On the final night of the (first?) American leg of this River Tour 2016 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Bruce announced that he and the Band had decided against playing the full album at every show of their upcoming swing around the European continent. This news was greeted with excitement (“Yay! More setlist variety!”), disappointment (some European fans: “Wait! I want to see The River performed in full! Not fair…”), and self-hatred (me: “Crap! There go all of the pieces I was in the middle of writing that were based on the setlist structure built around the nightly full album performance). Since I’m planning to write recaps of all of the shows that I attend in Europe, I was originally saving a few of my thoughts inspired by the aforementioned setlist structure for various European shows that may have featured more of the same old setlist choices. But since it appears as if static setlists could be a phenomenon of the past for this tour – and since I want to keep my European recaps show-specific rather than tour-specific – a lot of these thoughts have sadly reached their expiration dates.
Yet instead of just throwing them by the wayside of my documents folder, I thought I’d share some of my favorite ones here before the European tour gets underway later this week. Check back here for my recaps of a majority of the European shows, beginning with the first show where I’ll be reporting from the land of paella, Gaudi, and crazy Bruce fanatics, otherwise known as Barcelona.
Buuuuuuuut I’m getting ahead of myself; as long as I’m still on the left side of the Atlantic, I’ll be focusing on what few remaining ideas I want to share regarding the North American River Tour that was, beginning with:
Whenever any particularly disgruntled fan would complain to me about the lack of setlist diversity, I would note that those lucky enough to see multiple shows on this tour – which was true basically for everyone who ever voiced such a grievance – were afforded an opportunity to appreciate just how much focus Bruce, the Band, and their production team paid to communicating the themes that run throughout the album, which Bruce specified when introducing The River every night: community-building and time. Perhaps not since the Tunnel of Love Express Tour had they been so concerned with making sure that every aspect of their concerts contributed to the clear ideas and messages that Bruce was trying to convey with these shows.
I and many other people have shared their insights on how these various aspects connect to the two predominant themes that Bruce stated he was exploring by playing The River, but not enough attention was devoted to the absolutely breathtaking and meaningful lighting design. Since the lighting team knew the first 21 songs that were going to be played every night, they found so many creative and subtle ways to further emphasize the stories and ideas contained in the songs, and how each connects to the aforementioned themes explored throughout the album. Beginning with keeping the lights on to reinforce the community-gathering focus of “Meet Me in the City,” the lighting design – which was the same every night for every song on the album – both contributed to and deepened the thematic story that Bruce and Band were telling by playing The River every night. It brilliantly evoked the emotional dreamscapes found on the album in such a way that increased the degree to which the songs could emotionally and intellectually resonate with the crowd, whether consciously or subconsciously on the part of audience members.
I know this may sound confusingly abstract, which is why I think exploring my personal favorite example may help clarify what I’m talking about here. “Stolen Car” is a song that I never fully appreciated until Bruce ‘forced’ me to re-examine it every night, and the lighting design really enriched my thoughts on what I now consider to be one of Bruce’s many masterpieces.
The nightly performance of the song began with a spotlight on Bruce, a faint light on Roy, and the rest of the stage shrouded in complete darkness. This initial lighting design perfectly evoked the set-up of the song before Bruce explicitly explains these details in the chorus: it’s about a man (signified by Bruce’s spotlight) who feels alone in life except for his car (signified by the accompanying light on Roy’s piano and the music coming out of it) and his story (told through Bruce’s lyrics) as he drives solitary through the dead of night (signified by the rest of the stage covered in darkness). The lighting didn’t change through the first two verses of the song, which are entirely comprised of the lead character sharing the story of the history of his failing relationship – specifically how he ended up spending his nights literally driving around alone, which figuratively captures how he now feels so distant from his life that it doesn’t even seem like his own anymore:
“I met a little girl and I settled down
In a little house out on the edge of town
We got married, and swore we’d never part
Then little by little we drifted from each other’s heart
At first I thought it was just restlessness
That would fade as time went by and our love grew deep
In the end it was something more I guess
That tore us apart and made us weep…”
The phrase “in the end” conveys the fact that the lead character has caught us up with his story. In a way, he’s shined a light on his life, and fittingly, the rest of the stage lights slowly came up after this verse, leading into the chorus:
“And I’m driving a stolen car
Down on Eldridge Avenue
Each night I wait to get caught
But I never do…”
Yet the stage lights did not come up on an empty stage; instead, they allowed the crowd to see the rest of the E Street Band, who finally begin to contribute to the song by adding vocal harmonies under the chorus. The lights illuminating other members of the Band and their accompanying choral voices emphasize the very important concept of community that Bruce introduces in the chorus.
