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Bruce Springsteen Takes Chicago to ‘The River’: Concert Review

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On Jan. 19, Bruce Springsteen brought his The River 2016 tour to Chicago’s United Center. It was the second stop on the six-week run.

Without a new studio album to promote — a rarity for him — Springsteen is performing The River, the 1980 release that was the subject of a seven-disc box set last year, in its entirety at every concert. On the surface, it seemed like an odd move. Even though it was his first No. 1 LP and contained his first Top 10 hit, “Hungry Heart,” the album lacks the iconic status of other Springsteen albums like Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A.

In addition, it’s a double album, which even for someone like Springsteen, whose concerts are famously long, doesn’t seem to leave much room for all the usual crowd-pleasing songs that aren’t on The River. Plus, the LP’s sequence isn’t suited to an arena concert: It starts with a quartet of rockers, but the second half is mostly comprised of some of the darkest and deepest songs Springsteen had written up to that point.

But if there’s one Springsteen album that deserves the full-album treatment in concert, it’s The River. It’s the one that most feels like a typical Springsteen and the E Street Band show, running the gamut from sheer silliness to tear-in-your-overpriced-arena-beer catharsis.

Even though Springsteen regularly plays around with his set lists, over the years he’s often relied on the same songs to push those emotional buttons. Playing The River gives him the opportunity to hear how different material worked in those situations, and it worked brilliantly in Chicago. “Meet Me in the City” is as rousing an opening number that he’s ever penned, but as an outtake that wound up on the recent box set, it’s been unheard until the tour began. On other tours, he’d go to songs like “Darlington County” for fun or “Atlantic City” to bring things down; here, he had the built-in substitutes “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” and “Point Blank.”

As a result, the show hit all of the beats expected from a Springsteen concert. But it sounded more fresh and lively. How different was it? This was only the third time since 1978 that no songs from Darkness on the Edge of Town were performed.

It was the heavier songs from The River that turned it all inside-out. “Independence Day,” “Stolen Car” and the album-closing trio of “The Price You Pay,” “Drive All Night” and “Wreck on the Highway” were emotional gut-punches.

The format turned back the clock. Springsteen was chattier than he’s been in years, talking about the motivations for some of the album’s deeper cuts and describing their themes. Songs were overhauled, too. “Point Blank,” for example, was introduced by an extended Roy Bittan piano prelude that was performed on the record’s original tour. And as The River‘s co-producer, Steven Van Zandt has a bigger role on this tour, providing backing vocals, playing guitar and serving as Springsteen’s primary comic foil.

On his first tour as the E Street Band’s sole horn player, Jake Clemons is coming into his own. He’ll forever be overshadowed by his late uncle Clarence, but he’s displaying greater confidence in his solos and takes part in a lot of Springsteen’s onstage clowning these days.

Perhaps to balance things out, the second portion of the show was virtually carefree. Beginning with “Night” and moving on to “No Surrender,” which had a few false starts because Springsteen couldn’t remember how to play the opening, the band condensed all of the energy of an E Street Band concert into 80 tight minutes. “Cover Me” giving way to “She’s the One” was a particularly inspired sequence, and, with Patti Scialfa back after sitting out most dates on the past few tours, “Human Touch” made a welcome return.

After “Thunder Road,” which essentially closed out the main set (Springsteen hasn’t had a traditional walk-offstage-and-return-for-an-encore in years), he broke out his acoustic guitar and performed the Eagles’ “Take It Easy” with Soozie Tyrell on violin in tribute to Glenn Frey, who died the day before. Many fans showed their respect by launching the flashlight function on their cellphones and holding them aloft (which was a little ironic given the Eagles’ well-known dislike of cellphones at their concerts).

Then it was lights-up for “Born to Run” followed by “Dancing in the Dark,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Shout.” In total, 33 songs were performed over the course of three hours and 15 minutes. You can see the entire set list below.

Bruce Springsteen, United Center, Chicago, Jan. 19, 2016, Set List

1. “Meet Me in the City”
2. “The Ties That Bind”
3. “Sherry Darling”
4. “Two Hearts”
5. “Jackson Cage”
6. “Independence Day”
7. “Hungry Heart”
8. “Out in the Street”
9. “Crush on You”
10. “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)”
11. “I Wanna Marry You”
12. “The River”
13. “Point Blank”
14. “Cadillac Ranch”
15. “I’m a Rocker”
16. “Fade Away”
17. “Stolen Car”
18. “Ramrod”
19. “The Price You Pay”
20. “Drive All Night”
21. “Wreck on the Highway”
22. “Night”
23. “No Surrender”
24. “Cover Me”
25. “She’s the One”
26. “Human Touch”
27. “The Rising”
28. “Thunder Road”
29. “Take It Easy”
30. “Born to Run”
31. “Dancing in the Dark”
32. “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
33. “Shout”

Bruce Springsteen Albums, Ranked Worst to Best

Next: Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Road Songs

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