Springsteen in Pittsburgh, January 16, 2016

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!”

Miscellaneous Notes:

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.

Why and How Springsteen’s Floor General Admission “Lottery” Process is Failing his Customers

With Springsteen back on the road, fans holding floor tickets to North American shows once again are forced to deal with the general admission “lottery” for entry to the show. Saturday night’s show in Pittsburgh showed that tour and venue staff is woefully unprepared to handle the customers who paid $185 each for their floor tickets.


First, the Springsteen staff must be prepared to accommodate a large number of people showing up to participate in the lottery. Their wholly inadequate approach was to provide only one member of the touring staff (who, incidentally, also has other job duties) to handle this process involving 1,500 patrons. This is unacceptable, and the tour did not have its staff properly directing the venue staff regarding how the crowd should be handled. Additionally, the venue did not dedicate an adequately large area to handle the crowd, and had the general admission patrons mixed with other customers attempting to access the box office, will call, pre-show dinners and even reserved seats.

The large number of customers participating in the lottery is no surprise, given that the details were mailed to all customers who had purchased GA floor tickets; had been publicized on Springsteen’s twitter account; facebook page, the venue’s website, and the venue’s twitter account.


Second, if Springsteen’s tour is going to insist on this “lottery” process for entry, they have a responsibility to accommodate all of the customers in the process. This means that after the “winners” are taken into the pit, the remaining customers must be also allowed to enter afterwards in number order.

In Pittsburgh, after the “winners” were let in, a few hundred additional customers were let in, keeping the number order, until Springsteen’s staff and the venue simply decided to not bother with the rest of the customers, telling them that they’d have to just wait until doors opened, at which point the number order was useless. This is disrespectful to the paying customers who followed directions, showed up to participate, and were told that they would be admitted to the venue in number order. It also invites a dangerous free-for-all of persons rushing to get in the venue, as opposed to an orderly process.  Not coincidentally, that’s exactly what happened when the doors were eventually opened.


Third, the size of the “pit” should be significantly larger. The security and safety reasons for a barrier on the floor are clear enough: it prevents a crowd of 2,000 persons pushing forward at once. Why that barrier must be placed less than one-fourth of the way back on the floor makes far less sense. Enlarging the pit would allow more than 350 “winners” and make the GA floor tickets a far better value.

It appears that one possible reason for the significantly smaller “pit” than in the past is to facilitate Bruce crowd-surfing from a platform at the back of the pit to the stage during “Hungry Heart.” This gimmick has been used by Bruce since September 2009 and is hardly essential at this point. He would serve his customers far better by allowing them a better chance at getting a good spot at his shows than forcing a smaller pit so he can crowdsurf.

River Tour 2016 Preview

Looking Back at the River Tour Announcement

No matter how Bruce will refer to it in the press or on television, a tour exclusively for the purpose of looking back at an album released thirty-five years ago is a strange thing to be selling. Especially when his legacy as an artist is built on having relevant and new things to say, rather than resting and relying solely on his past glories.

Having “Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band” on the bill still sells plenty of tickets, and given the brisk sales, there certainly was no need for Bruce to go make specific efforts at reaching out to the fanbase in advance of tickets going on sale. Yet, he did so anyway, with a phone call to E Street Radio, and an interview with Backstreets. His justification for the tour certainly made sense: he wanted to tour with the band again, and that he wasn’t sure that his next project would be one that he would tour with the band.

His assertions about the artistic value of playing the entire sequence of an album in a concert are a tougher sell, however. He professed to like performing that specific sequence, given its importance in the creation of the record and the time spent making it. The point is well taken: the importance of the album sequence is undeniable. He even commented that “It’s very strange, I’ve always thought, that the first thing that people do, when they come out on tour, is they break the album completely up. They play a few songs here, a few songs there… it’s actually very unusual, considering all the time and the care you take in the sequencing and in the content of the record.”

What he failed to address, however is that this is a thirty-five year old sequence he intends to play each night of the upcoming tour. He might find it “strange” to “break the album completely up” on tour, but yet he’s never seen fit to do otherwise each time he has new material to play. Even during the times when he’s had a fixed setlist in mind – such as those that Backstreets pointed out – on the Tunnel of Love tour or at the beginning of the Rising tour, those sequences have always been a mix of the old and the new: the story being told is told more effectively when aided by songs from the past.

