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Springsteen Brings Columbus Down To The River

Springsteen Brings Columbus Down To The River
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At this point, I don’t think anybody could blame Bruce Springsteen for phoning it in. He’s 66, after all, 43 years into a career that has yielded some of the greatest songs and albums in the history of rock and roll, and he hardly has anything left to prove. Could anyone really blame him for 90-minute hit-filled sets? Yeah, well, that’s not how The Boss works. In recent years, his shows have regularly eclipsed the three-hour mark, and are typically peppered with rarities and off-the-wall covers. And when Springsteen brought The River Tour to Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center on Tuesday night, he proved that he still has a desire to push bigger, longer, and louder. “Are you ready to be transformed?” he asked at the start of the show. Ready and willing.

As implied in the tour’s name, Bruce and his powerhouse E Street Band are crisscrossing America playing his sprawling 1980 masterwork The River in its entirety, the first time he’s performed a single album straight through on a nightly basis. The record was a culmination of everything Springsteen had worked towards over the previous four releases, and displayed the maturation of his prodigious narrative voice as well as capturing the kinetic force of his late-70’s live shows. After storming the stage on Tuesday with the outtake “Meet Me in the City,” Springsteen introduced The River as “a coming of age record,” one which attempted to grasp all of the complexities and emotions of life in one place: an impossible task, perhaps, but he certainly took an astonishing stab at it. It’s chock full of blitzkrieg rockers, bleak literary character sketches, and achingly beautiful love songs, all of which were brought to life and expanded by the nine-piece band. Ragers like “Ramrod” and “Cadillac Ranch” became showcases for one solo after another, charging far past their recorded 3-or-4-minute runtimes. “Jackson Cage” was infused with added aggression, and “The Price You Pay” was lifted to an unexpected level of anthemic glory. Over the course of the evening, longtime collaborator Steve Van Zandt loaned hot riffs and tight harmonies to the proceedings.

But it’s the ballads that really own the heart of The River, where Springsteen’s unnervingly human characters grapple with failure and devastating loss. Nowhere is this more true than on the title track, whose haunting last verse echoes throughout the entire record: “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true/Or is it something worse?” A marriage disintegrates in “Stolen Car,” tensions between a father and son come to a head in first-half standout “Independence Day,” and a husband muses on the fragility of life in “Wreck on the Highway.” Everything comes to a head on the penultimate “Drive All Night,” where the narrator pines for the casual comfort of a lost lover: “I would drive all night again/Just to buy you some shoes/And to taste your tender charm.” His powerful tenor intertwined with two enormous, crying saxophone solos by Jake Clemons, desperate and tender, and it brought the house down. The majesty of The River, astonishingly, resides in its mundane details, in the relatable and recognizable everyday struggles it portrays. I was already convinced of The River’s greatness, but I came out of this concert a true disciple.

By the time Springsteen and his band finished playing the album, we were already over two hours into the show, but nowhere near finished. Bruce turned to the sea of request signs for inspiration, and brought two ten-year-old boys up to join him for a ramshackle--and delightful--run through “Growin’ Up.” “I Wanna Be With You,” also a request, made an unusual appearance, and then the hit parade began: the righteous fury of “Badlands,” the post-disco strut of “Cover Me,” the Bo Diddley bounce of “She’s The One.” Any other artist would be lucky to have a single showstopper like these; Springsteen can afford to line them up one after another. Guitarist Nils Lofgren shredded a lengthy solo on the bombastic “Because the Night,” which Bruce cowrote with Patti Smith, and wowed the crowd by spinning acrobatically on one foot as it reached its peak. After a soaring run through “The Rising,” the only song performed that was written after 1984, he closed out the main set with a gorgeous take on Born to Run opener “Thunder Road,” and the packed-full arena leant its voices to the wordless fanfare. 

Bruce and crew still had more in store for us. Spying another request sign, Max Weinberg’s gunshot snare launched “Born in the U.S.A.,” rendered a setlist rarity by its frequent misappropriation, but presented here with proper (and powerful) anger and indignation. Weinberg’s laser focus stood out all night even amongst the impressive field of virtuosic performances. As the show ticked past three hours, Bruce counted in “Born to Run,” and the house lights came up, illuminating 15,000 standing, screaming fans. Clemons dutifully wailed his uncle Clarence’s iconic sax solo, but breathed some of his own life into it, too. We live in an era where you can still hear Bruce Springsteen sing “Born to Run.” Think about that next time he’s within driving distance. It was all momentum from there: “Dancing in the Dark” and its obligatory guest dancers drawn from the crowd, the full-band workout of “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” and the origin-story-in-song “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” Every time it seemed like things would draw to a close, the Boss grabbed another guitar from his tech. Finally, the Isley Brothers rave-up “Shout” drew the whole thing to a close, brought back for coda after coda, and Bruce introduced the members of his “heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, booty-shaking, love-making, earth-quaking, Viagara-taking, justifying, death-defying” E Street Band. The nine musicians took a final bow to the frenzied cheers of an exhausted audience. 3 hours and 32 minutes and 35 songs had elapsed since they took the stage. 

Over four decades in, Springsteen remains a peerless live act, and his E Street cohorts remain an incomparable ensemble still at their peak powers. To see them faithfully interpret and reinvigorate and 36-year-old classic without an ounce of cloying nostalgia was truly a joy. Perhaps it’s the afterglow, but even by the standards of previous Springsteen shows I’ve caught, this one felt tremendously special. The Boss shows no signs of slowing down, but he certainly can’t keep it up forever. Make sure you catch him before he lays the Telecaster down. 

Setlist:
Meet Me in the City
The Ties That Bind
Sherry Darling
Jackson Cage
Two Hearts
Independence Day
Hungry Heart
Out In The Street
Crush On You
You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
I Wanna Marry You
The River
Point Blank|
Cadillac Ranch
I’m A Rocker
Fade Away
Stolen Car
Ramrod
The Price You Pay
Drive All Night
Wreck on the Highway
Growin’ Up
I Wanna Be With You
Badlands
Cover Me
She’s the One
Because the Night
The Rising
Thunder Road 

Encore:
Born in the U.S.A.
Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Shout