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Monday, March 14, 2016

Live Review: A Springsteen Virgin Goes To His First Boss Show

Posted By on Mon, Mar 14, 2016 at 12:06 PM

click to enlarge The Boss - WILLIE CLARK
  • Willie Clark
  • The Boss

Oh down to the river we'd ride...

It was cold, wet, and rainy as I made it down to the Oracle Area in Oakland on Sunday night to see Bruce Springsteen’s The River Tour, a celebration of The Boss's titular 1980 album of the same name.

In the grand scheme of things, I’m a casual Springsteen fan — and a new one at that. Sure, I finally added "Born to Run" and "Born in the U.S.A." to my collection a few years back, but if Springsteenism is a religion, I'm a new convert that shows up to services just for Easter and Christmas.

Before the show, I had actually never listened to The River (although I did yesterday to prep for the concert), and this was my first time seeing The Boss live. I wasn't sure what to expect — perhaps a quiz show testing my fandom before I was allowed to take my seat? I know of the Stony Pony at least...that has to count for something. I also knew Springsteen has a reputation for marathon-length sets. Even my car breaking down earlier this week (ironic, given Springsteen's many odes to wheels) wasn't going to stop me from making it.
Arena shows in general, though, are also a tad out of my normal show-going element. Even the idea of seeing a show in a seat seemed little weird to me — I'm more used to being in the front row getting hit in the back of the head by a rouge crowd surfer.

But, seeing a violin and accordion on stage was a good sign. Those are instruments I can get behind, and I'm pretty sure I'm more of a fan of Springsteen's folksier stuff, though I probably haven't listened to enough of his stuff to definitively say that. And sadly, the accordion never made an appearance during the set. Sad face. 

I was a bit surprised too, as I took my seat shortly after the doors opened, with how thin the crowd looked. Springsteen fans (and there was a lottery just to get into the pit, which is crazy to me) are diehards, or so I thought, and I expected more of a preshow commotion.

Sure enough the arena filled up, and the first big scream happened about five minutes before the planned 8 p.m. showtime. I was still surprised with just how casual the atmosphere felt; it wasn't the anxious fan-fueled energy I was expecting. Sure, most of the people in the crowd were probably well past their throwing-panties-on-stage days, but the concert felt more like a casual gathering of people coming to hang out at an old friend's house than the rabid Springsteen fans I had heard about. (It didn't help that everybody seemed to keep running into people that they knew, but that could have been the area I was sitting in).

At 8:30 p.m. on the dot (a half hour late, though, I should add), Springsteen and the rest of the E Street Band took the stage. Nobody opens for The Boss, apparently. I thought the cheering was loud for the individual band members...until Springsteen came out.

"Are you ready to be entertained?" the 66-year-old New Jersey native asked the crowd. He opened the show with "Meet Me In The City," and talked about how The River was his coming of age record, and how it was about the things that binds people to their lives.

Initially, Springsteen's vocals were a little too echoey in the large space of the arena, but that little problem seemed to improve as the night went on. The crowd began to sway and bob, and I must say, people dancing to Springsteen makes for some great people watching. It's an awkward and unique dance combined with some weird gyrations and people attempting to play air drums and keyboard. It's something else. But I digress...

Before "Independence Day," Springsteen talked about how it was the first song he wrote about fathers and sons, and the type of song you write when you are young and shocked by your parents' humanity and the idea that they had dreams that maybe didn't turn out or compromises they had to make. It's about, he said, being too young to see the blessings that come with compromise.

The violin was hard to hear on that track — as it was in the mix for most of the songs — and, as that's one of my pet peeves in particular, I'm going to be a stickler on that point. Let that fiddle sing!

After "Independence Day," the crowd seemingly woke up for "Hungry Heart." Springsteen handed the song off to the crowd, who probably ended up singing more of it than he did. And then Springsteen actually crowd surfed. It was one of the most careful and slow-motion crowd surfs ever (after all, nobody wants to be the asshole who accidentally drops The Boss). But younger bands take note: If Springsteen can still get out there and crowd surf, you have no excuse.

