There’s a moment during Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s current “Back to the River” tour, when Bruce shares the microphone with his lifelong best friend, Steve Van Zandt, and his wife, Patti Scialfa.
I’ve decided its a microcosm of my week, since I saw Bruce and the band with my best friend at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, then went again on Sunday, this time with my wife at the Prudential Center in Newark.
The playlists for these tour dates is pretty much set in stone, since the idea is to play the entire 1980 album, The River, in its entirety and in its original order. Bruce opens with the “new” old song, Meet Me in the City, then goes right into the 20 songs of the River. The only opportunity for change comes in the last hour of the 3 hour show, when he does a more traditional concert set list- old hits, favorite album cuts and, of course, Thunder Road, Born to Run, Dancing in the Dark and Rosalita. In total, there are about 6 songs that vary from night to night. For anyone else, that would seem like plenty of variation, but for Bruce, who sometimes seems like he’s making up his playlists as he goes, this is a very tight script.
And yet, the two shows couldn’t have been more different.
Wednesday January 27th at Madison Square Garden
— Bret Sherak (@bsherak) January 28, 2016
The experience of seeing Springsteen at Madison Square Garden has always been based on a false premise. In my mind and the minds of many in attendance, the band should treat MSG as a home game. It’s just over the river from New Jersey. It’s a 20 minute drive. It’s nothing. But, this is not the case. Bruce treats NYC the same way he treats Chicago or Boston or any other major city where he has a large fan base. But, he doesn’t treat it the way he treats New Jersey. There isn’t that extra energy that you get at Giants Stadium or Izod Center, or as I found out, the Prudential Center in Newark.
This is not a one way street, though. Part of the problem with seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Madison Square Garden is the audience. Even at face value, these were very expensive tickets. And they were going for 2 to three times that face value on the secondary market. So, like at most events at Madison Square Garden these days, this was not a blue collar crowd. It was a Wall Street crowd. It was also a Wednesday night, middle of the work week, which may have weighed on people’s ability or willingness to really let loose.
The third factor is really no one’s fault. The River is a long double album. It includes a lot of great rock songs, a few wonderful ballads and, like most other albums ever released, some filler. So, by playing the entire album in order, Bruce all but guarantees some dead spots towards the middle of the show. The Price You Pay, Drive All Night and Wreck On The Highway are all good songs that would be welcome by any Bruce fan during a traditional show. But, all three songs- slow, dark, somewhat depressing- make for a bit of a drag when they’re played consecutively.
As for my personal experiences, I went to the concert with our old friend, bShrek, with whom I have attended the vast majority of Bruce show’s in my life. Like Bruce and Little Steven, Bret and I have something of a routine. And yes, it involves hugging each other and singing to each other and yelling and slapping five. It’s what we do. DON’T JUDGE US. During the vast majority of our concert going careers, this has been a spontaneous reaction to the joy we are currently feeling. Wednesday Night, it felt a little bit forced. We did it because its what we do.
(I actually had a thought while Bruce and Steve sang Two Hearts together on stage while Bret and I did the same at our seats- “Hmmm.. I bet it would be cool to hug and sing a love song to my wife at a Bruce show too.”)
This all sounds incredibly negative. But that doesn’t mean I had a bad time. Even a not great Bruce show is better than 99% of the other concerts out there. And the post-River setlist included some great stuff. Overall, I will give my experience at Madison Square Garden on January 27th a B.
Sunday January 31st at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ
Madison Square Garden is just 17 miles from the Prudential Center. 17 miles and 4 days managed to make a lot of difference.
This was a Jersey crowd! Raucous, excited, younger. The performance on stage reflected that. Bruce and the band seemed more connected with the audience and, in turn, the dead spots during the run of late River songs seemed less deadly. I think it also gave Bruce the chance to get a little more eclectic during his post-River set. The band played two songs from the Rising, 2 songs from Born in the USA and both Human Touch and Wrecking Ball. You need to have the crowd with you completely to not have to dip too deeply into your well-loved early period. And he did. Except in my section.
This was Danielle’s first ever Bruce show. I have spent the past 3 years building up the experience for her. After Wednesday, I was nervous it would not live up to the hype. Again, this is not Bruce’s fault. These are not traditional greatest hits concerts. The performance asks more of its audience. You have to listen and appreciate the story that the album is trying to tell. The fact that the album is telling the story of a man trying to come to grips with his sudden adulthood and we came to the concert straight from a day of house hunting in the suburbs was not lost on me.
You know who it was lost on? The people behind me- drunk South Jersey trash with the accents to prove it. Right before the band comes out, some music plays over the PA system. I stood up, as one does at a concert. The woman behind me taps me on the back and asks me, rudely, to sit down. I say, “It’s a concert! I’m going to stand during the concert.” She says, “yeah, sure, the concert hasn’t started yet.”
So, I sat. I sat during the entire first song. That sucks. Danielle said, “You should stand if you want to stand.” But, this woman had already begun to ruin my experience. I don’t want to fight with drunk south Jersey trash. I want to stand and jump and dance and sing with abandon. Luckily, the two seats next to Danielle were empty. So, I just moved over to the other side of her and stood up for the second song. At this point another woman from this godforsaken group sidles up next to me and says, “That’s my sister. Don’t worry about her. You can do whatever you want.”
Then my new friend’s drunk as hell husband started. Apparently, he is not well versed in Springsteen’s full catalog. He is, however, well versed in the bottom of Coors Lite Cans. Because he was livid the entire night. “What the fuck is this? I want Bruce Springsteen. What is this terrible music? Who is this guy?” Also, when the show ended he started yelling “Glenn Frey song” over and over again. (The second night of this tour, in Chicago, took place the day after Frey died, so Bruce did “Take it Easy.”) This drunken moron is such a huge Eagles fan that he demanded Bruce play a song he doesn’t know the name of.
HE WAS THE BEST! His wife kept yelling at him and telling her he was ruining his night. That made me laugh. But, also I felt bad for her because we had already bonded about her buzzkill sister. She seemed like a genuine Bruce fan stuck with a bunch of non fans who came along for the ride.
As far as my spouse was concerned, I learned something interesting. Though, emotionally and societally, she is a more appropriate sing and dance and hug at a concert partner than Bret is, physically she is not. Too short. I had to bend over to sing into her face. My back hurts a bit.
Did she enjoy the show? Yes. “I thought it was a lot of fun. It didn’t change my life, though.”
Well, it was only her first time.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Newark’s Prudential Center on January 31st gets an A+.