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SPRINGSTEEN AT THE SPORTS ARENA: "RIVER" NIGHT 2
3/18/16

By Phil Gallo

Falling on St. Patrick’s Day, the second of Bruce Springsteen’s three nights at the L.A. Sports Arena got an Irish twist with “Death to My Hometown” and “American Land,” went an exhausting three-and-a-half hours without  a break and, through the inclusion of four Born to Run songs, amplified the game-changing nature of the night’s centerpiece, The River.

As anyone who cares about rock & roll can tell you, Springsteen has been performing The River, his sprawling two-LP set from 1980, front to back, since mid-January in support of the November release The Ties That Bind: The River Collection box set. (The U.S. leg wraps 4/23 and 4/25 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center).

During intros to slower songs throughout the magnificent performance from Bruce and the nine-piece E Street Band, Springsteen explained his evolution and intent in writing the album’s 20 songs: Most significantly, he was looking for a way to look inward and by chronicling work, family and commitment, perhaps those things would enter his life as well. “Independence Day,” he says, is the first song he ever wrote about fathers and sons, about the moment a child comes to understand their parents’ humanity; “I Wanna Marry You” is “a song of youth and imagining” how love works; the title track was about “time, time slipping away.”

By the time he wrapped The River portion of the night, which included epically drawn-out renditions of “Point Blank” and “Drive All Night,” the album felt all the more poignant and relevant, especially for the crowd of fans who grew up with the record on vinyl and 8-track, celebrating its mixture of hedonism and desperation that felt more mature and immediate that his previous four albums. 

Written at a time of transition for American cities and workplaces, a redefined political spectrum and the genesis of the boom in disparity between haves and have nots, The River  feels wholly relevant to our current day; the celebrants in his uptempo rockers—from the outtake that kicks off the show, “Meet Me in the City,” to “I’m a Rocker,” “Ramrod” and “Two Hearts”—provide a release from the struggles of everyday life, a hope that the party never ends, and that simple pleasures are sufficient in a successful life. The ballads provide the flip side, tackling the stories of youngsters  trapped by poor decisions, fate and unforeseen circumstances. Dead ends, basically.

The Born to Run songs The Boss performed—“Thunder Road,” “Backstreets,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and the title track—offered a dramatic contrast. Released five years prior to The River, the classic set chronicled kids who saw opportunity and a chance to escape—they stood on the precipice of change. But the cars that represented freedom in 1975 became the wrecks parked in the junkyard in ’80.  

Not that any artist ever thinks about re-creating an album live, but The River  is a perfect platform for Springsteen at the age of 66. On its own, the record has the dynamics of a typical Springsteen set list, he gets moments to rest his voice and body, talk-singing here and there, often for heightened dramatic effect and gets to tell an overall story, as well. It’s not just of his characters, but of the rock & roll of his youth that were distilled into this vision. The roots are more prominent in the live versions—the Motown rhythm of “Hungry Heart” and “Two Hearts,”  the Memphis-in-the-‘50s drive of “I’m a Rocker,” the Brill Building soulful eloquence of “I Wanna Marry You,” the hints of New Orleans in “Ramrod” and late-‘70s Warren Zevon tilt in “Drive All Night.”

The history lesson continues one more night in L.A., 3/19, and then the wrecking ball brings an end to the dump Springsteen has called home in Southern California for as long as The River has been around.