A heavily edited version of this post originally appeared on Backstreets.com, which you can read here.
Bruce and the increasingly death-defying E Street Band’s lone jaunt to the Great White North reaffirmed many age-old truths, but perhaps none more so than the classic adage: “you had to be there.” Though setlist watchers will undoubtedly harp about the fact that the closest the show came to a tour premiere was the briefly soundchecked “Spirit in the Night,” those lucky enough to have actually been inside of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on Tuesday night were treated to one of the most raucous, intense, and flat-out joyous evenings so far on this tour. In fact, I would argue that the predictability of the setlist not only helped to unify the crowd into one of the best of the six shows thus far, but also fit perfectly with what Bruce is trying to get at with each and every show on this 2016 River Tour.
Beginning with his now-customary “Meet Me in the City Tonight,” the line “calling out nation to nation” took on added resonance when sung from the other side of the border. Though some have complained about the fact that the lights remain on during the song, this decision perfectly introduces the idea that he says is at the heart of The River: building a community through music. Being able to see everyone inside of the packed-to-the-rafters arena highlights how much the song is truly a rallying cry to everyone – young and old – to come with him and the band down to the river…and much farther.
And they took us aaaaaaaaall the way down last night. Though the band’s performance of The River started off shockingly strong in Pittsburgh, somehow it keeps getting better. They’ve really found a way to simultaneously tighten their performance while still finding new times to add brilliant flourishes throughout. Though those seeing the tour for the first time will revel in being able to enjoy one of Bruce’s greatest albums played front to back, the die-hard fans dabbling in repeat viewings are afforded the opportunity to notice these small, sometimes accidental, yet always powerful nightly adjustments.
Last night, they included (just to name a few): Nils bringing a guitar pick to Bruce on the front platform during “Sherry Darling” because someone had forgotten to put one in the usual spot on the front mic…except Bruce proceeded to immediately hand it to someone in the crowd; Bruce having Nils and Stevie rip off a fantastic albeit all-too-brief guitar duel during an especially rambunctious “Cadillac Ranch;” the whole band lining up with their backs to the audience during “Ramrod” to show the crowd how they can literally “shake their booties;” and Bruce throwing in a few “dream baby dreams” within an increasingly breathtaking “Drive All Night.”
Besides giving the band ample opportunities to shine, the songs on The River also call for the most audience participation out of all of his records, which brings us back to the community-building nature of the album. Perhaps partially because they knew exactly what songs to prepare for going into the show, the Toronto crowd was by far the most engaged and VOCAL of the tour. The River is stuffed to the gills with sing/chant-alongs, and Toronto – unlike crowds in New York and New Jersey who seemed to sit back and wait for Bruce to impress them – was exceedingly eager to show Bruce how impressed they were with his performance by singing LOUDLY throughout, even garnering a stated “A+!” grade from Bruce after the “Hungry Heart” sing-along.
Could Bruce appease the die-hards by throwing in more rarities in the post-River part of the shows? Of course…but I think it’s very telling that he continues – ESPECIALLY last night – to play songs that are so conducive to mass audience participation. Last night’s oft-played yet still absurdly strong selection of songs – “The Promised Land,” “She’s the One,” “Candy’s Room,” and “Because the Night” – combined with the tried and true run from “The Rising” through “Shout” all demand and were greeted with rapturous participation from the 20,000 fans in attendance. Having perfected his ability to make everyone in the house feel included in the show through such means as constantly playing to those sitting behind him, and doing his infamous glances and gestures that make multiple people think he’s looking right at them, Bruce creates a unified E Street community within the arena every single night, none stronger than what was felt in the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday.
One final unique aspect to mention about The River, and it may actually be the most important: Jake. During Bruce’s intros to songs like “Independence Day” and “I Wanna Marry You,” he talks about the differences in perspective between the young and the old. Knowing he’s closer to the end than the beginning, Bruce is clearly looking back at this career with these shows, and Jake’s role in playing the album perfectly embodies Bruce’s intended relationship between the past, present, and future. No album showcases the sax like The River, and Jake doesn’t so much step into his uncle’s shoes as resize them to fit his equally large yet unique feet. Similar to how Jake’s not occupying the same space onstage that Clarence once did yet he’s still playing the same parts of songs, this godsend of a nephew is bringing his own brand of Big Man Power every night. Bruce understands that letting Jake loose in his own way while still staying faithful to his uncle’s work perfectly encapsulates how the act of repeatedly revisiting the past can help all of us look at and understand that past in a new way, thereby allowing it not only to come alive today but also assume subtle new shapes and forms for years to come.