The first two verses are solely focused on two people: the lead character and his wife, specifically how their relationship has developed over the years. Young people in the honeymoon phase of their lives together tend to believe that relationships only involve two people – ‘me and you’ – but the type of relationship maturity that can only be achieved over time reveals that other people inevitably influence relationships as well. Your environment – specifically the community of people that you and your love find yourself in – will inherently play a role in the development of your relationship.
In “Stolen Car,” the first two verses represent the aforementioned ‘honeymoon phase,’ the time during which young lovers believe they’re the only two people in the world, thus the reason Bruce only mentions the two of them. The aforementioned initial lighting design that only illuminates Roy and Bruce also conveys this idea; it begins with only two lights, each potentially symbolizing the only two members of a relationship that seem important at first. These lovers fit comfortably into the classic Romeo and Juliet archetype: two people who believe they can live happily ever after away from other, lesser lovers, which is why Bruce specifies they settle down “on the edge of town.”
But once time forces maturity onto them, they realize that their love may not be as uniquely eternal as they initially believed. Even though they “swore we’d never part,” they’re ‘torn apart’ simply as “time went by.” They begin to feel “restlessness” out on the edge of town, and when someone finds unhappiness in the person they’ve isolated themselves with, the most obvious recourse is to find solace in the company of others.
And those others were represented on stage by the lights coming up on the other members of the E Street Band for the chorus. In the chorus, “Eldridge Avenue” introduces the first public, communal place that’s separate from the private places of romance described in the first two verses. After being torn apart from his love back at home, this lead character is driving around his community at night yearning to make a meaningful connection with another soul. As such, the lighting changes from focusing on two members of the Band to illuminating the rest of the Band surrounding them.
Though many have long believed the song describes a man cheating on his wife – with the “stolen car” symbolizing the affair that “waits to get caught” – I don’t think this interpretation and my interpretation are oppositional. In my view, the lead character’s life has started to feel like a stolen car, something that’s in his possession but no longer belongs to him. He feels distant from his life, and he’s trying to reconnect with it through connecting with another person again.
One example of such a connection could come in the form of an affair, but saying the song is simply about cheating feels too reductive. The song is about the human need to feel connected to your life through connecting with the people around you, be it with your wife, another person – either platonically or romantically – or even your entire community. The lead character wants to get “caught” up in a new connection like the one he once had with his wife, a connection that was represented onstage by the initial spotlights on Roy and Bruce connecting in the air above them. These lights emanated from the same connective place, and spotlights of course look like tunnels, which have long been used as images to symbolize connecting one thing to another. When the lead character loses that connection and begins to search for a replacement by driving through his community down on “Eldridge Avenue,” the connective spotlights dissipate as the full stage lights rise.
Yet this light shift can also be interpreted in another, more positive way. When introducing The River every night, Bruce explained that the album was his attempt to connect to the communal world around him. He viewed his past albums as “outsider records” written by a young, lonely man who really only knew the small New Jersey world around him, far removed from the worlds of all the listeners he wanted his music to speak to. He knew one of the few things that all of these worlds included were relationships. Since he had never experienced such relationships in his own life more than simply observing them from afar, he believed trying to write about these relationships would get him one step closer to forging them in his own life.
