Saturday’s show in Pittsburgh was one of, if not the strongest performances on opening night of a tour that Springsteen’s ever had. This is probably due both to being well-rehearsed and that there weren’t any truly new songs for the band to learn.
The album performance was of course the best part of the show, but it also exceeded all of my expectations for opening night. Bruce had clearly put a lot of thought into how the songs should be played live, as evidenced by extended musical introductions to “Point Blank” and “I Wanna Marry You,” or even little details, like having Jake Clemons play the harmonica part on “Jackson Cage.”
There were still a few rough spots: the band struggled with transitions during “The Price You Pay” and had a tough time finding the groove during “I’m a Rocker.” The band didn’t seem to know what Bruce was doing during “Out in the Street,” leaving Nils and Garry behind when the mobile band members took a trip to the back of the stage, and when Bruce was calling for the “meet me out in the street” response vocals. Even the crew had a few mistakes: the backing vocals couldn’t be heard at the right time in “Drive All Night,” even though the band members were singing them. Each of these are minor issues that will all seemingly be corrected as the tour rolls on.
Interestingly, Bruce chose to speak to the crowd before the most challenging of the River songs to play in arenas, before “Independence Day,” “I Wanna Marry You” and “Stolen Car.” He also spoke to the crowd in introducing the album, discussing the adult topics of the album, and how “if I could write about them then I could get one step closer to having them in my life.”
It seemed to me that the spoken introductions did help capture the crowd’s attention, and somewhat prevented the wandering attention/running to the concourse that would otherwise occur during these songs. The “Independence Day” introduction was especially thoughtful, with Bruce explaining that it was the first song he wrote about fathers and sons, and how when you’re young, “you’re startled by your parents’ humanity…all you can see is the adult compromises they had to make.” He described it as “a late night conversation between two people struggling to understand each other.” The later introduction to “Stolen Car” was perhaps even more revealing, as Bruce admitted he “wrote and re-wrote it until I felt I got it right” describing the question of the song as “if you lose your connections to things, do you lose yourself?” Based on the introduction, I wouldn’t wait around for him to ever try the Tracks / River Single Album version of the song.
At the end of “Wreck on the Highway,” Bruce spoke to the crowd again:
“One of the other things I was writing about on The River was time. A friend of mine was sitting around last night – he said ‘time catches up to us all.’ You’ve got a limited amount of time to do your work, to take care of your family, and try to do something good.”
Those comments were poignant, particularly considering Bruce’s previously stated reasons for going out on tour (that me missed playing with the band), and his obvious enthusiasm at being back on stage. The show was 3 hours, 22 minutes and 4 seconds long, and this was just opening night. He had to work hard throughout the album portion of the set, and then stuck around for another hour and a half of additional songs.
The biggest problem with the show, however, is the total absence of anything “new.” It is disquieting to see Bruce veer sharply in the direction of becoming a nostalgia act. The closest thing to anything “new” in the set was the opening song, “Meet Me in the City,” which was a fun introduction, but shouldn’t have been the only “outtake” from The River to make the show. Bruce specifically addressed his fanbase in his call to E Street Radio, explicitly suggesting that the outtakes would be a part of the rest of the show. It was disappointing that he didn’t follow through on that.
Bruce’s choices for the rest of the show certainly made some sense in that they all were crowd-pleasers and they were largely performed quite well. Yet it did strike me as surprising that he was unwilling to try anything different than what he has already been doing over his past ten years of touring with the E Street Band. Of course it’s a good idea to play some hits as encores – but why keep doing “Dancing in the Dark” at every single show? It’s been there at basically every E Street show since 2002. He even keeps doing it exactly the same way, pulling someone on stage to dance at the end. Bruce has plenty of other hit songs that he could play there instead. Perhaps try something else?
“Because the Night” brought the house down with Nils Lofgren doing his solo while spinning around; but that’s been a staple of the set since 2007. It’d be nice if Bruce could find something else for him to do that exhibited his talents. “Wrecking Ball” gets great cheers when Bruce tells [insert city name] to “let me hear your voices call” but he’s got plenty of other ways to interact with the crowd that aren’t quite so pandering as to invoke a beloved sports team’s name (he referenced the Steelers, of course, on Saturday).
It was a positive development that sign requests were non-existent at the show, and that Bruce didn’t acknowledge any of the few that were present. I’ve long felt that Bruce, when putting thought into a set, is more likely to come up with a good flow and arc of songs than if he is throwing things together on the fly. Pittsburgh’s set was not a good example of that – Bruce’s choices felt random and disconnected, even if he wasn’t doing them via sign request. I hope he finds some different things to try in the set that frame the album performance more effectively. Moving some songs before “The Ties That Bind” might work, as would relying a little less heavily on his regular warhorses and instead finding a better balance between of songs that can tell a story other than “here are my greatest hits!”
The horn section was missed in several places. On Wrecking Ball, Charlie played the horn line on keyboards.
Jake Clemons has definitely benefited from having two tours under his belt. He was playing very well, and was put to work assisting on percussion and backing vocals when he wasn’t playing sax.
True to form, with Patti back on stage, Bruce broke out a song from the “Tunnel of Love” album. Several of Bruce’s best songs (“Human Touch,” “Tunnel of Love,” “Tougher Than the Rest,” are most frequently played with Patti present, so here’s hoping her presence on the tour continues).
It was a great crowd, and Bruce seemed genuinely surprised by how loud they were singing back to him. He stopped singing and had the crowd take over on more than just the first verse of “The River,” and particularly on “Rosalita,” where he had the crowd most of the first few lines by themselves, and then also several lines of the second verse too.