The Boss Takes Penn State ‘Down To The River’
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band returned to the Bryce Jordan Center for the fourth time Monday night, bringing the classic, high-energy rock and roll marathon that is “The River Tour 2016” with them.
Springsteen, obviously, requires no introduction. With 18 beloved albums over the course of his 43-year touring career, the man epitomizes the “working-class hero” moniker so often bestowed upon him by his countless fans. But there’s something else about Springsteen’s personality that instantly allows you to fall in love with his music and the messages behind it.
Fans ranging roughly from age five to 75 kept pouring into the BJC long after the scheduled 7:30 start time, and “The Boss” trotted on stage to the deafening roar of “Bruuuuuce” at 8:07 p.m. and played with literally zero breaks for the next three and a half hours. Playing his “coming of age record,” as he described it, in its entirety — The River — the Freehold, N.J., native put every ounce of his being into making it a memorable night for his most devoted fans and the ones who were made on April 18 in the BJC.
“People always said the records were good, but they weren’t quite as good as the live show,” Springsteen confessed to the crowd. “It was on ‘The River’ that we tried to put together a record that felt as big as life, and felt like an E Street Band show. We wanted it to contain fun and dancing, and laughter, and jokes, and sex, and good karma and shit, and love, and hope, and faith, and lonely nights, and heartbreak, and of course, tear drops. I figured if I could make a record big enough to hold all those things, it’d be like getting a little closer to the answers I was looking for and the home I was trying to find, so, tonight, we wanna take you back down to ‘The River’ and see what we find.”
Springsteen’s fifth album, released in 1980, got underway with a rousing rendition of “Meet Me in the City” — an unreleased b-side track from the project. Next up was the first song from the final cut, “The Ties That Bind,” which featured the first of many emotionally-charged saxophone solos from Jake Clemons — the nephew of Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, who passed away at the age of 69, but not before touching the hearts of the entire E Street nation.
Springsteen, already starting to perspire by this point, transitioned seamlessly into the upbeat, Jersey Shore ballad, “Sherry Darling.” It would have been tough to find a single person in the arena who didn’t feel compelled to move their body to crashing beats of legendary drummer “Mighty” Max Weinberg. Looking around, it doesn’t take long to understand and appreciate when someone is in their own personal “Bruce Zone,” where you’re allowed to absorb the music however you see fit.
“Jackson Cage” led the way for “Two Hearts,” which saw Bruce and everyone’s favorite strip club owner from The Sopranos, “Silvio Dante” (also known as long-time E Street Band guitarist Stevie Van Zandt) share the mic for one of their patented back-and-forth vocal crescendos.
After a fast-paced opening to the night, Springsteen slowed things down with a calm, breezy version of “Independence Day” that featured another stellar sax solo by Clemons under a flood of purple and turquoise light.
“It’s the kind of song you write when you’re young,” Springsteen said. “I had a simple setting for this song — it was a late-night conversation around the kitchen table between two people who loved each other but were struggling to understand one another.”
Without even a moment’s rest, Springsteen and the E Street Band sprung instantly back to life with a large audience participation on “Hungry Heart.” The 66-year-old Springsteen, who looks 46 and plays like he’s still 26, hopped off the stage and brought the show to the crowd. At first, Bruce stayed within the barricades separating the standing-room only floor, but why not crowd surf your way back? Clemons and über-talented multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren were waiting for the Boss with open arms to hoist him back up on to the stage.
Springsteen has a way of completely changing the mood of his show at various points through the set, to outstanding avail. Relaxing blue-collar tracks set a mellow tone, akin to sitting on the back porch in the summer, enjoying the warm weather by spending some time with your loved ones, while Springsteen’s high-energy sets reverberate somewhere deep inside your soul.
Bruce broke out his trusty harmonica for the first time on a beautiful and stirring rendition of “The River.” Pianist Roy Bittan rolled his fingers down the keys like silk being thread through a loom on the intro to “Point Break,” which flowed into a thunderous drum solo from Weinberg, kick starting “Cadillac Ranch” with a fiddle solo for the ages from “Sister” Soozie Tyrell. You could almost feel the baseline from Gary Tallent thumping in your bones with nearly the entire crowd on its feet.
Springsteen walked back between the crowd for “Fade Away.” This Boss certainly never will, that’s for sure. “Stolen Car” preceded “Ramrod,” as the concert kept chugging along at high speed. Bruce was in no hurry though as he laid back, stretching on a pair of amps in front of Weinberg’s iconic drum kit.
“The Price You Pay” followed suit, as the hardest rocking vest and tie(d) up band you’ve ever heard rolled on to “Drive All Night,” which saw the emergence of smart phone flashlights lighting up the arena rather than lighters, like back in the day. Thus concluded “The River” in its entirety, but Springsteen wasn’t even close to being done.
After opening his last two shows at the Bryce Jordan Center with “Lion’s Den” and “Badlands,” Bruce opted to get the second leg of the concert going with “Badlands” once more, with phenomenal solos from him and Clemons woven together. “The Promised Land” required another Springsteen harmonica classic, but he willingly obliged. This timeless tune features one of the most impressive harmonica-to-saxophone encounters in Springsteen’s vast discography.
“Because the Night” was highlighted by a string-shredding solo from Lofgren, who launched into his customary top-like spin to finish. The Chicago native also played a gorgeous slide guitar on “The Rising” from Springsteen’s renowned post-9/11 production.
Bruce traditionally grabs at least one song suggestion from the crowd per show, and the biggest sign he saw was a group holding up huge green cut-out letters spelling “Jungleland.” Clemons reached back and unleashed a two-plus-minute-long solo to thunderous applause. Some concert-goers could even be seen linking arms and swaying back and forth like the student section during the Alma Mater. “Thunder Road” was next on the long docket of all-time hits.
Springsteen took a quick break to discuss all the good work the State College Food Bank has been doing for the community since 1982. Volunteers were encouraged to man the exits for donations, which were plentiful. Springsteen has spent his entire career working on humanitarian efforts, and displayed a firm stance on the controversial HB2 “bathroom” law that was recently passed in North Carolina by canceling his scheduled show in Greensboro on April 10.
Weinberg then dropped the beat on “Born in the U.S.A.” and the place exploded. You could almost feel the drums in your stomach as everyone moved to the beat. The lucky individual who made it on-stage for “Dancing in the Dark” held up a sign that read, “20 years old, 20 Bruce shows. Dance with me?” Of course, the Boss picked the Indiana-hat wearing fan who surpassed the dream of simply busting a move with Bruce, but also enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime experience of jamming on guitar with your favorite musician in front of a full house.
The ever-popular “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” was spectacular as always, as was the “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” tribute montage to Clarence and Danny Federici, who manned the organ, glockenspiel, and accordion for the E Street Band before passing away in 2008 at the age of 58.
Just like the last time The Boss was in State College for the “Wrecking Ball World Tour” in 2012, he brought his marathon concert to a close with a cover of The Isley Brothers’ “Shout,” which got everyone’s arms in the air. A section of male fans behind the stage even took their shirts off for the occasion.
“And the poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be,” — Springsteen’s famous line from “Jungleland” perfectly summarizes the way an E Street Band show leaves you feeling after three and a half hours of pure Americana.