Springsteen is a great; he has, since his critical and commercial renaissance around the turn of the millennium – coming on the heels of his triumphant post – 9/11 call to arms ‘The Rising’ – become part of the club of select few musical acts it’s basically sacrilege to be caught not at least respecting, if not fully fanboying (a position he ostensibly shares with Bob Dylan, The Beatles and the late Prince).
Now in his fifth decade of rock ‘n’ rolling, his current ‘The River Tour 2016’ sees Springsteen and the E Street Band in reflective mood as they celebrate the titular album’s 35th anniversary. Originally planned to be a performance of the twenty song double album in its entirety every night, that idea only lasted for the first, US-based leg of the tour, and by the time the show touched down at the Etihad it had mostly reverted to business as usual: a three-plus hour marathon of hits, deep cuts and covers that reminded all in attendance why Springsteen and co have remained one of the most influential and respected live acts around.
Opening with a biting, full-band reworking of ‘Atlantic City’, the band were on loose, playful form throughout the night, seemingly enjoying playing for playing’s sake having been freed from the rigid structure of the tour’s initial set list. An early highlight came in the form of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ – this is in the middle of May, remember – requested by an audience member in full Father Christmas getup; Springsteen accepted the request on the proviso Santa himself provided backing vocals. This is just one example of the charm Bruce’s best shows often carry, that he can make huge, 60,000 capacity gigs feel so intimate and engaging, as if they were taking place in the Academy or Apollo instead of a football stadium.
Other highlights from the thirty-something song set included ‘Because the Night’ (complete with a searing guitar solo from the criminally underutilised Nils Lofgren), the ‘Born to Run’ epic ‘Backstreets’ and the obligatory fan favourite ‘Thunder Road’. Album centrepiece and title track ‘The River’, meanwhile, showcased Springsteen’s impressive falsetto in a way that rarely happens on his studio albums. In fact, the only real low points came from throwaway album tracks ‘Crush on You’ and ‘You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)’ that felt slight and repetitive when played one after another. Even casual fans, who may have been left disappointed after huge hits like ‘Born in the USA’ and ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ were left out of the set, would be hard pressed to deny the number of iconic tracks in Springsteen’s long and winding back catalogue.
The spectacular hit-laden encore, which consisted of, among others, ‘Born to Run’, ‘Glory Days’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and ‘Tenth-Avenue Freeze Out’ (the latter of which acted as a tribute to deceased E-Streeters Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici) was conducted with the house lights on, leading to a frenzied party atmosphere in the front of the pit that even constant miserable Manchester rain couldn’t dampen – though it was, in retrospect, a definite missed opportunity to bring out his now-popular cover of ‘Purple Rain’.
After the rest of the band left, Springsteen concluded solo with a stripped back, slowed down acoustic version of ‘This Hard Land’, turning the midtempo folk rocker into a stark, pained lament that highlights the desperation in its lyrics. It was a low-key end to an otherwise barnstorming victory lap of a gig; this is a veteran band that knows its craft and its audience, and even as its members collectively enter the late stages of middle age, shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
This Bruce Springsteen article was written by Dan Whiteley, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Zoe Anderson. Bottom photo by Jon Dardis.