Bruce Springsteen was 31 when he released “The River,” an ambitious double-album of songs about growing up, buckling in and holding on. He was 66 Tuesday night when he stepped onstage at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. What happened to the intervening 35 years was at once of central and no concern during the more than three hours that followed.
In an athletic performance that saw him sweating through a gray T-shirt, black vest, 33 songs and a fair number of guitars, Springsteen devoted most of his energy to "The River," which he and the indefatigable E Street Band are playing in its entirety on their current tour. The album, Springsteen told a packed, responsive audience at the 20,000-capacity venue, is his “coming-of-age record,” the first to consider adulthood from the inside, an attempt to trade speculation for realization, imagination for empathy and rebellion for acceptance.
“By the time I got to ‘The River,’ I knew some things,” Springsteen said, rattling off a list that included work, commitment, faith, sex and lonely nights. “I figured if I could make a record big enough, I could edge a little closer to the answers I was looking for.”
Opening the show with “Meet Me in the City,” an outtake included on the recently issued box set “The Ties That Bind: The River Collection,” Springsteen wasted no time in assuring the audience that this would not be a one-sided nostalgia trip, holding the microphone out for them to sing lead on a song that until last year had never been officially released. More than a few people obliged.
Springsteen then moved right into “The River” proper, performing the songs in the order in which they appear on the album, though he showed little intention of simply duplicating them. As with their author, the songs have proved resistant to age and declension, drawing power from acute narratives in which characters rise up to meet life’s biggest challenges — marriage, family, responsibility — all while understanding that winning can sometimes feel like losing and how the things we hold most dear are also those on which we have the most tenuous grip.
Throughout “The River” portion of the concert, Springsteen paused to discuss the genesis of certain songs, to elucidate where he was coming from when he wrote them. The plaintive, balladic “Independence Day,” he said, was “the first song I wrote about fathers and sons. The kind of song you write when you’re young.” He thought of it “as a late-night conversation around a kitchen table between two people who are struggling to understand each other.” “Stolen Car,” meanwhile, is “one of the first songs I wrote that kind of got down to the real nitty-gritty.” “The Price You Pay,” in its finished version a consideration of accountability that Springsteen said was originally written for the album “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” began life as a love song. Of “Hungry Heart,” a barbed little jape Springsteen wrote for the Ramones but kept for himself, he said only: “This is a song about skipping town.”
All this explication, much of it rehearsed, was relevant, engaging and considerate. None of it was necessary. While the songs of “The River” are not without their share of mystery and suspense (see “Wreck on the Highway,” “Fade Away” and “Drive All Night”), Springsteen has little use for obfuscation. Even though they know they won’t always be able to, his characters want nothing more than to see clearly, to look into the future without neglecting the present or forgetting the past. They want to let go and not to give up.
Tuesday night’s concert, like “The River” itself, pivoted on the album’s title track, an austere, harmonica-haunted reflection on the death of youth and the tyranny of memory. Standing in a spotlight, the stage around him bathed in aquamarine light, Springsteen delivered the song with his eyes closed and head down, as the backing vocals of his wife, the guitarist Patti Scialfa, ghosted in. At the song’s — and the album’s — crucial, devastating line, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Springsteen’s voiced dropped to a whisper, the final word only half-spoken, as if he were too wounded and afraid to complete the thought.
The moment was nothing short of remarkable, doubly so considering it was competing with the BB&T Center’s miserable, hockey-rink acoustics. The next song, the deliberate, downbeat “Point Blank,” didn’t fare as well, getting lost inside the swell of crowd noise and the venue’s cavernous echo. Perhaps sensing this, Springsteen delivered “Cadillac Ranch” like an adrenaline shot to the heart. Introducing it as a “funeral song” (sample line: “Well, buddy when I die, throw my body in the back, and drive me to the junkyard in my Cadillac”), Springsteen and his guitarists — Scialfa, the leprecaunish Nils Lofgren and “Miami” Steven Van Zandt, who with his trademark head scarf, layered clothing, beefy frame and putty face looked as if he’d just walked off the set of “The Princess Bride”) — did their best Chuck Berry, providing not the last glimpse at their life as a former New Jersey bar band. (An unforgettable sight: As “Cadillac Ranch” roared, a man who was being carried off the floor on a stretcher strained to sit up while singing and clapping along.)
Springsteen, as expected, played to the audience as if he were back at the Stone Pony nightclub in Asbury Park, ignoring a bartender’s repeated cries for last call. “Crush on You” was played loud and mean, with the singer barking like a resurrected Joe Strummer. “Jackson Cage” was taut and forceful, with an anger that was only barely suppressed. Twice, Springsteen left the stage to stride into the audience and onto a catwalk, slapping and shaking outstretched hands, reaching into the pockets of his jeans and handing something — guitar picks? — to a lucky few. During “Hungry Heart,” he crowdsurfed.
The night’s most charitable moment was also its most orchestrated. Before playing “I Wanna Marry You,” Springsteen joked, “Every time I shake these maracas, someone gets impregnated. Every time I shake these maracas, someone gets engaged.” He then called the audience’s attention to a section of seats in the upper deck, where a man proposed marriage to his girlfriend. She said yes, but Springsteen couldn’t resist one more joke: “I hate to tell you, Carl, this is all a daydream. I just made it up.”
“The River” set ended with “Wreck on the Highway,” and some closing words from its creator. “ ‘The River’ is about time,” he said. “Time slipping away. You realize you have a limited amount of time to do your work, to raise your family, to try to do something good. That’s ‘The River.’”
And then, as if to suggest not winning that race against time isn’t the same thing as losing it, Springsteen and band spent the next hour performing songs of insurrection: among them “Badlands,” “Wrecking Ball,” “The Rising,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Because the Night,” “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)," “Thunder Road” and, of course, “Born To Run.” With the houselights on, the clock approaching midnight and few people in the audience having retreated for home, the band launched into the Isley Brothers’ party anthem “Shout.” Springsteen, finally looking tired and his voice sounding raw, wasn’t quite done. “Can you get louder now?” he asked. The question was only partly rhetorical.