A tidal wave of rock. A tsunami of sound. Metaphors seem inadequate to describe the rock and roll assault Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band led off their February 8, 2016 Albany show with. Beginning with an outtake from the original album titled “Meet Me in the City,” Bruce and his band barely stopped playing for the next twenty or so minutes. Even when there was a pause it was just enough for Bruce to trade guitars with a crew member at the back of the stage. The band’s current tour is called “The River Tour” and features every song from that 1980 album plus another ninety minutes or so of more Springsteen and classic rock tunes. As he has at every stop on the tour, Bruce prefaced the show by telling the audience what was on his mind when he wrote the songs on The River; life changes, wondering what made people make and drop the commitments they made to each other, and the emotions we experience in those relationships between parent and child, amongst siblings and between lovers and friends. Then the band ripped into the aforementioned torrent of rock. After this energetic romp, Springsteen quieted down the crowd with one of his most heart-wrenching ballads, “Independence Day.” This song unleashes such a sense of loss and matter-of-fact regret I still find it hard to listen to without tears welling in the corners of my eyes.
I got into Albany, NY early Monday afternoon. The Springsteen and E Street Band show was scheduled for the evening. My bus ride from Burlington, Vermont was uneventful. Very little snow was on most of the mountains the bus drove through. I had a couple hours to kill before I could check into my room at the motel so I decided to walk and ride buses around the city.
Albany is a classic US city. At one time economically stable with decent unionized jobs, it seems to now be at best divided between working people of fewer and fewer means and the moneyed class that feeds and feeds off the state and county bureaucracies located in the town. There are still office buildings housing union bureaucracies but organized labor is not the power it was when Albany was an industrial and shipping hub. From what I could tell, this means some residential parts of town feature blocks full of boarded up row houses and signs stating the properties are now owned by banks or a public private mortgage trust. In other words, gentrification probably is close at hand. One expects the owners of these properties see dollar signs, not people. Other residential sections seem to be doing just fine. However, in every section of the city I rode or walked around in, I saw no supermarkets and very few bank branches. However, several large banks had buildings downtown. Everywhere else, the only ATMs were those little portable ones. This means fee-less cash withdrawals are not convenient for most residents.
I’ve always thought the Bruce Springsteen album titled The River was one of his most depressing. Although the songs are mostly about personal relationships, they echo with heartbreak and sadness. When the album came out in 1980 I found it emotionally difficult to listen to, in part because it was about such relationships. Springsteen started chronicling this aspect of life on his previous album Darkness on the Edge of Town. Many of the songs thereon were also about the compromises Jackson Browne sang in “The Pretender” came with “the resignation that living brings.” If one considers Springsteen’s work through this prism, virtually every album after Born to Run—which still held out for some hope for escape—includes songs about that resignation.
The River, though, is full of stories about events that happen to most people as they age no matter who they are. This is the album’s beauty. Its songs spoke to my hardworking and already married brother and me, a hitchhiking rambler who worked only if absolutely necessary. We both related to the emotional content of songs like “Independence Day” and “The River.” Furthermore, the desire for freedom expressed in songs like “Hungry Heart” (Got a wife and kids in Baltimore Jack/I went out for a ride and never went back) and “Out in the Street” was present in our souls even as our actions in life and love determined our future. Albany has always seemed to me to be a town where lives like those in Springsteen’s USA are lived. You know, working overtime lives, married and divorced loves, lives of frustration and of joy, sorrow and love.
Bruce and the band played for over three and a half hours. After finishing up with the song list from The River with the song “Wreck on the Highway,” the band took a quick breath and broke into the tune that leads off the album just prior to The River. That song, titled “Badlands,” is an anthem of survival from Darkness on the Edge of Town. Next up was “Backstreets,” a song about love, lust and boredom from Born to Run. The show continued in this fashion, with the band blasting out the hits, the crowd dancing and shouting, and Bruce all the time with a huge smile on his face. Every song is an anthem for the audience at a Springsteen show, so the crowd sings along, occasionally drowning out the vocals onstage.
Bruce was quite animated the entire show, working the crowd like Elvis and interacting with other band members, especially Stevie van Zandt. Between Bruce and Stevie mugging at their shared microphone, Bruce sharing leads with Nils Lofgren, Max Weinberg mouthing the lyrics to every song while he played the drums and Bruce dancing with audience members, the show was truly a celebration. From the very first time I saw Bruce fall to his knees onstage at DAR Constitution Hall in March 1975 during a version of his romantic opus from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, “Incident on 57th Street,” I have always known that Springsteen was a showman. The show I attended in 2016 proved to me that he still is.