Further, this plan stands in sharp relief to one of his most frequent metaphors for his performing career: the ongoing “conversation” he has with his audience. Bruce isn’t bringing a new sequence or a new topic to the conversation, and accordingly, the conversation threatens to become repetitive. One hopes the repetition he’s going to be doing this tour won’t also make the larger conversation boring or irrelevant.


What To Expect on the River Tour

In a tip of the cap for doing things correctly, credit is indeed due to Bruce and his staff for being upfront about things. Unlike in 2009, we know exactly who is going to be in the band for the tour, as it was announced before tickets went on sale. Unlike in 2013, we know exactly which shows (all of them!) will have an album sequence, before tickets are sold. Unlike 2012, all of the tour dates were announced at once, so fans could make their plans accordingly.

The big mystery that is left is the non-album portions of the setlist. Bruce’s comments before the tickets went on sale suggested a willingness to play some of the outtakes from the River album, even suggesting explicitly in his call to Sirius that “We’ll pick out the best of our outtakes for the end of the show, and along with obviously, some favorites.”

Bruce’s words notwithstanding, it is still fair to take a believe-it-when-we-see-it approach to Bruce playing outtakes live. On the Reunion tour, Bruce failed to emphasize the Tracks boxset in an meaningful manner, many times playing only one song from it per night, a habit that did not change in the Reunion era. Despite releasing eighteen new songs on The Promise in 2010, the songs from that album were essentially ignored live.

A quick look at the numbers shows Bruce’s general ambivalence to the River outtakes. They basically fall into four categories:

  1. River Outtakes that Bruce has played with some regularity, on occasion, in the past:

Roulette, Where the Bands Are, Be True, From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come), Loose Ends

  1. River Outtakes that Bruce has played a few times – the “true rarities:”

Take ‘Em As They Come, I Wanna Be With You, Held Up Without a Gun

  1. River Outtakes that Bruce has played exactly once, and never again:

Dollhouse, Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own, Restless Nights, Living on the Edge of the World

  1. River Outtakes that have never been played live:

Everything else!

Classics and Warhorses
The specific focus of this tour on the River album might well change the calculus, but the prediction here is that performances of live Springsteen “classics” such as “Badlands,” “Prove It All Night,” “Thunder Road,” and “The Promised Land” are far more likely to show up rather than copious amounts of River outtakes.

Indeed, the recent shot of the rehearsal setlist that was posted on the official Springsteen twitter account suggested a wholly unadventurous approach to the non-River songs for the tour. Here’s hoping that was merely an early draft and not indicative of what Bruce will be playing all tour.

The song after “Wreck on the Highway” in Pittsburgh on January 16 offers perhaps the most intrigue of all. Will Bruce feel compelled to break out “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” yet again, or will he finally rest that song and figure out something else new to play there? Fingers remained crossed here that it will be the latter, and that he does follow through on his plan to create some differences in the various shows by indeed finding spots for those outtakes to finally get played a bit more frequently.

Opening Songs and Setlist Rotation
It is fair to hope that the opening song of the show may well be a chance to hear an outtake; Bruce has never once started any of his “album shows” – not even the one time he did The River previously – with the album itself. A show opening sequence of “Meet Me in the City” followed by something the audience will know (such as “Badlands” or “Prove It All Night”) would make a lot of sense as an introduction to the album.

If Bruce does plan on playing a good portion of his “classics,” then the opening song may well be the best hope for a change in the set from night to night.

David Bowie
Will Bruce play something as a tribute on Saturday night? The prediction here is that he will, with the opening spot of the encore the most likely place in the set for it. “Rebel Rebel” is the straightforward-rock-song that would certainly make plenty of sense. Yet “Modern Love” may well be the best choice for the band: a lively piano part, call-and-response vocals, and a great sax solo (here’s hoping Jake’s up to the task). It’s right in the E Street Band’s wheelhouse and would make a worthy tribute.