Sunday, March 27, 2016

Down to the River We Did Ride

Photo by SallyAnn Rogers
                                      Down to the river
                                      my baby and I
                                     Oh down to the river we ride

                                                     - Bruce Springsteen, “The River”

Last month SallyAnn and I took a quick road trip to Cleveland, Ohio to see Bruce Springsteen in concert . . . again!  We attended our first Springsteen concert back on August 15, 1978, when the Boss and his E Street Band came to the old Capital Center outside Washington, DC while touring in support of the Darkness on the Edge of Town album.  Since then we have seem him at several venues in and around Washington, and we have travel to Philadelphia, New Jersey, and even west to Columbus, Ohio, to catch up with Bruce and the band and to share a little of that spirit in the night.  I am guessing that we have probably seen them in concert a couple dozen times over the years.

This current tour, which commenced in January in Pittsburgh, celebrates the 35th anniversary of the release of Springsteen’s 20-song double album The River, in October 1980.  This fifth studio album has long been considered his right of passage record - “where I was trying to find my way inside” at age 30 . . . beyond the boardwalk and the clubs in Asbury Park, New Jersey. “I wanted the record to contain fun, dancing, jokes, good comradeship, love, faith, sex, lonely nights, and of course, tears,” he confessed as he introduced the set in Cleveland.  “And I figured if I could make a record that was big enough to contain all those things, maybe I'd get a little closer to the home I was searching for.”   It was the album that would launch him into the stratosphere of rock stardom where he remains to this day more than a generation later.  So there was no way in hell we were going to pass up this tour after having witnessed Springsteen’s return to the Capital Center on November 23, 1980 during the original tour supporting The River.  We stood ready to buy tickets as soon as they went on sale back in December. 

I think back fondly to those early days when there was no problem scoring tickets to a Springsteen concert, if you were willing to stand in line at the ticket office when they went on sale.  There were even some record stores that a few of us knew about where one could purchase tickets without standing in line.  The ticket price for the original tour was $12.50, tax included.   Then Ticketmaster (fie on it and all of its spawn) too over and tickets seemed as rare as hen’s teeth.  One would go online the moment they went on sale and within seconds the concerts . . . at least those at DC venues . . . were sold out or available only through scalpers at many times their face value.   Now tickets cost $150 plus a rather exorbitant “courtesy fee” IF one is lucky enough to find one for sale.

We were therefore forced to look farther afield to find tickets, if we ever hoped to see Bruce in concert again.  Such was the case this time when we were able to find available tickets at the QuickenLoan Arena - “the Q” - just a hop, skip and a jump from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Cleveland’s lakefront.  I won’t travel so far for just anyone.  But Springsteen is a different matter all together.  If you have been to one of his concerts, you know what I am talking about.  If you have not, then you need to get yourself to a Springsteen concert before you die.  Then you will understand.

In fact, this was our first return to Cleveland since late February 2010 when we traveled there to see the special Springsteen exhibit at the museum.  It seemed appropriate as the Boss has always had a strong connection with his fans in the former rust belt of northeast Ohio.  He paid tribute in his elegiac 1995 song “Youngstown,” a paean to that nearby hardscrabble town and its “smokestacks reachin’ like the arms of God / Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.”  Being a native Midwesterner, having grown up in many of its cities - my hometown of Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Cincinnati - I feel a strong affinity for Cleveland even though I have never lived here.  It looks likes the places where I grew up.  Home.

So how was the concert you ask?  There was magic in the night to be sure.  The band opened with “Meet Me in the City,” one of a couple dozen songs written and recorded for inclusion on The River, but never released until the Springsteen box set that arrived in stores late last year.  I have to admit I was happy to see the E Street Band stripped down to its earlier configuration, without all of the back-up singers and horn section.  They worked with his more recent albums, but The River is simple and raw and there was no need for all the extras.  Nils Lofgrin was not around back in 1980, but he joined the band shortly thereafter and his signature guitar work compliments that of Springsteen and Little Steven van Zandt.   Add to the mix Soozie Tyrell with her acoustic guitar and fiddle and what more do you need?  Sadly, there were some missing faces from the early years . . . the Big Man, Clarence Clemmons, who passed away in 2011, and whose place has been admirably filled by his nephew Jake Clemmons; and Danny Federici, who died in 2008.  Wife Patti Scialfa, who has ducked out of a few dates on this tour, was also MIA in Cleveland and bassist Gary Tallent had a rare opportunity to move front stage.

Bruce and the band played for a solid three and a half hours to a packed house without a break.  Approaching age 67 he has amazing energy and drive, and his sheer joy in what he does shows through from start to finish.  I have never known Bruce to disappoint an audience and that evening in Cleveland proved to be everything we hoped it would be . . . and more.  At most of his concerts you never know what he will play.  They are always a mixture of old favorites and new tunes along with unexpected covers of iconic songs.  He even takes audience requests.  Such is not the case with this tour.  We knew what to expect going in . . . an in-sequence, complete performance of The River ending with the plaintive “Wreck on the Highway.”

Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking 'bout the wreck on the highway.

Bruce paused at the end, smiled and announced “that was The River.”  And so it was.  It was what we came to hear and no one would go home unsatisfied.  Without taking a break, he switched guitars and added: “I’m gonna carry on for awhile” as he and the band launched into a lengthy encore during which they played a number of the favorite Springsteen classics . . . and it was not difficult to think back to those early concert tours when he played upwards of four hours.  The concert was full of fun, dancing, jokes, comradeship, love, faith, and a good deal more . . . an impressive performance from a man now in his 67th year.  And there is no end in sight.

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