There are no obvious lyrical or musical themes that unite the tunes on “The River,” the 1980 double album from Bruce Springsteen. Not that he ever claimed this was his “Madam Butterfly” or “Tommy.” Still, apart from collections of rarities and outtakes, “The River” is the least cohesive song set Springsteen ever released. Which makes his choosing to play it in its entirety during his current tour seem like a flimsy excuse to hit the road, without having to make a new record.
But anything that gets Springsteen onstage — as he was for three marvelous hours at Verizon Center on Friday — is fine by his fans. After opening with “Meet Me in the City,” a light rocker recorded during “The River” sessions that didn’t make the original cut, he gave a track-by-track recital of the album.
Some of the songs have aged wondrously. Springsteen occasionally stopped rocking to explain to the packed house his motivation behind certain material. “Independence Day,” he said, was his first attempt to write about his struggles with his father and was written at a point in his life when he was first realizing that his parents “had their own dreams” about how their lives would work out, before the real world got in the way. Most members of the audience were old enough to have been on both sides of the parent-child wars by now. Springsteen also said he wrote the title track for his sister, who was having domestic and financial troubles at the time. As his audience has aged, the gloom inspired by that song’s climactic question — “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” — has only gotten more profound.
The sax solos, now delivered by Jake Clemons (nephew of the late E Street Band stalwart Clarence Clemons), and the keyboard-heavy new wave rockers, including “I’m a Rocker,” set a nostalgic time and place musically.
Another sign of how the world has changed came while Springsteen reprised “Hungry Heart,” which gave him the first hit single of his career. The singer walked into the masses that packed the standing-room-only floor and let them pass his body over their heads to the stage. He couldn’t have pulled that same stunt during the original tour behind “The River”; at the time, general-admission shows were banned after fans were crushed to death at a 1979 Who concert in Cincinnati. As packed and kinetic as the scene at Verizon Center was, Springsteen knew he’d be safe. Any deaths on the floor among these concertgoers would probably have been of natural causes. (Springsteen was the first major concert act allowed to do general-admission seating in Cincinnati after the Who tragedy.)
The years haven’t been gracious to other aspects of the album. Hearing all of its songs in one sitting reveals that if “The River” has any single protagonist, it’s a dubious “little girl.” It’s impossible to ignore how vintage “Bruuuce” — who was 31 when the record was released — couldn’t stop himself from referring to females that way. No fewer than 10 of the album’s songs find the singer pleading with or just plain ogling one “little girl” after another.
There’s the roots rocker “Cadillac Ranch,” for example, in which he drools over a “little girlie in the blue jeans so tight.” And the “pretty little girl” he locks eyes with on another raver, “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch).” But she also shows up in “The River’s” more serious fare, such as “Jackson Cage” (“Little girl, you’ve been down here so long”) and “Point Blank,” which has the singer crooning, ominously, “You been fooled this time, little girl.” (Springsteen also wrote and recorded “This Little Girl Is Mine” during “The River” sessions but gave that future hit single to Gary “U.S.” Bonds.)
After the “River” set, Springsteen launched into a breathless recitation of fan favorites from all phases of his career. The audience, as is now expected, overpowered him and the band while shouting through such familiar anthemic fare as “Thunder Road,” “Born to Run” and “Rosalita.” Shortly before calling it a night, Springsteen performed “Dancing in the Dark,” blessing two female fans near the stage with an invitation to dance with him, as he’s done, tour after tour, since courting Courteney Cox in the 1984 video that made him an international superstar and turned the song into his most successful single.
Yeah, rock concerts are best left to singles.