Springsteen had everything crowd interaction-wise figured out, actually. The pit was carefully constructed to give him areas to get close to fans and walk in the middle of the two floor standing areas, where he would shake hands. (He even pulled up two different people to join him on stage over the course of the night.) 

Things slowed down again for "I Wanna Marry You," which Springsteen explained was about the easiest kind of love: the type without the consequences and responsibilities (in other words, the kind that doesn't exist). He then quipped about it being an old crowd and said that he could tell that by how loud people laughed at that. 
One hour in, we hit the title track, "The River," as Springsteen and the E Street Band continued their quest to take an 80-minute album and stretch it out over the course of a two hour of set time.

As the concert approached Lord of the Rings-length territory (the total concert came in just around three and a half hours), I realized that all of Springsteen's songs fall into one of two patterns: Really slow songs, and medium tempo 4/4 rock songs. And, given that every song pretty much dragged on as long as possible, the concert became more like the gradual lapping of the river than it should have been, and probably not the type of comparison Springsteen was hoping to get from the tour's namesake.

In other words, I can only hear —yes, even from the Boss — a 1,2,3,4 count off and then a jangly key intro heading into another similar tempo and similar sounding song before things run together and lose their effectiveness. I mean, even the girl next to me nodded off during the show.

To wrap The River portion of the evening (before going into another hour-plus of other tracks) Springsteen talked about how the album was about adult life, choosing a partner and career, seeing the clock tick away as you walk alongside your own mortality, and the limited amount of time to do work and raise a family and try to do something good. It's deep stuff to ponder and I commend The Boss for getting philosophical with the crowd. He then went into more familiar territory, including "Thunder Road," "Born to Run," and "10th Avenue Freeze Out," before closing the night with a cover of The Isley Brothers' "Shout."

But for me? I was disappointed, and after everything I've heard over the years, I was expecting one of the best shows I've ever seen — and I'm honestly not even sure if this would crack my top five.

I wanted more of that live energy that separates the performance from album recordings. More stuff like the drum fill during "Badlands."  It wasn't that everything felt over-rehearsed, it was just perhaps a bit safe and similar, even if playing The River front to back was probably a risk in and of itself.

Even "Thunder Road" was a slower and more subdued version than the recording, and what I really wanted was those live, raw, and explosive moments that make a show, you know, a live performance, and not just subtle changes to your repertoire that only fans who have seen you 50 times before will notice. I like Springsteen's music, but that live reputation that preceded him just wasn't there for me tonight.

Maybe The River Tour wasn't a good first time introduction to The Boss live. Maybe I haven't spent enough time in New Jersey. Maybe I don't like Springsteen as much as I thought, and certainty not enough for the hundreds of dollars it can cost to see him live. Maybe three and a half hours of Springsteen is just too much for casual listeners, and now that I can cross him off my musical bucket list, maybe I've gotten my Springsteen fill for some time to come.

But, sadly, I wasn't blown away like I thought I would be. The River Tour left me, well...dry.


Critic’s Notebook
-There were so many people who were talking about just having gone to the Phoenix show, and also were heading to the L.A. one next. That’s dedication, folks.

-I overheard someone else mention that Springsteen didn’t run around as much as he used to, so it wasn’t just me.

-I also overheard someone say how awesome it was that Springsteen and company played “hard and heavy metal” and I’m just so flabbergasted by that comment I can’t even start to respond. Eye roll.

-Saw two Stone Pony tee-shirts, and a lot of Springsteen ones, but not as many as I was expecting, actually.

-Man, this was one of the whitest concerts ever.

-I'm already way over word count, but watching Springsteen super fans is hilarious. Two Bruce bros bonded in front of me, and even the girls next to me were laughing at the super fan in front of us who kept looking around trying to find someone else who was on his level and could shout songs back at him.

-Every member of the E Street Band found a way to contribute to every song, it seemed, which is another big concert pet peeve of mine that I was glad to see them address.

-Seriously though, I swear most Springsteen songs are the same tempo.

-$40-$45 for the same tour tees online for $30. 

-My mom told me she had heard good things about Springsteen's show back home in Rochester, but that she didn’t think he was my type of music. Should have listened. Moms are always right.

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Willie Clark

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