A slightly edited version of this post originally appeared on Backstreets.com, which you can read here.
Two types of fans predominantly populate your average Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert. The first group are the normal folks who only see the Band when they visit their hometown and love the performance regardless of the – unbeknownst to them – static setlists. The second group are the rest of us, those who basically stalk a geriatric band of rockers around the world to note and thus enjoy even the smallest changes between shows. As the (first?) North American leg of The River Tour 2016 enters its homestretch with only a week’s worth of shows remaining before hopping the pond for the summer, Bruce’s rambunctious stop at State College’s Bryce Jordan Center was a concert mostly filled with, played for, and appreciated by the aforementioned first group, dominated this evening by an inordinate number of exceedingly enthusiastic local university students. Though the second group of fans may have been dismayed at only the same old songs being played for the most part, the show and the crowd provided enough purified rock and roll juice to satiate even the snobbiest of audience members.
Though this tour has previously ventured to a few college campuses – St. Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena and USC’s L.A. Memorial Sports Arena, to name just two – none of these concerts can lay as much claim to being a true college show as University Park. The arena is quite literally in the heart of Penn State’s campus, which created a humorously novel pre-show sight of backpack-toting college students walking past your typical middle-aged E Street Nation lifers lining up for the lottery. Yet a plethora of Lions also lined up (sans backpacks), and they sure made their energetic presence felt throughout the show (which was sans Patti), beginning very early with an elongated ovation after “Meet Me in the City” that ungrudgingly forced Bruce to take a few extra beats before introducing The River. His response: “THAT’S my kind of crowd.”
And thus started the love affair between Bruce and the vivaciously youthful crowd that lasted the duration of the nearly three-hour and thirty-minute concert, during which time a shocking lack of asses were planted in seats in favor of properly rocking. Bruce had a blast with the kids all night long, from pointing out a group of bros wearing Born in the U.S.A. American flag bandanas who were losing their minds in the back of the pit, to a group of bros not wearing any T-shirts who were similarly losing their minds way up in the rafters behind the stage. Lest you think he ignored the young female members of the crowd, he granted a “Dancing in the Dark” sign request that read, “20 years old. 20 E Street shows. Dance with me?” Though she was in hostile territory given her Indiana University hat, no one could be too upset with her – she was in fact also the person who brought the “I Wanna Be With You” sign to Columbus. Not a bad week for the Hoosier…
Above all, they were a VOCAL audience, resulting in perhaps the loudest and most in unison sing-along of the first verse of “Hungry Heart” heard on this tour. Bruce actually switched up his usual introduction to the song, replacing his insightful, “Here’s another song about leaving home” with more of a call-to-arms-to-party: “State College, are you hungryyyyyyy?!” Though at first seeming like a mere innocuous change, this switcheroo in fact subtly foreshadowed the type of concert we were about to witness. Instead of giving the type of soulful, introspective performance where revealing such a thematic connection between “Independence Day” and “Hungry Heart” would feel natural, Bruce – perhaps aware of the unique collegiate makeup of his audience – opted to create a more youth-oriented rock-and-roll house party vibe. Rather than posing his usual, relationship-focused, “Any lovers out there?” query before “I Wanna Marry You,” he changed it to, “Is there any love out there? Let me feel the love…feels good!”
The crowd’s raucous response to such E Street staples as “Out in the Street” only reaffirmed Bruce’s more mainstream approach to the concert; he took a noticeable moment before “Crush On You” to look around the arena to appreciate the vocal participation that had just showered down upon the Band. Even though it’s been a nightly highlight on this tour, the fact that “Crush On You” was greeted with a relatively tepid reaction from the crowd was the first indicator that this wouldn’t be a night for deep cuts. The audience was sufficiently respectful during the side three and four ballads, but it definitely sounded like a majority were waiting to revel in Bruce’s ‘greatest hits.’
And once The River came to its hauntingly beautiful conclusion, even though the second group may have been intrigued by the full band setlist powwow that Bruce immediately and briefly held, he ended up giving the crowd exactly what they wanted: his greatest hits, with 10 of the 12 non-River songs played having appeared on his more comprehensive greatest hits album The Essential Bruce Springsteen. After some of the more obscure tunes on The River, the crowd seemed to love finally recognizing every song: “Badlands” saw the audience maintaining the iconic chant throughout the final breakdown, saving Bruce from having to do his customary call for it; “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man…” in “The Promised Land” particularly resonated amongst a crowd full of man-boys, otherwise known as your common college student; and even though some in the second group have bemoaned “Because the Night” being played so much recently, this repetition has turned the song into a nightly dose of pure rock and roll ecstasy that’s basically received by the crowd like a greatest hit.