In a way, Bruce was like the lead character in “Stolen Car.” Before The River, he had nothing but himself and his music, symbolized by the spotlights on Bruce and the music coming out of Roy’s piano. He had “settled down in a little house out on the edge of town” on the societal edge of this country in New Jersey, where he was making outsider records, the one preceding The River being titled, yes, Darkness on the Edge of Town. But since he was no longer satisfied with the degree to which these albums connected to the world, Bruce went looking for a deeper connection with communities all across the globe with The River. And who helped him achieve this goal? The E Street Band, whose members became visible as the solitary spotlights gave way to the communal lights that greeted the chorus of “Stolen Car.” They went from playing small clubs on the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour to playing massive arenas all around the world on the original River Tour, which was their first real international tour.
You may be thinking that my last two interpretations of the lighting switch from spotlights to full stage lights contradict each other since the first posits that spotlights symbolize connection with another person while the second opines that spotlights represent isolation from the world around Bruce. Yet Bruce’s music is all about breaking down the false dichotomies that many people use as frameworks through which to view their lives in an attempt to ignore life’s ambiguous complexities.
Most people want to think about life in black and white terms because it allows them to impose an easy order on the chaos inherent to life; something can only be one thing in their eyes – it’s either good or it’s bad, for instance. But Bruce understands that life is in actuality much more grey than that, with almost everything in life containing infinite complexity based on the number of different ways it can be perceived and interpreted by others. Dichotomies are often much more interrelated than people realize because nothing in life is ever one thing or another; everything contains multiplicity of meaning. Though an extremely mundane example, his lighting design choices do not just have one explanation – much like how he writes his songs, they’re vague enough to be universally interpreted by different people, but specific enough to actually resonate with individuals. Understanding this complex nuance only comes with time, which is actually what the next and final verse of “Stolen Car” is about:
“She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old.”
Before this verse, the song had established a clear distinction between the private realm of the lovers reserved for the first two verses and the public realm of the chorus. Yet as the lead character is driving through this second realm trying to form another connection with someone else, he finds himself unable to retain his focus on the task at hand and instead keeps thinking about his wife. When he was younger, he believed that their private life could exist apart from the public life of community, which the song reflects by separating these two ideas between the first two verses for the former and the chorus for the latter. Put another way, he had established a dichotomy for himself between their private, romantic life and a public, communal life, a dichotomy that the initial structure of the song reflects. Yet with the passage of time, people hopefully come to understand that such dichotomies are comfort fallacies, which is why the song mixes them here in a verse that’s so clearly about time.
This verse also breaks down the dichotomy of time previously established in the song. The first two verses appear to be about the past, with the lead character telling the listener about the history of his marriage. These verses even utilize the past tense, which only changes to the present tense after he’s seemingly finished with his story and switches to describing his present condition of driving through his community in the chorus. Though we live through time chronologically, we do not experience time in the same way; our memories allow us to jump through time freely. As such, the dichotomy of time between past and present is yet another comfort fallacy. The lead character of “Stolen Car” at first tries to communicate his story chronologically, but he’s drawn back in time to other memories based solely on the free wanderings of his mind. And now, time is even more convoluted, with quick leaps from “last night” to “one hundred years old.”
The lighting design for this entire verse was predominantly composed of blue and purple, two colors that have historically been artistically used to communicate the nuanced complexities not of community and time but of sadness and love, respectively. For instance: blue is commonly associated with sadness, but at the same time people often use the term ‘blue horizons’ to describe a hopeful future NOT full of sadness. Life is full of interrelated dichotomies, and the lighting design for this verse attempted to reinforce the importance of this concept to “Stolen Car,” which at this point in the song returns to the final chorus:
“And I’m driving a stolen car
On a pitch black night
And I’m telling myself I’m gonna be alright
But I ride by night and I travel in fear
That in this darkness I will disappear.”