Seeing young Jake up there playing the heck out of these old songs should remind us all that Bruce’s music is attaining that most elusive and esteemed of qualities: timelessness. Jake’s youthfulness is finally starting to be reflected in the makeup of the audience, particularly last night in Toronto. Though Bruce’s music has long predominantly belonged to his contemporaries in the crowd, the increasing number of young people rocking out in Toronto makes me believe that Bruce’s music will very soon belong to the next generation – and you don’t hear any of them griping about the similar setlists; they’re too busy reveling in the opportunity to see this 66-year old rocker and his 40ish-year-old band play these classic songs a few more times before they fade away. Their passion for the music – regardless of how many times the songs may have been played on this and other recent tours – should remind those setlist nitpickers of a certain lyric from a song thankfully re-inserted into recent shows: “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” during the end of the reign of the E Street Band. Furthermore, the fact that more of these young’uns are showing up to party proves that instead of fading away, Bruce, the band, their music, and everything we’ve known for the last 40 years will NOT just be swept away. Instead, it will be memories of shows like Toronto’s that will ensure that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band truly become timeless.
And perhaps that’s why Bruce has decided to play The River and other similar songs every night at this juncture in his career. As he explains near the end of the album performance, the subtext of The River is truly about time, and how limited it is for us all. Bruce knows he’s nearing the end of his time, so it’s only right that he’s decided to play an album every night that tried to encapsulate EVERYTHING that his music had, has, and perhaps most importantly, will always have to offer. Throughout his career, the Boss has been intensely aware that the best way to convey realistic, human progress is by delving into the monotonous minutiae of his characters’ daily lives, for it is only through exploring the apparent similarities of human existence that you really become aware of our beautifully yet subtly differentiated individuality. In much the same way, the apparent similarities between the shows on this tour should not be greeted with scorn but with careful consideration of the small yet meaningful differences between them.
In the same way that the lights remaining on during “Meet Me in the City” calls to mind the inevitability of the lights coming back on when “Born to Run” is inevitably played – which allows everyone to think about just how much feels different in the same building amongst the same crowd after those three hours – the inevitability of these setlists reflects the inevitability that one day there will be no more new songs to play when Bruce and the band hang up their guitars for good. When that day comes, we will only be able to rely on our own personal reconsiderations of his same ol’ tunes to find new meaning in his old songs. Instead of taking the easy route, Bruce is in fact once again challenging his audiences to pay more attention to what he’s doing so that he can help them learn while he’s still around how his music will be able to transcend his own limited time. Though the music may sound the same every night, those who know to look at it the right way can realize just how much has changed, is changing nightly, and will continue to change for many years to come.
In this way, The River Tour has become a marvel of juxtaposition, between the performances of the same songs both on and after the album night after night, between people in the audience every night when the lights come on, between crowds at different arenas, both now and in the past, across time from today back to then and thereby into the unknown future. We as the E Street Nation need to appreciate while we still can these fantastic shows highlighting the best of Bruce’s live music that has bound us ALL into one unified community across both spatial and temporal distance. From those seeing their first show to those seeing their 500th show, from arena to arena, from nation to nation, from the young to the old, from now to 40 years ago to 40 years from now, The River Tour shows are becoming increasingly important times that bind.
 The band played less than 30 seconds of it.
 Self-consciousness is quite heightened without the added adrenaline – and drunken beer – of a three-hour concert behind you.
 Speaking of which, Bruce’s subsequent crowd-surfing has become an essential step in bridging the communal gap between Bruce and the crowd.
 Goodbye to the aforementioned self-consciousness!
 Including the 89-year old woman who got a birthday dance with Bruce during “Dancing in the Dark.”
- 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
- The Price You Pay
- Drive All Night
- Wreck on the Highway
- The Promised Land
- She’s the One
- Candy’s Room
- Because the Night
- Brilliant Disguise
- The Rising
- Thunder Road
- Born to Run
- Dancing in the Dark
- Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)