For the first time on the tour, perhaps Bruce’s greatest modern hit – “The Rising” – was not followed by one of the greatest hits of them all, “Thunder Road.” Instead, Bruce referred to “the biggest sign of the tour,” which was a collection of 10 individual, neon green, human-sized letters spelling out J-U-N-G-L-E-L-A-N-D held by 10 different people in the pit. Amusingly, being respectful members of the crowd, they had put away the letters by this point in the show. Though Bruce gave them a few seconds to scramble the sign back in order, he launched into yet another of his greatest hits before they had time to do so. A soaring performance of this masterpiece included a deafeningly loud, “dooooown iiiiiiin juuuuuuuunglelaaaaaand” that rivaled the decibel levels that were greeted to the song’s tour premiere back in Philadelphia.
Speaking of which, I’d be remiss not to note that the the overwhelming ovations from the crowd throughout the night were probably due to a combination of both the Lions AND the Brotherly Love travelers in attendance, many of whom are undoubtedly card carrying members of the second group. The highlight of their night was probably “Born in the U.S.A,” which is still somewhat of a rarity on this tour even though it’s now opened the encores at three consecutive shows. Even so, it felt like a true audible tonight, with Bruce looking like he was going to start “Born to Run” right before he called out the change in honor of the aforementioned bandana-clad bros in the pit.
Though some second groupers feel the song is a sell-out, it’s undeniably an absolutely fiery way to light the initial encores fuse. From the instantly-recognizable opening synth chords to Max’s ferocious final drum solo that captures the intensity of the song’s righteous fury, the crowd basically blows the roof off the place throughout. Combined with “Born to Run,” they’re an explosive 1-2 punch that clearly communicates to the audience we’ve hit the homestretch.
Though most second groupers probably expected a few more surprises now that the North American leg of the tour has also hit its homestretch – true story: there hasn’t been a tour premiere since MSG’s rescheduled concert way back in March – this show was clearly not about that group. Since Bruce gets very few opportunities to play to such a large number of students on an actual college campus, he clearly reverted to this tour’s customary setlist to appease the unique demographic of the crowd. In addition to being wholly successful in this regard, the reaction from the students in turn inspired Bruce to switch up his nightly renditions of a lot of the songs, which the second groupers hopefully appreciated. Most memorably, at the end of “Ramrod,” Bruce literally lied down with his guitar on top of the speaker in front of Max’s drum set. Noticing the rear camera pointing directly at him mere inches away from his face, he began mugging it up – just look at how much fun he’s having here:
Another performance change came in “Fade Away,” which may actually best symbolically represent the night. Similar to the “Drive All Night” cell-phone fireflies and “The Price You Pay” chant-along, Bruce continues to find ways to let the audience shape these concerts by integrating special, organic moments that occur on a random night into his future nightly performances. This time, the call-and-response that Bruce and some crowds have flirted with at the end of “Fade Away” – Bruce: “I don’t wannaaaaa…,” crowd: “faaaaaade away” – was finally allowed full-throated glory. As he has repeatedly on this tour, Bruce not only paid special attention to the younger members of his audience but he actually seemed to be further ignited by their participation, perhaps because he knows they’ll be the ones responsible for not letting his music fade away for generations to come…
Similarly, after Bruce dedicated the final go-around of “Shout” to the aforementioned shirtless bros in the rafters – “One more time for these guys with their shirts off back here” – he busted out his nightly weird square jiggy thing where he raises his guitar and does a little walk-in-place shuffle while constantly rotating to face the four corners of the arena. Yet in State College, Mr. Jake Clemons – who the crowd absolutely adored all night, probably because they can best relate to the youngest member of the Band – switched it up by joining in on Bruce’s little dance. When the Boss realized he had a new partner in crime, he absolutely cracked up and beamed the biggest smile, prompting him to further emphasize his…flamboyant moves that much more.
This increasing reciprocity of energy between the youthful Jake and not-so-youthful Bruce perfectly encapsulated the relationship between Bruce and Penn State all night long. Though it may have appeared to the second groupers like it was the same old show on paper – which will hopefully change in Baltimore and Brooklyn since they’re basically returning to markets already played on this tour – the inexhaustible energy overflowing out of Bryce Jordan Center really made it a special evening. As Bruce exclaimed at the end of the show, “Wow – what a great audience. We loved every minute of it.”
As always, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves…
 Sorry aforementioned second group: an apropos “Lion’s Den” did not rear its regal head.
 The other two – “Because the Night” and “Shout” – weren’t even eligible because they hadn’t yet appeared on an official studio album when Essential was released.
 Perhaps warming it up for Europe, where it seems to be played a heck of a lot more
 Maybe we can call it the ‘born’ double pack…or, the ‘only-two-Bruce-songs-most-kids-on-campus-not-in-the-arena-could-name’ pack.
 Especially during “Jungleland.”
- 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
- Prove It All Night
- My Love Will Not Let You Down
- Because the Night
- The Rising
- Thunder Road
- Born to Run
- Dancing in the Dark
- Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
- Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out