Attested to by this Chicago show being the 45th time I've seen Springsteen in concert, not only is the Boss my #1 musical hero, he is essentially my psychiatrist, religion, booze, dope and other coping mechanisms, stimulants and/or emotional support systems rolled into one.

And with great admiration for and deference to the thousands of artists I've seen onstage in rock, blues, jazz, classical, theater, opera, ballet, comedy and other genres, Bruce Springsteen is the greatest live performer I've ever witnessed.


At age 66.

And accompanied by nine E Street Band members mostly of a similar demographic, Springsteen played for 200 minutes at the United Center without leaving the stage.

That's 3 hours and 20 minutes for the mathematically-challenged.

During which time, 33 songs were played.

After opening with--with the house lights still up--"Meet Me in the City," an outtake that just surfaced a few months ago as part of The Ties That Bind: The River Collection box set, the next 20 songs were, as advertised, those contained on 1980's The River album.

Played in album order, this got us to about 2 hours, roughly the length of most "generous" concerts--whether by still-great legends like The Rolling Stones & The Who or relative youngsters like Arcade Fire.

In fact, for many artists, 90-100 minutes is about the norm.

But the Boss & Co. then proceeded to play another 12 songs over approximately 80 more minutes, ending near 11:30pm.

Now, as a Springsteen diehard who knew every lyric sung, I loved what I heard.

All of it.

That said, it was a bit of an adjustment--though not a detriment--to hear The River in order, as part of the joy of seeing Bruce, so many times, is the element of surprise as no two setlists are the same.

So to know exactly what was coming, over the first two hours--I'd previously seen Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A. played in full, but the double album River is much longer--was a bit unusual.

Yet especially as Springsteen introduced the album and songs like "Independence Day" with poignant soliloquies, hammed it up with Steven Van Zandt on "Two Hearts" and others, crowd-surfed during "Hungry Heart," added lovely extended intros to "I Wanna Marry You" and "Point Blank"--the latter featuring the great E Street pianist, Roy Bittan--and delivered great renditions of several songs rarely played live, including "Fade Away," "Stolen Car," "The Price You Pay," "Drive All Night," and album-closer "Wreck on the Highway," the album recital, at least for me, was glorious. (See for the full Springsteen Chicago song list, and for more detailed documentation.)

Not that this would be the show I'd most avidly recommend to Springsteen haters, doubters, disbelievers, newbies or middling, latent or populist fans.

Even among the three aficionado friends I went with--though all we could get were single seats at the four ends of the arena--there was discussion afterward about the length and density of The River, which combines bar band rockers with several long, slow (and to some, laborious) character-study ballads.

But not only was this promoted as The River Tour--I still rue being a bit too young to get to the first one in 1980-81--with the full-album playthrough no secret, Bruce has shared (in The Ties That Bind documentary included in the box set and aired on HBO) that after having initially submitted and pulled back a single album in 1979, his aim with The River was to make a "big" record that captured the sonic balance of his famed live shows.

Hence the dour "Point Blank" leading into the buoyant "Cadillac Ranch" and "I'm A Rocker," then sobered again by "Fade Away."

And several other like examples.

So akin to how I valued coming to much more know and appreciate Stevie Wonder's Songs of the Key of Life double album leading up to--and during--his 2014 concert performing it in full, Springsteen fans who didn't holistically know or recall The River could well have studied up (easily in the age of Spotify) and/or reveled anew in hearing it en masse.

And though this was just the second show of the tour, after Saturday in Pittsburgh, Springsteen did provide some great surprises in his selections after The River wound up.

I went into Tuesday's gig kind of hoping he would replicate "Badlands," "Backstreets"--my favorite song by anyone, ever--"Because the Night" and his tribute to David Bowie, "Rebel Rebel," that were played in Pittsburgh.

Yet though I would have loved to have heard those songs, I was just as happy to have them, unsuspectingly, replaced with "Night," "No Surrender"--Bruce botched the opening twice, but then "remembered how it goes"--a searing "Cover Me" and a touching solo acoustic "Take It Easy," in memory of Glenn Frey.

Also played were "She's the One," "Thunder Road," "Born to Run"--making for half of the Born to Run album, along with "Night"--"Human Touch," "Dancing in the Dark" (on which Bruce danced with a delighted gray-haired lady), "The Rising," "Rosalita" and more.

So those looking for greatest hits can't really say they didn't get them.

Though if anything--with the awareness that it's silly to kvetch at all about a near-perfect, nearly 3-1/2-hour show--I would have relished hearing a few more River outtakes.

As I compiled and sequenced in this 25-song Spotify playlist, Springsteen recorded enough first-rate material in 1979-80 to have put out a second double album just as good, if lacking the stylistic diversity of the finished product.

Along with "Meet Me in the City," songs like "Party Lights," "Roulette," "Dollhouse," "Loose Ends," "Be True," "Stray Bullet" and many more would have been a joy to hear performed by the mighty E Street band, including Bittan, Van Zandt, Garry Tallent, Max Weinberg, Nils Lofgren, Jake Clemons (nephew of the late Clarence), Charlie Giordano, Soozie Tyrell and Bruce's wife, Patti Scialfa.

But I have tickets for Bruce in Milwaukee on March 3, so who knows?

Still, as I've hopefully conveyed, I loved this show, in part because of its uniqueness. My friends did too, and what may have sounded like booing was simply the packed house effusively yelling, "Bruuuuuuuce!"

And especially with the concert coming when it did, there was something genuinely inspiring about seeing a 66-year-old guy with an equally veteran band rocking out for 200 minutes with a smile on his face the entire time.

Who knows how much time we and those we love--whether personally or artistically--have left on this Earth?

Hopefully a lot, but for me the real wish is that we all find fulfillment in how we live, give, share, love and enjoy each and every day.

For me, no one has ever provided a better example of giving your best, every time out, than Bruce Springsteen.

And no entertainer--or anyone for that matter, other than family and friends--has ever made me feel more alive.

Or glad to be.

Repeatedly, and on this particular Tuesday night.

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