And here we are back to the chorus, but it doesn’t look exactly the same. The first time we passed through the chorus, the lead character was hoping to find a connection with someone else in his community. But now that his search has only led him to other memories that call to mind just how far away he is from his days of feeling such a connection, he’s changed his tune, pun intended. Though the first line is the same, Bruce replaces the public-signifying “Down on Eldridge Avenue” in the second line with “On a pitch black night.” Whereas at first he was focusing on his hope of finding a connection out in the street, now he’s focusing on his fear that his life will simply fade into an oblivion of connectionless meaninglessness. As Bruce puts in the final lines of the song: “I travel in fear / That in this darkness I will disappear.”
Since concert lighting design choices usually mimic the lyrics of the song being played, one would expect that the lights would “disappear” upon this line being sung, much like they did earlier for the line, “…and it’s one false move and baby the lights go out” in “Point Blank.” Yet instead of abiding by the meaning of these specific lyrics, the lighting design here reflected the ultimate meaning of the overall song. Yes, the lead character fears that his life will simply fade out into the night, but the continuation of the music and the lights remaining on after this line speak to the fact that Bruce does not believe this fear comes to fruition. Instead, the character’s courage in sharing his story – and Bruce subsequently relaying it to his listening – ensure that his life will be remembered instead of just fading away.
In a way, the song can be likened to driving by a person in the middle of the night whose face you only glimpse as your headlights briefly illuminate the interior of their car. Without knowing their story, you will almost surely forget their face almost as quickly as you saw it. But since Bruce’s music has always tried to immortalize the lives of normal mortals, his art allows people to remember these lives long after their headlights pass you in the night and long after you finish listening to this relatively brief song. Though we may only spend a few minutes in the company of these characters, we’ll remember them for much longer than that thanks to Bruce’s music. As such, the lights do not “disappear” at the end of the chorus; instead, they remain on for the remainder of the instrumental coda, conveying the fact that this character’s story will linger in our psyches after the song itself “disappears.”
Since “Stolen Car” is by no means the final song on The River, this is not the final message that the album and thus lighting design have to convey to the audience. During the final chorus of “Stolen Car,” faint yellow streaks of light began to be barely visible mixed in with the aforementioned purple. These streaks initially seemed to symbolize the rising sun that would inevitably greet the lead character at the end of the night as he drove his “Stolen Car” around, perhaps also symbolizing the hopeful eternity his story may have achieved in this song. Yet when the next song started, these purple and yellow colors were once again used in the lighting design to signify them twinkling “city lights” in “Ramrod.” Though it may sound like a party song that feels out of place amongst all of the sad, slow ballads at the end of The River, Bruce has often labeled the song as one of the most tragic of his career. The repetition of these purple and yellow lights from “Stolen Car” into “Ramrod” captures the thematic story being developed from one song to the next across the entire album.
In this instance, the driver of “Stolen Car” may have decided to leave his wife behind entirely, opting instead for a life out in the street trying to find a connection through his “ramroddin’” ways. Though that may sound like a fun alternative, a life consisting of only the type of superficial connections that come with “ramroddin’ forever more” may be even sadder than a life spent trying to forge real connections by driving around alone at night. Yes, the twinkling purple and yellow may look a lot more jovial, but perhaps a life full of the ruminating purple and hopeful yellow streaks of “Stolen Car” may prove more meaningful.
My original plan for this piece was to track the lighting design from “The Ties That Bind” through “Wreck on the Highway” to explore how the lights told and deepened the story of The River, but I hope using “Stolen Car” and a little of “Ramrod” provided a clear example of just how many layers of meaning there were to unpack in the nightly performance of the album at every show of the tour.
 An idea that takes on added resonance when the song is performed at a concert, because isn’t that one of the aspects of a Bruce show that makes them so special: the connection that the fans feel both with Bruce and with their fellow fans around them? One of the many reasons I sincerely hope that “Stolen Car” makes the setlist jump to Europe…